Is Vienna a Fashion Capital? Not Yet.

When the thousand-strong diplomatic delegations of Europe met for the Congress of Vienna in October of 1814, they took over the city, increasing the population of the Altstadt by half, renting every spare Palais, villa and suite of rooms. In the compact old city, they ran into each other everywhere, on the streets, and at the endless private dinners and dances, at luncheons and receptions, where gossip was the currency of the day. In fact, there was no “congress,” in the formal sense, until the end.

Nearly all the great matters of state, in fact, took place in the company of women, whose beauty, charm and political savvy often helped guide the discussion. The great Salonnière Fanny von Arnstein, a favorite of Metternich and Radetzky, was one of these:

“Of tall, slim stature, radiant with beauty and grace, of distinguished manner and behavior, spirited and fiery expression, [she] combined acute intelligence and wit with a cheerful temper; mistress of foreign languages as well as her own, Freifrau von Arnstein was a notable phenomenon in Vienna,” wrote German diplomat and chronicler Karl August Varnhagen.

What she actually wore we know from the few likenesses that survived – the effect, a shimmering Grecian perfection swathed in the clingy, pale gossamer silks and the ropes of pears she made famous, hair piled on her head and fixed with a jeweled pin.

For many, like French diplomat Charles-Maurice de Tallyrand-Périgord who had come to the Congress with his brilliant and beautiful 21-year-old niece Dorothea, the women set the tone. Which led aristocrat Charles Joseph de Ligne to quip, “Le Congrès ne marche pas, il danse.” (“The Congress doesn’t progress, it dances!”).

As the Congress was winding down, Vienna’s first-ever fashion magazine, Wiener Moden, was born, putting a name to the fashions of the Salonnières, and tracking a rapid shift to the Empire dresses that soon defined European fashion. For the first time, writes fashion scholar Christa Lichtenberger, there was a Viennese style, known for its impeccable craftsmanship, influenced by the aristocracy, the colorful variety of traditional costumes and stately military garb.

Over the century that followed, the local fashion industry became world-renowned, even into the 1920s – only coming to an abrupt end in the late 1930s, under the suffocating conservatism and censorship of national socialism. Despite many notable efforts, it has yet to fully re-emerge.

Whereas Paris is, as ever, the sartorial capital of the modern world, the Danube city’s overall aesthetic among Millennials would be best described today as casual and laid back. Even its hippest districts are dominated by muted colors, loose-fitting garments and well- worn sneakers. It’s not that younger Viennese don’t have an appreciation for elevated looks and elaborate styles, it’s just that they don’t care enough to sacrifice comfort for fashion – Ball Season notwithstanding. (As to the post-Corona world, we’ll just have to see.) In the past, this attitude might have made global fashionistas snicker, but in a world plagued by mass production, disposable consumerism and the exploitation of workers, the Viennese may be onto something that could change the face of the fashion industry for the better.

A Feminist Fashion Reform

Practicality in Viennese fashion has a long history. In la vie bohème and fin de siècle circles, influential women like Emilie Flöge, famed fashion designer and life companion of Gustav Klimt, popularized the rational dress movement – a deviation from corseted Victorian styles that would allow women more comfort and freedom to move. Inspired by the first wave of the feminism, Flöge was a trailblazer, who – through her connection with Klimt – had access to the upper echelons of Viennese society. She traveled frequently to Paris to study the latest designs by Coco Chanel and Christian Dior, and had a keen sense of business. At the height of her career she employed up to 80 seamstresses and took a then-novel approach to branding with her art-oriented retail design. According to Anna Furman of Harper’s Bazaar, her shop set an example for contemporary concept stores such as 10 Corso Como in Milan and Dover Street Market in London.

Forced to close when she lost most of her best clients to the Anschluss, Flöge’s legacy as a fashion extension of the Secession survived. Today, she continues to serve as inspiration to the fashion world, most recently in 2015, when Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli paid homage to her work for luxury brand Valenti- no’s fall/winter collection. The results could have “stepped right out of a Klimt canvas,” as Vogue’s Nicole Phelps noted after the runway show, which drew heavily from Flöge’s A-line cuts and a Wiener Werkstätte aesthetic.

