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Bless, Desiree Heiss & Ines Kaag 2001


In 1998 I got a package in the mail from Sarah at the Paris select shop, Colette. It contained a kit that would enable me to make my own sneakers, designed by a company called Bless. I received two New Balance soles, some fabric, and instructions for combining the elements. Generally, I barely have time to put on my sneakers, let alone make them from scratch, but something about the kit caught my eye. It was truly challenging, cheeky, and it had that ineffable thing called style. Then, in the fall of 2000, while on a visit to Paris, Sarah introduced me to Desiree, one–half of the Bless team. Desiree and her partner, Ines, had just completed a series of photos of "altered" plants and trees. I remember one tropical plant whose leaves had been exquisitely hand–embroidered with colored yarn. I was intrigued. Named for a bakery in a Berlin suburb, Bless excels at making unexpected juxtapositions and undermining our expectations. Take the suit jacket. As designed by Bless, it will gather at the waist like a sweatshirt, creating a surprising, Miami Vice-like slouch. In Bless's hands, a necklace will mix several common jewelry tropes — from a metal watch-band to a row of pearls — all strung together to form an almost ghetto-fabulous whole. Bless sets its own fashion schedule, releasing three limited-edition collections a year. It's the opposite of mass — Bless goods always feel like they've been made by a human rather than a machine. With Bless, it's personal.

ARIANA: The first time I saw your work was when you did those fur wigs for Martin Margiela in 1998. How did he find you?
DESIREE: We put an ad for the wigs in i-D magazine.
INES: Otherwise, only our friends would have seen them.

ARIANA: It must have been expensive to place that ad.
INES: It would have been, but we got a special price because we were so unknown — and strange.

ARIANA: Do you have a fur wig here? (Ines brings one out.) The haircut's very Rod Stewart . . . or Tina Turner. Did you cut it yourself?
INES: No. We made a pattern based on the natural line of the hair, and that's the way the fur fell. It's made from three different pieces of a fur called finn raccoon.

ARIANA: What drew you to fashion?

DESIREE: When I was growing up my parents were quite poor. We lived in Buggingen, a village near Freiburg in the Black Forest. Around thirteen or so, I started to feel bad knowing that most of my friends had more money than we did. At the time, you had to wear labels — Hugo Boss was really big.

ARIANA: Yeah, here it was Benetton.
DESIREE: Exactly. And so I started taking old clothes from my mother and grandmother and fixing them up so they'd look more like what my friends were wearing. It wasn't that I wanted to make a fashion statement. At thirteen you just want to be the same as everyone else. Of course, I always stood out because I couldn't match the originals perfectly. But when I got older, it became kind of cool, because at that point you want to be more individual. All of a sudden I was fashionable!

ARIANA: Did you have a sense of what was happening with trends in fashion?
DESIREE: My designs weren't evolved. I didn't have the chance to read magazines like Vogue, because my mother would only buy the inexpensive, second-class magazines. So I had no idea what was going on in fashion. All I knew was this "countryside fashion."

ARIANA: It sounds like you became pretty self-sufficient at a young age.
DESIREE: Yeah, it can be useful to have a lack of something, because it forces you to be more resourceful. You find solutions that are different from the usual ones.

ARIANA: You've certainly been resourceful in partnering up with different people. Like, you designed limited-edition sneakers for Adidas.

DESIREE: And we collaborated with a guy named Tom Natwig, who made these earbags. You put them on your ears and click them into place.
INES: They really keep your ears warm in winter.

ARIANA: They're adorable.
DESIREE: Basically, we're up for collaborating with anybody.

ARIANA: In any field?
DESIREE: We especially like to collaborate on things that we've never done before, like the jewelry.

ARIANA: Who approached you?
INES: Bucherer Germany. It's the German part of the Swiss jewelry company.

