Last March, Wolfgang Joop's high-end label, Wunderkind, was sinking fast. Fashion watchers were swarming and the press was gleefully heralding its demise. The spring 2011 fashion show in Paris was cancelled, the flagship store on Berlin's Gendarmenmarkt was suddenly closed, staff was let go, and no new collection was presented. The critics seemingly had their revenge.
Now, a year later the company headquarters in Potsdam are buzzing again. Joop has bought out his partners and the company is in his hands alone. A new collection is set to be presented on May 10. The designer counters criticism by pointing to points to Chanel, Gucci and Balenciaga, saying that the resurrection of dormant fashion houses is nothing new. With his typical play on words, he explains his revival of Wunderkind with his conviction that "one cannot abandon a child."
Wunderkind was not Joop's first encounter with fashion. After building up the hugely successful brand JOOP!, he sold nearly all of his shares in the company in the late 1990s for reportedly over 75 million euros ($98 million). However, he stayed on as head designer.
In 2001, he severed all remaining ties with JOOP! and turned his attention to other interests. He tried his hand at acting, writing, sculpting and painting. Rather than simply enjoying the time off, Joop continued to think about fashion. He saw a gap between traditional prêt-à-porter and haute couture and he was determined to fill it with a new high-end, off-the-rack collection.
Shortly after founding the avant-garde label Wunderkind in 2003, he debuted its first collection in Potsdam and later went to New York Fashion Week and then to Paris. The one-of-a-kind pieces from the catwalk were then produced in limited numbers and available in select stores. Wunderkind was a hit. Many in the industry were impressed by the choices of luxurious fabrics, attention to detail and the refreshing absence of tacky logos.
Joop describes it as a "mixture between arts and crafts," alluding to the combination of artistic merit and its high level of hand-crafted workmanship.
"He has taken into account his trademark taste, which is very Prussian, yet internationally recognizable, and has now focused on couture: a small, refined fashion-couture label from Germany. This is his unique selling point," explained Ekkehart Baumgartner, head of the Academy of Fashion and Design in Munich.
But has the world been waiting for a top-line German label? "The fashion world was not waiting, but now they are waiting for the label to return," replied Joop.
Place of inspiration
After fighting pressure to move the company headquarters to Berlin, a now leaner Wunderkind team is bunkered down in Potsdam. The entire Wunderkind organization is housed in the recently restored, immaculately organized Villa Rumpf. Upstairs on the third floor is the heart of Wunderkind - a large workroom holding the draftsman's table where Joop does the quick sketches for which he is famous.
For inspiration, Wunderkind dresses from past seasons and cases full of vintage accessories surround the workroom and spill out into the stairwell. Dozens of sketches and fabric swatches are attached to walls and boards. But most of the room is just open space - space in which to move, think and create.
It is here that Joop tries to convince the world of his sense of timeless fashion. A model is wearing a work in progress and he and his close-knit creative team critique every element of the dress. This prototype is made of a simple, monotone fabric. Cut, color and fabric are exhaustively discussed. The harmony and neatness of the atelier is only disturbed by assistants who are running back and forth for this or that piece of material or sketch.
In the adjacent room, another team is cutting patterns for improvements or working on the next pieces. All these ideas are to be turned into showpieces, which make up the new collection. After being unveiled to the public the collection can then go into larger production in Italy, where most high-end, ready-to-wear products are made.
It is hard to say what stopped Wunderkind the first time, but now he and his team are determined to get things right. With the new collection he wants to not only reach the traditional European, American and Japanese markets, but also reach out to Ukraine, Brazil, India and Turkey.
"The only market which is booming is the luxury market, because there are always people who are willing to pay for it," said the designer.
Joop has not started to think about a successor, but he intentionally chose a company name that did not include his own. He would like Wunderkind to able to tap into new talent and be more than a one-man show.
"Looking at the age of the masters of fashion - Karl Lagerfeld and Giorgio Armani, both nearly 80 - there is no need to worry about Wolfgang Joop at 67," commented Baumgartner. "He still seems to be stylistically ahead of the times."
Referring to German fashion designer Jill Sander, aged 69, who just returned to her old company in the role of designer, Baumgartner added that "perhaps there is a trend even in fashion to bypass the obsession with youth and let maturity and experience take over."
Joop's revival fashion show will take place later this week at Villa Rumpf, where the inaugural collection was shown in 2003. Back then, the century-old villa was still in ruins and the clothing stood out against its ragged background. This time the villa is gleaming and the fashion must be extraordinary to stand out and convince the world that German fashion and the famous "Prussian designer" are back.
Author: Timothy A. Rooks
Editor: Kate Bowen