“Black is modest and arrogant at the same time. Black is lazy and easy – but mysterious. But above all black says this: “I don’t bother you – don’t bother me”.”
– Yohji Yamamoto
Resplendent in ambiguity, the favoured hue of countless designers, artists and cult icons alike is unique in its power to inspire, shock and hypnotise. Black acts as a pool in which luxury, sensuality and the macabre become one, with no other shade of the visible spectrum making as indelible a mark on the face of contemporary fashion. Berlin is a city in which that mark is perhaps more visible than in any other, its citizens obelisks of quasi-religious devotion to a sartorial existence beyond the shadows.
At the vanguard of this cult noir stand Idan Gilony and Fanny Lawaetz. First meeting as fashion students in Barcelona, their journey began with a frustration certainly familiar to any fledgling creative, the inability to afford the ludicrously priced pieces synonymous with their lifestyle. A series of organic progressions led them to Berlin, the city in which they felt they would find themselves “[better] appreciated”. It bears noting, however, that their relocation did not by any means spawn their distinctive aesthetic: “two years before our move, […] we were already wearing black [and] listening to techno”. If anything, it simply served as the missing piece of the puzzle in the founding of their brand, fresh from celebrating it’s second year, UY.
On their arrival, they made swift work of putting down roots, collaborating with like-minded institutions and artists. Working with Viktor Leske, Vienna-based photographer Evelyn Bencicova and, for their recent anniversary event at OHM, esteemed choreographer Kiani del Valle, they set about rigorously challenging the nuances of creative inter-disciplinarity, yielding projects unfailing in their warping of genre. Indeed, collaboration is integral to UY, allowing them to “reach out into a new crowd that [they] were perhaps [previously] unknown to”, offering results defined by a robustness unattainable within the coded parameters of a single medium.
Though shadowy, the world of UY is one that brims over with vibrancy and life. At their 2nd anniversary event, centred on a theme of ‘transition’, lofty figures ambled the room in dramatically crafted garments. Through a painstaking process, the designers sought to breathe life into otherwise plain fabrics, creating rigid homages to the art of sculpture. While the design process was of course integral in the morphing of something “that is very basic into something very sculptural, very avant-garde”, the presentation of the pieces in the context of a performance, choreographed by the aforementioned del Valle, allowed for the full revealing of their conceptual value. “We knew that we couldn’t just present [the pieces] in a show. It had to be in a dance or something more [immersive], since the pieces themselves have life”.
And life there certainly was, with the contours of the pieces mirrored in the abstract movements of the performers; body and garment became one, transported beyond a simple expression of fashion. With each attendant spellbound by the performance’s transcendent visual harmony, the atmosphere was akin to a communion, one marked by receptiveness and a distinctly familial undertone, a far cry from the ignorant accusations of arrogance and entitlement often hurled at the avant-garde fashion sphere.
Yet this notion of a harmony between garment and wearer is not limited to one-off events – it is an essential component of the UY philosophy:
“There is [no such thing as an objective standard of beauty] or style that a person needs to have to model [for], or work with, us. It needs to be more than that. It’s about energy […]. The person really has to inspire us.”
Indeed, the models used in UY’s campaigns and wider corpus often digress from industry norms, featuring a wealth of age, race, gender and size, going so far as to include a baby amidst the ‘Viktor Leske x UY’ campaign’s motley crew. Far from bordering on incongruity, such an attitude towards the casting of its representatives demonstrates the brand’s versatility and insubordination, refusing to slip into the pre-fabricated moulds of convention. Access to the UY universe is not granted according to purchasing power or supposed aesthetic superiority, but through the sharing and embodiment of a mentality shaped by an eagerness to transgress boundaries and to instigate new means of creative expression.
The effect of the city in which they reside is undeniably present across their work; after all, “the people who wear UY are mostly Berliners, friends of Berliners, or people that come to Berlin [and] get to know about us. We want Berliners [to profit from] UY more than other people. This is the base, and it’s here that people can [take advantage of] sample sales and a greater variety of pieces at lower prices.”
Such is the influence of their adopted hometown that it directly influences the manner in which they create and present their work. Being particularly renowned for its art scene, the city’s creative crowd exudes a degree of intellectual and critical awareness higher than most. “Most [Berliners] aren’t interested in fashion, but more so in other things, [such as art]”, says Idan, a statement almost instinctively reinforced by Fanny. In a context so detached from the conventional fashion paradigm, it is vital that “[one does] much, much more”. The clothes themselves become but a visual reference point for the entire package offered to the audience, a mere component of an overall concept.
Yet, while Berlin may have traditionally been considered an art city, the tides may soon be turning. Recently revealed Gucci and Givenchy campaigns cast Berlin in a starring role, heralding the potential advent of mass high-fashion investment in a city whose mantra is “poor, but sexy”. UY remains sceptical, denouncing this burgeoning interest as an attempt to capitalise on the fetish and hype of which Berlin is currently an undisputed object. And I would be inclined to agree; ultimately, corporate interest and investment can offer little to the sustainable development of the city’s cultural landscape, the existence of which is obstinately grounded in rebellion, counter-culture and the rejection of established structures.
While the future of the Berlin fashion scene remains hazy, it is one in which UY will doubtless be playing a key role. It is in fact one of their greatest inspirational forces, with the current collection inspired by collages that interrogate the future of human existence, “[n]ot just in terms of clothing, [but also] architecture, the manner in which people live, where we would be hanging out, what kind of music we would be listening to”. With regard to what lies on closer horizons, UY is clear on the steps to be taken; the brand will be expanding to Tel Aviv and Stockholm, Idan and Fanny’s respective home cities, as well as Barcelona, the city in which they first met. This is to be accompanied by a relocation to a new atelier-cum-retail space where people can “come by to say hello and see what’s going on”. After two years of UY, “The future is bright!” says Fanny. Though rest assured, this justifiably optimistic projection need not be taken as indicative of any shift in the brand’s signature aesthetic, as confirmed by Idan’s closing quip:
“[It is indeed, but] dark at the same time!”
All images, unless otherwise credited, via Stini Roehrs