Claudia Skoda, Queen of Subversive Knitwear, Reflects on Berlin’s Heyday

By Trisha Balster

Ulrike Ottinger, Ohne Titel (Claudia Skoda, Tabea Blumenschein & Jenny Capitain),Silbergelatine-Vintageprint, ca. 1977/78, © Ulrike Ottinger.

The designers Claudia Skoda and Frieda von Wild are no strangers to separation. Though they’re both Berliners, pandemic restrictions kept them apart over the last year. In the 1980s, it was the Berlin Wall that enforced the distance. 

When Claudia Skoda joined “fabrikneu,” a loose collective of experimental artists based in an abandoned Kreuzberg factory, West Berlin was the promised land for the Western world’s fringe creatives. The self-taught designer, whose slinky knitwear designs came to embody a certain flavor of ’80s grunge-chic, made a name for herself by incorporating materials like audiotapes and latex into her garments and staging flamboyant fashion shows in local museums. Before long, Skoda found herself rubbing shoulders with the likes of David Bowie and Iggie Pop and stocking her collections in Bergdorf Goodman.

While Skoda spent the ’80s founding her namesake label and galavanting among some of the era’s most notorious rockstars, von Wild—then an aspiring designer herself—was struggling to find outlets for her work in fascist East Berlin. Under a regime that prevented its citizens from wearing denim, founding a fashion label was out of the question. Like her neighbor to the West, von Wild and her friends founded a number of underground fashion collectives, transforming scraps of yarn into elegant knitted garments and hosting extra-legal performances that dispersed as soon as the Stasi caught wind of them. 

The two designers worked less than two miles apart and possessed strikingly similar approaches to design—in their knitting techniques and interest in pushing the boundaries of gender and beauty standards—but neither knew of the other’s existence. In 1989, shortly before the Berlin Wall’s dismantling, the two designers met at last—when von Wild secured a Western passport and an apprenticeship in Skoda’s studio. In the intervening years, the pair developed a relationship that has endured new forms of separation. This summer, as pandemic restrictions eased in Berlin, the Kunstbibliothek launched a retrospective exhibition of Skoda’s work, highlighting her role in the underground fashion movement of the ’80s. To discuss the exhibition, the pair spoke by Zoom from their apartments—Skoda rolling a formidable number of cigarettes in the process—about their craft, the Wall, and the creative spirit that developed on both sides of it.

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CLAUDIA SKODA: Frieda, do you still knit? 

FRIEDA VON WILD: At the moment not at all. I occasionally have ideas, but I haven’t used a knitting machine in a long time.

SKODA: You’ve also always been into photography.

VON WILD: Yes, I’m actually a trained photographer.

SKODA: Do you still take photos?

VON WILD: Yes. In a different way, of course. I mostly just use my iPhone.

SKODA: Because of COVID I’m actually knitting again in the evening.

TRISHA BALSTER: Around 40 years ago, you were both incredibly passionate about knitting. During the ’70s and ’80s, you used unconventional designs to shock and subvert. How did your interest in knitting come about?

VON WILD: When my grandma got a new knitting machine, she gave me her old one. And then I just couldn’t stop. I wanted to try stuff and put odd things together. Challenging norms excited me. Although, Claudia, you’re incredible when it comes to discovering new materials.

SKODA: I just wanted to do fashion, which just happened to be knitwear. But it had nothing to do with the outdated idea of knitting that a lot of people still have – plain sweaters, socks, stuff for skiing.

VON WILD: No, I never cared about the mainstream either. 

SKODA: I was actually interested in those magazines, because I wanted to know what I shouldn’t do, what was already out there. For me, that was a huge motivation. In the ’70s, I went to Paris and London and attended fashion shows. And then in ’79 I flew to New York for the first time. I had an advantage compared to people in East Berlin, because I was able to collect these experiences. You couldn’t just fly to New York to see what was going on there.

VON WILD: I was quite lucky in that respect. My mother could travel to Paris. That way, I did get a few glimpses of the West. I was incredibly lucky to have had that access at home. I didn’t have to fight for it like others.

BALSTER: Back then, the GDR imposed strict bans on traveling and consuming Western media and music. Were you jealous of the world beyond the Wall? Did you know of each other’s underground scenes?

VON WILD: I was jealous of the materials. What we had in the GDR in terms of yarn or wool were all equally bad in terms of material—my only choice was of color. I primarily designed for the shows, or maybe knitted a sweater if I needed money. But I never dreamed of running a label.

“Shake Your Hips” Polaroid, ca. 1975, © Claudia Skoda.

SKODA: I went to East Berlin once a year to have a look at what was happening there. I always felt like people immediately noticed that I was from the West. I dressed quite flamboyantly, and people in East Berlin must’ve registered that I wasn’t from there. They were apprehensive when it came to approaching me, and I didn’t have the courage either. So, there was always a barrier. 

VON WILD: Sometimes our friend groups overlapped. A few of my friends got passports and had already left East Berlin before the wall came down. The rest of us got day passes when we could. That’s how we managed to visit you at the factory, Claudia.

SKODA: Yes, you came to the showroom with a few of your designs. But in the evening, you had to go back.

