Esther Perbandt The Androgynous Avant-Garde

Berlin designer Esther Perbandt blurs the line between male and female, art and fashion. She creates clothes for strong women – like herself.

Esther Perbandt Esther Perbandt | © Esther Perbandt It’s barely possible to keep Esther Perbandt the person separate from her label. Her name and face garnish her shopping bags and models wear her hairstyle – a short bowl haircut with bangs over the eyes and a long strand of hair coming out from the back of the head. This is Perbandt’s signature hairstyle and one of the unwieldy, androgynous elements that mark her fashion. The press and fashion world have stamped her an “avant-garde designer,” and she accepts this gladly. “To me, this term means making something special and thinking differently. I feel honored by it.” It is plain to see in her appearance, her style and the close ties to art, which she constantly pursues. Esther Perbandt is also considered one of Berlin’s most independent labels – for eight years now, she has been proving her mettle in Germany’s capital on her own - without any investors but with a strong will.

For strong women

Esther Perbandt Esther Perbandt | © Esther Perbandt Esther Perbandt was born in West Berlin in the mid-70s. The child of two educators, she grew up amidst the protests of the woman’s movement, which her mother took her along to – wearing overalls, not strappy sandals. “I think that really made a mark on me,” she says today “I’m no feminist, yet I have a very strong image of women.” Androgyny marks her fashion. Her Summer Collection 2012 consisted of unisex styles, and the forthcoming Winter Collection 2012/13 defies any attempt at classification: all garments in the catalogue’s women’s line are modeled by a man.
FORMAT _ Esther Perbandt S/S 2012 by Cristian Straub on Vimeo.

“I love playing around with this. It makes absolutely no difference whether a garment was originally intended for a woman!” While many Japanese men have been buying her clothes for themselves all along, German men have proved more hesitant.

Perbandt herself only wears black, and ever since she opened her first store in Berlin three years ago, exclusively her own designs. She creates fashion for strong, independent women. “My customers are actually older than I thought. They are often between 45 and 65, self-employed and mostly intellectuals – many are architects, for example. It’s a great honor to me.” No doubt, since already as a 13-year-old girl, Perbandt had wanted to become a fashion designer or an architect. The prevalence of black, of graphic elements and the interplay between constructionist and deconstructionist design bring together both of her dream careers.

Beyond the bounds of fashion

  • Esther Perbandt, autumn winter 2012/13 Photo: Florian Kolmer
    Esther Perbandt, autumn winter 2012/13
  • Esther Perbandt, autumn winter 2012/13 Photo: Florian Kolmer
    Esther Perbandt, autumn winter 2012/13
  • Esther Perbandt, autumn winter 2012/13 Photo: Florian Kolmer
    Esther Perbandt, autumn winter 2012/13
  • Esther Perbandt, Spring Summer 2012 Photo: Oliver Rath
    Esther Perbandt, Spring Summer 2012
  • Esther Perbandt, Spring Summer 2012 Photo: Oliver Rath
    Esther Perbandt, Spring Summer 2012
  • Esther Perbandt, Spring Summer 2012 Photo: Oliver Rath
    Esther Perbandt, Spring Summer 2012
  • Esther Perbandt, Spring Summer 2012 Photo: Oliver Rath
    Esther Perbandt, Spring Summer 2012
  • Esther Perbandt, Laubkleid: Titel „conservation“ Photo: Florian Kolmer
    Esther Perbandt, Laubkleid: Titel „conservation“
Despite being one of its major players, the 36-year-old has mixed feelings about the fashion scene, as though driven by the fear of becoming too superficial. She twirls strands of her dark hair while pondering this. “I have always said I’m not just a clothes horse,” she remarks. Back when she was studying in Berlin and Paris, she was already trying to break open the confines of fashion. While all her classmates sought internships at fashion companies, Perbandt went off to Moscow for three months to learn from Gosha Ostretsov, an artist inspired by the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s – an influence she readily passed on.

Perbandt’s ties to art still show today. She collaborated with Italian artist Marco “Pho” Grassi on her Fall-Winter Collection 2011/2012. While visiting Perbandt’s store with a friend in common, Grassi was so taken that he spontaneously suggested working together – something that he had often refused to do with the mainstream fashion houses. He created an abstract painting in black and brown tones that was then digitally printed on cloth, creating the pattern for her fashion collection. Perbandt went a step further and also adopted Grassi’s approach, applying it to the styles and textures of her garments. As Grassi creates meshes of color with large dynamic brushstrokes, so Perbandt interwove elastic bands. Just as he works his canvases somewhat aggressively, she tore fabric, making skirt hemlines hang in shreds.

Even Perbandt’s fashion shows bear her distinct stamp. She didn’t present her Summer Collection 2012 on a traditional catwalk but rather in a film she made with film director Cristian Straub, a pupil of Wim Wenders. “Format” tells a utopian story set in the surreal atmosphere of a brown coal power-station. The film begins with a monotone “Esther army” of models wearing wigs with her signature hairstyle and working in a control center until they break ranks and flee. Edited into the plot are scenes showing Perbandt as she folds a shirt with white outlines that eventually transforms itself into a patterned dress. The idea for the film originated in a quirk the designer has: if she owes money, she pays it back folding the bills as an origami shirt -the inspiration for her severe, purely black-and-white collection.

“More to come!”

Perbandt doesn’t merely collaborate with professionals from other creative areas. She herself is also active in the arts. For “Autumn”, a show curated by street artist Nomad, she recently created a special dress made of gallons of latex and hundreds of eyelets, leather straps, and two bags of autumn foliage. “Of course, that was also a garment, but one that was completely freed from the demand that it could be worn or sold. I realized how much fun I had making it!” she says and adds “I’d love to do more in this direction. I’m sure there is more to come.”