Published on 24.05.2023
Avant-garde of a fashion icon
Rudi Gernreich was a pioneer in the fashion industry of his time. He designed garments in the 1960s that challenged traditional gender roles and liberated the body. His iconographic silk scarves sparked the collecting passions of Frank Wilde and Paul Graves. From vintage stores, online auctions and other places, around the globe, they gradually amassed one of the largest collections. This passion resulted in an installation of object and photography, the exhibition "Tutti Frutti...oh Rudi!", which takes us into an impactful, multi-layered world of colour and form. The curator Karin Kruse and the artist and founder of his own fashion label, Paul Graves, tell us what inspired them to create this extraordinary exhibition and which avant-garde movements have not lost their impact to this day.
Pop Kudamm:What inspired you personally to collect Rudi Gernreich's silk scarves?
Paul Graves:It all starts with a gift. The silk scarf I gave to Frank.Through its unique design, we quickly realised that Rudi's silk scarves were quite underrated. He took a rather bourgeois garment and made it part of an avant-garde statement. The idea of printing a silk scarf entirely in one look was revolutionary. However, this was ignored in the general talk about Rudi. That he was so groundbreaking in many ways seems to have escaped many. Several of the silk scarves were designed by his black studio workers in the 1960s. This is also further evidence of the revolutionary approach in everything he did. He was inclusive before it even became a social topic of conversation. Long before any other designer branded his name in this way, he had the audacity to put his name on the silk scarves. The bold letters and signs on the silk scarves had a Pop Art approach even before Andy Warhol's soup cans. Basically, if you interpret it simply, the silk scarves represent a square of patterns and colours. However, there is much more behind the obvious.
Pop Kudamm:What excites you most about Gernreich's work?
Paul Graves:Rudi was an activist and a pioneer. Somehow he managed to do that without waving a big flag. Politics is so prominent today that it always needs an explanation and definition. Rudi simply lived it. Either the viewer and consumer understands it, or they don't. He was very loud, but at the same time very quiet. I think that is a form of activism that is lost in today's "Insta" society. Today we are for one thing, tomorrow for the next, and it all always seems relevant and important now. Rudi's life adds up to a body of work that was clear in its intention and message. And it was up to the viewer and user to understand that.
Pop Kudamm:Paul, you are the director of numerous award-winning music videos and founder of your own fashion label. Are you inspired by Gernreich's designs? And if so, how?
Paul Graves:For me, Rudi's greatest inspiration is not an object or a thing, but the way he lived and mastered his reality. He was blunt in his approach. He took things from a very pragmatic, dry perspective and made them humorous, sexy and adventurous. A good example is the design of his perfume bottles. It's a laboratory measuring cup. It's so "dada", dry, functional, simple and fun. In fact, one of the best bottles I know.
Pop Kudamm:Karin, you curate the exhibition "Tutti Frutti.... Oh Rudi! together with Paul Graves and Frank Wilde and have been co-owner of the talent agency "Dee Bee Phunky" for over 20 years. How did you find each other?
Karin Kruse:Paul and I have met several times. At the time of the Galerie Tristesse Deluxe gallery, he exhibited a picture of himself with us. We really got to know each other at one of his legendary parties on the deck of his Paris houseboat. The next morning, while we were cleaning and being silly together, it was clear that we were going to be friends from now on. As a courier, I then brought one of Paul's cherished Gernreich scarves to Frank Peter Wilde in Berlin. I was already very respectful when Paul handed me the beautiful box and said that the contents were worth 600 dollars.
Pop Kudamm:To what extent can talent agencies contribute to changing gender roles and improving the representation of LGBTQIA+ artists?
Karin Kruse:We have been working on this issue from the very beginning. We weren't really interested in the normativity of models and synchronicity. Sure, we can and do do that sometimes, but the interesting thing is typecasting and the diversity of people. There is hardly a good series left without strong women, no advertisements without POC's and cross-gender characters or same-sex couples. In fact, one can wonder how quickly this image will prevail in this sometimes still very encrusted structure of society. We must not forget: We live in one of the most cosmopolitan cities, Berlin, and in our bubble we don't get to see what it's like in the German countryside or in small towns. The political fringe parties and their popularity speak a different language. Talent agencies that represent the pulse of the times and this change are definitely ahead of the game at the moment and are breaking down clichés that have become established with the post-war era. I hardly watch any early evening series myself, but I was in a hotel recently and had the TV on. There appeared a non-binary person wearing a dirndl in Forsthaus Falkenau or a similar pre-alpine series. I was pleased to see that in the meantime, even in such formats, diverse casts are being used and a different story is being told for a change.
Pop Kudamm:In the exhibition "Tutti Frutti... Oh Rudi!" at POP KUDAMM, the installation takes you on a journey back in time to worlds of colour and form half a century ago. In the 1950s, Kurfürstendamm was a shimmering place, especially to compete with East Berlin's dreariness of scarcity, and today it is above all Berlin's most frequented shopping mile. How important is the changing times for fashion?
Paul Graves:Fashion is a powerful personal statement. Some have mastered it. Others have ignored it. We all get dressed in the morning to get undressed again. Clothes are a reflection of mood, power, wealth, poverty, politics and dreams. Clothing is a political statement, with or without your knowledge. An art form that has been reduced to a consumer product. But we all know the grey image of a world without colour and spirit of freedom. When we look at the faces of the many shoppers on the street, we see how a little dream comes true when they buy a pair of jeans. Or they save their hard-earned money for a new T-shirt. It is a basic requirement that we are all part of dressing.
Pop Kudamm:How did you feel about the POP KUDAMM location for your exhibition of Gernreich's iconic silk scarves?
Paul Graves:When I was at POP KUDAMM for the first time, it blew me away. An open and free space for everyone. A shiny silver container stands on this main shopping street. The cold, hard, silver-reflecting, corrugated walls are a perfect counterpoint to the soft flowing silk fabrics. An inspiration for the 80-metre-long installation, the "photo dragon" that floats in the middle of the room. I mean, you couldn't ask for a better meta experience. The year is 2023 and if the audience manages to put their screens aside and enter a room, the experience has to be great. The size of the space allows for play with textures, colours, decoration, ornamentation and creates movement. This dream space inspired the installation. Simply put, it made us very happy to realise the first exhibition "Tutti Frutti...Oh Rudi" here at POP KUDAMM. The space inspired the work and I hope that our work inspires the viewers.
Pop Kudamm:To what extent did Rudi Gernreich revolutionise the fashion industry? Do you think more could still be done today in terms of body positivity and changing gender roles?
Paul Graves:Rudi is what you can call an inventor of designers. His work was copied by all the great designers of the 1980s. But often without the political undertone. I believe that the history of body positivity will continue over time. Fashion has always championed a certain body type. It's an endless search and a finding. It seems like at a certain point we go back and fight for something that was fought for long ago in another time and era. As a result, everyone can have their own position today. You can say it out loud or just represent it in the silence of your own work. Fashion changes, that's why it's called fashion. Political messages and ideas will always be part of this change.
Paul Graves studied art, has directed numerous award-winning music videos and founded his own fashion label. He is best known for his still life photography, which is published worldwide.
As co-founder of the gallery Tristesse Deluxe, she curated and designed highly frequented exhibitions in the 2000s. (including Tristesse Deluxe goes Wallstreet, The Future of Past). Afterwards, she curated thematic exhibitions such as “Family No Family”, “Frontside / Backside” and co-curated the Kreuzberg art window WOMA – Window of Modern Art. She has been co-owner of a Berlin-based talent agency for over 20 years.
Header Photo: Nihal Uensal
Pictures: Paul Graves