Bernhard Willhelm then and now

An evergreen source for some of the most avant-garde designs in eyewear, the MYKITA & Bernhard Willhelm sunglasses line stands out for its bold colours and fearless experimentation with shapes and proportions. During one of his visits to the MYKITA HAUS, we sat down with Bernhard Willhelm, the man, to talk about the origins of the label and the coded messages in its latest collection. 

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Fresh out of school in Antwerp, in 1999 Bernhard Willhelm teamed up with long time friend and fellow designer Jutta Kraus to found their own label. That same year the then newborn fashion label presented its first women’s collection in Paris.

Bernhard, you finished your studies at the Royal Academy of Arts in Antwerp, while Jutta studied at the University of Westminster. How did two kindred spirits like you two meet?

It all happened by accident. We met way before that; at the entrance exam for the University of Applied Sciences in Trier, and we clicked instantly. We both started in the fashion design program, but because of its mainly technical approach, we didn’t like it and after a year we left. After parting ways, we kept in touch. I stayed at Jutta’s flat when I went to London for my traineeships with McQueen and Vivianne Westwood, and after she was done with her studies, she went to Antwerp. She worked there for a year with Dirk Bikkemberks while I finished studying. After that, Bernhard Willhelm the label was born.

What’s the secret for such a longstanding successful partnership?

It all comes down to how you manage the responsibilities. In our case, we split up all the work. Jutta manages the label and I take up for most of the creative work, but we’re both the hearth of the company. Having a good personal relationship is crucial too. We spend a lot of time together, working and living in the same house, but we know when to give each other some space. 

The fashion department of the Royal Academy of Arts in Belgium is a bit different now, but at the time you were a student it was all about minimalism and deconstructivist understatement. How did these surroundings influence your formation as a designer?  

The minimalism thing is just an impression people have. For me, Antwerp is more of a crossroads where different design currents and directions meet. Walter Van Beirendonck, who was one of the famous Antwerp Six, was also one of my professors and if you see his designs, they are the complete opposite of that. This dynamic atmosphere definitely had some influence, but it was more the freedom I had what allowed me to develop my own design language. 

Earlier this year you finished your period as a professor at Die Angewandte in Vienna, after being at the helm of the fashion department since 2009. How is Bernhard Willhelm as a professor?

One of my main goals as a professor was to teach the students how to work with fashion in a pragmatic / do it yourself way . I’m a very good pattern maker for example, and that is some of what I wanted to transmit. Of course I also wanted to help students explore their creativity, but I think the major creative input has to come from the students. That’s when you notice if they have talent. As a professor you can’t do much about it, they either have it or not.

In her essay for the book commemorating your exhibition at the Groninger Museum, Ingeborg Harms wrote that “incomprehensibility is the camouflage of the “Bernhard Willhelm” label” and referred to the use of visually coded messages (like the scissors motif in the SS2014 collection, which represented the cut-off from your former location in Paris).  Is there a coded message in your current collection?

The current collection is a very personal one. It goes about my dreams and nightmares, my doubts about fashion and humanity in general. Will this planet survive humanity, or is it already too late? This is what I’m trying to explore. 

It’s of course very ironic; I feel close to artists like Martin Kippenberger, who was always very ironic about the art world and I’m doing the same with fashion.

Eyewear was always present as a styling element in your collections. How important is it for the Bernhard Willhelm look? 

Eyewear has a practical  function, because you need to protect your eyes, but nowadays it is also one of the most successful items in fashion, next to handbags. It’s undeniable for any fashion house to have it nowadays and Bernhard Willhelm is no exception.

From all the sunglasses you’ve designed in collaboration with MYKITA, is there a model that you feel particularly identified with? 

Not really, it’s always the next one that I’m the most excited about.

Is there a place in Berlin you have to visit when you’re in town?

Not many places, but people. I have good friends here. For me being in Berlin is more about hanging out with friends.

Something that I want to do this time is go to Dresden to see the Old Master’s Painting Gallery. I’m very into the old art, and Berlin has the most beautiful museum for that, the Gemäldegalerie. When I’m in the city I always go there. And I try to have a cuddle.

Find the MYKITA & Bernhard Willhelm collection at all MYKITA Shops, selected opticians and fashion stores worldwide, as well as online at the MYKITA E-Shop.

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