An interview with Stephan Schneider

Ever since six graduates of Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts arrived at a London fashion fair in the back of a van in 1988, all eyes have been on the tiny Belgian city. The designer Stephan Schneider arrived in the city one year later.

Born in a small industrial town near Düsseldorf, Schneider left his native Germany in 1989 to train at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts at a time when the city was heavily under fashion’s gaze. He reflects: “Well, the Belgian phenomenon had just begun; Dries Van Noten started to show in 1992 and then Demeulemeester too – it was a very exciting time. Everything that starts is exciting – continuation in fashion is the really difficult thing.”

Schneider’s sensitive mark on fashion is as subtle as his design aesthetic and the designer enjoys an almost cult status. “It took me almost 10 years to see the strength in this,” he recalls. For years he would bluff to impending buyers about the success of his label to create a buzz. “When I had 20 points of sale, I said I had 40; when I had sold 20 pieces, I said I sold 200 because I thought that you had to be big in order to be respected.” Today his outlook has taken a sharp turn. “I’m so glad that we are only four people and we are a small company and we’re not dependent on anyone.”

Independence from the catwalk is also something Schneider is enjoying, shunning the traditional catwalk show after eight years, to focus on the small detail of selling. The glamorous excesses of a fashion show did nothing for Schneider. “I stopped catwalk shows in 2008 because I didn’t feel like there was a need for anyone to see the Stephan Schneider show. My buyers know the collection, they need to see it closely, they want to see the garments, feel the fabrics and after eight years, I didn’t have the passion to keep doing these shows twice a year for just eight minutes. They didn’t seem to add anything.” The theatrics proved all too detrimental to the design process. “You make things that you think will look good in the press or in a photo and when you don’t have to do that any more, it’s freeing.”

Perhaps most patent is Schneider’s earlier observations to a journalist professing that there was no “drama” in his clothes. He feels the term “classic” is over estimated too. “Perhaps we should call garments with a certain heritage ‘classic’ and that is nice, I like that, although I like the word ‘tradition’ much more.” If there is no drama, no show, no excess in his clothes then what is there? “My collections are not dramatic but there are certain extraordinary elements. I present my garments so normally – effortlessly – I never saw myself as a designer who wanted to be avant garde or present a new look or a new style. I never was concerned with that.” Schneider’s concern is in the detail: attractive to people who want to make less effort when dressing. “I think by definition the subject of fashion shouldn’t be too heavy – for me it is not diplomatic, it is not correct, it is not right or wrong, it should stay superficial by definition. I don’t think we can really talk about fashion in the way of contrasts. I do it by intuition not by stating how I think it should be.”

A somewhat beguiling paradox, a Stephan Schneider jacket may appear in fact very normal but upon inspection, the details, fabrics and cut seem so involved that it becomes easier to understand the quiet kudos the brand has cultivated. Designing and producing all of the fabrics in the collection himself, the brand makes small productions of sometimes only 30 pieces per style and in Schneider’s own prose, “it doesn’t look extraordinary.” The most enjoyable time is when the collection comes to the warehouse. “You see the pieces 50 times in a row and you see blocks of just fabric, you realise how much was sold or chosen in the chequered fabric or whatever colour. The product for me is the highlight.”

Yet such an array of new fabrics can sometimes blur Schneider’s message – most people wouldn’t think of going to Stephan Schneider for a black wool suit – “It would be amazing if they did,” he says. “I have great cuts and details and it’s not always about the newest fabrics and I would love to sell some more pieces in black but the greenish-blue fabric, which is my favourite right now, is doing well, so I cannot complain.” Somewhat resolved, Schneider quips: “I don’t work to sell volume – buyers come to me and want to pick the raisins out of the bread.” Again drawing a comparison to food, he adds: “When a dish is presented normally but tastes amazing, for me it is the best dish; when there is a lot of building up or a tower on a plate, I have no interest.”

His first shop on Reyndersstraat in Antwerp opened in 1996 and still looks exactly the same 14 years on. “I hate change. I think it is so nice to see a store that looks the same for 30 years. I like the bakery, which still looks the same as it did in the 1930s. I don’t change anything, even the carpet gets a bit dirty after 14 years but I don’t want to get a new carpet, it’s a nice carpet and it has a certain quality – quality is really important to me.”

“I have customers who are not really into fashion, which I was surprised about. People don’t care as much any more about which magazines you might have been in. They don’t want to have this predictability of the brand. They look at the garment, they don’t know the name and they are really happy.”

Schneider is more than comfortable with the almost anonymous status his clothes and he as a designer have. “I used to think this was negative, worried about people not buying, but now they are happy when they don’t know and don’t have to buy into a pre-existing image. My clothes are like a book and when they are worn they become like the movie of the book and you don’t want to read the book anymore. I really see it like that …”

It was through reading magazines that the young Stephan Schneider became first aroused by fashion. Buying his first copy of the monthly pop culture magazine BLITZ in 1986, he says: “I saw all the designers, Pam Hogg, John Richmond, it was the first time that I felt excited about fashion, but it was also the youth culture too – I was so fascinated by fashion in the UK at that time.” Visiting London two or three times a year, Schneider’s obsession with England found him at a boarding school in North Yorkshire. “I was never fascinated by Vionnet or the first Dior dress, I was always fascinated by youth.”

Now a Professor at Berlin’s Universität der Künste, Schneider’s obsession with youth culture has dwindled and he takes little inspiration from his own students. “I hope for it but I guess I am too stubborn. I really think youth culture died when the acid house smiley was on the cover of i-D magazine and the raves with 10,000 people started. I used to go to small clubs and then I remember I stood there in-between 10,000 people and for me, that was when it felt like the youth movement had died.” The lesson he likes to give his own students contrasts the tell-all generation they are a part of. “It is really difficult in fashion as you hear so many comments about your work or about clothes and you have to filter them and still do what you feel is right. I tell my students that they shouldn’t listen too much.”

In a sea of minimalism and obsessive detail, Schneider’s design motivation starts with a garment he does not like; for him, the process is about improvement. “With every collection you make mistakes and you change them the next time. I think that is my biggest motivation – to improve everything.” Underlining a turning point in the way people are wearing luxury fashion, he concludes: “Fashion asks for effort and I made so much effort 20 years ago but now I don’t anymore. I don’t know why, but now our lives ask no effort of people as they just want to enjoy – people want to dance without having to dress up or care about sweating. Once you wear trainers it’s hard to go back to leather shoes.”

Published in B MAGAZINE #3 A/W 2010/11

Stephan Schneider A/W 2010/11 photographed by Stefan Heinrichs
Stephan Schneider photographed by Lydia Gorges
Stephan Schneider A/W 2010/11 photographed by Stefan Heinrichs