Vienna is famous for many things – its architecture and art, music, coffee culture. But it is definitely not known as a bustling fashion hub. Therefore, whenever there are any fashion-related exhibitions or events, my heart skips a beat. At the beginning of this year, the newspapers were full with reports about “SHOW OFF – Austrian Fashion Design”. After museums could reopen again, I was one of the first visitors at the MAK – the Museum for Applied Arts.
I really appreciated at the exhibition. Not only for being a rare fashion-related event but also for drawing attention to many talented designers with relations to Austria. Helmut Lang, Rudi Gernreich and Peter Pilotto are names which do not need any further explanation. But did you know that they are Austrians? And did you know that quite a few international designers have strong relations to Austria – as students or teachers?
“Klein aber fein” – an Austrian saying meaning small but very high quality – applies to the fashion scene as well. If you want to learn more about Austrian fashion design, the local fashion scene or the University of Applied Arts (“Die Angewandte”) which enjoys an excellent global reputation, head to the MAK and explore “SHOW OFF”.
Concept and Layout of the Exhibition
The exhibition is divided into three major parts. The first one is about the state of the fashion scene in Austria and Die Angewandte (the University of Applied Arts) which has a close connection to the MAK (the Museum of Applied Arts). Right at the entrance, there are several screens with video interviews of experts from the global fashion industry.
Before you enter the main room, there is more information about the fashion design course at Die Angewandte. I personally found it very interesting to learn more about the university course. It is well-known in Austria but the exhibition draws attention to its international reputation and significance.
The Fashion Department of the university was founded in 1925 and their fashion course ranks among the best worldwide. Oswald Oberhuber paved the way into the future in the 1980s with a more innovative course and inviting international lecturers. Nobody less than Karl Lagerfeld was appointed to teach in Vienna. Since then, internationally acclaimed designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Helmut Land and Raf Simmons have been lecturers at Die Angewandte.
Students are taught in design, presentation and staging of their collections. Some of the collections are presented in the annual show of the university and their success and significance is reflected in many international awards.
The main part of the exhibition is designed as a giant scaffold or tower displaying the garments by 60 designers from the past four decades. On the side walls, works by 30 international photographers illustrate their relationship to Austrian fashion.
The exhibition focuses on Austrian fashion since the 1980s. It casts a spotlight on designers who are from Austria, who work in Austria or who were educated in Austria. The museum’s audio guide says the curators aimed at creating a “department store atmosphere” which should almost invite visitors to touch the garments.
The exhibition begins with Rudi Gernreich’s work. Even though the designer was famous for inventing the “monokini”, the focus in this exhibition is on his late designs from LA in the late 1970s.
On the front side of the tower, the main display, there are artistic and conceptual designs. The pieces are an intersection of fashion and art. The left of the tower focuses on the development and adaptation of historical references. The back displays sculptural silhouettes which are objects of the 1980s. When you walk inside the tower, one side is about a so-called “fashion close-up” and approaches of fashion designers to regional customs and traditions. The right side focusses on the essential: functional details and monochrome palettes for example.
The works are explained on black cards on the side. These are available in German and English. (Side note: I am not sure how many people feel comfortable touching them in times of coronavirus. But as the exhibition was planned long before the pandemic, I would forgive this fact.)
The last room is supposed to give an overview of fashion history in Austria with magazines and further objects and artefacts from the past decades.
Spotlight on the Designers
Even though Austria is not known as a major fashion hub, there are quite a few talented designers. Some are known internationally – Rudi Gernreich, Helmut Lang, Peter Pilotto, or Atil Kutoglu.
I think the crucial mission of the exhibition is showcasing young designers or those who are locally well-known but not so much internationally.
I would like to introduce you to my favourites of the exhibition:
Bisovsky was taught by Vivienne Westwood, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac and Helmut Lang. She founded her label in 1990. Her work is characterized by her interest in central European clothing and techniques and puts garments into a new context. Bisovsky designed the uniforms for the Austrian pavilion at the Expo in Shanghai and has collaborated with brands such as Swarovski, Sportalm and Helmut Lang.
