Star Designer Thomas Kirchgrabner Spills the Secrets of His and Lena Hoschek’s Success

Bright rays of sunlight shoot through the wood-framed windows of an atelier on Längenfeldgasse in Vienna’s 12th district. This is the world of Lena Hoschek. A pristine, magical realm of floral prints, captivating colors and relentless femininity. Thomas Kirchgrabner’s business card reads “Head of the Couture Atelier” and his workplace is a beautiful, unspoiled world of artifacts of yesteryear, dried flowers and vintage china.

Hoschek is one of Austria’s fashion super stars. From Dita von Teese and Mila Kunis to Lana del Ray and Katy Perry, celebrity women the world over have discovered her unique style. Nicole Kidman wears this year’s Wintergarden collection in the new HBO series The Undoing. Hoschek’s signature style thrives under Kirchgrabner’s oversight.

His artistic tattoos fit flawlessly with the timelessness of his outfit, melding Kirchgrabner into his surroundings seamlessly. “I’ve always been interested in beautiful clothes and what people are wearing,” the Upper Austrian native admits with a smile. His is a story of fascination, motivation and dedication to the art and craft of fashion design.

Young Blood

Kirchgrabner says he inherited his fashion sense from his mother: “Whenever we would go on vacation, we always matched… Not a bunch of mini-me looks, but if my dad was wearing a black shirt, she’d make sure I was wearing a black top.” This sensitized him to style, and he started asking, “And, what are you wearing?”

Growing up in Urfahr near Linz, teenage Thomas was often dissatisfied with what conventional clothing had to offer. “I didn’t like classical fashion. Rave was the thing at the time. Compared to Vienna, it was even crazier.” He references the Danube Rave – a series of parties in the Posthof Linz with around 5,000 people – that defined his adolescence. “I started with discreet things… but it quickly escalated to more daring outfits.” He became known for his great getups and friends began asking him to sew pieces for them.

His parents were supportive, but a bit concerned about his future. At 14, Austrian children decide what they want to do as a career. “My father said, ‘Look for something which earns you a lot of money or acclaim; being a tailor with a Matura (high-school diploma) won’t get you very far.’”

Kirchgrabner got accepted for both Fashion and Graphic & Communication Design programs and decided the latter had more potential. But somehow, fashion kept pulling him back in. “We had a photography class and what does Thomas do? Fashion photography.” Whatever he was doing, he managed to make it about fashion and fabrics.

He and his boyfriend, Stefan Brunnbauer moved to London to create fashion together, selling from a friend’s boutique in Camden. Kirchgrabner’s own brand was called Medu5a. He describes it as glam punk, inspired by Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood. “It was a bit punk and we ourselves were pretty crazy.”

Venus in Fur

Eventually, Kirchgrabner returned to Austria and had to make some important decisions. Brunnbauer applied for positions in Italy while Kirchgrabner – fearing he’d be taken less seriously without a degree – applied to Vienna’s Modekolleg in Herbststrasse.

“I applied to every damn competition out there. Once a year, there is a fur award. They want to draw young people to fur, and show it’s a sustainable material.” At the time, Thang de Hoo was head designer at the famed traditional fur designer Liska. “He picked my design. I notice now that with a lot of young designers, you have run after them and get them to submit sketches, etc. I guess back then I was pretty pushy,” Kirchgrabner recalls. “I’d say, this is what I want to do. Can I do this myself? Can I do this? Can I try this?”

Robert Liska himself loved Kirchgrabner’s chutzpa and offered him a job, despite the fact that Kirchgrabner was still in school. It wasn’t just designing their collections, but also made-to-measure pieces for special clients. “I’m good with people. I try to coax out information about them. I’m diplomatic and try to figure out what they want exactly.” The fur industry is full of tradition, heritage and wealthy clients. “I’ve noticed that people, particularly generation 60+, see me a certain way. They think ‘very young, very wild,’ but I always convinced them with quality.”

(C) Karin Gruber

And Along Came Lena

In 2006, he had a stand at a young designers fair in Tokyo – part of Blickfang – which Thomas paid for with his winnings from the Ringstraßen Design Award. “I was stationed in the basement of this mall and not much was going on. Next to me, Lena (Hoschek) had her first collection at her stand.” They met and became fast friends. “We had so much fun and left the fair with a friendship that would last for years to come.” For a long time after, they vacationed together.

It’s hard to understate the consistency and dedication with which Hoschek built the universe surrounding her. “Ever since I’ve known her, I’ve seen Lena in sneakers maybe twice – and that was during pregnancy. She loves the ’50s look: Perfect hair, perfect makeup, pumps. She comes to the office styled from top to bottom. That’s just who she is.” It’s also the way he describes the brand: “Pure femininity, connected to nostalgia. Like longing for a time gone by.”

One of the brands most sought-after pieces is the “ribbon skirt” it’s constructed of a series of ribbons at different lengths that create an unmistakable shape and look. “There are people who bought a ribbon skirt 15 years ago and send it in to have a ribbon replaced. The ribbons get softer over time,” he smiled. “That’s the beauty of it. Sustainability is always a focus and we produce in the neighborhood: Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia and Macedonia. Our Dirndl silks even come from a producer in Vienna.”

(C) Karin Gruber

Kirchgrabner gave us a tour through the atelier. “Here, you’re sitting in another world. It’s Lena’s vision that puts a focus on the setup, on what the shops look like, what our workspaces look like.” He gestures to a crate of bottles by the door of the pristine staff kitchen. “She’d prefer if that box and the bottles were put away. It’s a disruptive element.” They don’t fit in the perfect world of Lena Hoschek.

On that level, Hoschek and Kirchgrabner share the same attention to detail. “If the train of a dress isn’t draped correctly or there’s an awkward fold… Most people don’t even see those things.” But that’s what it takes to create a full concept, he says. Hoschek even has playlists prepared for the stores and runway shows.

“I just want things the right way,” he explains to me. “I’m not really a control freak. Okay, I’m a control freak,” he laughs. And what beauty that control has produced.

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