Grete Moeller is a London-based designer from Berlin. Her most recent collection, her graduate collection, which was chosen by ShowStudio and Nick Knight to be part of the Class of 2020 Showcase, references art history from the 17th-century. Using upholstery materials and her friends’ jewellery, she lovingly upcycles all of these to recreate this regal history.
Moeller designs her pieces with trans and non-binary individuals in mind, allowing them to relive the past they have been erased from. In this interview, we step into Grete’s universe and ask her how she manages to transform individuals from marginalised communities into ornate, stately home furnishings, and how she will use her vision to transform the fashion industry for good.
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For those who are unfamiliar with your work, can you briefly tell us about yourself? How did you get into design and what aspects of design are you particularly drawn to?
I got into designing and sewing in general because my mum taught me how to sew at a very young age. She was always making cute little outfits for me and my sister, and we went to fabric stores together to choose the fabrics. She also showed me how to make basic things like little pencil cases just to help us get into it. She was always encouraging me to make things with her.
Fashion design wasn’t my first choice as a career path after I graduated high school in Germany. I started studying theatre and performance, and I found myself in the costume department, where I found myself so much more passionate about sewing than acting. That’s when I decided to focus on fashion design.
So, were you drawn more towards the performance and costume-y side of fashion, rather than the practical, wearable side of fashion?
Yeah, I think that costume communicates what fashion has the potential to be. With commercial fashion, in general, there is something missing for me.
Are you aiming to transform the fashion industry to a point where it transgresses the boundaries between wearable fashion and costume? Do you feel that’s something that the industry could benefit from?
That’s definitely one of my goals, and something I am for as part of my research. At university, I was always told that my ideas were narrow-minded, and I would be forced to keep it wearable and business oriented. When I would make an outlandish garment, I wouldn’t be allowed to have it shown in the runway the way I wanted it to be. If I had made a garment that was meant to be worn without anything underneath, in a way that’s provocative, it wouldn’t be allowed. It’s sad to think that so many people view fashion in this way. People will see my designs and say, I wish I could wear this out, and I’m like, why don’t you?
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Is it the camp energy of costume that compels you? As in something that is made to be looked at rather than necessarily being made for the purpose of practicality.
I don’t think it’s just made to be looked at. Especially for queer people, it’s about being who you are within your community. Your community can actually appreciate art and the idea that clothing is art. A lot of people told me that if I wanted to be an artist, then I should not study fashion design because you are only a designer. They told me that a designer is only successful in the industry when they can sell things, and that avant-garde things would not sell. But actually, art and fashion can coexist.
Do you feel that costume is more an expression of the truth, your truth of what you want to look like?
Yeah, I do. I want to create my own universe. In terms of visually representing my designs, for example with photoshoots, I am trying to create a universe that is provocative and elicits conversation. I am trying to create something different, something you wouldn’t find in most stores.
You have talked before about the way in which your designs are more wearable for trans and non-binary individuals. This is not typical of commercial fashion because the fashion industry is such a gendered industry.
Yeah. In my opinion, it’s complete erasure. I generally create feminine garments such as corsets. Typically, corsets would be made with cis women in mind. I create those feminine pieces on a mannequin of an AMAB (assigned male at birth) body. Mostly, fashion brands do not make clothing with trans and non-binary individuals in mind because the fashion industry completely erases their existence. There is no section for queerness. This has been my experience in studying fashion design as well. When you start at fashion school, you get two options: womenswear and menswear. I want to disrupt this stigma.
“When you start at fashion school, you get two options: womenswear and menswear. I want to disrupt this stigma.”
How does the deconstructed approach to your materials allow you to tailor your clothes to fit trans and non-binary bodies?
The deconstructed nature of the garments was more a part of the nature of the collection. I started ripping things apart because I was inspired by a poem called Restoring Broken Bodies. Deconstructing the garments definitely allowed me more freedom for design choices – items such as the isolated sleeves are one-size-fits-all, and you can just slip them on.
Did your love of costume come before your desire to design for trans and non-binary bodies or did it come afterwards?
It came afterwards. The collection was inspired by art historical paintings. The queer community is completely erased from this historical footage, so it gives marginalized communities a chance to wear these historical garments.
So, you’re giving queer people a chance to relive historical moments that they have been erased from.
Exactly. In the 17th century, which was the era that I was inspired by the most, you only see cis, white, rich people wearing these garments. That’s something I wanted to change, and that’s why the collection is called Restoring Broken Bodies. The fabrics are printed with the paintings I was inspired by. By restoring historical painting in this way, I am recreating it to fit into an inclusive reality.
