Through an immaculate set of wrought iron doors in a classic Charlottenburg altbau apartment building, Frank Leder’s studio for his eponymous fashion label can be found. Guests are greeted by his Welsh Springer Spaniel, Atsuki. Every good hunter has his own hound, and this is also true for the towering and eloquent Bavarian. However, rather than a man of the land, he is an urban hunter and collector of stories that are translated into high end tailored garments for the modern gentleman. His studio is filled with objects of significance. Abandoned 60 year old conserve jars find a place on his window sill filtering the light of day alongside a handmade sling shot and countless gifted artworks from artist friends. These possessions hold a particular fascination and reflect a distant world of obsolete social codes and rituals.
Growing up in the city of Nuremberg, Frank was always interested in outdoor adventures as a boy. He fondly recounts time spent foraging mushrooms in the forest and going fishing with his father. This romantic memory of childhood remained with him while studying fashion at Central St. Martins in London. This distance allowed him to appreciate his cultural roots. With traditional cuts and the use of vintage trimmings, Frank seeks to create and convey a sense of ‘Germanness’ in his work and has developed a select and loyal following. His vision is not only translated in the medium of clothing. Whether it be his line of grooming products, Tradition, or a new collaborative furniture project, this true creative is not content to stay comfortable with his success.
This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online who present a special curation of our pictures on their site.
Your studio is impressively large. How long have you been here?
I have been here for six years now. It is 200 square meters. It was originally my living space but today it is solely my working space. I enjoy moving between two different areas. West Berlin can feel quite closed in at times. Previously I worked in Kreuzberg in a loft. But it was just one space. I really enjoy having so many walls to hang pictures on and to display different objects in different rooms in order to create stories and present different visions. The apartment’s floors and ceilings are all original and I was quite lucky to find such a raw space in Charlottenburg which is known for luxury refurbished apartments.
When I lived in Kreuzberg I never came here. There used to be very few reasons for me to travel to Charlottenburg, one being the bookshop Bucherbogen, and the other, the Chinese restaurant, Good Friends. They were the only two reasons you came here, nothing else. And now I work here. Several apartments became empty over time and the area has changed. There are actors living upstairs and a filmmaker living nearby.
You have an interesting collection of food preserve jars. They must have a story.
An artist friend from Leipzig found them a year ago and called me. There are about 160 of them that are approximately 60 years old. He found them in a dusty basement and we think that someone must have escaped to Western Germany and forgotten about them. I was attracted to the beautiful colors when light is filtered through the glass.
Do you have favorite object in your studio?
Everything! I am sort of a collector. Its nice to collect and design. I have a lot of paintings, and photographs that have been exchanged with other artists. A lot of these artworks conjure memories for me of different places. For example this sling shot. I like the symbolism of it. I had to find the right car tire and went into the woods to find the right shape in the correct material.
This space feels a little like a sanctuary, it is quiet and away from technology. Perhaps this is because of the old objects and natural materials you have here in the studio. I cannot see anything made from plastic.
Apart from my computer I suppose there is not so much technology here. I’m not only into old things but there is something in older things. The focus was more on the materials; they were created differently and meant to last. There is something more substantial in these things and that is attractive to me. I hate plastic bags, they don’t talk to me.
You have a strong interest in the arts. Did you ever study art, or did you go straight into studying fashion?
The foundation year in fashion studies at Central St. Martins, London allows students to explore different aspects of creativity. I actually didn’t have to do this when I was studying and I went straight into first year. At that time I was quite happy with that, but now in retrospect I would say it was a mistake not to explore different areas. I always liked fashion because fashion is a profession where one can easily get reactions from people with your work. When you study architecture for example – like my father who had an architecture office – it takes so long for your vision to become reality. When you draw a house then you have to find someone to build it and there is always a lot of money involved.
With fashion especially, from beginning to end you can shape your ideas into something that people enjoy. That is what I liked from the beginning, but it was always infused by and bordered on my interest in art. Not that my fashion is too much like art, however, it is what is surrounding it. I like to give people insight into my work and where my ideas come from.
Did you grow up in a creative family?
I guess there was creativity in a way. My dad wasn’t really working on houses with his architectural firm, his projects were more like subway stations and other civil public projects. My parents always took me to museums and galleries. I was really into fishing, finding mushrooms in the forest, things like that. Looking back, deep down what really interested me was this romantic vision of childhood. I grew up in Nuremberg in Bavaria and I stayed there until I was 18. Then I packed my things and went to London.
What was your home like growing up? I imagine you as a child living in a schloss.
