Often only one simple motivation exists behind a small fashion label with good taste: to offer good, high-quality products. Tobias Bergmann, founder of sunglasses label R.T.CO strives to do exactly that. In order to do so he travels to Italy once a year, where he wanders through old family-run factories and chooses patterns for his collections. Often they are mere survivors from the 80s and 90s no longer in production, therefore reducing the models to an infinitesimal number. The fact that there are a limited number of some of these designs fascinates Tobias just as much as the big machines that shape fancy spectacle frames out of blocks of acetate. Tobias literally thrives on what he does. The journey leading up to the development of his brand has been exciting and varied to say the least.
For a long time Tobias was not interested in anything else except skating. But everything changed when he decided to start a carpentry apprenticeship and eventually go onto study graphic design. At R.T.CO he profits from the knowledge of three different fields and his ambitious do-it-yourself attitude. He happily melds a diversity of life experiences together in harmony in his professional endeavors.
Walking along the streets of Reuterkiez in Tobias’s company, you can see this particular neighborhood through his eyes as many of his friends live here. Tobias knows the man who makes his coffee and the guy behind the bar next to his office. He holds a strong connection to his surrounds. We met him for a late breakfast in his apartment as he explains to us what the moped shop across the street has to do with his label and the philosophy behind it.
This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online who present a special curation of our pictures on their site.
It’s nice that we can be here today. Your profession seems obvious when seeing inside your flat, there are sunglasses in every direction. What do you like about sunglasses?
A pair of sunglasses are a small, beautiful object. It is an amazing accessory with a positive association. There is not much sun in Berlin, but when there is you just can’t get enough of it.
Why did you decide to start a sunglasses label?
After school I left my hometown of Kassel to move to Hamburg, where I did a carpentry apprenticeship. After that I studied graphic design. Then I moved to France for three months to take a break and work on my friends’ farm. While I was there I decided to make T-shirts and sunglasses. The production used to be very cheap in China. My label was called Rollo T-Shirt Company. The sunglasses and T-shirts were mainly for skate shops. At that time no one was making sunglasses in that specific field, which is why I sold many of them immediately. I was mainly working as a graphic designer for an agency before I decided to stop selling nonsense in 2011. I wanted to offer high quality products and become independent. I converted Rollo T-Shirt Company into R.T.CO which is just an abbreviation.
I browsed and considered many different things. For example, when I was in Portugal and searched for T-shirt producers however, I didn’t find a producer that satisfied my needs. Additionally, there is always the question of the right shape when it comes to productions and design. Sunglasses carry the big advantage of not coming in different sizes. One size fits all. This was reason enough for me to decide against T-shirts. For the sunglasses I looked at 10-12 different companies in Italy and was extremely convinced by their quality.
How did you know how to produce a good pair of sunglasses?
I didn’t know at all. I learned by going to the factories. My very first collection was made in Austria and was produced in a factory in Salzsammlergut. I was so happy that someone wanted to handle just 150 pieces. The junior boss taught me step by step. For example, I was introduced to the many types of spring hinges. I learnt a lot from that man. This education was not extraordinary, however, it required a great deal of patience.
How do you develop your designs?
In the very beginning I drew a front, cut it out and held it in front of my face. It shows pretty well how a pair of sunglasses will look on you. But I have stopped doing that. Now I utilize pre-existing forms and tell the factory that I want it one millimeter higher or two millimeters broader. The factory has collected a large collection of sunglasses over the past 60 years. At some point there every shape imaginable has been produced, so why start from scratch? Realizing this was pretty sobering. I was pretty idealistic when I started. I wanted to make cool sunglasses that would be recognizable at once. But when browsing through their archive I realized there was so much to draw on.
You not only organize the collection but everything around it as well. What other ways do you carry out your passion for design?
Being creative doesn’t only mean producing design but also everything else that goes with it. There is the wrapping: a website, a catalogue – everything is part of this creative process. I mostly do all these things myself. I think it’s a pity that commercial success amongst creatives is often viewed as something negative. Just because I create something that is available for purchase does not mean there isn’t any creative work or integrity behind it.
