16 June 2018

Interview, Text & Photos: Martin Hufnagel

Since its inception over 10  years ago, Berlin Fashion Week has also nurished new labels and designers. Many new brands have come, unfortunately, many disappeared again. Hien Le had his fashion week debut in 2011. He has evolved with each collection, combining elegance and nonchalance. Hien's trademark: His clothes are produced entirely in Germany. 
On a sunny afternoon in Kreuzberg, I met with Hien to talk about 'Made in Germany', his career before going solo and, of course, Berlin.

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?

Well, I did grow up watching MTV, and it did affect me in one way or another in what I'm doing right now. However, I wouldn’t go as far as saying it was the biggest influence. It’s hard to name 3 videos from the top of my head, but the 3 biggest artists, in my opinion, were Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, and Wham or George Michael.

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

'Freedom' strongly influenced me. It was also around that time that I saw an interview with Karl Lagerfeld in a documentary about the model generation of this time, people like Cindy Crawford. I knew that that was the famous designer Karl Lagerfeld. Then, I began buying fashion magazines, I would flip through them and soak them up. After seeing that documentary, it was clear to me that I wanted to do something with fashion.

We’ll talk about that in a bit; just 1 question before that: You’re from Laos. When did you come to Germany?

I was born in Laos, but my ancestors came from Vietnam. When I was 1 or 2 years old, we moved to Berlin. I can’t remember most of the stuff before that. This here is my home. 

Are you still talking to anyone over there?

I have a really big family. My father has 9 siblings, my mother has 8. 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 have some distant relatives who are living in Vietnam or Laos, but I don't feel connected to them. My family is here in Europe.

After the Karl Lagerfeld documentary had inspired you, what were your next steps?

I got more and more into fashion. There was a fashion show on MTV, hosted by a model, and on BBC on Saturday mornings, there was a 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 10th grade and started an apprenticeship as a tailor. Only after that, I finished my Abitur. As a first step towards fashion design, I started an apprenticeship as an assistant for fashion and design. When I had 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 did 2 internships there, returned to Berlin, and only then, I started to study fashion design.

So, before beginning your studies you already had a lot of experience.

Yes, before studying, I wanted to learn the real craft, 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 for university. While I was studying, I was already looking for an opportunity to gain more experience. I helped out at the IDEAL (a fashion congress with independent designers from e.g. Scandinavia), looked after the models backstage at Berlin Fashion week, took care of the running order – all those kinds of things. I was also working in retail alongside my studies.

In other words, 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. However, before starting to work there, I moved to Antwerp for an internship during my stuies. After American Apparel, I worked at Fillipa K.

What happened after your studies?

After graduating, I wanted to stay in Berlin, but continue trying out other things. That’s how I came across PR, because I thought that it was something I hadn't done yet and that it would be interesting to know how fashion works over there. So, I started with an internship at Agentur V and got lucky because they wanted me to continue working there right after. I moved over to sales and was responsible for the distribution of 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 2 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 should just try it, because there isn’t such a thing as perfect timing. The things that I was doing for others, why shouldn't I start doing them for myself? This way, I could combine what I was doing with the one thing that I really wanted to do. That’s how I made the decision.

What was your first vision regarding your label Hien Le?

To me, it was clear that I wanted to choose the classic rhythm. That’s the way I learned and what experienced during my internship at Veronique Branquinho back in Antwerp. Making 2 collections per year, afterwards taking the collections to 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.

What where the circumstances when you started Hien Le?

It was after the financial crisis, and Berlin was thriving. There was a a lot of fresh wind 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 time when I founded my label Hien Le, the Berlin Senate 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 Hien Le collection and presented it in a showroom. I got lucky because Jessi Weiß (back then, from LesMads) dropped by, liked what she saw and posted it on her blog. After that post a lot of stuff 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 like media coverage was more focused. Before that, you had Fashion TV at MTV, and when blogs started to become a thing, LesMads was the place to look at.

Totally. In the following year, I applied again with my 3rd collection and made the third place. Apart from the prize money, I also won a business administration coaching, which was really helpful. With the 3rd Hien Le collection, I made my debut at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week.

To me it, seems that there was a kind of hunger 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 Berlin Senate 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 2 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 1 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 with Hien Le, 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 thought 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.

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 6 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 Berlin Salon week exists. So, if you're from here, you you have the possibility 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 10 or 12 years. It has to evolve and establish itself. Those who are complaining are not making it any better.

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

Over the past years, I always stayed in contact with both of them, and I always admired them for what they were doing and how they were growing. 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 thought about my own situation and kept asking myself, 'Why? Perhaps it’s a good time to go too.' But I’ve already poured my heart into Hien Le, and there's 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 9 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's something new. What do you think about these changes?

Especially in Kreuzberg, here around the Oranienstraße, there's 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 around for years are forced to leave. For example, there was a bookstore with a gallery here in the Oranienstraße, which I had visited when I was a child. Two years ago, that house was bought by an investor, and they had to go. That’s what makes me sad and angry. 

On the other hand, there are certainly things which bring along something good, even though others won’t agree with me on this. An example is the Café Ora, one of my favourite places here in this area. It’s so beautiful, having kept the interior design from the old pharmacy that had been there before.

Your attachment to Berlin and Germany is evident from your Hien Le 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 products and clothes of Hien Le come from Germany, and they’re produced here. During the past years, we were flooded with clothes from big chains. But 2 years ago, I think people started to become more aware regarding their clothes. Especially, after the Primark scandals, many people try to shop more consciously.

So 'Made in Germany' not only means quality, but also that you can keep track of the whole manufacturing process?

If something is made in Germany, it’s made with a certain quality. For example, you notice this in the context of the automobile industry or Bauhaus back then. To me, it was clear. Of course, there's never a 100% guarantee, mistakes happen in every production but it was my main goal to keep the communication part short. All Hien Le production sites are here in Berlin. If anything happens, they call me, I’m on my way, and we can take care of the problem. 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 for Hien Le?

Everything happens because of a feeling, and it should always stay that way, it shouldn’t be predetermined. I’m not following current trends, which is why I’m not looking at any trend forecasts. So much is repeating itself, and at the end of the day, I think that you subconsciously comply with current prevailing trends anyway. How often did you used the same colour as many other designers, without having talked about it beforehand.

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

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.

Final 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, and you get 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 Southern Italy. If it’s a long distance flight, I'd 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 it blew my mind. But because it’s vastly different from the rest of the country, I’m interested to see more of China. L.A. and Africa are also interesting. There’s just too much.

Urban or landscape?

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

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

See more of Hien Le here: