16th of June 2018
Interview & Pictures: MH
Product Pictures: Andreas Riess

Hien Le

Since its inception over ten years ago, Berlin Fashion Week has also been a fertile ground for new labels and designers. A lot of new brands have come - and gone.

Hien Le had his fashion week debut in 2011. With each collection he evolves, and combines elegance and nonchalance. His trademark: All his clothes are made in Germany.

We met on a sunny afternoon in Kreuzberg to talk about his production, his career path and of course Berlin.

Buy Hien Le at our shop

Hien Header

I read in an interview that one of your biggest influences when growing up was MTV.
Which are your top three videos of all time?

I did grow up watching MTV, and it did affect me in one way or another in what I am doing right now, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying it was one of the biggest influences for me.
It’s hard to name three videos from the top of my head, but the three biggest artists were Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson and Wham, and also George Michael.

Just a few weeks ago I obsessed over George Michael and it was so great to see how he evolved as a solo artist.

Freedom really had an effect on me. It was also around that time that I saw an interview with Karl Lagerfeld in the course of a documentary about the model generation of this time, people like Cindy Crawford.
I knew that this famous designer Karl Lagerfeld, and from that point on I began to buy fashion magazines, I would flip through them and soak them up.
After seeing that documentary it was clear to me that I wanted to have something to do with fashion.

We’ll talk about that in a bit. Just one question before that: You’re from Laos. When did you come to Germany?

I was born in Laos, but my ancestors were from Vietnam. When I was one or two years old we moved to Berlin. I can’t remember most of the stuff before that.
This here is my home.

Are you still in contact with anyone over there?

I have a really big family. My father has nine siblings, my mother has eight. That means that I have a lot of cousins. The whole family of my father is here in Berlin, my mother’s family is in France or Belgium. This is my close family.
Of course I do have some distant relatives who are living in Vietnam or Laos, but I’m not connected to them.
My family is here in Europe.

After seeing the Karl Lagerfeld documentary and coming to a decision, what were your next steps?

I got into it deeper and deeper. On MTV there was a fashion series hosted by a model, and on Saturday mornings on BBC there was show where they always showed the latest trends. Seeing this, it became clear to me that I really wanted to work with fabric, the texture and the craftsmanship.
I dropped out of school after the tenth grade and started an apprenticeship as a tailor. After that I caught up on my Abitur.
As a first step towards fashion design, I started another apprenticeship as an assistant for fashion and design, and when I finished that, I moved to France. I thought that since I wanted to work in that field, it made sense to speak another language besides English. I had two internships there, returned to Berlin and then actually started to study fashion design.

So before beginning your studies you already had a lot of experience and pieces together.

Yes, before studying I wanted to learn the real handcraft, to see how sewing works, how to develop a garment.
It wasn’t until my experience in France that I really wanted to study fashion design, and I applied. While I was studying I always already looking for an opportunity to gain more experience. I helped out at the IDEAL (an independent fashion congress with independent designers from Scandinavia) or looked after the models backstage at the Berlin Fashion week, took care of the running order… all those kind of things.
In addition I worked in retail the whole time.

You were surrounded by fashion all the time.

That’s right. I started at H&M, where I worked for a long time, before American Apparel headhunted me.
Just before starting there I moved to Antwerp for an internship.
After American Apparel I worked at Fillipa K.

What happened after your studies?
After graduating I wanted to stay in Berlin to orient myself further. That’s how I came across PR, because I thought that it was something I don’t know anything about and that it would be interesting to know how fashion works over there.
So I started with an internship at Agentur V, and was lucky that they wanted to continue to work with me. I moved over to sales and was responsible for the distribution of many other designers, which made me travel a lot.
For the things that followed, it was the best school I could have gone through,

When did you first think about being self-employed?

After dealing with sales at Agentur V for two years, I missed working with the actual product, with the fabrics and the cuts. Back when I graduated I never had the intention of being self-employed because I was seeing myself working for somebody. The craving to create something of my own wasn’t really there until the very end.
Working at Agentur V taught me a lot, but at the same time it brought me to the point where I wanted to be independent. I noticed that perhaps I really should just try it, because there isn’t such thing as perfect timing. The things that I’m doing here for others, why don’t I start doing them for myself? This way I could combine it with the one thing I really want to do!
That’s how I made the decision.

