Photography: Marie Déhé
Styling: Marion Jolivet
Words: Giorgia Baschirotto
In 2000, photographer Mark Borthwick shot for BLESS in New York. The story revolved around a typically-BLESS multipurpose item, the BAG C, a purse which could be manipulated into a jacket, a skirt or a dress, according to which part of your body you choose to put through which hole. Models were fully naked, attempting to wear the unconventional red object while sitting in front of the downtown view. In one of the shots, the hand of one of the models reaches toward the Twin Towers, which were still standing out against the blue sky. The result was somewhat poetic at the time.
Thinking about his first encounter with the brand in the 90s, in a recent article for ArtForum Borthwick reflected, “Doing a story about BLESS or Margiela or Susan Cianciolo was exciting because 90% of people didn’t even know who they were. That didn’t exist anywhere else. I shared that sensibility, and it was a truly liberating idea: nobody knows who you are, which encourages you to really listen to the self.”
Despite soon becoming one of the darlings of the avant-garde scene, in all these years BLESS successfully managed to escape categorisation and preserve a certain otherness, delivering de- and reconstructed multipurpose pieces that range from clothing items to design products. “An explanation of that might be that we are both very typical Austrian/German people, therefore we feel attracted to the pragmatic approach,” say designers Ines Kaag and Desiree Heiss, the two brains behind the brand. “Sometimes this means that we like to try solving two or more problems by proposing one single product. At times we work with ‘found objects’, things that can still serve their original purpose if put in a new context or situation, while gaining the ability to perform new functions.”
The duo met at a fashion contest in 1993 and, despite living far away from each other – Kaag was studying in Hannover and Heiss in Vienna – they built a solid friendship, which brought them to found the eclectic brand in 1997. “Both of us studied fashion, finalising our diplomas in the mid 90s. At that time, when our brand and friendship started, we just followed our common instinct, both uninterested in fashion conceived only as the act of bringing ideas to life”, recounts the duo. “So we started working together, labelling BLESS ‘a project that presents ideal and artistic values by products to the public’, as reads our manifesto written in 1996. The longer we were working together, the more we started enjoying the flexibility and freedom of not being bound to a specific branch of design,” they explain in regard to successfully bringing together comfortableness and experimentation. “The outcome attracted different kinds of people coming from different corners of the art and design world. At one point we started working on a collection of wearable clothes that spurred a new commercial and artistic interest,” they recall. “Meanwhile, we started doing photo shoots and ads, and to present our work in group shows. At that point we launched temporary BLESS shops instead of just presenting our work in galleries.”
In 2003, the design duo followed the advice of their friend and long-term BLESS supporter Yasmine Gauster and opened their very first shop in Berlin, a space which seems to be an extension of the brand and as creative as the rest of their work. The place, which is inhabited by a “shop-sitter” that changes from time to time, is filled with early creations to new inventions, multipurpose furniture – one example is a bed which can be turned into a desk and vice-versa – plenty of books and plants. “It allows us to present our universe without any compromises,” explain Ines and Desiree. “Running our own shop is a great source of motivation and an inspiring field-study, and is also an influence on our work. Six years after the brand was born, we switched to our BLESS Home concept, which just felt much more right for the purpose of presenting interior design products and welcoming visitors in a different way, more close to how we imagine encounters with people.”
From 2006, BLESS has a second home in Paris as well. Their spaces and the concept of space itself have become the subject of some of their projects, such as N°33 Artistcare and N°29 Wallscapes. “The importance of space is going hand in hand with time, geographical settings, our personal sensibilities and people,” they point out when asked what role space plays in their lives and work. “Obviously, space is often the framework with which we present our work as still-life installations, and that is how we came up with the idea of the Wallscapes; with them we wanted to display the objects in a natural setting, instead of showcasing our work hanging on a white museum wall.”
Talking about the concepts of space and home, how did they manage to work together for all these years despite the fact that Desiree lives in Berlin and Ines in Paris? Their answer is no less provocative than their work: “What would happen if we would have lived in the same city during the last 20 years?” In that pragmatic way that reflects their roots, they further explain, “in our everyday life it seems kind of irrelevant if we are standing next to each other or if there is a considerable distance between us, as long as we are in the same time zone, which allows us to react quickly when real issues arise,” they say. “Obviously we do have quite high maintenance costs, running two studios instead of one, but we still believe the mix of these two different cultures from where our branches are based is beneficial to our brand.”
Nowadays we are witnessing fashion industry’s latest crisis, where more and more brands decide not to conform to the fashion calendar anymore, sticking to just two shows per year and mixing their men’s and women’s collection; some of them are starting questioning the traditional seasonal model and the meaning of Fashion Week itself. BLESS proves once again that being ahead of the curve just comes naturally for them. Although the brand adheres to the biannual grid of the fashion industry, Desiree and Ines never felt the need to present their collections in the setting of a traditional fashion show. That’s probably because not only do the brand rejects the concept of gender and gendered items – in 1999, they described their N° 09 Merchandising collection as unisize, unisex and uniage – but also refuses to label them as “fashion”. As they put it, “we don’t feel like we belong to the fashion world, and that’s for different reasons; first of all the term itself now suggests a sought-after lifestyle, mainly driven by and made for commercial purpose, that we could not serve in an adequate way with our small scale or artisanal productions,” said the duo, eager to distance their approach from mass-produced, ready-to-wear lines. “The term ‘fashion’ nowadays is inflated, leading to an exaggerated self-expression through affordable clothes, and it is not necessarily the best mean to deliver our message.”
For Ines and Desiree, BLESS products fully come to life only when applied to everyday life. That could explain why they never use models, asking friends and common people to model for them instead. “There is and probably will always be the need for clothes to cover our bodies, but they should be more focused on highlighting our inner beauty than asking for constant attention,” they muse. “We hope that we can make people think about how they want to live, to encourage them to come to a decision that feels honest, and that will work for them in the long run.”
The duo has always been supporting individualism and the importance to find your peculiar way to express yourself through clothes, objects and the way in which you approach them. When asked which contemporary brands they admire, the designers answered, “Our former knitting producer is now making honey, which is a very interesting and healthy product. There are also many other colleagues that are successfully creating objects or clothes under fair conditions and for good purposes, and for these reasons we hope that they will thrive,” they add, stressing the importance for them of conscious consumption and the need to invest in quality over quantity.
Their concept of daily life can be fully experienced through their exhibitions, which have always played a big role in BLESS’s attempt to hover in-between fashion and art, conceptual and wearable. With their latest show, Worker’s Delight, running at Vitra Design Gallery from 10th June to 9th October 2016, Ines and Desiree will explore the theme of the workplace and how it affects our productivity and our strive for efficiency in the busy era we live in. With a change of perspective, the participatory installations will aim to juxtapose the pieces of furniture of a standard workplace with stimulating, light-hearted exercise tools. The aim of ordinary objects evolves once again under the BLESS influence, just like their shops and their creations. Is change necessary then to stimulate creativity? The duo promptly answers, “Creativity equals change and change equals creativity? We are not dogmatic enough to answer this question.”