Bernhard Willhelm Shines an Unlikely Spotlight on the Potato

Bernhard Willhelm Shines an Unlikely Spotlight on the Potato

Fashion's (likely) least favorite vegetable, the potato, nabs a Dover Street Market New York spotlight, courtesy of Bernhard Willhelm

Fashion's (likely) least favorite vegetable, the potato, nabs a Dover Street Market New York spotlight, courtesy of Bernhard Willhelm

Text: SAMUEL ANDERSON

On Saturday, for the second time this year, Dover Street Market New York unveiled New Beginning, a biannual event in which the trendsetting megastore sheds nearly all of its merchandise and unveils a fresh banquet of extra-ordinary gear in the course of one weekend. New on the menu this cycle is L.A.-based designer Bernhard Willhelm, whose striking, carbohydrate-themed installation on the 4th floor features his unlikeliest muse yet: the potato. We caught up with the German-born avant-gardist at the opening of New Beginning to find out why he chose the humble vegetable to represent his latest collection, aptly dubbed MAGIC POTATO, and how it took root at DSMNY.

“The potato is very linked to pre-humanity and to civilization. A lot of people have had to survive on potatoes. My parents survived on potatoes after the War. Maybe I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the potato.” Willhelm explained.

The austere spud may not scream fashion, but in this case, it rings true of Willhelm’s counter-culture persuasions by memorializing a time when choice was scarce. And in the era of fast fashion and direct-from-the-runway collections, its presence at DSMNY feels particularly appropriate.

“Fashion has changed during the [17] years I’ve been working. I mean, how many people still want gowns? How many people still want couture? I studied with the new generation of the Antwerp designers, which was like Raf Simons and Kris Van Assche. I think all of us have experienced this realism in a very different way.”

In the case of MAGIC POTATO, Willhelm seems to have taken realism to the extreme: In collaboration with artist William Lemon, Willhelm created handbags made out of concrete. It’s this puckish originality that has allowed Willhelm to retain his status as an enfant terrible since splashing into 1999 Paris Fashion Week as a protégé of designers like Walter van Beirendonck and Alexander McQueen.

While never one to follow trends, Willhelm’s nonconformity aligns with fashion’s recently expanding social consciousness. “This whole gender discussion that came up last season…" he said, "comes back to the idea of unisex and sportswear, but also in terms of, you wear what you like and you wear how you feel.”

Willhelm takes empowering (albeit not-quite-unisex) sportswear to unique levels of sex-positivity: his undergarments, available at Dover Street and modeled by Willhelm himself with adult film star Cutler X, feature pouches designed for male arousal—a tribute, he says, to his early days as an underwear model. “I used to be a sexy underwear model when I was like, 16, 18. That’s when I met two guys in Munich who were the first ones to offer sexy Lycra for men. And now it has become kind of a thing. All of the sex shops are selling sexy Lycra for men 20 years later.”

“You have to get it through here,” he explained, pointing to a stretchy ring of fabric in the front of a pair of liquid-soft orange Lycra shorts. “It’s a little bit like, ‘I’m at home, just relaxing, but also a little bit aroused.’”

Fetishistic underwear aside, Willhelm’s style is clearly animated by Eastern traditions, emphasizing regal, oversized structures and ornamental splashes reminiscent of the Japanese kimono. And as he explained, his connection to Japanese culture is more than just aesthetic: “I’ve been linked to Japan for almost 10 years. The clothes are produced there, and I visit twice a year.”

It’s that same link that brings Willhelm to DSMNY, the brainchild of Comme des Garcons’s Rei Kawakubo, whom Willhelm met on one of his early trips to Japan: “It’s so funny because I met Rei 10 years ago when they opened the Corso Como Comme des Garcons shop in Tokyo. It was her, Carla Sozanni [the founder of Corso Como], [Azzedine] Alaia, and then me. I was like a child. I gave Rei a pair of shoes I found in the Tokyo flea market. And then at the end of the evening, we went to this Russian caviar place in Tokyo. It was very postmodern. So it’s kind of funny now, 10 years later, to be [at Dover Street Market].”

Japan was also where Willhelm was inspired to create MAGIC POTATO, while visiting a friend who was staying at a Buddhist monastery. “Each morning, they would put a potato in front of the Buddha as decoration. I called it Buddha’s delight,” Willhelm said, adding that, technically, it was a yam.

“I’m very into plants. If I wasn’t a fashion designer, I probably would have been a botanist.” Don’t believe him? Then, next time you’re waiting in line at Dover Street Market New York, check out Willhelm’s other collection.

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