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Tradition with progression: Leonie Mergen & Ivanman #backstage #berlinfashionweek

words and images by Harry Leath

Berlin’s 2017 January Fashion Week was a celebration of cultural appropriation. The glistening Mercedes-Benz displayed in the foyer of the Kaufhaus Jandorf wasn’t only a reminder of who financed the week-long event, it was also a tangible symbol of the dominance of German design and the prosperity associated therewith. As a famous world leader recently said, “There is a Mercedes-Benz in front of every house on some American streets.” And this industrious spirit proved to be infectious amongst the many people involved in making the show such a success.

It wasn’t however, German culture that was celebrated by the fashion designers this January. Leonie Mergen turned her attention to the traditional garments of Karabakh, a region located on the eurasian Silk Road in North-West present day Azerbaijan. The Tolstoyesque grandeur of Mergen’s outfits evokes the serenity of Russian nobility of the 19th century. Furs, silk, velvet and leather combine to exude an imperious sophistication whilst conceding a polite modesty in form, it is resplendent with deep, regal colours and rich with warm, classic textures. Incongruous in such a sterile and over-heated venue it certainly was and this obvious clash left me imagining how the show might have looked outside in the freshly fallen Berlin snow – I can envisage it now; the sound of the snow crunching underfoot, the sight of the breath emanating from each delicate mouth and the flickering candlelight illuminating those powerful forms.

I was happy to be allowed into Leonie Mergen‘s backstage area, as I was into the backstage area of Ivanman. Serbian Ivan Mandzukic, who won the first prize at ESMOD for his menswear collection back in 2010, used his new collection to guide our attention to the craft of pattern cutting itself. He intersperses off white textured sample pieces with bold purple jackets, lilac trousers and shirts, and cosy, woollen overcoats. The lack of any discernible pattern in the main bulk of the collection draws our attention to details in the ‘mock sample’ items – bold colourful lines were drawn across the garments with intentionally balanced geometry, giving the appearance of a prototype, ready to be finished off.

Out of the collections I saw from the catwalk point of view, William Fan’s orient-inspired collection shone, which unlike Mergen, doesn’t only focus on the nobility but also includes ideas taken from the traditional provincial wear of workers. The combination of rich and poor was perhaps a comment on what an elitist industry this really is – yesterday’s ruble is today’s ‘like’ or ‘follower’ and regardless of what currency we are judged by, the fashion world is a constant reminder that there will always be people with more of it than others. Hoermanseder was back with her buckles and PVC; fashion seemingly being the outlet through which she can express her suppressed tendency towards masochism. Libido tends to drive most great art though, so I’ll let her get away with reusing the same motif in the hope that she’ll hit gold next season.

So what did I learn from the shows this January? That not only is cultural appropriation acceptable but that it is necessary for culture to develop. Has there ever been a great artist who didn’t borrow ideas from other cultures? Fan and Mergen are honest admirers of tradition and showed us how we can marry tradition with progression; we do not have to eschew tradition in order to move forward, we must embrace it with unfettered honesty.