Since the inception of his eponymous label in 1999, German Designer Bernhard Willhelm, along with his partner Jutta Kraus, has moved in gleeful opposition to prevailing trends and conventional sensibilities, working in a double-helix dance between the worlds of art and fashion. Through androgynous designs in kooky prints, with cuts ranging from the sprayed-on to the tent-like, Willhelm’s outsize fashion persona seems, if not accessible then certainly authentic in their eccentricity—the “codes” of the house might be summed up by a psychedelic desert hike hosted Comme Des Garçons and United Colors of Benetton. Willhelm and Kraus’ cheeky erotics seem so apropos to cultural tenor of Shangri-LA, it’s difficult to believe the designer was headquartered in Paris since the early 2000s before packing up his design team and decamping to a Beachwood Canyon bungalow just a few years ago.
Liberated by the change, Willhelm is bucking NY Fashion Week altogether and presenting his fall 2015 collection as part of a multimedia installation at MOCA Pacific Design Center. We are, of course, in a renaissance of fashion exhibitions, but the show, entitled “Bernhard Willhelm 3000: When Fashion Shows the Danger Then Fashion Is the Danger” stems from a critical, insightful, and surprisingly non-cynical point of view on the uniformity of 21st century consumerism, offering a hopeful look forward. Billed as “a forecast of the fashion experience in the 22nd century”, the two-part installation jumbles found consumer objects like lotion and shampoo with video installations, text pieces culled from gossip rags, corporate trade-show furniture, and in the middle of it all, Willhelm’s latest collection, styled onto uncanny figures that look like post-punk crash test dummies with a kinky side (indeed, they were commissioned from a company that makes mannequins for medical and safety training). Circle rugs are patterned to reflect the phases of the moon and echo the annular arrangement of the show; the flow is like navigating a car convention and a new age ceremony all at once.
At the member’s only preview, MOCA’s smallest and most remote outpost was overflowing with both casual museum-goers and pea-cocking “Willhelmeenies”—a sobriquet for the designer’s most ardent fans that subtly implicates the gap between client and aficionado.
While the whirlwind of images, objects, and ephemera that make up “Bernhard Willhelm 3000” sound like a late-capitalist nightmare, it’s the humorous juxtaposition of banal everyday products alongside his own ostensibly high-fashion goods that evoke a post fever-dream break—a Salvation Mountain built from the ruins of consumer culture, crawling with potential buyers who own merely by looking.
Installation views of Bernhard Willhelm 3000: When Fashion Shows The Danger Then Fashion Is The Danger, February 7–May 17, 2015 at MOCA Pacific Design Center, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, photos by Brian Forrest