Austria tends not to be the first country that springs to mind in connection with couture. Helmut Lang left the stage in 2005 to become an artist. Since then, this Alpine country has not produced an equally celebrated and visionary figure. Nevertheless, Austria has witnessed the rise of a remarkable number of talents in recent years, such as Marios Schwab, who became creative director at the US label Halston. Potential seems to be budding in all corners, most notably at the prestigious University of Applied Arts in Vienna, from which many of the young and up-and-coming designers have graduated.
‘There is enough creativity here. The problem is getting noticed,’ says Herman Fankhauser, a pioneer of Austrian fashion and co-founder of Wendy & Jim, which is most famous for its mix of extravagant fabrics and new-wave cuts. The designers behind the label are the only Austrian members of the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter in Paris. ‘Coming from a small country, the avant-garde is often the only way of receiving attention from the media,’ says Fankhauser. In Vienna, style tends not to focus on colour and boldness, so Wendy & Jim aficionados have to seek the designs elsewhere. ‘They cause too much friction, which is why we are not even available here.’
The difficulty of breaking into the domestic market is also experienced by other designers. According to a study by Unit F, an Austrian fashion platform, only 29% of Austrian designers regard their home country as their target market. In contrast, 57% are focused on Asia.
One of these is Hartmann Nordenholz, whose clothes are mainly sold in Japan, where customers appreciate the way the designers experiment with architectural elements, prints and pleats. ‘Buyers in Europe are less courageous and curious about European brands than Asians,’ explains Agnes Schorer, who set up the brand with her colleague Filip Fiska 10 years ago. Encouragingly, the label is now becoming popular in Vienna. ‘The paradox is that once our clothes make it to an Austrian store, they sell well,’ says Fiska.
Some Austrian designers choose to train and to set up labels in other countries. Peter Pilotto graduated from Antwerp's prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts, and now lives and works in London. His designs appeal to women as diverse as Claudia Schiffer and Michelle Obama.
Talent and luck, however, are not enough to make an innovative brand prosper. ‘In fashion, you need to grow,’ says Fankhauser, who has just commenced negotiations with an investor from the Middle East. ‘Brands like Stella McCartney or Alexander McQueen wouldn’t be around any more if they hadn’t been bought by a bigger group such as Gucci. A fashion show in Paris or London costs €50,000.’
Anna Aichinger, a young designer from Vienna, has won a number of national and international prizes since she graduated from the University of Applied Arts in 2003. She used the money to establish a brand that has reintroduced femininity to the Alpine world and is praised for her classy cuts, delicate silhouettes and quality materials. ‘It takes longer to position yourself with a classical line than with something avant-garde,’ she says. ‘Avant-garde wears itself out too quickly. I’d rather make clothes that a strong, sophisticated woman can wear on an everyday basis.’
Her peer, Petar Petrov, also prefers purity and simplicity. Another graduate of the University of Applied Arts, his easily-wearable creations are regularly featured in international fashion magazines. He set out with men’s collections and later stirred the market when his women’s line was launched. Born in Bulgaria, Petrov says he is ‘inspired by cultural contrast and the combination of high and low’. However, he insists he’s not trying too hard. ‘I think people take fashion too seriously. It is only fashion.’
Lena Hoschek, who assisted Vivienne Westwood before starting her own label in 2006 at the age of 24, proves that avant-garde and traditional can be compatible. Inescapably conspicuous, her stellar designs are a thrilling combination of retro, punk and rock ‘n’ roll. Hoschek now owns stores in a number of European countries and is a favourite among fashion bloggers. Her strategy? ‘I don’t follow any trends. My collections are simply a reflection of what has fascinated me since childhood: high-end tailoring, the female ideal of the 40s and 50s, tattoos, bad guys and fast cars.’