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Car Design Crashes Into Tim Stolte’s Couture

An exploration of the female body’s objectification in couture

The TV commercial of a famous German automobile manufacturer goes as follows. Top model Claudia Schiffer poses next to a sedan car among spotlights and ladders. While the camera zooms in on her sculpted mittel-European face and the electronic music in the background reaches its crescendo, she glacially states: “I’d rather drive a German.” The trope of women and cars has long dominated male fantasies and Antwerp Fashion Department graduate Tim Stolte was willing to tackle it. His MA collection, Island of Luxury, explores the relationship between the objectification of the female body in couture silhouettes and the sexualisation of inanimate objects. There is also something quintessentially German in loving a car; nodding to his own country of origin where “nobody knows what German style should look like”, Tim’s designs might provide a blueprint for it.

Island of Luxury owes its name to an American car advertisement from the mid-eighties: a man in a suit leans comfortably on the velvety, pearl grey driver seat, his hand caressing the steering wheel, the other hanging down the armrest. It’s a cockpit reserved to men taking control, it’s oozing privilege. “I approached the theme from a male-gaze perspective,” he says. “I’ve always loved the couture of the mid-century. The Cristóbals, the Diors, the perfect cut of the coats and the immaculate fit of the dresses. It’s everything I’ve always gravitated towards, but never allowed myself to use as a reference, because of how restrictive they are.”

Two films changed Tim’s thinking, Titane by Julia Ducournau and Crash by David Cronenberg – both dealing with the erotic appeal of cars and car crashes. “That’s when I started looking into objectophilia, that is the sexual and romantic attraction towards things.” Women’s bodies and car bodies are moulded following the same principles. Analogies abound: squeezed waists and aerodynamic lines, rounded hips and breasts and voluptuous shapes, you can’t discern one from the other. So, what happens when you use fashion to flip those codes? When the silhouette of a jacket is reminiscent of a car accident, rather than a roaring sports car?

The collection is a catalogue of hybrids between couture and vehicle designs; they are bulky and yet ultra-light. They physically and metaphorically claim back space. “There’s a top in silver leather. It’s car-inspired, but in the sense that it looks like an engine. Its cylindrical shape doesn’t enhance sexualised body parts such as waist and bust, but rather conceals them.” The embroideries on a pale-yellow draped dress retrace the street map of his mum’s German hometown. Retro-effective yarn is knitted into a gown that shields the body like armour and makes it shine, just like a Stop sign hit by the headlights at night. That’s as romantic as it gets. After all, it’s technique that unites car engineering and couture, and ultimately, what turned its conceptual visuals into clothing. “It was important for me to have a balance between show pieces and wearable garments,” he confesses. “I wanted to show that I can handle different materials and experiment with tailoring”.

“It was important for me to have a balance between show pieces and wearable garments.” – Tim Stolte

Tim could perfect his technical skills during his first three years of fashion education, when Antwerp was “inspiring but too intimidating”, and the Akademie Mode und Design of Hamburg seemed like a good place to start. Coming from a rural and highly conservative area of Germany, as a teenager Tim found shelter in creativity, “but when the time came, applying to the Royal Academy of Arts seemed too far fetched. I went for the safe choice.” With a product-oriented approach, the school taught him stitching, patternmaking and all those techniques that would later enable him to manufacture his collections completely by himself. “When it was time to apply to the BA in Visual Arts in Antwerp, I had enough confidence that a potential rejection wouldn’t affect me.”

“I believe that anyone with technique and hard work can create a product that has the same quality standards as a couture piece.” – Tim Stolte

To this day, the designer refers to his enrolment at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts as his big leap of faith. The first year of the BA proved indeed to be a challenging one, with Tim calling into question his attitude towards academic education. “In Hamburg, I always felt like I could do my own thing, even if it meant forcing the creative limitations of my teachers. But then I went to Antwerp and I told myself: if you already know you want to do your own thing again, why are you even here?” And yet, one of the things Tim cherished the most about his masters was a newly found freedom and sense of control in his work. “I believe that anyone with technique and hard work can create a product that has the same quality standards as a couture piece. There doesn’t have to be anybody else but me. Ultimately, it’s the ‘immediacy’ entailed in the making of clothes and the control I can exert that has always led me to fashion.”

“After four intense years focussing just on my projects, the thought of working with a team thrills me.” – Tim Stolte

Tim is now in Paris, where he’s planning to work on his own line and gain some experience in the industry. “After four intense years focussing just on my projects, the thought of working with a team thrills me.” In the meantime, he has been commissioned some costume pieces and Island of Luxury has been showcased at Prague’s fashion festival, We’re Next.  Would he ever consider moving back to Germany? “The German Fashion Council has been doing an admirable job with supporting emerging talents, but I’m afraid their infrastructure wouldn’t support the ambitions that I have in the long run,” he replies.

With the kafkaesque amount of paperwork needed to set up a brand in Germany, Tim is resolute to go back to his home country just for his work. There’s often an element of longing in the collections of expat young designers, but for Tim’s this is a purpose. “There are many ideas of a woman, as in: ‘Saint Laurent created the Parisian woman’ or ‘Versace’s woman was so passionately Italian’. If I tell you: ‘She’s so German’, you probably think she is punctual.” Beyond the trope, there’s a mode of dressing that deserves to be addressed, one Tim says is hard to pin down, but that he’s willing to explore and celebrate. He seems to have got off to a good start.