No, not at all. I grew up in a 1970s Mies van der Rohe style home. It was nothing romantic. Maybe I am attracted to what I didn’t have in my childhood. Now I live in a classic Berlin altbau apartment.
Did you always want to work in fashion?
At the time I was not so much into fashion like a teenager you would probably find nowadays. I was really looking forward to creating something that was always on my mind.
Your work is quite formal and informed by traditional German tailoring. You have a beautiful use of fabrics and often source old handcrafted materials such as wooden or bone buttons to complete your distinctive aesthetic.
Fabrics are very important and are often the starting point of a collection. Being a menswear designer, you understand what men really want is a good cut, interesting fabric, and maybe an interesting detail in their clothes, and that’s it. Men generally don’t want to be overdressed or wearing a costume. For men the story is important. Stories are fundamental to my work and inject an extra element to the garments.
There is a certain nostalgia and reflection to times gone by through these stories that you convey.
I am very interested in groups of men, rites and their rituals, and how they communicate with each other. It’s a big part of my work. For the new collection I am looking into the carpenters in Germany who travel around the country for three years and one day. The idea came from a song book used by these carpenters. They represent original craftsmen and journeymen. With this story from the outset, there is already a nice aspect. The question one immediately asks is, “why three years and one day?” They do interesting things, for example, when they start their journey they drink half a bottle of liquor. After they drink it, they dig a hole that is exactly 80 cm deep, bury the bottle and after three years and one day each man comes back to his hometown to dig up the bottle and drink it. It is referred to as Auf der Walz.
Today they are very rare but still exist. They wear a black clothes, a black cylinder hat, and carry a walking stick and hitchhike around Germany. Normally a fashion designer wouldn’t tell you these things and would talk more about the clothes, but for me it is what is surrounding the clothes it that is so important.
There is a lingering archaic tradition with stories such as these.
Yes. These carpenters belong to a closed world and that is fascinating to me. The garments are important, but a lot of the time for me the concepts come from the history or the stories people have to tell. This is where I get my ideas and draw inspiration. That’s what is most interesting to me. The garments play a role but it is more about the history and the stories.
You have also looked at other topics, such as horse racing and outdoor working themes, with men chopping wood in the wilderness.
Yes I worked on a collection based on men deep in the forest. I wanted to capture scenes of lonely people doing something secluded by themselves. Horse racing is another closed world. The people’s outfits, the way the jockeys have their own codes. It is how they communicate that really interests me.
So you are interested in the sociology surrounding fashion.
I pay double attention. The garment by itself has to be thought through, but I am inspired and explore ideas in my work like an artist who communicates similar ideas through sculpture, or a musician writing songs.
In recent years a younger generation has emerged in search of a sense of authenticity, across different disciplines. Are you conscious of these trends when working? The phase ‘bespoke’ is so omnipresent today.
I have never looked to other people’s work. From the beginning at St Martins I was doing my own thing in my own world. I wasn’t trying to create something that didn’t exist before, because in fashion everything was done. I want to shaped my own thing and create a niche design.
Quite a brave position.
In the beginning when I saw something close to my design or someone working in a similar way, I would stop that way of working. But now I have relaxed. When you begin you need to shape your own world. Early on in my degree I started to do different things. My first project was designing a garment and I came up with a leather curtain. It was in a completely different field. The teacher thought, ‘well this is a little bit odd what is he doing here?’, however, I could always explain it.
In my Masters course I had a very iconic teacher at St Martins, Louise Wilson. She only wore black and was always shouting and reducing people to tears. Somehow she liked me and I established a way of working with her where I didn’t really attend the classes. I was called the ghost. At this time I was 26 and was already producing and selling garments in Soho.
What were these first pieces inspired by?
The motivation for these pieces came from a different world, from deep deep Germany. Each time I went back to visit my parents, I discovered there was something there that no one was doing. At that time everybody was trying to create pieces like Commes des Garcons. I was very interested in the culture and history of Germany. Some designers are interested in worlds they don’t know. For me, I was attracted to a world I did know. I was much deeper into it. Because I am German I can question the rites and rituals and I can speak to these people directly. I found my topic quite early.
Living in London you were obviously exposed to different social codes in British culture.
Of course. In England you have the class culture. It was something already done in fashion by Paul Smith, this sense of ‘Britishness’. I wanted to create a ‘Germanness’ in a way. I saw a big potential there. But not only that, it held an interest for me. Visiting my parents, driving to the countryside and hearing all the stories of the place.
Do you think this was only possible because you moved away and then returned with some distance?
Absolutely. When you live somewhere you are too close and don’t see the interesting details. It becomes boring. Being away and then coming back very open minded was the reason for my direction in my work.
