The Viennese Naschmarkt and the creative scene vigorously pulsate within the sphere of Mariahilf. The seventh municipal district is a terrain that offers everything the heart desires. Here, the wild junction of herringbone parquet flooring, mattresses, and provoking snippets in between futuristic objects make perfect sense. Fashion designer Helga Ruthner along side her husband Philipp and two galactic, young boys have created an avant-garde paradise in which no one will be able to sit still for a longer amount of time.
More than a decade ago, Helga succeeded with Hermann Fankhauser to transform their passion into a professional career and show their work in the salient Parisian fashion capital. The creative duo produce provoking “Normalo-Fashion” for him and her, for Wendy & Jim.
As a counterpart to the manifested prejudices that are concerned with the Austrian capital, Helga’s charming Viennese snide humour is more than welcomed. This is especially true when the first, obligatory cold is lingering within the neck and nose and one receives a comment like, ‘Ah, sometimes a minor drinking cur can help. Everything is always forgotten the next day.’
A discussion about establishment, the most liveable city within Europe and the juggling act between her creative oevre and familiar down-to-earthness.
This story is featured in our second book, Freunde von Freunden: Friends, order within Germany here, or find the book internationally at selected retailers.
Where are you from and how was the fashion label “Wendy&Jim” founded?
I was born in St. Pölten, which is a small city nearby Vienna. It is a very beautiful but ungrateful place. One cannot escape wanting to leave to Vienna for interesting acquisitions, art, and eventful weekends. Inevitably, I landed there. I wanted to be a designer since childhood. After high school, I first began to study architecture. Hans Hollein was aware of my passion for fashion and tolerated it – when Helmut Lang accepted the administration for fashion at the University of Applied Arts Vienna, I started to study under him. Hermann Fankhauser and I discovered during our endless cafeteria discussions that both of us were going towards the same direction – in regards to conception and fashion. We began early to work on our label, even though we didn’t really know where all of it would lead. It definitely was not like a ‘this is how it will be’ situation. We simply didn’t stop doing what we considered fun. Since 1999 we have participating at the Paris Fashion Week.
Which projects are you currently working on?
We are finishing up our men’s collection and are about to launch our very first unisex fragrance. The flacon was created together by Augarten Porcelain and us. It will be on the market in January. It is a biological scent that was made in collaboration with Wolfgang Lederhass Cosmetics and the St.-Charles pharmacy.
What is the origin of your label’s name?
When Hermann and I were supposed to show at our very first fashion show, we obviously needed a name. We always wanted for our work to be the priority and not be so closely connected to our own names. But it was important to us the label would contain the connotation of a man and a woman. It basically could have been called Him&Her. Somehow we arrived at Wendy&Jim, but at the beginning we thought it to be a bit weird. It sounded like Barbie&Ken, just really arbitrary. The idea brought forward an ample reaction within our friends – positive as well as critical. As we entered this particular combination of names in a search engine, one before google, about 100 000 results appeared. This was a crucial confirmation. Wendy&Jim is exactly that – a synonym for a man and a woman.
Fashion in Austria is a difficult topic. Why do you think that so many Austrian designers and artists are more successful in foreign countries than within their own?
Every country has its traditions that should be respected and are hard to break. It often takes centuries, perhaps even longer, for a traditional community to change. Vienna and overall Austria is quite concentrated on music. It is a lot easier for an artist to claim himself as a musician and instantaneously be taken seriously. This does not go for the fashion industry in Austria. We barely sell here. But this is also very Austrian, as the approval must first come from the outside. Often one possesses a huge advantage as an emigrant. People that come to Vienna and do whatever, often something banal, will receive the same kind of recognition. I am sure there are philosophical studies about this very notion.
Is there something else within the artistic scene that you would like to expand on?
