Claudia Skoda

Experimental Since 1975: Fashion Designer Claudia Skoda

Claudia Skoda on photo carpet by Martin Kippenberger, eighties, Copyright: Claudia Skoda

Current collection, Copyright: Claudia Skoda/photo: Sybille Bergemann

Seventies collection, Copyright: Claudia Skoda

She is one of the world’s best-known and most influential knitwear designers. Claudia Skoda has been impressing the fashion world with her avant-garde, figure-hugging creations of gossamer-fine yarn for over 35 years.

If you want to know why Claudia Skoda is still playing in the major leagues of fashion after 35 years, you need only hear her talk about yarn. “To us, there’s no such thing as too extreme. We instantly make a new piece out of any and all possible innovations.” Her curiosity hasn’t changed, just like her joy in experimentation. And her knitting technique is unsurpassed. This is why 60-year-old ladies love her short knit and fur jackets and 20-year-old students her caps. This is why Hollywood stars like Cate Blanchett, Milla Jovovich and Ridley Scott’s family shop at Skoda’s when they are in Berlin.
“Straight from the Factory ”
Officially it all began in 1975, the year in which she started her fashion label. But the former publishing company employee – Claudia Skoda is a fashion autodidact – had already begun creating fashion for her friends. They were musicians, visual artists, filmmakers; she rented and renovated a factory floor in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district together with five of them, to live and work there. “People continually compared us with Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York, something I found totally wrong, but that ‘s what it was like on a modest Berlin scale,” she tells.
“Fabrikneu” (i.e. straight from the factory, brand new) as the 650m² loft was called, was an open house. Friends were regular guests, some stayed for longer stretches. One of them was the celebrated artist Martin Kippenberger. Claudia Skoda had gotten to know him in Ibiza. Kippenberger came to Berlin in 1976 to live in the artists’ flat-sharing community. And he installed the floor of the catwalk, made of about 1000 photos taken in the “Fabrikneu” commune, on which the Skoda fashion show was held in 1977.
Legendary shows
This was the most legendary of a whole series of legendary Skoda shows. Claudia Skoda turned every collection presentation into a spectacular happening, especially for her friends. Among them were David Bowie and Iggy Pop, who were living in Berlin at the time; they too came to her shows, where there was always live music as well. Later, she also invited customers and buyers and transferred her catwalk to the Congress Hall and the Egyptian Museum. “Nobody was doing that at the time,” she says. Only today is it once again en vogue to present fashion in unusual venues.
Vertigo Shorts. Copyright: Claudia Skoda/photo: Nils Muhl

Seventies collection, Copyright: Claudia Skoda

Eighties collection, Copyright: Claudia Skoda

Eighties collection, Copyright: Claudia Skoda

Claudia Skoda’s attraction for other artists is not surprising when one experiences her. She prefers not to make appointments before noon – in this she has remained faithful to her lifestyle in the old scene. She wears high-heeled shoes, a short vintage skirt – and the rest is Skoda: a jumper and a cap that she does not remove even in the office. After all, fashion is about the look, not the room temperature. Claudia Skoda is unpretentious and accomodating in her personal impact, but very self-assured and secure in all questions having to do with her fashion.
Getting away from Berlin
It was her friend David Bowie who advised her at the end of the 1970’s: “You have to get out of Berlin, you’ve got to go to New York.” At that time, Claudia Skoda was presenting her collections at the Düsseldorf fashion trade fair as well. But New York was the step into the international fashion world. She dared to take it in 1982 with the opening of her own store in Soho, the only Skoda shop in the world, only production was kept in Berlin. “It was only in New York that I noticed just how significant I am. I could only see that in international comparison, and that was very important to me,” she says. Vivienne Westwood, Comme des Garçons and other designers of the European and Japanese avant-garde made up the new neighbourhood in which she was able to prevail with her knitted dresses.

In 1987 the West Berlin Senate commissioned her to design the opening gala for Cultural Capital Berlin the following year. A fantastic commission! Should she return to New York afterwards, or stay on in Berlin? Her decision was made when the Berlin Wall fell. “If reunification hadn’t happened I would have returned to New York. But because I’m a Berliner, I thought I can’t leave in such a situation, and I opened a store on the Ku’damm.“ And to design this store, Claudia Skoda won over none less than the Australian designer Marc Newson, whose works are among the world’s most expensive design objects.
Seventies collection, Copyright: Claudia Skoda

Seventies collection, Copyright: Claudia Skoda

Seventies collection, Copyright: Claudia Skoda

Eighties collection, Copyright: Claudia Skoda

Dress “Buket”, Copyright: Claudia Skoda/photo: Nils Muhl

“Sharing”, Copyright: Claudia Skoda/photo: Nils Muhl

Dress “Banket”, Copyright: Claudia Skoda/photo: Nils Muhl

Unique knitting technique
Today, Claudia Skoda has a shop in the Alte Schönhauser Straße 35 in Berlin’s Bezirk Mitte, where leading Berlin designers have their shops. That she is, apart from Wolfgang Joop, a friend of hers, the only survivor left from the 1970’s, bothers her as little as the fact that she has had her label longer than most of the young fashion designers around her have been on this earth. “Young designers still orient themselves on what I do,“ she states, “because I have been doing fashion for so many years, and not only for old ladies, but for young people. And that motivates them.“ Her contacts are diverse, among other things because Claudia Skoda is a frequent fashion contest jury member.

Her advice is also in demand then. “Your chance is to specialise yourself. Otherwise you won’t be noticed.” Her own development shows how important this is. Knitwear fashion is associated with her name around the world. Her technical knowledge is incredible because she has been experimenting with yarns, dyeing processes and knitting methods from the beginning. Nothing is cut or linked with her models, instead everything is worked onto the body in one piece. Her knitting technique is unique, practically inimitable: young designers cannot match it. And she never felt a need to do anything besides knitwear fashion. “It is still a challenge for me to make something unusual with knitting, something really unique,” she explains. And after all, she also works with fur and woven cloth to supplement her work, or designs carpets.
A fresh perspective and a lot of energy
But her fresh perspective and energy are her greatest capital. “I don’t want to do demure, low-key fashion.“ Claudia Skoda does not rest on her past, but moves forward. She is at the fashion forefront with her knitted men’s pants, just as with the caps she introduced two years ago. The models made of baby alpaca that fall softly backwards and the helmets with chinguards that can be folded down are hand-knitted. And hand-knitted jumpers and dresses have now been added to the caps. “We don’t do eco-products,” emphasises Claudia Skoda. “That is precisely the challenge, to produce fashion with this traditional technique.“

The studio where Claudia Skoda designs new patterns and models and where her prototypes are produced is located behind the shop. She works on two themes each year, but new pieces come into the shop almost every week. Claudia Skoda does not bow to the pressure to present a new collection twice a year. When a piece is finished it comes into the shop as an individual piece. If it is received well she has more made. A goodly portion of her sales are of classics such as her figure-hugging dresses; simple, but with sophisticated waist proportioning – in other words, models that not even she can improve on any more. And everything is made in Berlin.
Exklusive and manageable
Skoda is available only from Skoda – in her shop and online. “I keep the label this small intentionally,“ she says. This makes her exclusive (not to be confused with very expensive; caps start at 100 euros, jumpers and jackets cost about 450 euros). And her company’s manageable size enables her to stay independent. “An important reason why I am still creative is the fact that I could always do what I wanted.” That is why Claudia Skoda has been able to create experimental fashion since 1975.
Stefanie Dörre
is deputy editor-in-chief of the Berlin city magazine “tip.”

Translation: Ani Jinpa Lhamo
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
November 2010

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