VON WILD: A few of us already lived in West Berlin. But yes, the rest had to be back in the East by twelve.

SKODA: You already wanted to go back at ten! Because you wanted to eat dinner at this one Italian place. [Laughs]

VON WILD: One time, a friend of mine also visited you with a video of the first “Allerleirauh” show, which contained three small knitted tops with breast cones made out of leather. And you somehow spotted these three pieces and said to her: “Ah, she just arrived in West Berlin? Tell her to reach out to me.” So that’s what I did, and that’s how the internship came about.

BALSTER: You both did experimental knitwear, you both loved to improvise. Where did these similarities come from?

VON WILD: Some things are just in the air and if you are attuned, you just sense that stuff. We were like sponges, absorbing all that. 

SKODA: I remember that for me, music was a huge influence. I could express myself through music. No matter if it was punk or new wave, I could just really channel all that into fashion.

VON WILD: Especially punk!

SKODA: I loved the destructive side of punk, tearing something up and putting it together in a new way. Also, the graphic impulses you suddenly got through punk, the wild and unleashed side of it. That kind of liberated me in the work process.

VON WILD: Also, I was quite angry at the government for denying me essential experiences, like traveling. To be able to blow off steam through really aggressive music definitely saved some of us from going to jail. Although we also went to jail. But we wouldn’t have been able to channel that through flower power stuff. The aggressiveness of the music made us—

SKODA: —Brave!

VON WILD: Yes, it made us brave. So, we designed clothes accordingly.

Rich Richter and Claudia Skoda. 1977, © Rich Richter.

SKODA: When it comes to fashion shows, we were both pioneers. Punk was a big part of that.

VON WILD: In East Berlin during that time, we re-invented fashion shows with our collective “chic, charmant & dauerhaft.” We didn’t just walk down a runway. Our aim wasn’t to simply showcase our clothes, but to showcase ourselves, which was new.

SKODA: I remember a few photos from “Allerleirauh” of these bizarre dresses made out of leather and sticks. They looked like sculptures, photographed in amazing locations. You could just sense that these ideas were coming from a world that was a little different.

VON WILD: Yes, I always underline that as well. There was definitely some kind of relation to the West in there, but it was its own thing at the same time. When we did our first show, I was incredibly nervous, because we also all walked in it. We walked on tables, chairs, and a bit on the floor. That made me more nervous than presenting a sweater I knitted. Claudia, you always walked in your shows as well, right?

SKODA: No, actually I didn’t. I had quite fixed ideas when it came to the performances, so I couldn’t really walk in them. . 

VON WILD: For us, it was really about having fun. Some of my friends made a fortune selling their designs on the black market. They made t-shirts and jackets out of bedsheets. But we didn’t do the shows to sell that kind of stuff. Our runway designs were all one-of-a-kind.

Gertrude Goroncy, Ohne Titel (Deep Diving for Whales, Deutsche Guggenheim), C-Print, 1997, © Gertrude Goroncy.

SKODA: For us, it was a little different. Our shows always had lots of people from other cities in the audience who picked ten or twelve pieces from the collection to sell in their boutiques. After the reunification, we stopped doing shows, it became impossible after the fall of the Wall. All the big brands tried to replicate the atmosphere we’d created. They paid big sums for the locations. We didn’t have that kind of money. We couldn’t, and also didn’t want to compete with that. 

VON WILD: After the reunification, we disbanded. To be honest, I was tired of booking models and not being able to pay them, so I was a little relieved. I found that really unprofessional after a while.

BALSTER: Lavish fashion shows have become standard practice for a lot of labels over recent years. What do you think of them?

SKODA: If you want to sell fashion today, you need to cater to an entirely different crowd. Knitwear used to be a small industry. The most important factors were producing something well-made and recognizable. There was a huge knitwear boom in the ’80s, and suddenly everyone started doing knitwear. Now, because of new technologies, there are people all around the world that do amazing knitwear. Everything became increasingly perfect, sleek, and marketable. Which offers no motivation or inspiration.

VON WILD: You can’t force inspiration, and we never did. It actually has been a huge privilege that we were able to just do what we wanted to do and not obey some kind of market. But that was also because we were in East Berlin. You’d need tons of cash to do what we were doing in the ’80s today, and it would only be possible through social media. But I have to say, I actually like that approach. That’s how we did it as well. We produced great photo, great clothes, and had great models. 

Frieda von Wild, Chic, charming & durable, Allerleirauh (Credit: Hartmut Beil).

SKODA: Improvisation and experimentation still hold magic, but it’s become much rarer. Right now, avant-garde is whatever is ugly, whatever doesn’t fit the glossy fashion ideal. Stuff we got yelled at for now gets standing ovations.

VON WILD: I mean, it’s really difficult to throw new ideas into the world, ideas that really surprise people. Almost everything has been said. I think the only possibility is using new techniques. What could a teenager do nowadays to shock his parents? Except for sex? What would blow their minds?

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Frieda von Wild, Chic, charming & durable, Allerleirauh (Credit: Hartmut Beil).

Frieda von Wild, Chic, charming & durable, Allerleirauh (Credit: Hartmut Beil).


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