What Could Have Been

The turn of the 20th century was a prosperous period for Vienna’s garment industry. The Textilviertel (garment district) around Rudolfsplatz was the hot spot for trade and tailor shops, the majority Jewish-owned, as were most of the most luxurious department stores. Ludwig Zwieback & Bruder, Gerngross and Herzmansky made Vienna a luxury destination from the mid-19th century onward. Even in the interwar period, these stores remained elegant emporia with a restaurant, an American bar, a tea room, elevators and electric lighting, reminisced Lotte Tobisch-Labotyn, grande dame of Vienna’s high society, in the Jewish city magazine wina. “The most Parisian of all department stores is found neither on Boulevard Haussmann nor on Boulevard des Italiens,” read a 1926 entry in the Handbuch der Wiener Gesellschaft (Guide to Viennese Society). “It’s on Vienna’s Kärnterstraße! Needless to say, it’s Zwieback.”

But the Austrian capital’s status as a fashion hot spot wouldn’t last. After the Anschluss in 1938, Jewish Vienna’s retail and fashion businesses were Aryanized, forcefully expropriated by the state and given to Christian owners. In Vienna, many Jews managed to escape to England, the United States, Canada or Cuba.

Few ever returned to Vienna, either selling their former businesses – often far below value – or simply leaving their sad history behind.

While Gerngross is still with us, its former glory can be found only in its name. Herzman- sky on Mariahilfer Straße is now a branch of Peek & Cloppenburg and the iconic Zwieback on Kärntner Straße has been turned into Austria’s first Apple Store. “Successful as they may have been, the magic and shine of these turn-of-the-century department stores […] could never be evoked again,” writes Reinhard Engel in wina, leaving us to forever imagine the fashion capital that could have been.

(C) Wikimedia Commons

After the War

After World War II, Vienna’s garment history was quite literally in shambles; most of its talent had emigrated abroad or been murdered in the Holocaust. Reeling from the aftermath of the war, what was left of Austria struggled to rebuild. Some of the country’s greatest cultural resources and artistic movements, however, would be lost for generations, as the Nazis had poisoned national and folk art traditions, amid the rubble that lay in their wake. Her clients fled or deported, Emilie Flöge, like many others, retreated to work in her home on Ungargasse, where a fire in the final days of the war destroyed her collection of garments. Records describe her iconic long and loose-fitting dresses lovingly adorned with intricate details and patterns of the Wiener Werkstätte and the Secession, as well as valuable items from Klimt’s estate.

With so many of its influential players gone, and hardship leaving few with time or money to spare, the Austrian postwar fashion industry faded into insignificance. Other countries did better: For Paris, also war-torn and impoverished, fashion was the key to a renaissance, that by the mid-’50s was well on its way. Christian Dior’s “New Look” that premiered in 1947, made waves globally and would set the tone in fashion for years to come. With its nipped waist and billowy skirt, its playful tone was a direct negation of the dignified utility of wartime clothing that had been marked by clear lines and broad military-like shoulders with a nod to the 19th century.

In Italy, too, several cities made a bid to become the country’s new fashion capital. Milan, a vibrant northern center of production and ideas, ultimately became one of the in- industry’s most influential hot spots. In the United States, American designers took advantage of the wartime retreat of European designers to establish themselves as an influential force, with New York becoming the center of the American fashion world. By the 1960s, London, too, had become a fashion hot spot, whose mod style of Twiggy and The Beatles sent waves across the West. Still an occupied country until 1955, Vienna was slower to recover and was unable to popularize any signature styles outside its borders for decades to come – although some Austrian-born designers were able to influence the world from abroad.

Fashion as Liberation

Among the Jewish Austrians who managed to escape the Nazis was Rudi Gernreich. Sixteen at the time, he and his mother settled in California, where he would spend the rest of his life (he died from cancer in 1985) and became, what experts have described, a prophet in fashion. Gernreich grew up around fashion, spending much time as a child at his Aunt Hedwig Müller’s dress shop. Despite leaving as a teenager for America, his designs often drew inspiration from the Wiener Werkstätte and were often considered sexually daring – unsurprising with Vienna’s far more casual attitude toward nudity in the 1920s of his childhood.

