Comrade Couture
Comrade Couture

GFF 2010: Fashion, Film and Rebellion

Marco Wilms' documentary Comrade Couture explores the underground fashion scene in former East Berlin.
Feature by Becky Bartlett.
Published 25 February 2010

Hear the term “fashion capital of the world” and immediately thoughts go to Paris, Milan, New York, even Tokyo. Berlin? It's probably not top of the list. But fashion – high fashion, couture – is about experimentation, rebellion, the new radical idea, and the creative types in Germany have had a lot to rebel against.

When the Wall was still up, splitting the city in two, people in East Berlin found a way of expressing their creativity through fashion. It was a dangerous movement to be involved in, with the threat of arrest always looming over the heads of these designers and radicals. This was a communist state, yet these people were creating extravagant, outrageous and unique objects not meant for the every-man, not meant to be worn to work or the shops – they were creating their own form of art.

This high fashion rebellion has been documented in Comrade Couture, a film by Marco Wilms who was himself labelled 'an enemy of the state' as a teenager. Highly praised at Berlin International Film Festival, the documentary shows that despite the government's ideals at the time, people were not afraid to express themselves and, in the face of this stubborn rejection of individuality, dreamt up more iconic and radical conceptions. Their haute couture was created from striped shower curtains and hospital intestine storage bags, and “everything was about sex”.

The great, memorable fashion shows aren't just a vehicle for blank-faced models to walk down a runway, they have an element of the theatrical. And in Berlin, if there was a possibility of getting a criminal record as a result of your art, you may as well go all out. Fashion shows were huge, conceptual affairs, with specially composed music and hundreds of performers, all carefully designed as an innovative two-fingered salute to the imposing, conservative state. As designer Frank Schäfer (featured in the documentary) states, “we were an incredible liberation for many young people”.

Now Comrade Couture, showing as part of an SWG3 night with Edinburgh-based event planner Noir!, is the centrepiece of FashionArtFilm, a strand of Glasgow Film Festival focussed on “showcasing and nurturing new emerging talent, and …promoting the city as a national and international centre for the creative industries”. Fittingly for a film documenting people's fight against conservatism, it is now the showpiece of a strand embracing and encouraging personal creativity.