Representing the creative future

Timo Zündorf: questioning the concept of masculinity in menswear design

Heavily researching male-dominated culture and the idea of what it means to be a ‘civilised human being’, Timo Zündorf has been digging into a concept increasingly important in the discourse of menswear design. Because, what is and defines masculinity? During the Menswear fashion weeks in London and Florence this January, we have thus far seen guys wearing skirts on the runway, appearing in full baby-pink garments, and several shows featuring female models. While investigating the identity of his own sex, this MA Fashion student at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Antwerp is actively contributing to a larger, much necessary discussion with regards to fashion and gender divisions. We spoke with him about his BA graduate collection, which featured LED-masked men in screen print garments, his practise and what excites him about the industry he is about to enter in a couple of months.

What have you been up to before you decided to move to Antwerp and study at the Fashion Department?

Before I started to study at the Academy in Antwerp, I lived in Berlin for a couple of years. I moved there after finishing high school, due to German small town depression. I studied Performance Studies and Art History at the Freie Universität Berlin before I started an internship in the bespoke tailoring department of the Stiftung Oper Berlin, which unites the costume departments of Berlin’s opera houses, the ballet and some theaters. While studying at the Academy, I interned with Hilde Frunt: an Antwerp-based knitting goddess. Currently I am working on my master’s collection, in my fourth year at the Antwerp Academy.

What are the main reasons why you are attracted to the contrast between classic menswear and savage men’s culture?

Approaching my work with the intention to make a men’s collection last year, made me wonder what it is that defines the ‘masculine’. I started to think about male-dominated culture; extreme examples for that were the catholic clergy and the military. All of these systems operate with very rigid rules and severity, and at the same time emerge in a great deal of violent or ‘savage’ behavior. It can take many different forms; if you go to a big gay club in Berlin, it is equally apparent. So I tried to transfer this quality into my collection. The codes of classic menswear and the vestments of priests provided a very ridged rulebook that was there to be ‘violated’.

Besides Larry Clark and Wolfgang Tillmans, who or what influences your work? 

What interested me about Tillmans and Larry Clark especially, is the sort of roughness and honesty with which sexuality and physicality are represented. There is very little ‘allure’ to the whole thing, very little ‘sexiness’, which I find to be a bit of a misanthropic concept in itself.

To answer the question of what besides these specific artists influences me is sort of difficult, and the answer will be a bit cliché: it seems to be a common understanding that fashion is a mirror of its time, and that might apply to any artistic medium. It is about making context and bringing things together. The ‘bigger picture’ discussions with friends are equally as important as watching the news, movies, television, reading books, visiting exhibitions, taking a walk in the streets. It’s about understanding notions, making connections and finding a form for them.

Photography by Judith Gerke

While at the Academy, how do you conduct your research? 

The beauty of the Academy is, I believe, that there is a great appreciation and support for an individual process. It might not seem to be like that when you are starting, but while continuing, I found more and more confidence in what I want to do and how I want to work.

For me personally, there is less of a topical approach to my work by now. It is more about a continuous thought process that follows me, and now it is mostly about developing and adding to it. That counts for the conceptual as much as for the technical side. The Academy provides sort of a blank space to reflect on that — you are welcome to come in and discuss what you have been working on, but at the same time you are required to be driven enough to source new skills, techniques and material outside of it. Very little gets handed to you, which I think is good. It really makes think about what you want and what is important to you and for your work.

The ‘baggy’ trousers of your collection remind me of skater culture — what place do you think ‘subculture’ (if it still exists) has in more commercialised fashion? 

I am wondering about this a lot at the moment, and I am tempted to state that the term subculture is obsolete for now. In fact, I think we are lacking a culture of dress overall. Working on my Master collection, I collected images showing groups of men. I put the famous photograph of August Sander, showing three men in perfectly cut suits with walking sticks on a country road, next to an image of three punks hanging out on some pavement in London in the beginning of the 80s. On the one hand, the idea of cultured dress, the Sunday wardrobe, and on the other hand, the total negation of it. It made it very clear: if one does not exist, the other does not either. The idea to express a system of values trough clothes seems sort of archaic. Of course one could argue that we are at a loss of actual values in general. I guess it is the clearest on the big shopping streets of any city.

You used experimental knitwear and photographic imagery that was translated into screen prints for your 3rd year’s final collection. Could you tell us a bit about your work process? 

I think that every collection, as you work on it for quite a while, becomes a culmination of a lot of different ideas and thought processes. They feel a bit hard to tell apart afterwards. As said earlier, I was thinking about the notions of masculinity and what it means to be a ‘civilised human being’, which are things that still occupy me very much.

Another question was how we perceive these things. We live in a world represented, informed and created by images. And to some extent, they are taking over our ‘physical being’. What happened in the last collection for me, was in a way an examination of the state we are in, a perversion maybe. I am not sure if this is something that is visible, or if it mostly happened in my head. Continuing, I would like to make a proposal. A proposal of how we could interact with clothes, a proposal of values that we could (re-) instate.

You’re suggesting a dehumanised tribe of ‘civilised beasts’ in our digitalised age with your white LED knit masks. Are you excited about the idea of implementing technology in fashion design?

I find this to be a very interesting question — I discussed it with a friend recently who is working on a real integration of technology into clothing. By ‘real’, I mean something that is potentially of use. What I wanted to do with the LED masks was merely to create an image; a transfer of identity and even physicality into the digital. The actual integration of technology into clothing is not something I am dealing with. I am dealing with clothing as something very removed from its functional dimension. I find that clothing has a great potential for emotional and physical interaction, a potential to intensify one’s actual physical presence again. Also I witness myself and people in my surrounding actually reducing the amount of digital technology in our daily lives.

What excites you about menswear in our day and age?

I think that we are at an exiting point in fashion in general. There are a lot of fundamental questions to the system itself: Do we need 6, 8, 10 collections of a brand in a year? Is it possible to even say something relevant or original if you are working at this pace? I really don’t believe that. And I think the last ten years or so have shown that very clearly. There is a immense repetition; fashion referencing itself over and over again in quite uninteresting ways. Then on the other hand, this pace creates a immensely problematic system of production and subsequently consumption. In all of these three steps — how fashion is created, produced and consumed right now — I find very little joy and consideration.

It is very much about the value system you are applying to your life and therefore your work. Li Edelkoort talked about that in an interview when she released the Anti-Fashion Manifesto. The replacement of ‘profit’ as the highest instance to your work, with other ideas, as working for a beautiful product, or working in a community of people. I believe that this would shift how designers create, and how the products look, and ultimately how consumers interact with them. That, I find to be immensely exiting.