Most critics see Gernreich’s legacy as “monumental.” In perhaps his most famous example, he transformed the way the world viewed the female body with his iconic creation of the topless swimsuit. But not only revered as a designer, he was beloved as a person and a social activist, who laid much of the groundwork for the LGBTQ rights movement. “Rudi was everything one would hope he would be,” said Léon Bing, former model and one of Gernreich’s frequent collaborators, in Vanity Fair. “He was very kind. He was very funny. And incredibly intelligent. He was extraordinary in all ways.”

A Minimalist Revolution

While Austria brought forth several great designers such as Fred Adlmüller in the late 20th century, most of the action happened on a local level, enjoyed by a small group of couture-savvy insiders.

However, one legendary designer managed to become synonymous with Austrian fashion on a global scale – Helmut Lang, Austria’s unmistakable fashion hero. Lang opened his made-to-measure studio in 1977 in Vienna, taking his designs to Paris in the mid-’80s, where he premiered his first men’s collection along with his new women’s line, at the Centre Pompidou. Here he presented androgynous, angular models in tight-fitting skirts or trousers with draped tunics, some leather, and layered jackets cut on the bias – interrupted, often harsh lines that were quickly christened as “minimalism.”

In the late ’90s, he moved his business from Vienna to New York, where he cemented his cult status, selling a 49% interest to Prada in 1999. Despite his retirement in 2005 to East Hampton, N.Y., where he works as a sculptor, his influence is still part of the conversation. Lang’s use of high-tech fabrics and metallics, as well as his deconstructed, raw-edged pieces, revolutionized the style of the ’90s and continue to inspire designers today.

Viennese fashion lovers can currently catch a glimpse at his remarkable career trajectory at the Museum of Applied Arts’ Helmut Lang archive, open until November 1, 2020.

Playing Catch-up

So until the 1980s and Helmut Lang, the Viennese fashion scene hadn’t much to offer. But the city was due for a sartorial shakeup, which came in the U-Mode fashion shows at the iconic nightclub U4. “Vienna was a dreary, petit bourgeois nightmare at the time. So U-Mode came in there like a bomb,” said Milan-based Andreas Bergbaur, co-curator of this year’s exhibition Show-Off at Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts, in a recent interview with Der Standard. One of the jury members, along with fashion legends Fred Adlmüller and Helmut Lang, was Brigitte R. Winkler, doyenne of Austrian fashion journalism. “It was about quality, not about partying,” the venerable fashion expert told Metropole. “Ossi Schellmann, owner of U4, approached the students of Modeschule Hetzendorf in an attempt to celebrate the craft. Eventually, the Muse- umsQuartier wanted to take over the event and monetize it. Profit inevitably became more important than quality, and U-Mode sadly died then and there.”

According to fashion writer Anne Feldkamp, Austria’s fashion scene continues to be a tough arena for emerging designers. Most of those who shook up the scene in the ’80s are now history, and the few that do remain, like Schella Kann by Anita Aigner and Gudrun Windischbauer, are a rarity among the international luxury brands that have come to dominate Vienna’s Graben. It is perhaps tell- ing that many of Austria’s most notable designers have taken their talents abroad. “As a designer, you have to make a choice,” Winkler says. “If you want to be an international player, you have to get out of Vienna.” Contemporary players like Petar Petrov, Andreas Kronthaler (husband to British fashion icon Vivienne Westwood), Arthur Arbesser and Lena Hoschek all show their collections elsewhere: in Paris, London, Milan and Berlin, respectively. After all, Vienna’s Fashion Week – intended to showcase new styles and upcoming collections popularized by the “Big Four” cities of the fashion world – hasn’t managed to gain traction in the manner that was perhaps intended.

The problem was in the intention. Despite their glamour, these big-league events are highly stylized trade shows for journalists, buyers and, of course, celebrities and other industry personalities. Otherwise, it is impossible to get in unless you know someone on the inside.

MQ Vienna Fashion Week, in its 12th year, however, is a public event in a tent at MuseumsQuartier, with tickets for as little as €20 per day. Instead of showcasing cutting edge creations to buyers, a number of local labels and international guests present their lines to bright-eyed fashion fans, traipsing around in their latest finds from Zara and eagerly posing in front of the logo wall. No Anna Wintour, Rihanna, or Helmut Lang. In Vienna, it’s Mausi Lugner and the former hosts of the ORF children’s line up. So noble as the attempt has been to generate interest in the local fashion scene, the purpose gets all but lost.

