Beauty & Purpose

ITS 2015 winner Paula Knorr on MY WET SKIN

German designer Paula Knorr explains the making of her Royal College of Art MA graduate collection, which has been awarded with the ITS Prize 2015 and worn by Bjork to ACHTUNG MODE, in addition to London education and being an emerging designer in today’s industry.

‘I’ll start from the beginning: it’s me, moving to England, studying at the Royal College of Art’ says Paula Knorr when I meet her at the East London showroom of her recently appointed PR agency. Dressed in black, Knorr’s elegant pared-back appearance strikes a utilitarian tone against the iridescent garments on a nearby rail. However, as our conversation is to reveal, these designs have much in common with Knorr’s get up today – a shotgun wedding of beauty and purpose. She explains her work to be rooted in her first experience of art school at the University of Applied Sciences in Trier, where she gained a BA in fashion design. Knorr is also a womenswear tailor, certified by the German city’s Chamber of Crafts. ‘My education in Germany was really skill-based, like a bespoke tailor. ‘Design on purpose’; designing for women. This may be boring and not so artistic, but it’s really about fit and how the woman feels in the garment.’ Knorr’s collection is a beautiful reaction to the visually dazzling yet often hard to wear creations she encountered in London. ’ I was in this mood; I didn’t want to do something that doesn’t have a purpose, which has no contact to the person. I would like to do something that is completely the opposite.’ With such strong personal convictions, it is little wonder that Knorr sourced her own references, creating inspiration from scratch rather than, say, digging deep in fashion history. ‘ When I started, I was like ‘OK, why do I actually need a research theme? Why can’t I just start with the person that wears the garments? When Knorr enrolled in the RCA Masters degree, the course was undergoing complete structural changes, as directed by newly appointed Head of Programme Zoe Broach, one of the founders of label Boudicca. ‘I have never met anyone with such power’, says Knorr of her former teacher. Broach reduced the curriculum to just one collection, allowing students the time to explore and trial ideas. ‘We didn’t have to do clothes; it was a really deep, inspirational process. Having the time to experiment in other fields’.

Pages from Paula Knorr's beautiful lookbook
Pages from Paula Knorr’s beautiful lookbook

And so Knorr set out ambitiously to learn about women today, drafting a questionnaire addressed to a group as diverse as her grandma, little sister and assorted friends. ‘The questionnaire was about how they feel as a woman and how they would portray a woman. What’s their idea of a modern woman? How do they think feminism is growing today? A lot of really deep questions, not so much about political feminism or social feminism, more about everyday experiences.’ says Knorr. She then prompted friends to visually interpret the written answers, using paper and diaphanous foils as props. Think ‘motherhood’ captured in enveloping, guarding movements. Knorr captured the result on film, and the videos we watch today are of an eerie, intimate and delicate beauty, set in the tiled bathroom of her East London flat and the cavernous college hallways alike.

‘I realised it was not about the picture; it’s about the motions, the transformations that happen during the time-lapse of the video. After creating those videos, I realised that the way of constructing my collection should be about a process rather than recreating pictures’ says Knorr. This included said sheets of paper: crumbling, tearing and bending with every move and splash of water. ‘The paper in the beginning is really stiff and then it gets really soft because the water flows on top. Then it breaks into a different state’. Next, Knorr moved on to fabrics. ‘I started to make really rough toiles and let the girls play with that. The whole concept I have here, the whole motion, like wrapping around and destroying, started with draping sessions.’ Draping and manipulating fabrics is one of Knorr’s specialities. ‘I tried to drape on their bodies. How they carry their body is really important. Somebody confident wears clothes differently, and that also changes the design. You design towards that shape.’ In the final collection, peeling paper is echoed through panels of metallic woven fabrics skillfully attached to a glove tight base. Glossy fabrics are both skin tight and spilling gently into ruffles and elongated sleeves. ‘The other concept is the idea of molding the fabric around the body. It’s the same kind of idea but not the peeling apart; it’s more that it really hugs the body’ says Knorr. ‘The metallics came mostly from the water I was using in the films as well. The water as a medium to wash something away, or to free yourself’ explains Knorr the choice of fabric, which she sourced from three different couture companies supplying the likes of Valentino and Versace. These include stretchy jacquards and glistening velvets woven in France.

Tinsel-like embroidery made in Berlin
Tinsel-like embroidery made in Berlin

A third concept mimics still water in three-dimensional embroidery at once covering and exposing the skin underneath. ‘I wanted to create this really nude effect; the color of the shadow tinting the body. The inspiration for the placement comes from videos I had done of my little sister in the bathtub; you see these waterlines moving around the body when she’ s moving’. For this complicated, tinsel-like detail Knorr collaborated with a recently founded fair trade embroidery company, helmed by a friend and operating in both Berlin and India. Most recently, Knorr’s patience, innovative spirit and mastery of techniques was recognised by the industry jury of ITS 2015, Barbara Franchini’s initiative to aide emerging talents. One of Knorr’s champions was Massimo Giorgetti of MSGM and lately Pucci.

Pieces from the ITS 2015 winning collection

So what are Knorr’s plans for the immediate future? As the winner of ITS 2015, she will present a follow up in the coming months and there are fervent requests for capsule collections. The day we meet, news are awash with Raf Simon’s and Alber Elbaz’ departures from Dior and Lanvin respectively, prompting discussions on the validity of today’s fashion system. Knorr is in a pensive mood. ‘ At the moment, I am still in this ‘in between’ because I just graduated. So nobody really expects me to already produce, or have stockists. I have to think where I want to go with this. I have the feeling that the industry is overwhelmed with so many young designers who all do the same the big designers do. Two collections, twice a year, then sell it – but are totally in depts.’ Knorr is busy creating one of pieces, trying to find ‘a way that I can afford but that the industry still recognises me as a designer’. Icelandic songstress Bjork has been spotted in Knorr’s designs, on and off stage. ‘I went to two after parties and she wore my clothes! It’s really nice to have her live in the clothes. She has a really strong idea what women should be like and really lives it’. In addition, the young designer works with duo Peter Pilotto, and has returned to the University of Applied Sciences in Trier, this time as a visitng teacher sharing a rather more anglophile take on fashion.’ That’s really why I wanted to go back to my German school to bring in this English education; design ideas, your own personality, your own vision as a designer – and most importantly be able to communicate that’