May 25, 2009
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East German designer found freedom in fashion

May 25, 2009

BERLIN (Reuters Life!) - Designer Sabine von Oettingen, who stars in a new documentary about East Berlin fashionistas, says the fantasy world of fashion gave her a sense of freedom while trapped in communist East Germany.

Von Oettingen, the brains behind underground fashion movement Chic, Charming and Durable, used anything from shower curtains to strawberry foil -- a durable, black plastic used on East German farms -- to make extravagant clothes and stage flamboyant shows.

As the political atmosphere darkened in the German Democratic Republic and many of the designer's friends were arrested, she tied the knot with an American friend in a marriage of convenience to emigrate and escape the repressive system.

Von Oettingen continued to be a successful designer in countries beyond the Berlin Wall and now sells her designs at fashion fairs and art markets across Germany and Austria.

The 46-year-old stars in the recently released film "Ein Traum in Erdbeerfolie" ("A Dream in Strawberry Foil"), about East Berlin fashionistas and directed by Marco Wilms, a former model for the GDR's fashion institute.

Q: Was there any variety of clothes in the GDR?

A: There were clothes shops, but it was gruesome stuff, really terrible ... you just couldn't wear it, it itched.

Q: So what did you wear?

A: There were second hand shops and in Berlin, there was an institution for handicapped people that received donations from West Germany .. and there was always too much so they sold some of it. Mostly I bought material or funny things from the 1940s, unstitched them and created new clothes.

Q: Was it normal to make your own clothes?

A: Many people sewed their own clothes. I only realized later on that in West Germany and elsewhere most people can't sew, but in the GDR, it was taken for granted that your mother or grandmother would teach you how to sew.

Necessity is the mother of invention: when you have little you become creative and that's healthy.

... (Fashion) was definitely a kind of freedom for me.

Q: How did you sell your clothes?

A: We would go to flea markets on our motor bikes or the nudist beaches -- and they were really perfect because people didn't have a problem getting undressed as they were already naked. All they needed to do was try on the clothes.

Q: Why did you stage the shows?

A: We did it to have fun and simply because we had the time .. one always had a lot of time in the GDR ... life was cheap so you didn't have to earn a lot of money to get by.

Q: Did you ever run into problems with the state secret police, the Stasi, for being potentially too subversive?

A: Of course, but no one ever came and forbade us to do things directly, it was always very underhand; events we had booked were suddenly canceled, or you got a call from someone saying "our gay men" were not allowed to be a part of the show.

Q: Why did you leave the GDR?

A: I was simply fed up ... the political situation in the GDR was increasingly uncomfortable, even properly dangerous.

I knew many people who were arrested, parents sent to prison, children to a home .. lots of my friends were arrested. That's why I never attempted to flee the GDR illegally, I never wanted to end up in one of these god-awful GDR prisons.

Q: How did you escape?

A: I made a sham marriage, to an American who needed a German wife for a German residence permit.

In America, at the beginning, I was frightened .. and then I came to enjoy the huge variety and colorfulness of the people there.

Q: How does your work as a designer now differ from your work in the GDR?

A: For sure, I am more business-minded now ... but my clients like my creativity.

Q: What inspires your work?

A: My designs are always inspired by good films, books .. and then very important for me, strangely, are also smells. If something smells nice, then ideas come to me.

Q: How would you characterize the Berlin fashion scene?

A: I'm not sure about Berlin as a conventional style capital ... Berlin is like a permanently exploding volcano .. a moloch that sucks in and absorbs everything it comes across.

It is a wild city that has no stability. The designs can be amazing for a while, with amazing fashion shows for two to three years, and then suddenly, there's nothing.

Berlin is spot on for whomever just wants to drift along or experiment, it is a city that is always inspiring.

By Sarah Marsh
(Editing by Steve Addison)

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