From the gothy kid whose mohawk caught the eye of Lee McQueen, to Design Director within one of the most influential Italian fashion brands, Stefan Brunnbauer’s work is a delicious and eclectic mix of references.
Whether it’s the DIY looks worn by underground ravers or incredibly precise tailoring, Stefan’s influences always translate into intelligent and thoughtful designs. Here, this Creative Achiever lets us in on some of the names who have impacted his career.
Tell me about your first job in fashion.
Ennio Capasa from Costume National gave me my first break. The working hours were ridiculous, but the energy in the studio…magic. The team was also very cool – friends for life. I remember showing up for the interview in cropped, pinstripe balloon trousers, New Rock boots, a tonne of accessories and masses of neon hair extensions (hardly a poster boy for the minimalist design aesthetic).
Ennio was all about precision in menswear. He taught me how the tiniest of tailoring adjustments – we’re talking millimetres – can have an enormous impact on the fit of a bespoke garment. His approach gave me an appetite for menswear, not to mention the opportunity to direct fashion shows and experience an in-house atelier. I'll always owe Ennio a debt for this.
You spent over ten years at McQ for Alexander McQueen – what was it about the business that kept you there for such a long time?
McQ was all about putting a signature stamp on existing DIY/subculture references. Not only was this the perfect match for my own style DNA, but I was given the freedom to develop a recognisable menswear look.
We drafted in collaborations with Kim Jones (super nice), Joe McKenna (possibly the most influential stylist today), Panos Yiapanis (from my Costume National days), Jodie Barns and so many more. Not to mention fashion photographer heroes, David Sims and Steven Meisel, along with tattoo artists like Fergus ‘Fergadelic’ Purcell and Liam Sparkes. It was fun!
What was your entry point into fashion when you were growing up in Austria?
At 11, I was never far from my mother’s sewing machine. Growing up in suburban Austria, my fashion muses came from MTV at a time when Eurodance icons were stomping across our television sets (I use the term icon loosely!). Inspired by Mum’s craftsmanship, I soon began recreating the looks. My first creation was a fitted pink tee with large heart motif cut from my grandmother’s pillow (I still have it, so camp). From that point, everything changed.
In my teens, rave/goth culture encouraged me to take things up a level. I’d spend weeks preparing bizarre looks for raves in warehouses, disused tunnels and bomb shelters across Munich, Vienna and Linz. The promoters eventually hired us to bring a touch of theatricality to proceedings. Our podium moments flashed up everywhere – TV, flyers and magazines. Bonkers times and highly creative moments!
You’ve been working on a super exciting project in Italy for the past year – can you tell us anything about it?
Unfortunately I can’t. Follow me on Instagram and find out.
And how are you finding living and working between two countries?
Milan’s outdoorsy, aperitivo culture is the perfect antidote to London’s gritty nightlife. The duality is exciting and knackering in equal measure, but my job keeps the teenage spark alive.
I still consider myself to be a gypsy nomad and the industry has opened so many doors internationally, but it’s cool to finally have some roots, here in the UK.
Any top travel tips?
Pack light and arrive prepped for airport security. When you have a 6am flight, every second counts! There’s a fine art to napping wherever/whenever you can, as you never know how long your day will be.
You want a top tip? A quilted “fuck off” eye mask works a treat for keeping chatty flight partners at bay!
Where do you get your creative inspiration from?
Every generation has a need to push the envelope, stand out and redefine cool on their own terms. Being a Gemini, I love a culture clash. Think Edward-Scissorhands-in-a-ball-gown-meets-Mr-Vain, with Michael Clark moves. You’ll more than likely find me listening to Kylie’s ‘Your Disco Needs You’ on the way to a Sisters of Mercy gig!
To this day youth culture remains my main source of inspiration. That sparky intersection between thrifty/DIY/street looks and high fashion is where the magic is for me.
What do you look for when you’re building your design teams?
Someone with a glint in their eye, a fresh perspective and extension to my own skill set.
Ultimately, there’s a need to be culturally aware, with one eye on the 4am underground and the other on wearability. The technical side can always be learned but raw passion is either there or it’s not.
Do you spend a lot of time looking at the history of fashion? Who are your favourite designers?
I’m a massive hoarder when it comes to photo books of punks, mods, goths, skinheads, Japanese club kids, Blitz kids, disco bears and ravers. Nancy Grossman / Michael & Gerlinde (of London’s Kinky Gerlinky fame) are current faves.
My menswear vision is all about romanticism and gender fluidity; vulnerability with hard edges. No one can deconstruct and reinvent items like Comme des Garçons. I have an ever expanding collection of CDG pantaloons!
When it comes to womenswear, I’m going for sharp, heavily constructed and powerful. Think Thierry Mugler’s Winter ‘95 collection. He paved the way for women to take control and really own it!
When I saw Viv Westwood do a pub QA to a raucous gay crowd at the RVT she was brilliantly bonkers. She was doing live customisations, “Don’t buy anything! Safety pin a picture of your cat and voilà, you have a new t-shirt!” Hardly the best business advice, but she’s an icon for sustainability.
Is the day-to-day of your role as a Design Director like you thought it would be when you were starting out in your career?
I don’t think I ever had a clear idea what this would look like. My path has always been very hands-on, with a focus on modern tailoring. I’ve always enjoyed working directly on garments, surrounded by tape measures, tiny pins and reams of fabric.
As Design Director, I’m much more focused on the bigger picture. Maintaining a vision, whilst keeping everyone inspired on the ground can be challenging enough. Then try overlaying price targets of a 250-piece collection and repeat the cycle every three months – it’s pretty crazy.
Seeing icons like Bowie front the designs does stop you in your tracks – it’s beyond surreal. Oh and Jay-Z or the Pet Shop Boys! Can’t forget them!
Who have been the biggest influences in your career so far?
A late professor of mine, Ulrike Gastgeb, for starters. She taught her students how to push boundaries and get serious, without sacrificing the fun part. She was a complete one off – larger than life and a brilliantly inspiring couturist/teacher. Ulrike took me under her wing, teaching me how to construct corsets and create the most magical ball gowns. She could also drink grown men under the table whilst chain smoking and applying layers of orange lipstick!
Who else? Well, Lee Alexander McQueen obviously tops this list. He really knew how to execute a full vision, which transcended fashion. He dragged you into his twisted world whether you wanted to be there or not! I remember when I first met Lee at interview. I had an enormous, technicolour mohawk back then (I looked like a My Little Pony haha!). I tried to obscure it with a grey polo neck/black cap and didn’t consider that half of it was hanging out the back! A trail of glued feathers was never going to qualify as corporate, but thankfully it got his attention.
When the job offer was made, Lee asked for, “That guy with the face full of metal and crazy hair” (his words, not mine!)