What was your first vision when you started?

To me it was clear that I wanted to choose the classic rhythm. That’s the way I learned, and I saw it during my internship at Veronique Branquinho back there in Antwerp. Making two collections per year, taking the collections to the trade shows and bringing my clothes into the stores.
From the beginning I wasn’t interested in having my own store. It was more about establishing myself as a designer and getting some press.

Hien Le Let Love Rule T-Shirt

Unisex 'Let Love Rule T-Shirt' by Hien Le
Available at our shop

What where the circumstances when you started?

It was after the financial crisis and Berlin was at its peak. There was a fresh air around here, a lot of Berlin designers were gaining attention, people like Michael Sontag, Vladimir Kharalev, Perret Schad. It was a good time.
At the same time the Berlin Senat started a project called “Start your own fashion business”. Unfortunately, the first year that I applied I didn’t get in. Nevertheless, I did my collection and presented it in a showroom. Then I had the luck that Jessi Weiß (from LesMads back then) dropped by, liked what she was seeing and posted it on her blog.
After that post so much has happened. Suddenly I had a lot of requests for interviews with daily newspapers, magazines, Berlin Fashion TV, … that’s why I’m really grateful to Jessi, she was one of my first supporters.

Back then, I feel that the coverage was more channeled. Before that you had Fashion TV at MTV, and when blogs started to become a thing, LesMads was THE place to look at.

In the following year I applied again with my third collection and made the third place. Besides some money, I also won some business administration coaching, which was really helpful.
With this collection I made my debut at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week.

Hien Le

To me it seems that there was a desire for fashion labels from Berlin. Everybody waited for something to happen. How has Berlin evolved as a location since then?

There was a phase where I thought that now it’s going to take off.
I’m forever thankful for everything that has happened. Thankful, that there was IMG and the Berliner Senat and that we have the Berliner Salon now, which is a good platform.
Back then, when I had my debut, it was more focused. There was the tent and everything happened there. At the same time the “Style Night” by Michaelsky was happening. These were the two locations besides the trade shows. By 2015, Berlin had evolved and gained more international acclaim and press. Nevertheless, it was still difficult with the buyers. It was clear to me that if I wanted to sell, I needed to get out of here and present my collection in Paris.

There was another upheaval in 2015.

Besides the tent, there was a new venue where labels could show their collection, the Kronprinzen Palais, initiated by the German Vogue and Nowadays.
The idea was to bring together German design under one roof. Since then it’s gained a more international vibe.
At the same time some labels present off-site, which I like.
However, the IMG Fashion Week didn’t take place last year because the contract with Mercedes ran out. I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing, but to me it seemed like the last Fashion Week didn’t really happen, even though I was there.
Now it’s exciting to see how it’ll develop further.

Perhaps now that IMG isn’t there anymore, there is more space for other things.
I think that’s exactly what makes it interesting, because there is so much potential.

Totally. When I started, other big German brands like Boss or Joop still showed here. When it was announced that they would stop doing so, people kept asking me what I think about that. I was sort of divided. On the one hand it’s sad that brands from Germany leave Berlin to show somewhere else, but on the other hand, for the younger generation like us it was a good thing, because we gained a lot more attention.
This way it also became more interesting for the press, who had a new topic besides talking about clothing companies that showed here.

Hien Le

To me it sums up the Berlin spirit, because as someone from the outside you never know exactly which label will show again and which won’t.

There is always so much happening. You can see that every six months there is another new label. I really think it’s a good thing that there is a lot going on here and people still feel drawn to Berlin. I’m thankful that things like Berlin Fashion and the Berliner Salon week exists. So you’ve the possibility as someone from here, to show your collection here.

Still there are a lot who complain, or don’t take Berlin seriously.

In other cities there are big fashion houses who have existed for decades, like Dior or Yves Saint Laurent. Here in Berlin we have a garment industry rather than a fashion industry.
Because of this you can’t compare it with Paris, London or New York, but the steady comparison was something that annoyed me. Everyone has their location. Regarding Fashion Week, Berlin is still at the beginning after ten or twelve years. It has to evolve and establish itself.
Those who are complaining aren’t the ones who are doing it any better.