I am currently working on the concept and packaging for the next collection. I work together with a company in Neukölln. I like doing this almost as much as creating the glasses. I love looking at the different embossing and choosing from all the different papers and colors. I want people to keep the case because they consider them beautiful.
There is a small photo studio in your bedroom. Do you take pictures for your label there?
I photographed the look book with two graphic designer friends of mine in my bedroom. They own the studio Haw-lin, which is also close by. These are two lightning machines and backgrounds for shooting. These are things that I like to do myself. If I already know what I like, I prefer educating myself instead of explaining the process to someone else for hours who doesn’t even understand me. I have gained a lot of confidence in regards to photography. Sometimes I take portraits of friends for the label just to have some extra photographs aside from the look book. The pictures of the catalogue, the edits, and the layout are all produced by me.
I have recently stopped working in the sales department. I never really wanted to do that side of things and consider it the most exhausting part of my work. I am much more of a puzzle freak. I feel good when I am with people at the factories and am able to test the new materials, talk about the form of my glasses, and organize productions.
How do you find the producers for your sunglasses?
Once a year I travel to Northern Italy where all the companies are. I take a look around and often find old, small factories that still produce. The suppliers I work with usually consist of 5-6 people – quite an intimate and familiar environment. That is the part of my job I enjoy the most. You can discover beautiful things at these old fabrics. For example, I have a leftover acetate plate that will probably last for 40 more sunglasses. This design is from the 90s and lying around in storage. If I decide to make a collection out of this there will only be a limited amount of sunglasses. I think this is fascinating.
This is a one-man-show kind of label and you work alone most of time. Do you miss having contact with other people?
I regularly meet people that I do business with, but for the main part I work on my own. I enjoy it. I don’t feel lonely. Since 2012 I have a table at a shared office. I really like having an office. Before I had an office I really disliked the idea of always working at home. But ever since I know that I can go to the office and I like to work at home again. Both have their charm.
Sometimes there are moments when I think it would be great to work together with someone on a project. But I would need to organize myself differently. I am quite a perfectionist when it comes to work, but I also enjoy working without structure. For instance, sometimes I can just say: “Today I won’t do anything.” If decide to work together with other people, I would need to settle on specific dates and times and thus lose my autonomy.
The background of your DIY skateboard is often mentioned when one reads about you and your label. What do you actually mean by this?
I started with Rollo, which used to be a skate label. Skateboarding is it’s own world really. They have no associations and no structure. I like that the people of this world are a bit anti-establishment. I like that. When I founded Rollo I had a skate-team. We never really did any big videos but I still am in touch with them to this day. Skateboarding is still something that I like to do. My sport is going skating. I go about twice a week and it is something I will never quit.
Would you say that skateboarding has shaped your lifestyle?
I started at 13 and am now 38. At the age of 18 I was only interested in skating and wasn’t interested in having a career. Nowadays I consider skateboarding a sport. Many of my friends are or were skaters. I guess it is much more than a hobby and has shaped me in many ways. If I would plan to make an extraordinary amount of money with the label, I would do some things differently. But right now I am just interested in creating good things.
Would you say that your experience as a skater, carpenter, and graphic designer come together at R.T.CO?
Yes, everything is combined with my label: handcraft, design, and my background in skateboarding. During my education I learned to do technical drawings. It really helped. Graphic design helped even more. I didn’t want to work at an agency forever. I wanted to hold a finished product in my hand and I really like being at the factories on site. It’s so local and something is being made there every day. I did my education at a shipyard. Those were unforgettable times. To repair old sailing boats outside, starting at seven in the morning. I used to take the bike to gangplanks and then take the ferry to the harbor – amazing! Today I just sit a lot at my computer.
Do you miss these times?
Sometimes I miss not doing as much with my hands anymore. But now I know the two worlds. I know the feeling of tiredness after coming home from a factory or workshop. After that it’s ok to sit in front of the TV. But when you spend all day long sitting in front of the computer, you need to do something else when you get home. I always think it’s good to take the opportunity to try out different things. It took me a long time to find my groove, but I have done a lot of different things in all sorts of jobs. During my three months at the farm, I did something very different again. Today I don’t have any unrealistic illusions or romantic ideas about other jobs. The grass is not always greener. I don’t want to exclude the idea of doing something completely different with my life in the future, however I am really happy at the moment and will definitely continue with the label for sometime.