Fortunately, the Austrian Fashion Association (AFA) – led since its founding in 2013 by Camille Boyer and until her early death last year, Marlene Agreiter – has made it their mission to professionalize and promote the work of Austrian designers by funding and mentoring young creatives, and providing them with a platform to showcase their designs to the public and the industry – even taking their creations to Paris for the DACH showroom.

(C) William Claxton – Courtesy of Demont Photo Management (Provided by MAK Vienna)

An Industry in Peril

For centuries, the fashion world has presented an exciting façade of glamour that, for many, is unattainable – and perhaps all the more desirable because of it. But the instant exposure over electronic media has led to a crushing acceleration of the design cycle. With the addition of pre-spring, pre-fall, cruise and resort collections, high-end designers have crumbled under the pressure of having to create more looks in less time, resulting in frequent leadership changes at legendary fashion houses.

“Considering that all of us – I mean us designers – have been complaining about the pace of fashion, about the unsustainable speed that the delivery calendar had us keep, this is a chance to rethink a lot of things,” said Donatella Versace in a statement to WWD earlier this year.

On the High Street, the public has also played a role, questioning the necessity for fast fashion and affordable garments that come at the cost of the environment, and the people who produce them. With the powers of the internet, social activists are able to expose what goes on behind factory doors. In her documentary Invisible Hands, journalist Shraysi Tandon exposed the harsh realities of human trafficking and forced labor in the clothing industry most have been unaware of.

In Vienna, the awareness of the necessity for more sustainable behavior is growing. Austrian designer Mark Baigent, who runs an ethical label of the same name in Bali, is a vocal advocate. “Sustainability is not just about the environment, but also about how you treat your workers. Fair wages and working conditions are crucial,” he says of his philosophy. Another problem, he tells us, is the way that brands establish and dispose of trends. “People need to prioritize quality over quantity and buy things that will last.”

Globally, this fashion house of cards is quivering, as became evident when legendary retail giants Barneys New York and Neiman Marcus both recently filed for bankruptcy. Shortly after lockdown, heritage house Saint Laurent announced that it would pull out of the fashion week schedule and show at its own pace going forward. More high-end houses are expected to follow suit. In Austria, some designers and consumers are already a step ahead.

Leading the Way Forward

One mark of the shift is the choice to step away from the new. Over the last several years, privately organized flea markets, often with the help of Instagram influencers, have become increasingly popular. One person’s rags can be another person’s riches, and Gen Z and Millennials in particular are weeding out their closets and replacing only what’s necessary – with sustainable choices, of course. This has led to a vintage clothing revival: Instead of parading around in the brand-new, people now take pride in showing off rare “pre-owned” finds, and it all comes guilt-free. Stores like Wolfmich, Burggasse 24 and Uppers & Downers curate timeless vintage items while offering their customers a piece of fashion history.

On the entrepreneurial front, creative minds are elevating timeless basics to must-have closet staples, all while adopting a completely sustainable business model. Influencer Madeleine Alizadeh, better known as DariaDaria, has found a niche with her clothing line Dariadéh, a body-positive, ethical fashion line. The label Poleit from Graz is growing a business of sustainable swimwear, while Viennese label Studio Miyagi does the same with bodywear.

A Chance To Regain Relevance

Vienna may have never succeeded in catching up to the fashion capitals, but in hindsight, it may have been for the best. The excess cultivated in these centers has turned the garment industry into an all-devouring beast.

Today with its laid-back, timeless aesthetic, Vienna could play a more meaningful role going forward. “Austrian fashion may not be famous for setting trends, but it’s always been renowned for two things: the avant-garde and high-quality minimalism,” says up-and-coming Austrian designer Flora Miranda, whose Antwerp-based label is making waves in haute couture.

If minimalism is the way of the future, what better city to become the shining new example of ethical style than the birthplace of minimalist superstar Helmut Lang? Or the Wiener Werkstätte a century ago? Time will tell if Vienna’s timeless fashion will gain more global influence, but our native designers have already thrown their hat in the ring. 

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