Vienna city centre, near Schwedenplatz. Close by a vacant ice cream parlour lies the entrance to the hat manufacturer, Mühlbauer. Upon entering one is immediately transported by the busy activity inside the vibrant workshop. Headpieces in all shapes, sizes, and colors are created to the soundtrack of the clattering sounds of old sewing machines. The man who holds everything together is Klaus Mühlbauer.
But this has not always been the case. Some years ago, this hat empire was still managed by his parents. However, with the years passing, hats somewhat lost their contemporary importance within society and the company decided to expand into clothing. However, the company’s crisis essentially remained the same. It was only in 2001 when Klaus took over the reigns that things gradually changed. He turned the company upside down with bold designs and reached out to an international audience. Klaus didn’t create a new and more youthful image, but rather put millinery back into focus. It seems he has done something right, as nowadays these hats are sold in selected stores all over the world: Milan, New York, and Tokyo.
Fortunately Klaus’ head has not become too overwhelmed by Mühlbauer’s reinvigorated successes. Regardless of his jammed calendar, this likeable native Viennese gentleman invited us into his world for a few hours. During our time together, he took us through his workshops and flagship store located within the historical centre of Vienna. We also took a detour to some of his favourite places in town while he discussed his earlier career aspirations, love for handcrafted objects, and his rebirth as a Parisian milliner.
Klaus, what connection do you have with Vienna?
I was born in the 13th Viennese district of Hitzing. My maternity clinic is located right next to the nursing home where the staff murdered people by which this neighborhood become so famous. I grew up in the 12th district of Meidling, until I was seven years-old. After that I moved to Floridsdorf, a suburb on the other side of the Danube river. It is not very beautiful, just a working district. In the late 90s I lived in the ‘Waldviertel’ in lower Austria and after my studies I was employed at a textile industry for several years. It was basically the deepest of all provinces. In the middle of nowhere.
But now the city has you back.
Yes, after a while I wanted to be in the city again and be in an urban environment. So I looked for an apartment within the Karmeliterviertel in the 2nd Viennese district. Back in the day it used to be a rancid, not very tidy part of Vienna and close to my workplace. I found a beautiful apartment with view over the market. It was amazing to dive into the centre of the city and be able to access everything in no time. Nowadays it has become quite fancy, which is why it is known as ‘BoboCity.’
What did you want to be as a child?
Good question! When I was very little I wanted to become a fireman. But this dream dispersed quite quickly. I didn’t really know what I wanted to be until I was seventeen. Sometimes I played with the idea of becoming a doctor or architect.
Becoming a milliner was not an option back then?
Even though I grew up among the hats of my parents, it was never really something tangible. I thought one of my three sisters would want to take it over one day. After my matriculation I thought: “Better do an apprenticeship than not do anything at all.” The closest thing to me was the company of my parents. So I spent two years in training as a milliner and dressmaker. And what do you know: it was actually fun! I never would have imaged that. I have always thought it would become too monotonous, too boring, too inferior. But the opposite was the case: it was really cool.
What did you like so much about it?
To create something with your two hands and at the end of the day being able to say: this is my work. Also, planning right through to completion happens in a manageable timeframe. It provides me a satisfactory feeling. All this basically was the starting point. This is how came in contact with headpieces and I did an apprenticeship right after my first collection in 1988. At that time I was barely 20 years old. I took all my pieces to Paris and exhibited them at a fair. They turned out to be a huge success. I returned proudly with a full order book. My parents were amazed.
Sounds like a good start.
Yeah, I kept doing it for a while. I just didn’t like the possibility of spending the next 20 to 30 years with my parents at home and at work. So after two years I decided to do something else.
And you studied something new?
Yes, something completely different: economics. The idea was to obtain the necessary know-how for business, which I essentially succeeded in. But the environment at the university was terrible: these young managers who had such big egos and would drive their parents sportscars to class. I suffered like a pig. However, mainly because of my mother’s constant encouragement, I finished university.
Yes, in the end I was really happy that I finished. These business people, who to this day repulse me, just can’t fool me. I know what marketing and accounting means. But when one has already worked in a creative environment, it is pretty hard to change into a different field.
Was the next logical step to take over your parents’ hat company?
Well, logical and illogical at the same time. After my studies I spent three years at a textile industry in ‘Waldviertel’ in lower Austria. I worked at the interface between production, marketing, and product design. I really enjoyed it. When I was offered a job at a big fashion company in Germany, my father told me that he wanted to retire and close his workshops. Those news got to me. Ten years ago I had seen the beauty of this craftsmanship and everything that could be obtained from it. I asked him to wait for a bit and let me think.
Think about what?