Speaking of changes: When we met last time it was announced that Perret Schad were calling it a day.
What did this report trigger in you?

Over the past years I always had close contact to them both, and I always admired them for what they were doing and how they grew, so of course it was a shock to me.
Needless to say, it makes you think, especially when other great labels like Achtland quit. I can relate and keep asking “why?” Perhaps it’s a good time to go too.
But I’ve already poured my heart into this, and there is still a lot I want to accomplish.
Back then during the coaching they told me that self-employment is hard and that it takes a while.
I’m sure we all love what we do, it’s just a hard place out there.

I think so, too. Other big labels also have the problem of redefining themselves after nine years. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the designer carousel keeps turning faster and faster.
Right now we’re here in Kreuzberg. This area is subject to so many changes, and every time I come here there is something new to explore. What do you think about these changes?

Especially in Kreuzberg, here around the Oranienstraße, there is a coming and going.
Generally speaking I’m glad whenever something new is happening, but needless to say, there are things I don’t like. Especially when institutions who have been there for years are forced to leave. For example there was a bookstore with a gallery here in the Oranienstraße I visited back when I was a child. Two years ago this house was bought by an investor and then they had to go. That’s what makes me sad and angry.
On the other hand, there are certainly things which bring something good with them, even though others won’t agree with me on this, but I do. One of these examples is the Café Ora, one of my favourite places here in this area. It’s so beautiful with its interior design from the old pharmacy that was in there before.

Wilhelm Shirt from the AW18 collection
Available at our shop

One can notice your attachment to Berlin and Germany through your clothes too, everything is “Made in Germany.”

The label doesn’t have a German name, but I’m German and I grew up here, that’s why it says “Made in Germany.”
All the products and all the clothes come from Germany and they’re produced here.
During the past years we were flooded with clothes from the big chains, but two years ago I think people start to become more aware regarding their clothes. Especially after the Primark scandals they try to shop more consciously.

So “Made in Germany” not only means quality, but also that you’re able to survey the whole manufacturing process?

If something is Made in Germany it’s made with a certain quality, like you can see regarding the automobile industry or the Bauhaus back then.
To me, that was clear. Of course, there is never a 100% guarantee, mistakes happen in every production but it was my main goal to keep the communication part short. All my production sites are here in Berlin. If anything happens they call me, I’m on my way and we can take care of that.
This way I also know that the employees have good working conditions and are paid fairly for their work.

How do you choose your fabrics?

Everything happens because of a feeling and it should always stay that way, it shouldn’t be predetermined. I’m not consistent with current trends and I’m not looking at any trend forecasts. So much is repeating itself, and at the end of the day I think that your subconscious complies with current prevailing trends anyway.
How often has it happened already that designers choose the same colour without exchanging thoughts about it beforehand.

Probably because you’re interested and receptive.
What’s the inspiration behind the current summer collection?

In fact, the inspiration was dance and movement.
To me, dancing is totally interesting and I love watching a dance piece. Just a short time before I created the collection, I saw one of those and was inspired by the way the fabric moved. That was the main source, the fabric in movement, paired with dancing, that’s what I wanted to experience.

Hien Le Rainbow T-Shirt

Unisex Embroiderd Rainbow T-Shirt by Hien Le
Available at our shop

Last question: You say you love to be here in Berlin, perhaps you’re gonna stay here forever.
So just imagine you’re at the airport, given a free flight, where would you go?

There are so many different places, I still want to travel the whole word. Even in Europe there is so much stuff I want to see. I’ve never been to Portugal, there are several spots in Spain, even South Italy.
If it’s a longer flight I would choose Vietnam. I’ve been there twice, just to Saigon but that already fascinated me so much that I want to see the whole country.
Japan is also appealing to me.
Three years ago I visited Hong Kong for the first time and was blown away, but because it’s vastly different from the rest of the country, I’m interested to see more of China.
LA, Africa, … there’s just too much.

Urban or landscape?

I think Asia is a good combination of both, Africa has some beautiful landscapes too. In Europe I’m more interested in the cities.

Hien, thank you a lot for your time and the interview.

Hien Le
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