30 June 2018

Interview, Text & Photos: Martin Hufnagel

Fresh out of high school, ATEM founder Nelson was travelling to Spain and started making wallets out of old sails that he found on the side of the road. Today, ATEM is known for beautiful bags and accessories that make every outfit perfect. Contemporary timelessness.
I met with Nelson at the Chipperfield Kantine in Berlin to talk about the Philippines, how quickly you can transform an idea into a product, retail and the gayest city in Germany. 

Nelson, after we have spent the last few days together, it has become apparent to me how cheerful and positive you are. What does a perfect day look like to you?

My perfect day starts with breakfast. I need a coffee and something sweet every day. After that, I try to have some time by myself, that’s really important to me. I’ve a few strategies to get into a mood where I can work creatively. I find my peace of mind when taking a walk, or when I’m cleaning the appartment or the studio.

Right now, we’re here in Berlin-Mitte, having cake and coffee in the Chipperfield Canteen. Even though you’ve been living in Berlin for some time, you've lived all over Germany already. Furthermore, both of your parents are from the Philippines. Has that had any influence on you? 

I have to admit that I don‘t have an intense connection to the Philippines because I was born in Germany and grew up here. Nevertheless, during my youth there was a time when I was really interested in where my parents come from. I tried to search for my own identity through my parents, and the starting point for me was definitely my mother. My father too, but unfortunately he passed away when I was young.

I remember that during the summer holidays we often travelled to the Philippines, so I could get an idea where I come from. There I was searching for the places where my father had been to, see where he left his mark, and I found them. In a college, there was an old sketch that he made hanging on the wall, which made me really happy and proud to see. In the attic, I also found a lot of memorabilia. 

In the Philippines, homosexuality is tolerated now, but due to the Catholic cultural imprint it's still a taboo somehow. Did that affect you when coming out?

It definitely had an impact on my character and on my life. On the one hand, it’s tolerated in the community, you can see transsexuals and homosexuals on the street who are accepted and who can live out who they are. People dance and laugh together, regardless of their sexual orientation or their origin. It’s safe to say that diversity is celebrated. On the other hand, it’s not accepted in their own home. That’s the contradiction that made it really complicated for me. The public perception and what’s really happening at home vary widely, but perhaps it’s the same here in Germany.

You’ve already had your own label ATEM for quite some years now. Do you remember how you got in contact with fashion?

I can remember that I was on my way to Spain with a friend in a VW van. At that point I had just finished high school and civil service but had no idea at all what I wanted to do. Graphic design interested me, but working in fashion was a deep desire.

On our way, we found some discarded sails at the side of the road. To us that was some rare material, and we didn’t have to think about it twice and packed them into the car. While collecting them we already had the first ideas what to do with them. Eventually, we used the sail to produce bags and wallets even though we didn’t know anything about sewing. We just chose products that we liked to see how they work. Still totally naive, we visited some stores close by to sell our products, and it worked. Somehow we caught fire, and together with our history, people liked us and our products.

I started university, and my main courses were German and art. During my first semester, I learned how to screen print, and a short time later, our first t-shirts were ready.

So, you gained practical and theoretical knowledge through your studies. What happened then? You didn’t stay in university, did you?

I started formal training as a tailor and later studied fashion design.

What were your ambitions?

During my studies, I got the feeling that I don’t like the theoretical part. The pure accumulation of knowledge wasn’t anything like learning handicraft activities. I made a pact to learn the craft before switching to the design. So, I started a 3 month training as a tailor in the Philippines. This way I could kill 2 birds with 1 stone, because I still had a thirst for knowledge about my family and their culture, which they gave to me. I just wanted to absorb it and bring it back home. Here in Germany, we have a fixed part of our daily lives, and it’s not possible to feel the Filipino way of life just by going into a Filipino restaurant or supermarket. My mother had to deal with this often, and was homesick a lot. 

When you started your fashion design studies, who where the first role models who inspired you?

To me, without a doubt, the aesthetic of Jil Sander. My father was an architect, so I’ve seen graphic lines before, but now I could finally understand the sketch of his that I had found in the college back in the day. Also, Hussein Chalayan was the master of conceptual work. From Dries van Noten I learned how to work with textile patterns and the surface of an object.

Later you founded your label ATEM, focusing on bags. Somehow it sounds to me like a sequel to the trip to Spain. What was your vision?

The first models of ATEM were influenced by a bag of my aunt who lives in Barcelona. When I visited her, she gave it to me… or no, I think I found it when exploring her house. It’s in my nature to seek and find, it always has been. Especially regarding things that don’t have an obvious sense. All of a sudden, it becomes something because you give a meaning to it. That’s also what happened with the sails.

Back to the beginning of the cycle. What’s the next step?

Exactly, that’s my approach when I develop a product for ATEM. I’ve an idea in my head and start with some easy questions: "Where do I put the things I need daily?" Starting from that question, I get the dimensions. I’m inclined to find the perfect dimensions, that‘s what keeps me going, to make things better than before.

Now I’ve stopped using samples as an orientation when I start making an ATEM product. It begins with an idea and a hand-drawn sketch. After visualising what I have in mind, I ask myself, "Does it work?" It’s an easy question, but this way, I get rid of the ideas that only work in my head but not on paper. The next thing is making the pattern: Manufacturing a 3D model, you see things that work and some that don’t. Sometimes, coincidences have happened during the making of an item; something has just happened even though I hadn't thought of it in the drawing.

How long does it take for you to finish an ATEM product?

Whew, 3 months or less. There are some bags that are just never finished. I‘ve got so many sketches that might work but were never produced because another project was easier to finish or to sew, or because it became more popular. There are certain factors that tell me that a product might work, and then it might only take 2 weeks until it’s ready to be bought.

You've worked in retail for years. This sector has changed a lot over recent years, sometimes not fast enough, but still a lot of stuff is happening. Where do you see the future of retail?

The human being has 5 senses. It’s the challenge of retail to get the most out of them, because that’s the last thing the Internet can’t do. People want to be touched and to feel something when they buy things, and the Internet can’t give you that...or maybe just a bit. Furthermore, you have to bring architecture and technical evolution into accordance, so the customer gets the chance to experience and discover with all his senses.

You worked for so many companies over the years and moved a lot from city to city within Germany. What’s the gayest city in Germany?

To me… Berlin. (laughs)

Have you noticed a difference in the gay subculture? Do the cities differ from each other? 

There are differences, but I’m not exactly sure which ones.

I didn’t expect one particular response. To me, each city is different and has its own vibe, as does every gay scene. I just can’t tell exactly what it is.

That’s interesting because when there’s a question, there have to be the beginnings of an answer.

OK, I believe that here in Berlin people dress in a more open-minded style. Just by looking at someone, you can’t tell their sexual preference, and in this way some gay dress codes have been repealed. Additionally, Berlin became a refuge for homosexual people from all over the world, and that’s something you see and feel.

I agree with you. It’s a melting pot of different tastes. There's always someone who likes the same stuff you do, and that encourages people to move here because they can form groups where they feel united. Then, there are strong personalities who feel empowered due to the background of their groups. This way, people and groups can live side-by-side, and they’re celebrated for it.

Being tolerated or being celebrated does make the difference. Last question: What’s the thing you’re most grateful for?

Being healthy, being able to share my inner joy with others. Being with friends, soaking in things and moments. That’s due to the fact that I’m healthy, and that’s what I’m thankful for.

Our health: today’s luxury.

Thank you, Nelson, for being part of wasted hour.

See more of ATEM here: