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Claudia Skoda: The fine art of fashion

As Berlinische Galerie celebrates Claudia Skoda's iconic work, we talked about fashion, politics and the future.

Martin Kippenberger, Ohne Titel (Claudia Skoda with her knitting machine at Kottbusser Tor, Berlin), ca. 1976-77. Photo: Estate of Martin Kippenberger/Galerie Gisela Capitain, Köln/SMB/Kunstbibliothek/Dietmar Katz

Claudia Skoda has become part of the mythos of the West Berlin DIY art scene of the 70s and 80s, and one of Berlin’s most widely recognised fashion icons. Although she came from a family of tailors and dressmakers, she broke with tradition by only working in knitwear. Skoda used her knitting machine as a form of self expression, which she fed with innovative materials like audiotape and latex. Working out of Fabrik Neu, an artist’s collective in an abandoned Kreuzberg factory, she was part of punk fashion shows in local galleries and designed pieces for Kraftwerk and post punk outfit Die Tödliche Doris. 

Berlinische Galerie’s current exhibition Images in Fashion – Clothing in Art explores 100 years of creative dialogue between art and fashion and features one of Skoda’s revolutionary knitwear pieces. Exberliner caught up with the designer to talk about politics, fashion and finding inspiration in the most unlikely places. 

Your work in the 70s and 80s was part of the Berlin avant garde, especially with the scene around Fabrikneu, were you consciously making political statements?

I’m tired of always talking about what happened back then, it feels like everyone is only ever interested in the past. Mostly we were just doing what we wanted without really asking questions like that, everything was trying to fit into the movement we were part of. Being a knitwear designer was not my first job, I was a newspaper editor before that, I just wanted to be part of something different. Now I’m more open, Fabrikneu is gone and I work alone, mostly on commissions from private clients and try to keep up with contemporary trends. It’s important to look to the future, even in knitwear there is still innovation. 

Photo: Claudia Skoda/SMB/Kunstbibliothek/Dietmar Katz

A lot of the current exhibition in Berlinische Galerie that you are featured in covers the evolution of how the female figure is constructed, especially in the turn of the century movement against the corset. Do you take a feminist approach in your designs? 

Not consciously, no. I suppose I am against the corset in that I try to make comfortable clothing that feels free, but I also make clothing that accentuates the female figure. My work is about self expression, joy and playfulness – there was a lot of bra-burning feminists in the 70s, but I was never into that. When I make women’s clothes they must look feminine and feel good. Designs that I made which were considered avant-garde at the time are now considered classic because they were made to be wearable, for the street. My style is very recognisable, people often remark to me they can easily recognise a Skoda design or the Skoda shape. 

Gertrude Goroncy, Ohne Titel (Deep Diving for Whales, Deutsche Guggenheim), 1997. Photo: Gertrude Goroncy/SMB/Kunstbibliothek/Dietmar Katz

Can you talk more about the Skoda shape and the influences on your patterns? 

The Skoda shape is very narrow, slender, and form fitting. Now I’m trying to get away from that more – especially in menswear – I’m experimenting more with oversized pieces. Knitting allows me to be inventive in the fabrics I use and to create my own shapes. For instance, body cut outs are becoming popular again. I was doing that in the 80s. It takes a lot of time, which is the only downside. Every pattern is like a statement. At the start, I was very interested in the Russian constructivists or people like Matisse. But later I started to be inspired by everyday things like computer wiring or advertisements I saw on the street. It feels like magic how it all comes together. 

Claudia Skoda. Photo: Patricia Schichl

How do you find inspiration for your current work? 

I work a lot now by looking back at my old catalogue. It’s inspiring to try and recreate techniques I used before and to try and figure out how I did it and try and make it contemporary. It’s not nostalgia, technique is where I grow and take things to a new level. Even with knitwear you can innovate.The materials stay the same but I am always trying new techniques. What I try to make is what I don’t see anywhere else. I was doing Batik (an indonesian fabric printing technique that uses wax mixed with dye) when no one else was, now I’m experimenting with using felt and weaving in my knitwear.  Where things are going with technology I feel I can no longer compete though, I just don’t have the technical expertise. For instance, with people like the dutch designer Iris Van Herpen who makes dresses with 3D printing. Everyone is trying to do something extraordinary, but a lot of it is not wearable, it’s difficult to transform into streetwear. Even when I’m experimenting I want people to be able to wear my knitwear. 

Where can people keep up with you? 

I post a lot on my instagram, both old and new stuff. There was a great book about me published last year as well, Dressed to Thrill. You can find it in your local library.