Claudia Skoda. Dressed to Thrill

"Claudia Skoda with her knitting machine at the Kottbusser Tor underground station, Berlin" (c. 1976-77) by Martin KippenbergerOriginal Source: Private collection

Claudia Skoda specializes in machine-knit fashions. She is famous for her performance-style fashion shows, and was a hit in West Berlin’s bohemian and underground culture of the 1970s and 1980s.

"Claudia Skoda poses on the roof of fabrikneu" (c. 1975) by Photographer unknownOriginal Source: Private collection

Claudia Skoda’s knitting techniques make her unique. Before long, her designs were called "knitted genius" (Key, 1984) and she was known internationally as the "queen of texture" (Paper, 1985). In 2006, she was singled out by the editors of Elle – alongside Madeleine Vionnet, Mary Quant, Peggy Guggenheim, Vivienne Westwood, and Madonna – as one of the women who had shaped the look of the 20th century. In these Polaroids, she poses in an ensemble from her collection "Shake your Hips" (1976).

"Jenny Capitain in Claudia Skoda at the 'Pablo Picasso' fashion show in the fabrikneu" (1977) by Rich RichterOriginal Source: Private collection

The first fashion shows of the 1970s took place in "fabrikneu" (fabric new), Skoda’s living and working collective, located in a loft on Zossener Straße in Kreuzberg. "It was a place everyone wanted to be. Music, fashion, film. An enormous network," commented Skoda recently. In this photograph, we see Skoda’s friend Jenny Capitain dancing down the catwalk, created by Martin Kippenberger, at Skoda’s fashion show "Pablo Picasso" (1977). On that evening, The Vibrators, one of the first London punk bands, flew to Berlin to give a concert at fabrikneu.

"Invitation card for the fashion show 'Neues Spiel' in the fabrikneu" (1976) by Martin KippenbergerOriginal Source: Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin

Martin Kippenberger, then completely unknown, created his now legendary floor covering, consisting of circa 1300 photographs created by himself, Ulrike Ottinger, and Esther Friedman – "A Week in the Intimate Life of the Skoda Family and Friends," as the work is entitled. From the very start, this floor covering in fabrikneu served as a catwalk for the fashion shows. For its inauguration at the show "Neues Spiel" (New Game; 1976), Kippenberger designed an invitation in the form of a playing card: a portrait of Skoda as a Queen of Hearts, and its reflection, Kippenberger himself as Skoda, his own face projected onto her portrait.

"Joyce and Jenny in Claudia Skoda designs at the fashion show 'Neues Spiel' in the fabrikneu" (1976) by Rich RichterOriginal Source: Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin

About her fashion, Skoda said in an interview in 1975: "The women who wear my things need to be self-confident." Her designs are statements, exclusive and singular. She works with special yarns and unusual colors, often before they have gone mainstream. In the mid-1970s, she used colored, Lurex threads to produce glittering, glamorous textures that were perfect for the disco era.

"Pictures for Claudia Skoda, in collaboration with Cynthia Beatt" (1983) by Silke GrossmannKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

On many different levels, Skoda’s activities have always been unconventional. By virtue of their refinement of detail, technical complexity, and ingenious styling, the individual pieces from her collections cannot be produced profitably in large series. Skoda often selects unusual yarns that simply cannot be industrially processed. Moreover, she typically avoids having her knitwear photographed by ordinary fashion photographers, instead using artist-photographers, an example being this image by Silke Grossman.

"Irene Staub alias Lady Shiva in Claudia Skoda’s banana dress" (c. 1980) by Luciano CastelliKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Until 1982, Skoda promoted her knitwear exclusively at fashion fairs and fashion shows. She opened her first independent store in New York. Further shops followed in Berlin on Kurfürstendamm, Linienstraße, and Alte Schönhauser. For her fashion show booths, for example at "Igedo" in Düsseldorf, Claudia Skoda created posters. One of her best-known motifs is the “Banana” dress from the "Fruits" collection, worn here by Irene Staub aka Lady Shiva, a lascivious titan of the scene, a high-class prostitute with a tendency toward the provocative – and a good friend of Claudia Skoda’s.

