A conversation with SAIC Fashion Design faculty member Katrin Schnabl
Interview by Amanda Aldinger
AMANDA ALDINGER: You just recently costume designed DanceWorks Chicago’s performance of “The One Hundreds,” choreographed by Twyla Tharp. What was that process like?
KATRIN SCHNABL: This particular Twyla Tharp piece has a conceptual underpinning that allows for quite some freedom in terms of how it’s been interpreted and how it’s been dressed or clothed. There’s a pedestrian feel to it, so I said that we could use ready-to-wear from my collection.
AA: So they’re all your designs?
KS: Technically, I didn’t design the costumes, because [the garments] had already been designed. “The One Hundreds” is a series of 100 different phrases or sequences that the dancers learn, and then put together. In a similar way, the pieces that I put out there have certain elements that I reconfigure, and continue to reconfigure on the dancer’s bodies. So conceptually, I’ve done something very similar to what is inherent to the piece.
AA: You’ve done a lot of costuming for modern dance, but you’re also a fashion designer. How do those two processes differ?
KS: It’s interesting the way that dance shapes how I design. My mind thinks much more on a body that moves. Working with dance and contemporary dance is really a lot about what I don’t do — what I strip away — creating pieces that have a contemporary feel that speak of emotions and sensations similar to what the choreographer has in mind. It’s really about these
dancers communicating their ideas, not about them wearing my clothing. And that’s the key difference. Fashion is very much this idea that you look at an individual at a time. It taught me a very interesting sense of
distilling ideas and really getting to the bottom of something.
AA: What is that building process like?
KS: I do just enough so when a person, a dancer, a fashion-conscious individual wears my clothes, they kind of recreate themselves in a way, having a heightened sense of themselves in that moment. Just a little bit of a modern moment. That’s what I’m hoping to do with everything that I do.
AA: When you speak of a “contemporary feeling,” what do you mean when you say “contemporary?”
KS: I think it’s that we’re still shaping our time — we’re still not sure what the shape of our time is. In hindsight it’s always clear to identify — it’s in hindsight that you can even see when it started. I don’t think you can make a trend, but I think you can spot a trend. In fashion, things become fashion when people engage them in their lives. Just because I make things doesn’t mean they’re fashion just yet. There’s a lot of anxiety right now about things – economically, ecologically. I think that an ecological anxiety is a sign of our time.
AA: Does that ecological anxiety influence your designs at all?
KS: That’s something that I’m tapping into with a sense of trepidation and determination and helplessness. Am I trying to create commercially viable solutions to this problem? No, not yet. It’s more trying to come up with a response. And by that I mean, a vocabulary.
AA: What kind of a vocabulary?
KS: I’m very interested in shape, in pattern. In this idea that a flat form becomes a fluid form on the body. And that this fluid form can be recorded as a flat form.
Every little angle, every little curve, every little line matters, because it asks the fabric to fall a different way, and it asks the material to do a certain motion.
AA: When did you start developing an interest in clothing? It’s obvious that you think about clothing. …
KS: All the time!
AA:: When did that start?
KS: Very early. Very early.
AA: What spurred your interest?
KS: That’s a good question. …I don’t know. I’ve always investigated how to make things, even when I was very little. When everyone had Barbie dolls, I would go to the store, look at the packaging and then recreate it at home. I had a very gangly body when I was young — I was very skinny and very tall, and nothing fit me. So I would start to come up with ways of making things fit. My mom complained that I was terrible to go shopping with because I always had an opinion on things — that they could be good if only I could “do this.”
AA:You grew up in Germany, right? And then you wanted to explore dance in New York, and that’s what brought you to America?
KS: Right. It’s kind of like your pilgrimmage to mecca. I was really interested in modern dance, and I wanted to go to New York for a year and then bring back those experiences. Then one became two, and two became four, and four became eight, and I’m still here.
AA: Do you like it here?
KS: I do. I’ve spent basically my adult life in America, and I’m American now. I really feel that … in hindsight, things always make sense. I don’t know if it would have been the same, staying in Germany. It felt very natural, the way that everything kind of progressed. And yet it wasn’t premeditated — I wasn’t saying “I’m going to be a fashion designer,” it was much more that I really, really loved live performance. I’m very philosophically engaged in everything I do — it’s a very personal thing, but it’s something that I’m very eager to share.
AA: What is it like to have these highly developed theories behind your conceptual pieces, and then to know that not all of that thought and energy you’ve put into your garment construction will be communicated to your general audience?
KS: I think that’s a question that I haven’t really been able to fully address. Part of it is that there are a number of things going on. For one thing, it’s only lately that fashion has been looked at as a cultural contributor, versus a commercial steam engine. So the way fashion has been written about has been very belittling. Meaning, it has to be cute, it has to be sexy, it has to be very quickly palatable to be even talked about. And it has to be trend-driven.
AA: As a conceptual designer, how does that affect you?
KS: For one thing, I don’t really write so much about [my garments] and I don’t really spend much time on the conceptual side of it, simply because I know it would be useless. I can still make the clothes and tone down my discussion — focus on the color palate and the detail. I don’t think I consciously try to make people think in a certain way. How often does one look at a painting … and you don’t know what that artist was thinking, but you respond to it in a very visceral way — I’m very interested in that. I feel that the pieces have to stand by themselves. I’m not offended if you shorten the pants I made, I’m not offended if you take the sleeves off. That’s what you should do if you want to really own them, to give them a life of their own.