EVA BLUT applies an architectural approach to designing bags resulting in puristic shapes with recognisable lines and surprising functions. Eva Buchleitner is the designer behind the brand. She studied history, philosophy and art history in addition to her education in dressmaking and also worked as an assistant at Vivienne Westwood in London. After founding her label in 1999, she received the Austrian Fashion Award in 2002. Her aim is to design lightweight bags which come up to our modern daily needs.
Kenneth Ize was one of my favourite discoveries during the exhibition. I have to admit, I did not know about the designer before my visit. Ize was born in Nigeria, grew up in Austria and studied fashion design at Die Angewandte. In 2013, he presented his first collection at Lagos Fashion Week. His goal is to reinterpret Nigerian fashion traditions and he supports local artisans and students in the field. In 2019, he was a finalist of the LVMH Prize and also won the Arise Fashion Award in Lagos.
Pilotto founded his label with Christopher de Vos who he met during his studies in Antwerp. The London-based label focuses on digital prints and their garments have been seen on Michelle Obama, Jessica Chastain and Emma Stone. In 2019, Princess Eugenie of York got married in a Peter Pilotto dress.
Kutoglu was born in Istanbul and studied Business in Vienna. After his graduation, grants by the mayor of Vienna and the Viennese Chamber of Commerce allowed him to present his first collection. In 1992, he was named Designer of the Year by the city of Munich and fashion shows in Milan, Paris and New York followed soon. Kutoglu is inspired by the richness of colours and shapes of the Ottoman Empire and connects oriental elements with the clear lines of Western fashion. His evening gowns in particular are popular among celebrities.
Considering that Austria is not a fertile ground for the fashion industry, I really appreciated this exhibition. Firstly, for drawing attention to the local fashion scene but secondly, for introducing me to designers I had not discovered before.
When I visited the exhibition, I did not know about the audio guide which can be streamed via Soundcloud. Hence, I relied on the texts provided and listened to it during my research for this article. I would call it an overview rather than an audio guide in the strict sense, as it describes the goals, concept and layout of the exhibition and not specific exhibits.
I personally did not notice what is described as “the five distinct focal points of the scaffold” by the audio guide. I did see that some garments were displayed more prominently – for example, the ones by Helmut Lang. But as there was no written explanation, I did not discover the five dimensions. Probably if I had listened to the audio guide in advance, I would have paid closer attention.
I was surprised that three designers were not represented: Eva Poleschinski, Lena Hoschek and Thomas Kirchgrabner (who currently designs for Hoschek). It would be interesting to learn about the reasons behind.
I definitely recommend to factor in more time for your visit to be able to watch the fashion expert interviews at the start of the show. Furthermore, I appreciated learning more about the fashion course at Die Angewandte. I knew about the course’s reputation in Austria but was rather unaware about its international significance and the success of its students. I also learned a lot about the famous international designers who have lectured in Vienna.
In my opinion, the last room fell a bit short. It was a display of fashion magazines and artefacts. But as a visitor, I did not really get too much information about why the objects were relevant.
To sum up, I definitely recommend to seize this opportunity and visit this rare display of Austrian-related fashion.
SHOW OFF: Austrian Fashion Design is open until 30 August 2020.
Tuesday: 10 a.m.–9 p.m.
Wednesday–Sunday: 10 a.m.–6 p.m.
The MAK is closed on Mondays but open on public holidays (including Mondays)
Regular tickets are EUR 14 (about USD 16.50), concessions are available; children under 17 enter for free
How to Get There
You can easily reach the museum via the U-Bahn (subway) line U3 (station Stubentor) or tram line 2.
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All information as of the date of publishing/updating and based on the personal visit of Elisabeth Steiger, the information available at the sights and the official website MAK. We cannot accept responsibility for the correctness or completeness of the data, or for ensuring that it is up to date. All recommendations are based on the personal experience of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received by the recommended places above.