"Poster with banana motif" (c. 1980) by Luciano CastelliOriginal Source: Private collection Manuel Göttsching

On the poster you can see a banana motif next to Lady Shiva, based on Andy Warhol's related cover motif, which he designed for Velvet Underground & Nico.

"Tabea Blumenschein and her friend Isabelle Weiß in Claudia Skoda" (1982) by Photographer unknownKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Claudia Skoda belonged to the subcultural milieu of West Berlin. Her well-known "cross" pullover was sold at the underground clothing store Eisengrau, run by Bettina Köster and Gudrun Gut, for whose all-girl band Malaria! Claudia Skoda also knitted the stage outfits. Combined here are sexiness and boyishness, aggressiveness and gracefulness: high heels and nylon stockings together with knitted death’s heads or daggers, as featured here by Tabea Blumenschein and her girlfriend Isabelle Weiß.

"Claudia Skoda, Tabea Blumenschein and Jenny Capitain" (c. 1977/78) by Ulrike OttingerKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Friendships with women have been central to Claudia Skoda’s life, and she has worked with women often: she organized many of her fashion shows together with Tabea Blumenschein, appeared in Ulrike Ottinger’s Film "Madame X – An Absolute Ruler" (1977), and had herself portrayed photographically by Ottinger on a number of occasions, here together with Blumenschein and Jenny Capitain.

"Claudia Skoda in a fur stole" (c. 1976/77) by Ulrike OttingerKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

During spontaneous photo evenings, referred to by Ottinger as "night sessions," Ottinger, Skoda, and Blumenschein staged themselves in a variety of female roles. Claudia Skoda and her colleagues felt a special affinity for the "new women" of the early 20th century: Hollywood film divas, extraordinary Dada women, eccentric dancers in the Berlin of the Weimar Republic, who smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol, and lived unfettered lives.

"Tabea Blumenschein and Claudia Skoda during a spontaneous photo session" (c. 1976/77) by Ulrike OttingerKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

At the night sessions, Blumenschein and Skoda played the roles of vamp, femme fatale, tomboy, and wild cat. Both aesthetically and thematically, they invoked the glamour, radical modernity, and sense of scandal that pervaded the "wild" 1920s.

"Poster for the 'Laufsteg' fashion show" (1978) by Claudia SkodaOriginal Source: Private collection Ulrike Ottinger

Claudia Skoda’s special relationship with Berlin is manifested as well by the locations chosen for her fashion shows, which repeatedly took place in landmark Berlin buildings. The first large public show was "Catwalk: Berlin – Fashion – Electronics – Show 78," held in the Egyptian Museum (today the Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection).

"Scene of the 'Laufsteg' fashion show'" (1978) by Photographer unknownKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Manuel Göttsching – a pioneer of electronic music who accompanied Skoda’s shows beginning in 1976 – supplied the beat for "Catwalk" as well. Today, sketches still exist from the flowchart worked out with Göttsching, which clearly indicate how the articles of clothing were to be presented in conjunction with diverse poses – ranging from "dancing," "sexy," and "elegant," all the way to "heroic," "sick," and "funny" – as well as in relation to the correspondingly varied lighting and sounds.

"Scene of the 'Big Birds' fashion show" (1979) by Rüdiger TrautschKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Claudia Skoda’s fashion shows evolved into multidisciplinary "Gesamtkunstwerk" (synthesis of the arts) events. The show "Big Birds" (1979), held in the old Kongresshalle (the so-called "pregnant oyster"), exploded all conventions: there was no catwalk; instead, the space was subdivided by simple reinforcement mesh, and illuminated only by cones of light from individual spotlights. Almost naked, their entire bodies covered in makeup, the performers Salomé and Castelli swung on a trapeze high above the models, whose movements imitated birds. Skoda had sent them to the Berlin Zoo in order to study their movements.

"Motif from the photo serie 'Big Birds'; Claudia Skoda and Tabea Blumenschein" (1979) by Luciano CastelliKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

For each of her collections, and for her extravagant fashion shows, Claudia Skoda chose a theme, which was then used as a concept for the choreography, styling, music, and the designs of posters and invitations. Here as well, she was a pioneer. For the poster for "Big Birds," Skoda and Blumenschein staged a mock battle and had themselves photographed by Luciano Castelli in a dramatic and dynamic series of images.

