Claudia Skoda’s fashions made her a key figure and icon of the West Berlin underground scene in the 1970s and 1980s. She revolutionised the concept of knitwear fashion through her unconventional designs; her spectacular fashion shows attracted international attention. With this first solo show, the Kunstbibliothek (Art Library) pays tribute to Claudia Skoda’s work – in her home city of Berlin. The multimedia special exhibition presents around two hundred works, some previously never shown before, by Claudia Skoda and her art, film and music scene associates, including Martin Kippenberger, Luciano Castelli, Ulrike Ottinger, Tabea Blumenschein, Kraftwerk, Jim Rakete, and many more.
Claudia Skoda (b. 1943 in Berlin) was considered by Elle magazine to be one of the women – along with Coco Chanel, Vivienne Westwood and Madonna – who shaped the look of the 20th century. Her designs were called “knitted genius” (Key, 1984), and she was known internationally as the “queen of texture” (Paper, 1985). She continues to work with creative minds from a wide range of disciplines – and remains preeminent in her chosen creative field of knitting – preferably done on a machine. Beginning in the mid-1970s, West Berlin’s bohemian scene of musicians, filmmakers, artists and fashion designers came together in her living and working community fabrikneu (factory new) in a loft in Zossener Straße in Kreuzberg.
The special exhibition at the Kulturforum explores Claudia Skoda’s life and work in seven thematic sections.
The section “fabrikneu” focuses on Skoda’s early years and her first fashion shows in Kreuzberg, including Shake Your Hips (1975), Neues Spiel (1976) and Pablo Picasso (1977). Martin Kippenberger, who was still unknown at the time, created a floor out of some 1300 photographs by himself, Ulrike Ottinger and Ester Friedman, titling it Eine Woche aus dem Intimleben der Fam. Skoda und Bekanntenkreis (A Week in the Intimate Life of the Skoda Family and Friends).
The exhibition includes that floor, using it as a display space for examples of Skoda’s early knitting designs. In addition, super 8 films, slides and photographs bring the fabrikneu fashion shows to life once again.
The next section looks at Claudia Skoda’s special relationship with music. Not only did her clientele include numerous musicians, among them David Bowie, Malaria!, Tangerine Dream, the Neonbabies, Donna Summer, Cher, Tina Turner, and Rufus Wainwright, but her collections have also brimmed with allusions to manifold musical styles – jazz, glam rock, disco, punk, and electronic music.
In 1981 Skoda switched disciplines for a short time, landing an underground hit together with Rosie Müller with the EP I bin a Domina. Electronic music pioneer Manuel Göttsching mixed the song; Ralf Hütter and Karl Bartos from the band Kraftwerk designed the cover.
Another section is devoted to Claudia Skoda’s spectacular fashion shows, in particular Laufsteg (1978), Big Birds (1979), Trommelfeuer (1982), and Veit Fights (1983). For each of these shows, Skoda chose a theme that she then rigorously implemented as a concept in the choreography, styling, music, and poster design – to a degree still uncommon in the fashion industry of the day. Her Gesamtkunstwerk-approach, involving a multidisciplinary synthesis of the arts, made her a pioneer in the artistically contextualised presentation of fashion.
Big Birds, for example, did without a catwalk; instead the space was divided up using wire-mesh barriers and illuminated only with a few powerful spotlights. The Australian performance duo Emu hatched from a large egg at the beginning of the show, accompanied by a film of penguins in Antarctica. Nearly naked performers covered in makeup swung on a trapeze above the models, who moved like birds to rhythmic electronic music. Skoda had previously sent them to the Berlin Zoo to study bird behaviour.
This section highlights Claudia Skoda’s do-it-yourself attitude. She has worked independently from the beginning. The complexity of the individual collection pieces’ ingenious design makes their production in larger series unprofitable. Skoda often chooses yarns that cannot be industrially processed.
Claudia Skoda has always taken an unconventional approach in advertising and sales. Until 1980 she used fabrikneu as a knitting studio, promoting her fashion exclusively at trade fairs and fashion shows, and supplying particular selected boutiques in Düsseldorf, Paris, London, and New York with individual collection pieces. Skoda opened her first store in New York’s SoHo district – on advice from David Bowie.
In 1988 the West Berlin Senate brought her back to her native city to organise the opening gala for the European City of Culture. Skoda curated the inaugural Dressater – Dressed to Thrill as a multidisciplinary show, inviting innovative fashion designers from around the world. When the Berlin Wall came down a year later, she decided to stay, and shops on Kurfurstendamm, Linienstraße, and Alte Schönhauser Allee followed.
Claudia Skoda’s iconic “jazz” pattern was particular popular as unisex leggings in the late 1970s. Yet it is the female body that she particularly likes to flatter with her creative use of yarn. Her dresses are characteristically knit for the self-confident woman: skin-tight, transparent, expressive, and frequently in amazing colour combinations. This playful and permissive approach to the body is a Skoda hallmark.
In this section the exhibition depicts how Skoda and her colleagues and friends collaborated. For instance, photo series from the nocturnal sessions show how Skoda, together with Tabea Blumenschein and Jenny Capitain, spontaneously ran through feminine looks – from glamorous divas of the 1920s to blonde bombshells of the 1950s – while role-playing in front of Ulrike Ottinger’s camera.
The section on fashion photography reveals Skoda’s unusual approach and her fondness for photography. Skoda has not had her knitwear designs photographed by established fashion photographers, but rather by art photographers, such as Silke Grossmann, Tina Winkhaus, and Daniel “DJ Punk” Josefsohn. For Skoda, fashion photography is not primarily about the presentation of her product, but about an aesthetic concept, about mood, about materiality.
In her collaborations Skoda has consistently been drawn to art. For her 1986 collection Masterpieces, she garnered designs for her limited edition knitwear from artists belonging to the Neue Wilde circle who had been part of the former Galerie am Moritzplatz – Rainer Fetting, Anne Jud, Salomé, and Luciano Castelli. All of Skoda’s extant designs are to be shown in this section of the exhibition.
The performance Deep Diving for Whales, which Skoda conceived in 1997 for the Deutsche Guggenheim, is also documented. For that occasion she knitted colourful bodysuits, from which large helium-filled balloons enclosed in a knitted tube rose towards the ceiling, while the models moved through the space like amphibians.
The 400-square-metre exhibition uses diverse media such as photographs, posters, films and music to document the work of fashion designer Claudia Skoda in all its diversity. At the same time, it gives an impression of the experimental energy and zeitgeist of the late 1970s and early 1980s in West Berlin. A large number of the exhibits stem from Claudia Skoda’s own archive and from the private archives of contemporary witnesses and friends. Many of the works displayed have never been publicly exhibited or have not been shown for a long time.
With this exhibition, the Kunstbibliothek, which possesses one of the world’s most significant image and text archives on the history of fashion in the form of the Fashion Image Collection at the Lipperheide Costume Library, is increasing its scholarly research into Berlin’s late 20th century fashion networks. The exhibition also marks the transfer of a major portion of Claudia Skoda’s private archives to that collection, making them available to future generations of researchers.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue published by Kettler Verlag, with contributions by Heidi Blöcher, Britta Bommert, Fiona McGovern, Esther Ruelfs, and Marie Arleth Skov, as well as a personal homage to Claudia Skoda by Wolfgang Joop. German/English, hardcover, approx. 248 pages, approx. 200 illustrations, ISBN 978-3-86206-829-6, retail price 42 Euro.
The exhibition is supported by the Hauptstadtkulturfonds. Media partners of the exhibition are rbbKultur and tip Berlin.
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