For his past 30 collections, Frank Leder has been researching and reviving pieces of German culture and history through his vision of menswear. With this intimate language of traditional tailoring and workwear, Frank is able to communicate narratives which transcend the framework of fashion. In his 31st collection, entitled "Key Pieces", the German designer felt the time was right for a bit of a retrospective, and in that spirit we are excited to sit down for a conversation with one of our favourites.
What was the catalyst that guided you towards garment design? What made you shift from women’s to men’s clothing?
I guess I was always interested in how clothing works on the individual body and its context in society. Originally my thoughts were to study art, but I found the idea of garments and fashion to be a more fair and straightforward way to interact with and supply the individual person, much more than I would have been able to as an artist.
It was clear that I was more interested in garments I can relate to and try on myself to find the perfect fit and learn about shapes and cuts. Menswear is limited by its nature, but to push the boundaries in its given traditional form is what menswear is all about and the reason it is so interesting to work in this field.
Is there a particular emotion or idea your project allows you to express?
With my collections I have the possibility to explore different fields of German culture and heritage and introduce these stories and places to a wider, international audience. For me it’s the perfect tool to transport those stories, which probably no one would have taken notice of without the help of these garments and their interested customers.
I know you admire the work of August Sander, when did you first find his photographs? What influence do they still have on you these days?
August Sander is probably a great inspiration for every men’s fashion designer. In no other format can you find so many different people from all ways of life in a compendium together.
To study the garments, faces, and expressions is a never ending source of inspiration. I came across August Sander when I was 18 or 19 years old, it was the first expensive photographic book I bought, saving up the money to buy it.
Your studio is in Berlin, but you don’t sell much clothing in Germany, why is this?
I do not show at any trade fairs because I do not like the trading aspect of these events, I would rather invite people to my world, which is my studio, to take a closer look at my work and collections.
German shops tend to look to the outside, rather than the inside, and are rather slow in picking up designers. I do not necessarily feel underrepresented in Germany, there are not many places which I would like to see my garments in anyways. We have integrated a place where a selection of the new collection is hanging in our studio to give people the opportunity to visit and acquire pieces they like.
This is especially interesting given that your materials and manufacturing are exclusively German. Is there a specific sense of nostalgia embedded in the fabric and construction of the clothing relating to German culture?
I try to find the right balance between a collection rooted in the past, but also having a modern approach, mainly through the cut and details which we design in the garment.
I think the garment should work in the present, but the story or the mood can link to a time in the past. What is uniquely antique are almost all the buttons which we source from flea markets, antique dealers, and friends. For me the button is a very important item on the garment, overlooked by most designers. It’s one of the first things you touch on a garment so I try to give it the utmost respect in using the nicest vintage buttons we can find from the 1910’s to the 1960’s. In this sense we aim to release a new breath of life into the buttons and trimmings we find and through this upgrade the garment.
In a broader sense, what story or stories are you offering to your audience?
I like stories about men. Solitary men like the chimney sweepers high on the rooftops, or the wood burning men in the deep forest like in the “Rauch” collection, or groups of men and their specific codes and ways of conduct like the carpenters in the “Walz” or fishermen in the “Schub” collections.
I am also inspired by writers like Josef Roth and learning more about the place called “Galicia”, now Poland and the Ukraine, and its exodus of people to America, who lived in this forgotten land. I based two collections on this topic.
Also, “Colditz” which is a small town only a two hour drive away from Berlin, which used to be a P.O.W. camp for English and French officers and its stories of all those who attempted to escape from the castle.
Why do you feel the Japanese market engages so strongly with your garments and the stories associated with them?
My guess Is that this market in particular has such a great and extensive knowledge of fashion labels, that something I offer is truly refreshing and unique to them. In particular, German culture could only be viewed from the outside and now I can offer an inside knowledge and introduce and dig out stories which are hard to come by.
In the current “Key Pieces” collection, you invite those who take on your pieces to your studio to try their key, which comes with each garment. One of these keys will open the locked box which holds various memories from your past collections. Where did this wonderful idea come from?
I’ve always liked the idea of sharing and inviting people to my studio and to have the opportunity to talk and interact with those who appreciate my work is a very satisfying moment.
I realized that the new collection was already my 31st, so it was time for a little retrospective in a sense. I looked through all my boxes with my notes, fragments, and items which have accumulated over the years here in my studio and picked relevant things from each of the collections. All those items, which can be seen in the beginning of the short video, are packed inside one wooden box. Now I am very curious who will come and if one visitor has the right key to open the lock. It’s great fun!
How does the delicate balance between the severe and the playful inform your creative process?
It probably comes naturally, as it is how I see myself. We work very concentrated on the collections and give great attention to detail, but we also like to not take everything overly serious… There should always be a fun and playful aspect in your work to balance everything out in a nice way.
What is the story behind the boxer collection?
When you think of German heavyweight boxers, normally Max Schmeling or Bubi Scholz come to mind. I wanted to shed light on one boxer who did not become so famous, “Franz Diener”.
Near my studio, there is a very old drinking den which Franz Diener bought when his quit his boxing career in the 1940’s. It’s a stunning place, full of photographs and original interior. My staff and I sometimes go there after work for a beer, so it was always on my mind for a possible shooting location. Finally the collection felt right to introduce Franz Diener and his environment to a wider audience.
Lastly, looking to your next offering, how did you decide on creating multiple forms using vintage bed sheet material?
I acquired a big deadstock of vintage 1960’s bedsheets from the German army from a dealer who normally hunts down the vintage buttons. They are a great sturdy cotton material and I started to make shirts out of them. In the next Summer collection (Franz Diener) I have broadened the shapes to trousers, jackets, and vests to offer a whole outfit.
This all-one-fabric silhouette reminds me strongly of outfits worn by soldiers exercising in barrack yards. Coincidentally, my grandfather used to be a soldier and part time boxer and I remember him bragging about a boxing fight with Max Schmeling, when Max visited his barrack.
My Grandfather lost in the first round by knock out ;-)