"Luciano Castelli in his Masterpieces sweater" (1986) by Peter GodryKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Characteristic of Claudia Skoda has been close collaboration with artists. For the designs of the "Masterpieces" edition of 1986, Skoda recruited artists representing the "Junge Wilde" tendency from the circle of the former artist-run "Galerie am Moritzplatz," realizing their submissions in limited knitwear editions. For Skoda’s artist’s edition, Luciano Castelli contributed the pullover "Pirate," which could also be worn as trousers, as captured in this photographic portrait.

"Deep Diving for Whales, Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin" (1997) by Gertrude GoroncyKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

On one evening at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin in 1998, art became fashion and fashion became art: alongside designs by artists such as John Bock, Rosemarie Trockel, Alba D’Urbano, and many others, she presented her own performance concept "Deep Diving for Whales", during which the models moved like amphibians in knitted full-body suits from which large, helium-filled balloons extended all the way to the ceiling, attached by knitted cords. This was not the first fashion show to be curated by Claudia Skoda: in 1988, with the show "Dressater: Dressed to Thrill," she brought the international fashion world to Berlin, assembling the program for the opening gala for "West Berlin – Cultural Capital of Europe."

"Claudia Skoda in 'Jazz'-Hose (Jazz trousers) and 'Benzin'-Jacke (petrol jacket)" (c. 1978) by Esther FriedmanKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Like art, music has been central to the life and work of Claudia Skoda. Her collections and fashion shows are filled with allusions to the most diverse musical tendencies – jazz, glam rock, punk, electro, disco. Skoda is unorthodox: she cannot be confined to any individual style or sound. Found among her musical circle of friends and customers are David Bowie, the Neonbabies, The Pointer Sisters, Donna Summer, Cher, Tina Turner, and Rufus Wainwright.

"Cover for the EP 'Die Dominas'" (1981) by Karl Bartos & Ralf Hütter [Kraftwerk]/Die DominasOriginal Source: Private collection

In 1981, Skoda briefly crossed artistic disciplines, creating the underground hit "I bin a Domina" (I am a Dominatrix), on an EP recorded together with Rosie Müller. In conversation, Ralf Hütter and Karl Bartos of the band Kraftwerk had called their attention to two musical chords which bear the names "sub-domina" and "domina-7." Manuel Göttsching mixed the piece, while appearing in the video as "clients" of the two dominatrixes were Eff Jott Krüger (from the band Ideal) and Mark Eins (from the band DIN A Testbild). The cover was designed by Hütter and Bartos of Kraftwerk.

"Malaria! wearing cross pullovers by Claudia Skoda" (1982/1983) by Esther FriedmanOriginal Source: Private archive of Esther Friedman

Skoda knitted the stage costumes for the 1982/83 concert tour of the all-girl avant-garde band Malaria!. Whether it was a question of electronic knitting or electronic music, the Atari console was considered an ideal DIY hook up: "Gudrun Gut [Malaria!] had an Atari, and I had one too," says Skoda about the knitting machines in use at the time. "In music, the Atari was indispensable too, you know."

"Claudia Skoda in the fabrikneu" (1982) by Tom JacobiOriginal Source: Private collection

The exhibition "Dressed to Thrill" (2021) is the first retrospective which presents Claudia Skoda in all of her diverse facets. The project, organized by the Kunstbibliothek (Art Library) in cooperation with the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts), with support from the Hauptstadtkulturfonds (Capital Culture Fund), showcases Skoda’s open, creative approach and traces her network of befriended artists and musicians. Coinciding with the exhibition, the larger portion of the exhibited objects will be entering the holdings of the Fashion Collection of the Kunstbibliothek (Art Library), and will henceforth be accessible to future generations of researchers.

Credits: Story

Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Concept & Text: Britta Bommert and Marie Arleth Skov
Editing & realisation: Justine Tutmann
Translation: Ian Pepper

Based on: "Claudia Skoda. Dressed to Thrill". Publication on the occasion of the exhibition at the Kulturforum. With contributions by Heidi Blöcher, Britta Bommert, Fiona McGovern, Esther Ruelfs, Marie Arleth Skov. Verlag Kettler, Dortmund 2020.

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Photo: Dietmar Katz

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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