Representing the creative future

Time to sync with our feelings, through our clothes

René Scheibenbauer on using emotions as the first step of his design process

René Scheibenbauer SS20

Not so long ago — when we weren’t social distancing and encouraged to somehow be intimate with our peers out of a sense of decorum, say by shaking hands or, even closer, by hugging and kissing on the cheeks like the French — close contact performative art was Austrian womenswear designer René Scheibenbauer’s sole means of feeding his creativity and allowing it to flourish. From graduating from Central Saint Martins to making his London Fashion Week debut, to now working from home, the designer recalls how he started his communal creative process and how it’s evolved over the years as the lockdown has now put a full stop to such an undertaking.

René Scheibenbauer
Rene Scheibenbauer process
René Scheibenbauer

“I’ve always been a bit of a perfectionist, though in my final year of uni I realized I wanted to get loose and not be too serious.”

Coming from Austria and having gone to college there, at the Fashion Institute of Design in Vienna, René remembers how much more technical his degree was at home than abroad. “From pattern-making to sewing and the fittings, I was taught a strict and precise work ethic at school in my home country. Whereas in CSM the student body is way more diverse, more willing to try new approaches to the long-standing fashion traditions. And maybe it’s because of that exposure to so many different people and visions that I’ve been stimulated to do my own thing,” says the designer. “I’ve always been a bit of a perfectionist, though in my final year of uni I realized I wanted to get loose and not be too serious.”

Aptly titled “Phase I: Empathy, Connection, Play” and runner-up in the 2018 L’Oréal Professionnel Designer of the Year Award, the first collection René showcased for his graduation show at CSM would set the tone for what would become a series of intimate explorations of the realm of feelings and emotions evoked by clothing. The collection’s leitmotif sparked from a workshop where dancers and performers were blindfolded and invited to interact with René’s pieces by trying on different styles and materials in different shapes and sizes to see how they felt physically and mentally in the pieces. “Relying only on their sense of touch, the attendees wrapped themselves in the garments at hand to feel how stretch, stiff, or soft they were, to determine which one they liked best. It helped them and me think about the act of dressing up in whole new ways, how it makes us feel,” he says.

René Scheibenbauer
René Scheibenbauer
Rene Scheibenbauer SS20

Looking at the workshop participants gently colliding and coming together, the designer thought of making clothes that would recreate the human connection that naturally occurred between them, such is the story behind the “Empathy jacket”. 

Said “Empathy jacket” is two jackets joined together with a dangling piece of fabric, and it can either be worn alone with the second jacket carried, or shared synchronically with a partner. “In both ways there’s a therapeutic value to those who wear it,” says René. “There’s the meditative journey to the depths of yourself, for one, and once worn together with someone else, there’s a conversation that occurs nonverbally, through movements and gestures, and also by supporting the other person’s needs as well as your own.”

 

René Scheibenbauer
René Scheibenbauer Empathy Jacket

“I was interested in seeing how individuality comes off in social interactions, and so for that reason I wanted my clothes to give the wearer the freedom to explore themselves”

Through empathy and connection and playfulness, as the title of his first collection suggests, René brought about an abstract yet thoughtful type of clothing that leads people to self-realization, and not the other way around. “I was interested in seeing how individuality comes off in social interactions, and so for that reason I wanted my clothes to give the wearer the freedom to explore themselves,” he says.

Moving forward from graduation and into this experimentation with bodily feelings and movements, the designer didn’t feel like starting from scratch but rather keeping the conversation on the visceral nature of clothing going. And so for his London Fashion Week debut this past Spring/Summer season, René presented a collection titled “Phase II: Empathy, Reconnection, Play”, which was a sequel to what had been done in school as most pieces allowed a similar freedom of movement, but the difference now was that the wearers were guided to a specific type of behaviour. Whether it’s zips or hidden straps or drawstring closures with adjustable toggles, the pieces for this collection are highly technical and engaging.

René Scheibenbauer SS20
René Scheibenbauer SS20
René Scheibenbauer SS20
René Scheibenbauer SS20
René Scheibenbauer SS20
Rene Scheibenbauer SS20

“We’ve got so much to learn from each other”

One of them, the “Interactive suit-jacket”, can be worn in a proper fashion, flung over the shoulders, or in more unexpected ways, either carried over a single shoulder with an interior cross-body strap, revealing what’s beneath it, or opened from the back where there’s a zip closure along the spine and then adjusted around the waist so it becomes a skirt. There’s the “Love me dress”, too, with a zip sewn from the hem upwards, which brings the person who wants to put it on or take it off to bend down.

That progress and the refinement of his work can be explained, in part, by the sensitivity the designer has to other people’s feelings and needs, and also by his willingness to make them the focal point of his creations. “We’ve got so much to learn from each other,” says René. “Like if it wasn’t for the people who attended my workshops, my work just wouldn’t be the same. It’s a continuous conversation I’m having with them. It’s a work in progress.” 

 

René Scheibenbauer
René Scheibenbauer

Now, as the global pandemic remains prevalent, the designer has put a pause on his in-person  workshops. And though it could have stopped his ongoing project to better understand the feelings people have in their clothes altogether, he turned the conversation online to keep it alive. Through Instagram, he asked his followers to film themselves interpreting their own improvised choreography based on some sketched guidelines he shared. In doing so, he asked them to wear the clothes that best represent their current mindset. What came out of social discussion and presentation was a series of solo dances from creatives all over the world from the UK to America, and South Africa.

Reading the thoughts the participants shared on the outfits they liked wearing the most during quarantine, René got to see the role clothing plays in keeping people tuned into their lives and to their work in these trying isolated moments. For example, Jen O’Farrell, a London-based painter, opts for the convenient head scarf and jeans during the day and when evening comes, she dresses up for dinner and usually puts a blazer on and wears lipstick. Performance artist Bradley Sekiti, who’s from Johannesburg, acknowledged that he’s been wearing sweats most days, and realizes how dressing up makes him feel better, even if it’s only for a run to the store. 

Since most of us now work from home, and there’s been a tendency for people to wear the clothes they feel most comfortable in, it’s interesting to see how comfort itself doesn’t fill the void the lockdown creates. After all, we do seem to need to dress up to keep us going and — crucially — to feel more like ourselves. 

1 Granary

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