Niels Holger Wien / Fashion trends

July 2015

Mr Wien, in an interview you once said that when you were studying fashion you had an interest in which colors are permitted for women and men respectively and why. Would you please tell us more about this?

That’s a good question. What I found out at the time is relevant right now, although it was written more than twenty years ago. I wrote my thesis in 1993 to 1994 while I was at Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design Halle. My supervisors were Professors Thomas Greis and Joachim Schielicke and philosopher Dr. Klaus-Peter Noack. The title of my thesis is: The challenge to be different – a subjective appraisal of what constitutes androgynous. There was a clear trend in 1990s pop culture towards blurring all too rigid gender boundaries. In the conclusion of my thesis, I worded this as follows: “TO BE DIFFERENT does not mean assuming a different identity through new clothes. Instead, it helps to close the gap between the spheres of the masculine and feminine. However, the point is not to become the same. It is to counter the clichés that come along disguised as ‘natural’, making it possible for each individual not to have to conform to a specific role but be able to bring in their own personality. It simply is a plea for humanity.”

The findings of my thesis highlight that the images of the feminine and masculine and everything inbetween have been in continuous flux in our culture. The history of fashion has witnessed developments that seem downright bizarre today – just think of the baroque and rococo eras when men wore silk stockings and wigs, and make-up on top of that. They looked more colorful than any peacock. Today, you would only see that kind of look on an haute couture runway, in the theater or on a drag queen. However, at that time, it was normal, which shows that fashion images have considerably changed time and again.

You can already sense the younger generation rebelling against convention again. This new generation is increasingly defying neutral, colorless and uncreative stereotypical roles to try new things. That has to do with a change in self-perception and outdated social conventions.  

In the cultural history of fashion, a color convention has always existed. From antiquity, wearing the color purple was the privilege of emperors and subsequently also church dignitaries. Until the 16th and 17th centuries, specific color rules applied to the social classes. Only the aristocracy and clergy had the privilege of wearing vibrant colors, including purple.

The French Revolution of 1789 brought about the biggest change in terms of fashion and colors. Revolutionaries wore long pants and became known as the sans-culottes, or those not dressed in the knee-breeches worn by the nobility. It was from this break with tradition that the suit as we know it today emerged. Black as the color of seriousness became the symbol of male neutrality and reserve. The variety of colors became the reserve of women, exhibited like flowers at the side of men. As a result of these developments, the color black has manifested itself as a male cliché in business fashion right up to the present day.

Looking around today, you get the impression that a strict gender divide no longer exists in fashion. Would you agree with this? How do you see the situation today?

There is no generally accepted social gender convention now. This, I believe, is true of all people who are open to multifaceted self-images and cultural diversity. Role models are increasingly open, something that has also come about with the acceptance of same-sex marriage, which today occurs in almost every circle of friends. It has promoted ever greater acceptance of people who are seemingly different and do not conform to traditional stereotypes. In fashion, this trend has been expressed by greater diversity and individuality. I think that this is very important.

Sometimes you get the impression that every trend returns at some point. You just have to wait long enough to be able to wear certain colors and designs again. Do you think this is true?

The trend system on which fashion as we know it is based has only existed since the mid 1960s when prêt-à-porter fashion became available. Previously, off-the-shelf mass production items did not exist. Everything had to be tailor-made or designed by a couturier. Trends and seasonal changes are a fairly recent development. Today, life is full of fast-changing images and fantasies, which makes it pretty unlikely that something would come back in its original form. Although we occasionally see a nod to style elements from a previous era, they are never quite the same as they were then because fashion is embedded in today’s culture. Even when the fashion world would have us believe that the flower power of the 1970s hippy movement is back, in actual fact it has nothing to do with our urban reality. We don’t live in the time of the hippies, and our social circumstances are very different. Of course, set pieces from the 1970s have been absorbed into the remixed images of today’s digital culture. Wallpaper with opulent patterns and an appealing texture are ubiquitous today. They reveal a yearning for the decorative and represent a countermovement to a perfect digital world.

Online shops are increasingly important in fashion sales. How have you experienced developments in recent years? What has changed as a result?

I think the development of online shopping is very positive. It enables direct access to diversity in fashion. As shoppers we find a wider and more international range without having to go to a big shopping mall. But as a fashion observer I am in two minds about it. The issue is how to link analog and digital. The areas are not mutually exclusive. They need and complement each other. Old-style shopping is necessary for a tangible fashion experience. The most positive aspect of online business is broad access to fashion anytime anywhere. Variety and diversity should have a positive impact on society.   

Yet, the transition comes with many problems. Not everyone has equal access to the internet. Besides, selling fashion is no longer enough. Today, sellers need to know a lot more about fashion than before and must be able to inform their customers. They need to know about fabrics, their origin and the manufacturing process. Customers want to know where stuff comes from, about the conditions under which it was produced and whether it is sustainable. Digital networks have facilitated access to ever more information – for all those involved in fashion. An answer like, ‘Sorry, I wasn’t aware of that,’ will no longer wash.

 And what is the importance of the internet in your own work as a trend specialist?

The internet is a very positive aspect for my work, which has opened new avenues. I am now able to access a great deal more information, directly and much faster than before. However, there is such a wealth of information available that it is up to me to decide what information I accept. I need to filter information carefully and be more aware of the need to do this. And then, I also have a duty to check this information in terms of its authenticity and veracity. In the past, it was taken for granted that news supplied by analog channels was truthful. There was a level of certainty and trust. That’s different today. We can check and compare information and its sources in analog and digital media.

For us in fashion and trend research, cyberculture means diversity, more information and greater depth. An example is that along with attending fashion week in Paris, London and Berlin, I can follow fashion weeks worldwide via the Web, like those in Manila, Tokyo and São Paulo. Access to other cultures is more immediate, and there is a bigger mix of omnicultural influences in fashion – I no longer have to rely on our European cultural canon for inspiration.

One of the great myths that has resulted from all this acceleration and diversity is that of ‘more and more’. It is wrong to believe that we can create more, are able to do more and can consume more. My digital day is as long as my analog day was and for that simple reason, it cannot work.

Finally, a personal question: Do you have any favorite colors, even if they perhaps don’t correspond to the current trend? What makes them special?

Red and green maybe? Actually, red has become a bit of a favorite. BUT I would never let myself be pinned down to one color. In that respect, I am very loyal to my research field of color and trends. My interest lies in change and what is different and stands out. It’s what inspires me. However, I am partial to more complex, bright shades rather than dark and dreary colors. For example, I like bright red and fresh shades of orange as well as jade green. Basically, I like colors with character.

How many color samples and swatches do you have?

I can’t even give you an estimate. All I can tell you is how many boxes I have in my studio, but it’s impossible for me to say how many samples are in each box. There are about 50 boxes with color samples. Some are sorted by topic and others by color. The boxes contain all sorts of materials, ranging from textiles to paper, plastic and leather; there even is a rubber glove and some bark from a tree. Color always has a physical quality and is intrinsically linked to materials.

In my studio, I have a micro exhibition showing my latest finds. At the moment, there is a yellow installation.


Many thanks for the interview!