Representing the creative future

A Walz with Johannes Boehl

The CSM womenswear alumnus talks life after graduation.

“I never want to be a designer that you have to run to, or run from,” says Johannes Boehl, who is wearing a pale blue shirt with a white cheerful print. While finishing his Masters from CSM, he wouldn’t be caught in anything except black. But a year on, with a first collection under his belt, a blessing from Solange Knowles, and his name on the Paris Fashion Week schedule, the womenswear graduate can loosen the reigns. He no longer feels competitive; instead, he is championing a radically transparent take on fashion. Last season, his first presentation saw a live lookbook shoot happen in the rotunda of the Palais de Tokyo. A month ago, he was back in the French capital to present his SS19 collection, and to speak to 1 Granary about life at CSM and the birth of ioannes.

What do you consider the biggest lesson you learned during your time on the MA? And what is something you wish you were taught about but weren’t?

More so than ever, I believe that the time on the MA would be spent more efficiently if students had at least one year of industry experience behind them, not just of internships. I would have been way more focused during the course and would have taken criticism more as a conversation about how I could achieve my personal goals during my time at CSM. Being pushed and criticized is necessary, but it is much better to accept it as something intended as help or honest advice rather than as a direct critique of your creativity or ego.

Why did you decide to set up your own label? (And why did you name it ioannes?)

ioannes was born out of a piece commissioned by the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, right after graduation in 2017. ioannes is the Latinised version of Johannes, my German name; I like that it comes back to the origin, the essence of my name, which has so many variations across different European languages.

I’m still trying out different methods of working independently, trying to build my own structure out of this project and turn it into a brand that moves at a pace I’m happy with, and that releases products I have confidence in. After two seasons, I feel my focus shifting more towards creating unique pieces that are faithful to my aesthetic and approach to design.

In your interview after graduation, you mentioned the sentiment of not living up to your own expectations (“there are always the ones that tick the box for the immediate responses”).

Frustration arose because I thought I’d know exactly what I wanted after finishing the course, and that an opportunity would immediately come up—a very passive approach that I feel a bit ashamed of now. It may not have been the start I had envisioned, but I then learned that I had to take the opportunities that came along and be grateful for them, to own them whole-heartedly, in order to grow both as a designer and as a person.

After two presentations at Paris Fashion Week, how do you feel about that now?

ioannes was always a dream project of mine and it came to me sooner than I’d originally intended. After two presentations in Paris, my fantasy had a harsh reality check. I always want to have total control over the work and its surrounding vision, and have maybe been a bit too naive and impatient with some aspects. It’s something I hope to change for the next year.

How does that relate to your approach to design, and your latest collection, Walz?

I love to start with a pre-established focus and then add pieces and techniques I happen to come across over the course of the creative process. Walz describes the period in which a carpenter’s apprentice makes the transition to becoming a master. My family history is rooted in carpentry, and that was the starting point for my silhouettes and the functional detailing throughout the collection—traditional workwear shapes morph into grey suiting; semi-transparent layers create a sensuous contrast between the female body and tailoring.

My favourite piece this season is a reinterpreted carpenter’s utility belt, crafted as a luxury bag, that also functions as a pannier under the cinched jackets. It served as the highly engineered framework for the collection, and then I added more spontaneous elements such as the archival tapestry kimono fabrics I bought on my travels in Japan during the MA.

They’ve continued to weave their way into my collections, this time clustered across chiffon shirts and dresses. Last season’s puff sleeve gloves were reinterpreted in artisanal fabric, also inspired by the tapestry I mentioned, while the paper-bag dress re-introduces itself in a light chiffon.

How did the flâneuse become a point of inspiration, and how did you translate that to the collection?

All I want to communicate is an elegant yet playful approach to design, and, more importantly, dressing. The styling of the presentation was very different from that of the lookbook for just that reason. I love using outerwear, styled in different states of dress and undress, to reveal the layers of thought that go into a having a look seem as intuitive, or even as careless, as possible!

For me, the flâneuse stands for that Parisian nonchalance and hint of self-indulgence that comes from just being in and wandering the streets: it’s the sense of ease I hope to pass on through my clothes.

Your graduate collection was created in a very instinctive, spontaneous manner. Now that you have to take production and distribution into account, has that shifted in any way?

As I was completely on my own, I thought I’d have to adapt my collections to a more ‘traditional’ framework, producing some solid products that would sell, and then continuing with my more intuitive pieces on the side. But after two seasons, all I can say is that the pieces I created in that spontaneous manner are the ones to have gained the most interest and are the most requested. The themes and ideas are the same, they just become more complex as time passes, and as possibilities to work and explore with different manufacturers, suppliers and techniques grow. It becomes a denser picture once the work starts to accumulate, and right now I’m having to edit down again in order to focus on the essence of my practice and craft. I’m more generous with how I design and what I allow myself to experiment with, but I still want to be very selective of the work I release, something I wish I had embraced way earlier on.

Could you tell me about your working practice?

It really depends on where I am in the process. Over the last few months, it has varied from two of us on a daily basis, me and my amazing intern Ellen, to three, when Gerald, my pattern cutter, is cleaning up the final patterns for production, or four when Bernie, a Sri Lankan seamstress, joins us to help with the samples when things get really busy. We all work from my Dalston studio.

But the sad truth is that my working time is mostly taken up with logistics, production, and organisation at the moment: I spend about 80% of my time just trying to make things happen. It’s a huge frustration, but I hope it will get easier once I finally move the studio to Paris next week.

For everything related to branding, I have a wonderful friend, Matthew Attard Navarro, who helps me to translate my work into images and visuals, and then there’s the ongoing dialogue I have with stylist Alessia Vannini. My main ambition with ioannes is to enable a sort of continuous workshop with the people close to me, where ideas are generated and I’m able to develop my work from the resulting energy.

The backstage portraits of the girls during the Paris presentation are a perfect example of what can come from long conversations with friends whose work I admire. For these, Karin Westerlund developed an intuitive makeup concept for the presentation, inspired by mine and Alessia’s research of the strong women of the Parisian avant-garde of the 1920s, like Nancy Cunard, or the portraits of Lee Miller by Man Ray.

What was it like to organise a fashion week presentation by yourself? (compared to the Palais the Tokyo last season)

The first season, Palais de Tokyo gave me a platform, whereas this season I needed to find a location from scratch. Lafayette Anticipation was the perfect location for me to present my work, it’s a new venue renovated by one of my favourite architect firms, Rem Koolhaas’ OMA and followed up beautifully with my collaboration presenting my work in art institutions. The program of the foundation is also pretty incredible so i felt very honoured to present there. The set up was very minimal and only consumed twenty kilos of pink confetti. Set against the aluminium clothed walls and the monochromatic collection it was both very fun and quite poetic.

With the final move to Paris now I have more time to think about different ways of presenting, I want to be more consequent and independent and not rely on questions of venue prices or requiring a huge production budget anymore. My personal focus needs to completely shift back to creation and rather than organization.