ARIANA: And they gave you complete freedom?
INES: Yeah, but they didn't really pay us. We gave them our ideas, and they realized them. We didn't make any money, but now we have some real jewelry for our press book.
DESIREE: That's actually a problem, because the bigger companies never approach us to produce substantial lines. They use us for image projects. Like the fabric-covered sneakers we designed for Adidas – there were only a hundred pairs, but we could easily have sold more. On the other hand, it worked out well for us because Adidas got so much press for that project.

ARIANA: What's it like to work with such established names?
DESIREE: The nice thing is that even with these big companies, you can have a lot of fun. With Adidas, we sent them bags filled with lots of little pieces of fabric for each shoe. The people at the factory in Herzogenaurach, which is the town where Adidas was founded, were responsible for deciding how the fabrics were combined.

ARIANA: That must have been interesting.
DESIREE: We had to trust them, in terms of how they would put each shoe together. The other day I was talking with the guy who was in charge of the project. Of course the factory workers didn't have the same taste that we did. They were these German women, and they would ask him, "Are you sure this fabric is supposed to go with that one?" Apparently, in one of the bags there wasn't enough fabric to cover the shoe completely, so one woman became super-creative and brought her own fabric from home to make up the difference. It was excellent.

ARIANA: There's so much detail in your work, like the tiny bits of fabric for those sneakers. What do you do to help you escape?
INES: We have the same hobby. We've done aikido for four-and-a-half years. We tried it one hot summer in Berlin and continued from there.

ARIANA: Do you go every week?
DESIREE: [laughs] Every day. It's a good break – you don't think about the rest of your life. When you learn a martial art, it's like learning a language. You repeat vocabulary, and sometimes you can't speak because you're missing the right words.
INES: Everybody wears either a white kimono, or a traditional Japanese skirt. The uniform makes everyone equal. You can't tell if a person has an interesting job, or whatever.

ARIANA: So you two met after school?
DESIREE: We met at a fashion competition during our studies. But we went to different schools.

ARIANA: You both seem very interested in getting the customer involved with your products.
INES: Absolutely. We're interested in things that are surprising to us as well. That idea was really important for this piece we did called The Set. Just before that we'd done the disposable t-shirts, which we liked a lot. But people were starting to see us as "hot new young designers," and we didn't like that so much.

ARIANA: Why not?
DESIREE: People started buying our stuff as the thing to buy that season. So we made The Set, which is a limited edition, and people were really irritated. It showed us who was willing to follow our ideas and who was only interested in the trend of the moment.

ARIANA: So The Set functioned as a weeding-out of your supporters — a social experiment.
INES: That's a good description.

ARIANA: But I don't know what the product is exactly.
DESIREE: It's an all-over body accessory, a large piece of fabric on which we placed different things . . .
INES: . . . like a little piece of leather with a nice pattern imprinted on it.
DESIREE: We had a bunch of ideas for a collection that season, so we took the whole lot of them and stuck them on this product. The interesting thing was that quite a few designers bought the piece!

ARIANA: It was like a sketchbook, or a personal scrapbook.
INES: Very much so.

ARIANA: Your approach usually feels so personal. Ines, what brought you to fashion?
INES: My father is a furrier. We lived in F‡th, near Nuremberg. He inherited the business, which had come down through many generations. So I grew up in the middle of fur coats and all this really nice material which I absolutely loved as a child. All through my childhood I thought I would follow my father, and take over the shop.

ARIANA: Did you spend much time in the fur shop?
INES: Yeah, but when I finished school at seventeen, I knew I didn't want to be a furrier. I was thinking about studying fashion, and I wanted to get as far away as I could. I got accepted at the School for Art and Design, in Hanover. But I got sent back right away, because they said I needed to do an internship with a tailor for six months before I could start school.

ARIANA: That's terrible.
INES: I went to work at this haute couture place in Nuremberg, which was a little ridiculous, of course. It was owned by this middle-aged woman with no husband — kind of a witch. All the people who do this old-school haute couture tailoring are weird. She had these fat old rich clients who had no style. I worked such long hours that after only four months I had completed all the requirements. It was like working in prison, but I learned so much. It was incredible.