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I love it partly because, as a non-binary individual, it’s cool to think that something like that is specifically made for people like me. It’s something that I feel like you don’t really see in the fashion industry. Not just that you can buy it and wear it if you’re bold enough and if you fit into it, but that something is specifically made for you/your body.
I realized that from being on set for a lot of shoots with a non-binary model because they know this looks good for their image, but the garment wasn’t made with them in mind. It wasn’t made for that individual, and to give that individual this opportunity is tokenism most of the time.
Absolutely. Your designs certainly have a 17th-century courtly appeal. How does this affect the way you choose your materials?
Everything I make is upcycled; I don’t buy any new material. I get everything – from fabrics to pins, to hook-and-eye threads – second-hand or from my grandmother. Mostly it is upholstery material, curtain material, blankets, and cushions. I use these because they tend to be a lot thicker, which I need because I also use a lot of art material like photo frames, wire and boning, so I need to really construct the pieces and create volume. Although I do also use a lot of lace, so I don’t only limit myself to these kinds of materials.
I think it makes your work look very regal, to have this amount of volume. One of my favourite aspects of your work is the draped jewels and added photo frames. It is reminiscent of stately home interiors. How do furniture upholstery, interior design and fashion design combine in your work?
I studied in Milan for a month, where I visited all these regal buildings. That’s when I finally had the inspiration for my final collection – everything there is breathtaking. That’s one of the reasons why I used a lot of home décor features like chandeliers and photo frames; I can visualize those backgrounds from my research.
My friends always donate me their jewellery and brooches because I don’t want to buy new stuff. That’s how I source all my material and accessories – my garments are a product of people’s home décor. The frames also came into play when I collaborated with an artist from Madrid. She made the drawings that are in the little frames, like the little lover’s eyes. She draws them herself. For one piece, I made a pannier and put them all over. Every single one is an original, handmade painting. It’s so beautiful.
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I noticed you used the 17th-century emblem of the lover’s eye pendant. For our readers who are unfamiliar, in the 17th century, people would buy jewellery with paintings of eyes attached as charms for their lovers. Do you feel like there is something romantic about your collection?
With the collection, I wanted to combine art and fashion so that I could make fashion be seen as art. For this, I wanted to collaborate with the artist that makes those jewellery pieces. When we met, we talked about those images, and she was also very influenced by the 17th century and she wanted her art to have a romantic feel to it. A lot of the feedback that I got, even before I started this collection, was that it’s romantic. And I thought it would be great to combine this with making fashion for trans and non-binary people because the queer community is hyper-sexualized.
Unlike hyper-sexualization, romance is private. It isn’t anyone’s business; it is close to your heart. I wanted to change society’s perception of queer people and to put them into a completely different narrative. I wanted to show that it shouldn’t always be seen in this way. It’s a statement against the dehumanization of queer bodies because it is about feeling.
Do you feel that the models in your collection become art themselves when wearing your designs?
I choose my models because I see something in them – I see a person and know what I want them to wear. They are all friends, friends of friends, or people from my community. With styling, dressing, and shoots, what makes the whole creative process so special is that everyone involved gives their special skill to it.
I always have queer people on set and everyone gives their art to it. This way, we can make something truly created by ourselves and for our communities. It is always interesting to see how the model feels. I had a conversation with one of them about this recreation of historical fashion that was only worn by white, cis people. They were saying that it’s so great to be able to wear it and feel like they own it.
Were there any art historical reference points that were particularly helpful for your work?
Definitely. I love archive pieces. I was very inspired by the way Maison Margiela combined fashion and art. I researched a lot of queer art history, although it’s very hard to find articles about it because most of it is erased. I found the story of Saint Wilgefortis, a queer person who was crucified (like Jesus) for refusing to marry a man and having masculine features. Since she was crucified, images of her gender-bending have been easily mistaken for images of Christ. It’s a clear example of cultural memory loss. I found so much footage of similar things – the erasure of queerness in religion. You find a lot of rosaries and crosses in the garments because it’s criticism of this historical erasure.
Your work is truly breathtaking, and I sense that this is only the beginning. How will you go about transforming the fashion industry following your graduation?
Thank you so much, that truly means a lot. I hope to be an inspiration for others to deconstruct the ideas of gender, raise the voices of my community and empower creatives to explore new ways of expression. I would like to see more people understand fashion as an art form and appreciate the beautiful work so many amazing young designers are creating that questions society’s values that we were raised to fit into.
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