Words & pictures Pernille Sandberg
It is a crisp, icy winter day when I head off to meet Verena Schepperheyn in her studio in Prenzlauer Berg, one of the most attractive neighbourhoods of Berlin. The life in the streets is still slumbering in the early morning hours when I arrive at the studio. In here, the ambience is welcoming and vibrant, the walls are covered with inspirational references and the new AW16 collection is hanging on the clothing racks.
The young designer graduated in 2014 from ArtEZ University of the Arts in the Netherlands and has kick-started her career by founding her label shortly after. Her collections are already showcased at the fashion weeks of Paris and London at the British Fashion Council. We begin our conversation in front of her inspirations as Verena wants to give me an overview of the collection.
Verena tells me that the Schepperheyns originates from the Netherlands and worked as fishermen. This background is the main base of her AW16 collection; not only being a fisherman as an occupation but also the elements, the sea, and nature connected to the profession. A picture of a coral reef is hanging on her mood board and when I ask her about it, she lightens up and tells me of a trip she made to Australia years ago. She finds one of the key pieces in the collection: a sparkling, blue and green coat, and shows me how a specific image was used as a print for the textile design. She tells me that she has been very inspired by this experience in Australia since the beginning, but the time has never been right to use it before now.
She has a degree in menswear design but her collections have been referred to as unisex collections. She doesn’t mind this labelling of her vision, but in fact, it wasn’t her initial goal.
“I wanted to design the AW16 collection in a more masculine way. Our last collection got remarks of being genderless and that concept is interesting to me but this time, I wanted to create a more masculine collection. I wanted to try something else, begin with another starting point. All these questions about my approach to unisex design are fine, but at this point, I wanted to try something different. I never tried to be provocative, but in the end, it was perceived like it. I’m not a provocative designer, but to this day, there are still men feeling provoked by feminine cuts. Men should feel comfortable in my clothes and not only wear it to make a statement.”
An adventurous, curious mind; this is a key element in what makes Schepperheyn’s work worth following which has helped her achieving recognition at such an early point in her career. She dares to look for inspiration within her own and other’s experiences and history, stand by her words and push the boundaries of typical sources. Now sitting in front of me she is purely present and attentive, she maintains eye contact and listens carefully. I get the impression she is a person that is capable of seizing the chances she gets and throws herself into the deep sea if necessary. Maybe that is why she designs menswear – somehow the distance is more interesting to her as she is not getting distracted by thinking about her own preferences. Designing menswear gives her the opportunity to dream more. She can push the boundaries of the general perception of what Western menswear means.
“I had no intention of starting my own brand when coming to Berlin, it all came along the way. I came here because most of my friends and family live here and I wanted to be close to them after my studies, apply for jobs and see what would happen. I did some projects with some photographers and artists and from one day to the other the decision of creating my own brand was made. Now I’m really happy with it.” Verena says.
Verena has been out and about; she earned her bachelor degree in Munich and then went to work for Ute Ploier in Vienna. Then she went to Arnhem to get her master degree. This was a period if refining her skills in print and textile design - something she uses regularly this day.
“After my time in Arnhem, I knew what my designs are really about. My AW15 collection is called All This In Its Place For Now (Verena’s master degree collection, red.). When producing a collection, you spend so much time with it. You start working from a fixed point but on your way, there are so many other things that inspire you. I really like that part of the process. I was documenting my work process every day during my studies, I took pictures of a silhouette I was working on, changed the silhouette, did it all over again and then, in the end, picked out what I could use. I was drawing prints on small pieces of paper, then assembling them. I still kind of work, in the same way, I make a lot of collages.”
Verena works creatively in many different fields such as sketching, making collages and photographing, and it seems Verena is able to find beauty in even the smallest things. She has always been creative and when she was a kid she was sewing with her grandmother but wasn’t certain she would pursue a career in fashion until after she finished her A-levels. “I was never this girl dreaming of being in fashion, I was much more focused on art, architecture and graphic design during my time in school. I just didn’t know in which direction to go so I did different internships before doing one at 18 at a tailor in the biggest city close to my hometown. She had a little design studio and her own tiny collection and I realized I really, really liked working with fabrics and design patters” she says.
Her assistant arrives at the design studio. She’s a young design student named Friederike. I get the impression that familiarity, trust, and comfort is of first preference in the company. She will rather pick a team of people recommended by friends than hiring unknown professionals to, for instance, shoot her look books and campaigns. Furthermore, she always shows her collection to her best friend before showing it to anybody else. “For me, it’s really important to work with people I get along with. If the atmosphere is good the final product will most likely turn out nicer”, Verena explains. A nice atmosphere can be found in every aspect of her process - from the first sketches to the final product on the hanger. The sewing and stitching part of the collection are produced in Bavaria in the south of Germany, the knitwear is made in Apolda while most of her fabrics are produced in Italy and Switzerland. The prints are made in the Netherlands.
It is definitely a choice to keep the production as close as possible. It is also a more sustainable choice, however, Verena explains that it is still hard to keep everything in control even in a very young brand. “For me personally as a designer I think it’s important to think about the environment and pay attention to sustainability. I cannot guarantee though that every collection is sustainable but I’m trying the best I can» Verena underlines. A big part of keeping a fashion brand running is, not surprisingly, administrative tasks as organizing the production, keeping in touch with suppliers, buyers, finding the right fabrics, do promotion, keep accounts on social platforms updated, and, as Verena puts it, finding alternative ways of doing the job every day in a business that in her eyes are proceeding way too fast.
“Many things go wrong but in the end, it’s always fine. We find solutions. There are so many fields to keep in control and I prefer to keep an eye on every aspect. At this point, the brand is still very small, but we’re developing. Sometimes I don’t feel there is enough time to think about the actual design. It would be nice if everything could be slowed down a bit – but that means that the entire business would have to be rethought. It still doesn’t come naturally for me to be everywhere and every time of the day and I have to learn how to do it in the best way.”
Eventually, all the hard work pays off. Verena has an international focus and when she got the chance to present in London and Paris she couldn’t say no. In other words, the international feedback is invaluable. “You have this love and hate relationship with your collection. You look so much at it that you, in the end, need someone else to look at it. In the beginning, I was really scared of presenting my work and the networking part was really challenging as it is so different from everything else you do as a designer,” Verena says. Despite this, it is clear that her latest collection is a milestone to Verena as a designer. Bolder, stronger cuts, masculine silhouettes and powerful prints; she has developed a lot as a designer and stands indeed stronger than when she began.
Bonus info: Verena and photographer Nir Sarig collaborated on an editoral for our fourth issue.