Vienna Fashion Week: Mixed Messages

In Vienna, fashion is heading four ways at once -- absurd, bondage, tasteful and regal

Fashion Week sketch | Drawing by David Mathews

In spite of the recession of the last twelve months, Vienna Fashion Week was back at Museums Quartier, bigger and better than last year. With thirty-three shows and over sixty exhibiting designers, Vienna Fashion Week is thriving. While over one hundred extra seats were added, the runway shows were almost completely sold out in the evenings.

The Vienna look continues to develop and now, there seems to be four tendencies in Vienna. The first is amusing/absurd design personified by designers like Alexandra Trummer and Spaghetti Gangbang. If you want to be funny and cute and quite frankly fairly tasteless, there is a rich harvest available to you this year. Despite some gorgeous colours, Trummer’s billowing layered confections were so unflattering that even the models looked awful. To boot, her clothes are very fragile. Spaghetti Gangbang’s pseudo-geisha panda bear robes were so absurd that neither audience nor models could take them seriously. No one, least of all a fashionista, would be caught dead wrapped in these blankets.

On the other end, the real Vienna style invokes danger and sexual/psychological adventurism via leather and revealed skin. Tiberius, who started as an exclusive bondage label for home and private party wear and Callisti are at the pinnacle of this world. Very daring, very sexy and built for hard wear.

Slowly, a type of fashionable ready-to-wear is developing from designers like the Hungarian houses Konsanzsky and Artista, and on Austrian labels like Mangelware, Pitour, Butterflycostumes, Magdalena Auff with Angel of Pleasure, Lena Kvadrat with her Art Point label and the eponymous Elke Freytag and Lena Hoschek labels. Most of their work is quite frankly fairly commercial in nature with a lot of silver and great. However well cut and tasteful, in the end these labels are fairly conventional. Advantage: any of these pieces can be worn straight to work and cocktails and birthday parties by the proud possessor. And unlike with Zara or any of the big names in ready to wear, the chances are that you will be the only one there in the your spectacular new white and red minidress.

Finally, there is glamourous evening wear, (suited for red carpet and/or the famous Viennese balls), like Emil Couture, Bipone and Anelia Peschev. Emil Couture’s collection was all rich emeralds, rubies and golds. Most of it is raiment fit for a queen or a crown princess, although the collection suffered from a sort of aesthetic schizophrenia between billowing and tailored.  Peschev’s look has a more consistent vision and line from collection to collection. Bipone does both a Haute Couture evening line and day clothes. The evening clothes are ethereal with especially strong work with the texture of fabrics and support the natural line of the body.

There are a few, like Ep_Anoui and Michel Mayer, who are breaking out into a distinctive look all their own: haute couture and daring with enough wearable clothes to justify the extreme sheer look (which frankly few women or even men could dare).

To be honest, I was surprised to see so many returning names. Last year there was a real disappointment about the absence of buyers from major stores in Austria. Apparently this year, there were even fewer. With the recession, sales were down.

Asking the designers how they cope with the situation, Daniela Rampetsreiter, Art Point commercial director, says paradoxically the solution is expanding. “We had a small store on Westbahnstrasse. Sales were good but always to the same clients. As an experiment we moved to a much bigger store on Neubaugasse with better windows and much more foot traffic. Sales have exploded and we have many, many new clients.”

About the problem of distribution in Austria, Rampetstreiter is unconcerned. “Our clients know they have to come to us and they do.”

Designer Elke Freytag concurs. “There’s just one store in the first district that has some of our clothes on commission. Our clients come directly to me and I’m happy with that. I don’t need a huge operation to create great clothes and live my life.”

She adds that due to the smaller scale, she is able to do all her manufacturing right here in Europe, mostly in Slovakia. “We call it fashion sustainability. Your money goes back into the region with a fair wage and the world is saved the environmental degradation of the transport between here and the Far East.”

How much does it cost to attire oneself in designer garb? In Freytag’s collection, a top is about €120 and a very sophisticated coat about €500. An incredible dual layer taffeta and silk mid length dress is an affordable €169 but a full length but relatively simple silk lilac ball gown with hand sewn black beads and feathers topples the budget at over €600.

According to Katalin Imre, fashion buyers are out there still, but they are looking for mid-priced accessories and accents this year, instead of expensive individual pieces. “Our public still wants to look unique but they feel this year they have less money to spend,” says Imre. So we are making more accessories at €70 or €100 and less coats at €500.”

Imre has been returning to Vienna Fashion Week and its predecessors for more than a decade. Why does she do it?

“There’s a good public in Vienna for design. Much better than in Hungary. Even before the crisis, the interest in designer clothing and the ability to purchase is much higher here in Vienna. We have our own shop here and only have a workshop sales space in Budapest.”

Another Hungarian label Konsanszky came back this year after a very strong show last year. “First, we love the show and organisation. And we did well from our visit last year and got a lot of favorable attention for our look,” says brand manager Istvan Simon. “But entering a new market is not a one year process. It takes five or ten years as buyers acquire more confidence in your label. With consistency you will get the larger contracts.”

Many of the Austrian designers don’t take their collections to international fashion events any more. “It’s too tiring,” according to Freytag. “If I spend the same energy marketing here at home, I have more sales and am better able to enjoy life.”

Not for new designer Eva Poleschinski, who has taken her [ep_anoui] label to the U.S., Tokyo, Germany and Paris in the last two years. “Everywhere I go the people respond to my collections. We’ve been able to get distribution in many countries as a result of presenting abroad.”

I asked Poleschinski about the Austrian market, wouldn’t she rather have her clothes in more stores here rather than Australia? “It’s difficult. Let me tell you a secret about the Austrian market,” she intones quietly. “The Austrians want to see you have success abroad before they will welcome you at home. Then they will say they loved you in their hearts all along.”

“Some day they will love and buy my clothes everywhere here too. In the meantime, I make beautiful things and show them to the world. It’s a nice enough life,” she concludes with a smile.

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