ARIANA: Desiree, you went to the School of Applied Arts in Vienna, which is quite well known. What was that like?
DESIREE: The entrance exams were really tough. I was lucky. The person who judged my exam was Vivienne Westwood.


DESIREE: And I didn't even know who she was.

ARIANA: What did you show her?
DESIREE: I thought they'd ask me to design an evening dress. But she asked for something completely unexpected. The task was to build a house out of cardboard, which is the kind of thing that I love. She took me because of my house.

ARIANA: Was it a worthwhile experience?
DESIREE: Actually, after awhile I was convinced that I had to leave school and go to work. Just as I was about to quit, Helmut Lang came to teach. He was the first person to give me confidence in my work.

ARIANA: What was he like as a professor?
DESIREE: There were positive and negative sides. Afterwards, I had a very hard time breaking away from the whole Helmut Lang group. But at the beginning, what I found amazing was that he never treated me like a student. He always treated me as an equal. A week before my graduation I was very depressed, thinking everything I'd done was rubbish, and he asked me, "Don't you think it's the same for me before a show?" He really took the time.

ARIANA: Who else in fashion would you identify with now?
DESIREE: Of course Susan Cianciolo. I respect her a lot. It's always great to meet with Susan when I'm in New York. And we used to compare notes with Viktor and Rolf occasionally — we'd have dinner and talk about how things were going, why something wasn't working, what we could do to improve.

ARIANA: What do you think about Susan saying enough with the fashion system, and deciding to just make art?
DESIREE: I can understand it, although it makes me sad. I really feel that there's a hole now. Our aim with Bless, although it may sound naive, is to create a company that can adapt to our personal needs — if we change, Bless can change with us.

ARIANA: And how do you manage with Desiree in Paris and Ines in Berlin?
DESIREE: That's how it was before we started Bless, so we just accept it.
INES: I think it's kind of nice to have a base in two places. I mean, so many people are talking about Berlin, how it's so important to be there — of course it's not. [laughs]

ARIANA: Do you get turned on by the cultural activity there?
DESIREE: No, we're quite boring. We don't go out.
INES: We just work. Aside from presenting our collection here in Paris for fashion week twice a year, we could be in Hamburg, or anywhere.
DESIREE: But in the beginning, being in Paris was very helpful because magazines like Purple and Self Service were willing to support us. But I can't say that if I were somewhere else I would run out of ideas. [laughs]

ARIANA: The other thing that really attracted me to your work was the sense of humor — the lightness about it. There's obviously thought behind the work, but it doesn't take itself too seriously. The Living Room series you did in '99 was interesting and funny, the idea of dressing a piece of furniture like you would a person. You're doing things like creating a coat for a table, or, with the Chairwear, making a new shape out of something completely familiar.
INES: We were a little fed up with clothes. So we started to think about our surroundings.
DESIREE: We noticed that a lot of people throw away their old furniture, mostly the stuff that they didn't specifically buy for themselves ? like their mother's chair, or a piece that came with the house when they moved in. But these objects have their own lives. We thought, "Why not just lend them new, temporary shapes?" It's like with clothes ? you don't throw yourself away, you just put something new on.

ARIANA: What are the Bless shops about?
DESIREE: So far, each Bless shop has come out differently. One of the most interesting Bless shops was during the biennial in Werkleitz, which is in a region with very high unemployment. We didn't think there was any point in doing a shop, because there wasn't enough demand. So instead of opening a shop space, we looked for local stores that would host different products. The furniture shop had the Chairwear, the fashion shop had the scarves, and the hairbrush was in the hair salon. Of course, we didn't sell anything. The most abstract piece, The Set, was in the gas station.

ARIANA: It must be almost a full-time job just documenting your work.
DESIREE: It is hard. I think documenting the work is our way of figuring out if something makes sense. In a way, the documentation is equal to the collection itself.

ARIANA: Have you ever seen someone on the street wearing one of your products?
INES: Yes, the fur wig.

ARIANA: What was that like?
INES: I took a picture. [laughs]


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Bless by Mark Borthwick, 2001


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