Pia Bauernberger’s “A Character’s Coat” is a workwear line inspired by and made for creative people and craftsmen. Workwear becomes an interesting medium through which to present oneself and also understand the process of work itself. Bauernberger imagines the work coat not as a uniform or a costume but an extension of the maker. Paired with its wearer it rearranges connotations and meanings. Each coat can be taken as an archive of experience and knowledge. Through these intimate illustrations of the lives of contemporary designers and craftsmen of Austria’s creative industries she encapsulates a creative community and its values.
The garments themselves act as confessions of authenticity. Bauernberger’s storytelling through clothes uniquely engages with craft, artistry and heritage. Although contemporary skilled workers and craftspeople do not have to wear uniforms in the manner of romantically traditional depictions of past makers, why do representational items like the work coat endure as everyday dress today?
Bauernberger reminds us that clothes are encoded. What messages does the work coat send and does it give its wearer magical powers or even confidence to create? There are associated symbols with working culture and creative industries but this project flourishes on individuality and personal experience accounting for the diversity of knowledges, skills and artistic practice. Each maker, experience, and body is different – the ways they intersect determine and manage identity. Accordingly, each piece echoes the skills, techniques, materials, tools and workplaces of every ‘character’ she designs for.
Some of her work includes a coat made for Taiyoung Ha, a photography restorer whose white coat corresponds to the tasks she undertakes in her studio and the use of chemicals in restoration. For designer Fabienne Feltus a long grey wool coat was custom-made to accommodate her daily workings, surroundings and types of materials she uses.
Creativity itself is a malleable material where Bauernberger seeks to understand and reflect upon the craftsmanship and work philosophy of the creatives and makers she works with. Each custom-made coat complements Bauernberger’s elegant tailoring with the daily practice and occupation of its future wearer. Her designs are more than well-thought, skilfully constructed clothing; they are also processes through which to elucidate creative practice and modern landscapes of work revealing insights into Austria’s contemporary cultural industries. Varying proportions oblige the sharpness of gender fluid tailoring. No unnecessary ornamentation but gracing personality and character as the coat is loved, worn and animated in the process.
Worn as armour of creativity, the work coat makes and is made by the worker in it. Perhaps its power is in the pleasure of a distinct identity, a comforting certainty in the obscurity of making, craftwork, and creative work. A material companion to the aura of skill and expertise.
What is your project “A Character’s Coat” about?
Within the process of designing the pieces, I talk to creative people like designers, artists, goldsmiths, restorers, graphic designers and photographers, and try find out more about their daily workings, what tools they are using, and what kind of apparel they would get supported by during work. Based on that information, I design the workcoats that are both functional and aesthetic at the same time. So each piece is inspired by a certain person, a “character” but stands for a whole occupation, and its uniqueness. The coats can be worn at work, at meetings or in spare time, but most importantly they should inspire its future wearer.
How would you describe your design philosophy?
My philosophy is to design conceptual, but very wearable fashion. I’m creating durable, high-quality products, not being rushed by the fast moving fashion environment.
How do you observe and understand the creative people you work with?
First I do a lot of research on that person and about his/her work and I always work out a short questionnaire for them. Then I meet them at their workplace and they tell me about their everyday workings, about their tools, their working methods and materials and everything that’s connected to it. Basically it’s important to find out what kind of garment would support them during work, but also would be representative at meetings and in spare time. Based on that information I design the custom-made pieces.
What is the importance and cultural significance of workwear?
To me designing workwear especially for creative people and craftsmen is important because it values their work, which often gets underestimated.
What are the key themes evoked in your work?
As it’s very important to me to make wearable fashion, the concepts behind my work are all taken from my daily experiences. For example the “A Character’s Coat” theme came up because I noticed, there’s no real workwear for creative people, nothing that’s functional but also representative.
Everything I design needs to have a certain reason, that’s why my collections are really clean and minimalistic, with no unnecessary detail or trimming.
What kind of textiles, fabrics, and other materials do you use and what is their value in your work?
I have the vision to create durable, high-quality products, which is why materials are very important to my work. I work a lot with natural fibres like cotton, wool and linen because they just feel good on your skin they are solid and versatile. What I do, is experimenting a lot with surface treatment, for example with rubberizing or waxing.
How is craftsmanship informing and inspiring your work?
Craftsmanship is a key element of my work. I still sew all the prototypes myself, which also helps me a lot with the designing process and with finding new solutions.
Does your work reference cultural identity?
My latest work “A Character’s Coat” is kind of exploring cultural identity in some way. The first collection is based on creative people from Vienna in Austria, my hometown, so it’s a reference of how Viennese people live and what society they live in. As the project progresses, my plan is to work with people from all over the world – and then it’s getting interesting in terms of comparing all the different kinds of influences.
Pia recently exhibited at International Fashion Showcase during London Fashion Week under the theme of Fashion Utopias. Young designers represented the showcasing countries including Austria, Guatemala, Romania, Slovakia, Indonesia and others, using design as an avenue to imagine utopian futures. Reflecting on present realities designers attempted to disrupt or reshape fashion futures, and Pia has envisioned a change in the fast fashion system.
How can we rethink a socially conscious fashion ecosystem?
I think the only way to change anything would be, that somebody (designers, big fashion houses) stops that ridiculously fast moving fashion system. Nobody really needs pre-seasons and resort collections. People would need to stop being selfish. But I know that this is utopian. But what everybody can do, is to rethink what they really need themselves; do I really want cheap new clothes all the time, or is my life also good if I buy one really durable and fairly produced piece for the same money?
How important is it to produce locally?
To me it’s the easiest and ecologically best way of staying in contact with the people, who work for you, and knowing that you get fairly produced and good quality products.
Are you working on any other projects or any plans for the future?
My plan for the near future is to enlarge my product range collection by collection; after the coats collection, shirts and trousers are planned.
Interview by Daphne Stylianou