Your glasses are not extremely expensive. Is it important for you to have your sunglasses reasonably priced?
Yes, I think it’s very important. I could make them more expensive. The quality is good enough. But I don’t want people only with money to buy my glasses. The price is not very expensive but also not very cheap. A pair of glasses needs to be at a specific price. I take myself as an example. I am not the guy who would spend 200 euros on a pair of jeans.
Your office is not far from your flat. Do you move around the city much, or does your life mainly revolve around these streets?
My life is quite basic. I don’t leave my neighborhood. All my friends live in this neighborhood! It’s true. I really like it that way. Many people from Kassel live around here who I have known for a very long time. Because of this I don’t really have the need to meet new people. I also don’t have enough time. One of my best skateboarder friends opened a pub, the black lodge, a few months ago. It is right next to my office. So now I only have to go from my office to the pub and then home. I go to the supermarket at Kottbusser Tor. I am quite lazy when it comes to distances. I barely use the subway and almost never take my car – only if I need to transport something big. I share the car with friends.
My environment naturally influences my work. The shop, located on the other side, repairs and sells old mopeds. Their models have names like “Spatz” (sparrow) or “Schwalbe” (swallow). My models also have names, inspired by this particular shop. I also sometimes play table tennis at a beer garden around the corner. There is a real scene, which is pretty cool. You can go there and always find people playing. In order to be accepted you must challenge someone. Just like with skating I like that I can go there whenever I want and don’t need to be there at a specific time.
If you feel that comfortable in your surroundings, do you even have the desire to travel?
I don’t have the need to leave the city on weekends. I am also not a fan of travelling far away. I like Europe and don’t need to go far. Usually after one week or two I am excited about coming back to my life here in Berlin. My job is not so stressful that I need to feverishly anticipate my next upcoming holiday. I would like to go the States soon again, though. A friend of mine who is a photographer just moved there. Perhaps I’ll do a photo shoot there next year.
Will you make glasses out of these particular acetate plates?
All these plates are from Austria, where I did my very first collection. They are leftovers from an archive of a company. It’s not worth it for the factory to use them. I think that these plates are so beautiful. It’s such a beautiful pattern from the 90s. I am really looking forward to making glasses out of these plates soon. There will only be enough for eight pairs of glasses. That’s pretty cool isn’t it? Perhaps I’ll do a collaboration with another label. It will be a very rare specimen. Until then they’ll lay around my flat as my treasure.
You have lots of skateboard decks in your flat. Which ones have you used yourself and which ones just serve as decoration?
The ones that hang in the kitchen are new. They are old 80s boards. All of them are classics. A friend of mine opened a store in Neukölln last year, he sells these decks. After buying this flat, I renovated and painted it. After that I never had the desire to put anything on the wall. I like this unfinished look. Since last year I began to collect things that had a meaning like these decks. Skating is part of me. I only have one skateboard that I actually use. There are lots of different models but I don’t like switching back and forth.
Have you noticed my beautiful VHS collection? I just discovered these at a flea market. This is the very first Gremlin film. It is ridiculous. I like 80s trash. So I naturally enjoy watching them. At the beginning of last year I got myself a VHS recorder. For example, this is a very old skate video from 1997. It is a classic. If you are familiar with skating you will recognize this video.
You have a few personal pictures on the walls of your apartment and a big painting. Is there a story behind this painting?
True, this is the only painting in this apartment. It is from my grandfather who used to be a painter. He was also a graphic designer. When we were children he always gave us big leaves and told us to paint on them. If I have this creative vein from anyone then it’s from my grandfather.
Thank you so much for letting us into your world this afternoon, Tobias. We are already looking forward to the next sunny day to wear our sunglasses! Find out more about R.T.CO here.
Photography: Katharina Poblotzki
Interview & Text: Stephanie Dietze