Where do you source your materials for your garments?
Its more a matter of how you want to deal with companies. When you source materials from Italy it often takes a long time. Normally the Italian fabric houses have huge quantities that they produce for all the clients in fashion, so it takes time until you get your fabric because you are at the end of the food chain. I like to work with smaller factories that I can access and talk to. I try to get most of my materials from Germany, or from Belgium which is really good for linen. I also source some fabric from England, from Austria, and Switzerland.
All my production is done completely in Germany which is important. I can call and speak the same language. In fashion small mistakes can sneak into the garments and you need to troubleshoot this everyday. It is important that I can drive to the factory and see the pieces if needed. You have to find someone you can communicate very well with. It makes the finished product more expensive, sometimes double or even triple, however a lot of my clients return for the level of quality I offer.
Where is your client base?
Mostly in Japan. They demand the highest quality. You cannot make a mistake. I learnt that the hard way. Everything that goes out has to be triple checked: by the factory, by the assistant and by me, and then a final check is carried out by my agent in Japan. Trust is the most important thing for me with the people I work with. They are the most important people. When you work with them everyday it is crucial to have good relationships.
How many years has the label been running?
Roughly I have produced 25 collections. For fashion its a long time because normally fashion labels run for five or six seasons and then crash. Luckily I found good people to work with from the beginning who had the right contacts in the industry. My goal was always to grow slowly and develop my vision over the years with the help of people who like my clothes and designs. We grew slowly, doing it our own way. I don’t show at trade shows. Fortunately I don’t have the need to acquire clients. I have a fundamental following and sell to 60 shops worldwide and most of them are Japanese.
Any stores in Germany?
None at all. I don’t sell in Germany. If I wanted to have clients in Germany I could. It’s not the point. I try to work the way I work every season and it brings me to a limit. Otherwise I would have to change my working process completely and find bigger factories and suppliers. Prada, for example would never work with my suppliers because the demand would be too high. I can work with these people and am in the lucky position to work with these people. I can offer my clients something they would never get elsewhere. I like to be found by my clients. I like to be discovered, the way I discover things.
That is quite a privileged position.
I really like to have a personal relationship with the people I work with. It’s about communication and working with people you like. It’s the only way. Being able to do that is the greatest gift I can receive. I’ve worked this way from the beginning, when we had more orders than we could accommodate. My first two to three collections exploded and we couldn’t fulfill the orders. Instead of having a mediocre collection to supply, I asked the stores to be patient with the label’s growth in order to serve their needs. Half the shops that waited are still with me today, and the others, I have never heard of again.
You work on a range of projects within and beyond fashion. You once created a limited edition shirt baked inside bread, you sewed bank notes from disused currency into blazers, and placed old photographs taken by your father in the pockets of trousers. Now you have started a line of mens handcrafted grooming products in medicinal-like bottles with Bakelite screwcaps and beautiful illustrations. Can you discuss how this came about?
I work on things like that that to keep my mind busy. My interest is not only in clothes itself, it is more a universal outlook. The line is called Tradition and it took two and half years to come into fruition. Firstly, the inside had to be right. It was difficult from the start. What I was interested in, was the fact I can reach other people that I cannot reach through my clothes. The only way to get my clothes in Germany is to call or email me. With this product I can transport the vision of my environment. The illustrations are very much of my world and draw on characters from old collections and ideas that I am still working on. I wanted to offer an insight while widening my perspective.
When was your last holiday?
I don’t know if I need a holiday, I feel like I am always on holiday in a way. I was hiking recently in Nepal and last year I went to Armenia with a friend.
So you are quite an outdoors person?
I like to meet new people and see new countries. I like adventure of any kind. When I get too comfortable I get bored. I like things that are unknown. I am interested in lost worlds. I am currently reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness while also reading Andre Gide’s daily log book documenting his travels in Congo and Tschad in 1910. You can guess what my next adventure might be about.
Do you have a favorite place in Berlin that you go to?
After work I sometimes go to the Paris Bar – quite an institution. I also really like Pauly Saal in Mitte. It is an old Jewish school and the restaurant – situated in the former gymnasium – serves traditional German cuisine.
What does the future hold?
I am 38, it’s only the beginning.
Frank it has been extremely special to spend time with you in your workspace and explore the environment where inspiration for your collections transpire. If you would like to find our more about Frank’s label visit his website here. His mens grooming product line, Tradition, can be purchased from MDC Cosmetics and Parkhaus Berlin.
Photography: Guido Castagnoli
Interview & Text: Rachael Watts