It was a question about how I would manage my parent’s company, rather than a question of whether I would take it over. The company was getting a bit old and for some time no one had invested in it. There was no direction left. My parents had to reposition the company several times. They survived the hard times in the 70s where the hat industry went down the drain. Suddenly no one wanted to wear hats anymore, but rather show a lot of hair. In the end I declined the job in Germany and returned to Vienna in April, 2001.
Did you already know where the journey would lead at this stage?
The idea was not fully there yet, but I knew there had to be new hats. I took over six stores. They mainly sold clothes, hats from our own in-house production were less important. Regardless of anything, I was convinced in taking the company back to its original roots. Our hats with a personal signature were the elements that made our company so unique. It was also obvious that Austria was for too small a market for such a high-end, handcrafted product. We had to change the entire marketing directive and perform beyond Austrian borders.
How did you connect the return to origin with the complete renewal of design?
The product itself was most important. My aspiration had always remained the same: to make the hats attractive so that young people would also be interested in them. Not only for older ladies and gentlemen who were already familiar with them from the past. We began a small revolution in regards to the design. The products we made from 2003-2005 did not have much in common with the ones from 1998-2000 visually speaking. The origins lie within the traditional craftsmanship that is more than a century old. Our production carries the exact same process as in 1903.
Does this traditional frame still leave you space to experiment?
The space for experimenting is huge, almost infinite. I mean, we can’t change everything from one season to the next. But in every collection we have the aspiration to create something that explores new possible borders; or invent new things that have not been done before. Our special hat designs have made us famous around the world.
What do you think of Vienna being a location for traditional craftsmanship?
Vienna is a good location for handwork. Especially in comparison to cities like Berlin, Paris, or London. I don’t know why it is like that. Perhaps it is because Viennese people are good businessmen who are capable of keeping their production in the one place. Or perhaps it is a certain resistance: we build a wall around us and push through with our craftsmanship. This is something that has remained moreso in Vienna than anywhere else. I don’t think it is politically induced or has been promoted from the outside. It comes from the people here.
Is this also applicable to fashion?
Not really. It has to be said that Vienna is not the most fashionable location. There are obviously more important places. We always have to go to Paris, Milan, London, Berlin, and New York, and be present. As producers of fashion we have to change this fact, something that is quite possible. I have always thought it could go faster. As with the opening of East Europe, Vienna has moved much more towards the centre. So far it has not been with much style, but perhaps it will change soon.
Would your design be different if you were in a fashion metropole, like Paris?
No, I would keep the same design. At least if I would stay Viennese and not be reborn as a Parisian. This regional signature is very important in regards to recognition. Of course, it is not seen in every piece, but the overall collection reveals its original heritage. It is important not to hide these Viennese origins. It is special. And we see how it is valued all over the world. Being in Paris would obviously offer a different connection to the market: we would find more financiers who would like to invest in us.
The Vienna Business Agency was one of them, what do you think of their role in Vienna?
Even though we would have pulled through with the repositioning of the company without the sponsorship of agency, we naturally were really happy about the money. But I consider their role as a branch agent, and its network and press position much more important. This agency has put sponsored companies in a good light within the public sphere. I find helping with book and film projects much more helpful than monetary sponsorship.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
I wouldn’t be able to define one thing specifically, it just happens everywhere. Our process is constant. I always take mental notes, sometimes even physical. For example on a ‘Kaszettel’ – (cheese sheet) an Austrian way for saying a piece of paper. As previously mentioned, this happens constantly: at night right before go to to sleep, during walks through a forest or even at a coffee shop.
Speaking of coffeehouses, which one is your favourite here?
I am often at Cafe Diglas, which is located at Fleischmarkt.
Which places can you recommend to relax in Vienna?
Quite naturally I am often around the Karmelitermarkt. There a many nice places. Madiani is quite cozy and has really good Georgian cuisine. But I try to not always dwell at the same place and use many other places like the Prater or Wienerwald. I always like to go somewhere green. I love forests and long walks. Relaxing always means for me a leisurely walk.
Where can we find you in the evening?
Directly near our shop is Loos-Bar. It has a firm place within Viennese history and is always worth a visit.
Do you still take matters into your own hands physically in the workshop?
Quite seldom. But it is very important that I am still able to do it. Not only for me as it gives me the security in my work, but also for my collegues in the workshops. They then think: “Ah, this man also learned this once.” When I want something I also know what will work and what doesn’t. It is a certain know-how that is important during this specific working process. But it is also a matter of time in order to do things personally during production.
Then let’s make this quick: how would you describe your working philosophy in three words?
Hat, handwork, and… aspiration in design.
Thank you very much for this interesting conversation and your exciting insights into the Mühlbauer empire! If you would like to know more about Klaus’ work, please click here.
Photographie: Martin Stöbich
Interview & Text: Philipp Daun
Translation: Lara Konrad