Glamour Underground

The Austrian Avant Garde Fashion Scene Returns to Simplicity

On The Town | Jodi Keen | July / August 2008

Carefully chosen layers and uni-color design show Europe’s transition back to basics (Photo: Irina Gavrich)

Bright white lights and sleek fabrics. Bubbly wine and wide-eyed wonder. Smooth silver pins fashioned into the shape of human reproductive organs. All are tied together to weave a common thread: the Austrian underground fashion scene is cutting-edge and definitely thriving.

On the evening of Jun. 4, guests streamed through the tall, heavy doors of the Fine Arts Academy’s Semper Depot in Vienna’s 6th District for an evening of fashion sponsored by city’s Departure program for Creative Industries. Cheerful servers slid by balancing trays of complementary champagne. We discovered we were to go one better: A friend had scored us VIP seating and free drinks for the evening.

Our names were checked off the list of attendees and we received suggestive silver pins: Our sponsors, Team America stood perplexed, and a little stunned. Why were we given pins? To prove we had signed in, presumably. And the designs? I stared at the pair of shiny ovaries lying in my palm. Two things were obvious: 1) Americans are much more uptight than Europeans. And 2) I was certainly not in Kansas – uh, Kentucky – anymore.

The extra ovaries took up residence pinned to my shoulder as I made my way up the nearby stairs. Clutching champagne glasses and our coveted free drink tickets, a security guard waved our group into the VIP area. We chose a spot near the bar and a grouping of plush black leather couches, into which we immediately sank our tired bodies, and we began our first focused survey of the place.

Black and white was the evening’s running theme. Everywhere you turned, there were servers in high contrast uniforms; the security detail in black tuxedos with white shirts and black ties; two white screens backing up a three-part black runway; show assistants in black cocktail dresses. It was a clean, edgy look on the lower decks. The ceiling extended 30 meters up and came to a sloping peak overhead. Two floors of stark, empty balconies peered down at us.

Suddenly a motorcycle engine revved up, interrupting the conversation; as the engine raced and hearts pounded in rhythm with each rev, I craned my neck upward to spot it. All eyes turned to a helmeted duo as their motorcycle sped out onto the balcony above. It was loud and aggressive, but very exciting. In a matter of a few thrilling moments, a night of glamour, high fashion and cutting-edge chic had begun.

The first models to cross the runway – for designer Wilfried Mayer - were men in sharp suits and casual wear. Centering on the evening’s contrast theme, the black and white ensembles that were both smart and very sleek. The models themselves were lean, clean-cut young men, carrying off the menswear’s sophisticated appeal convincingly. The only jarring note was the very naive look in their eyes - self-conscious as they cautiously stepped along the runway. Perhaps the searing spotlights made vision difficult or the large crowd seem more intimidating. Still, they managed to bring the chic menswear to life, and the audience applauded its approval.

A quarter of an hour later, the segment concluded, followed by a short film. It was an odd gender-bending video of sorts: a man and several women, all in various states of undress, cramped into quite a small space and having a grand time making up the man to look like a woman. Albeit brief, it served as an appropriate segway into the next showcase, a mixed-gender collection by Anna Aichinger.

These designs were flirty, feminine and infinitely layered over tall models with big hair and even bigger attitudes. Their serious, studied struts down the catwalk would remind one of a more high-profile show in Paris or perhaps Milan. But the yells of support from the models’ friends in the crowd brought the scene back to a local level –

although the models themselves never flinched. Still maintaining the contrast theme, Aichinger’s show threw in a small splash of color, from pale, sunny yellows to pastel pinks as delicate as flower petals.

A sequel to the first film segment followed, this time with the man sifting through more womens clothing. This seemed only to excite him more, and his female companions responded by slathering on more lipstick and eyeliner until the man bore a striking resemblance to a circus clown. The increasing hysteria came to an abrupt halt in a black screen and the name: Nina Peter.

Into the sudden silence came of two lotioned-up men clad in bright red tights over boxer briefs - and nothing else. The audience, taken by surprise at this shift, laughed and applauded the men, who moved across the stage to position themselves at right, followed by two more... and then a woman adding a white tube top... and another man and woman. Eventually, there were some 10 people in the tights-and-underwear combo, which turned out to be a band supplying the music for the final show.

Peter’s models began their much slower walk-about toward the crowd. The first model, clad in a beret and billowing coat in the color of fresh snow, glided down the runway like an angel with magnificent white wings, slowly passing over the people of Earth. The peacefulness continued with models showcasing a more basic wardrobe, but with a deeper sense of calm. This show also invited color, even more than the earlier show. The gentle hum of the bass gradually grew until the entire room was throbbing. The band was drumming their instruments now, as the last model delicately made her way across the catwalk followed by the entire company, and Peters herself. By this time, every audience member was standing, in a resounding ovation.

The show over, my friends and I finished our wine and turned toward home, filled with the strangeness of the event. It was quite a departure from the glamor-on-steroids version of fashion we had grown so accustomed to in films and on television; everything seemed stripped down, simpler yet still very elegant. It was a different approach to fashion: a kind of glammed-up simplicity. At home, everyone seems to be choking on bright, bold colors and drowning in accessories.

But at this show, the underground Austrian fashion industry stripped away the excess layers and the distracting, conflicting colors. It took fashion back to the bare-bones and made "less is more" beautiful again.

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    the vienna review July / August 2008