For some time now I have been engaged with costume design for film. I also infected Hermann with the film virus. I would never exchange it for design, but it is a realm that very much interests me and acts as a distraction away from the main profession. Actors have a very concrete reality within film. When the screenplay writes “… rips of the red blouse,” the director already has a solid idea, but I have to embody this within my own colour spectrum. Costume design is also a good way to make Wendy&Jim sustainable and be visible on a daily basis. We can see what works really well and what does not function at all on a two-dimensional screen. This transformation is extremely exciting.
What would you like to try in the near future?
I would like to learn how to play the slide trombone and tennis, learn glassblowing, and open up a biological farm for cashmere goats and silkworms. However, this project is not possible right now due to climatic reasons. All the other things will have to wait a bit, as well. Currently, there is a huge lack of time.
What means Vienna to you?
I am in a current state where I would like to get away from Vienna for a few years. In regards to living quality, Vienna is almost invincible. We are in the very centre of the city but somehow still live in a village. Everything we need is reachable by foot. The basic elements, like air and water, are of very high quality. Besides this, the city is of a manageable size and lays central within Europe, making other countries and cities easily accessible. I also love the vineyards, forests, and the Donau-Auen.
How do you feel about the judgement that people are quite arrogant in Vienna?
Arrogance always has something to do with confidence. However, an excess of confidence is not really a problem in Vienna. I would actually say it is the opposite. The Viennese ‘Grant’ is a shout for help of the very lack of this.
How did you meet your husband Philipp?
I will definetely not. (laughs)
We knew each other from back home, St Pölten. Years afterwards we saw each other again in Vienna and things just happened the usual way. You are in love, have children, and marry.
Your sons have quite the interesting names. How did you decide on them?
The oldest one is called Koloman Koment. Koloman is a very old Austrian name like the one of the Art Nouveau artist Koloman Moser. This was a direct clue, also because I have always been fascinated by the history of the holy Koloman.
Could you briefly narrate it?
Koloman was a wandering crusader from Ireland, who was stopped in Austria. One was unable to understand him as he spoke a completely different language. He was killed right away and was hung in the forest. Two years later, a passing hunter tried to find out whether the corpse was still fresh, as blood still ran down its sides. Koloman was immediately regarded as someone holy. The corpse’s jaw swam all the way to Melk and brought great wonders. This is why the monastic site Melk Abbey has been founded, which still to this day holds the miraculous jaw. Every year on its saint’s day, the ‘Kolomanikirtag’ takes place. We visited the ceremony last year, but unfortunately it was horrible.
Our youngest son’s name is Thaddäus Solaris. We wanted to give all our children an earthly name that would connect him to the universe.
What kind of music do you listen to at home or at work?
At the moment it is trap. But mainly I like the radio as it alternates between talking and music.
What is your favourite piece in the flat?
Art is definitely very important to us. As well, we like to have an empty room. We don’t possess a couch but a covered mattress. That is much more child-friendly. Our last couch didn’t survive the two boys. My favourite piece is this lamp by Gae Aulenti. I really admire her. As soon as the kids will have grown a bit, I am sure some other pieces will be added.
Your work is shaped by provocation and an anomalous humour. Are you open towards your children in regards to your specific taste in art?
The children are not aware of everything. Once, when Kolo was still in his pacifier age, I took him with me to a fitting and a show. During the presentation of the clothes, he sat on my husband’s lap, spat out his pacifier and shouted at every passing model, “I have seen this already, I have seen this already.” Kolo would also often dress up and dance around me, saying things like, “Is this the newest fashion or what?” Or sometimes he would get annoyed at me and say, “Ah mama, you and your weird fashion.”
It is quite significant to see how the kids perceive my work through their filter of childhood. But as I mentioned before, they are not fully aware of everything. Our pornclowns-underwear-collection with DJ Hell has not been really shown to them, even though we actually could. I mean, it is funny. They do not know yet the insinuations and codes of pornography. They will see and laugh about a clown who is showing its button, which is perfectly okay.
Photography: Lukas Gansterer
Interview&Text: Zsuzsanna Toth