There´s a certain sense of responsibility artists and creatives must feel towards new generations – will they find their voice, or be scared by the world? Will they learn to stay true to their vision, and not give in to pressure? Will they be able to remain on the liberating path of creative expression, without wandering? I was curious to see if this was true for designer Kristian Steinberg, in his relationship to his niece and mentee – stylist, photographer, and aspiring art director Saara Steinberg.
Elena Stanciu: Kristian, your start as a designer has very clearly gravitated around an academic type of approach – how has this impacted your work and the way you conceive a collection? Saara, you are finding your love for fashion design in a more unstructured manner, filtered through self-discovery and a more affective engagement with the creative process – what would you say is the strength of such an approach?
Kristian Steinberg: It came naturally! I didn’t enjoy school as a child in Soviet-era Estonia because learning by heart for no apparent reason seamed pointless and boring. After moving to Sweden and being encouraged to think for myself, I found my motivation in academia and I learned how to learn. I use methods from my chemical engineering studies even in designing a collection. I set up my parameters according to what I feel is relevant and then build up a body of research before developing the various layers of a collection. I even leave a particular slot for spontaneous and highly conceptual ideas. I research all the time, but more systematically when a collection is in progress.
Saara Steinberg: After I graduated high school, I got into all the fashion schools I applied to, but the structure of a school system felt smothering to me, creatively; it made me feel like I had to create things in a box. I was scared that university would put me in a position where I just wouldn't want to create anything, in the end, or my ideas wouldn't have the freedom they had. I wanted to learn by doing projects and being in the process all the time. Self-discovery is what makes more sense to me. It makes me stronger and it makes me believe in my work.
ES: In your design work, you are both heavily inspired by space – urban space, architecture, the human body in the middle of it. Can you expand on this source of inspiration and how it evolved in your careers?
KS: For a collection to make sense, it needs to be in a setting and all the elements you mention are important for that reason. I particularly love architecture that challenges us and aims to shape certain values through aesthetics. It’s a very powerful idea even if sometimes misguided or utopian. Architecture in particular is also a very innovative and future oriented field and I often feel that as fashion designers, we are constantly a step behind people like Thomas Heatherwick and Zaha Hadid. My fascination with the human body became more pronounced whilst interning at Alexander McQueen. My approach is of course different and is focused on movement rather than silhouette. Clothes become alive when being worn by a person, and I love to see my designs being reinterpreted by stylists and photographers.
SS: I agree, so much around us has the potential to set creativity in motion. I´ve never been inspired by things that don't touch my soul. As a photographer and stylist, I can truly say that my inspiration comes from the oddest places that I can't even explain but it has to do with everything I surround myself with every day. A while back, I moved to London, in search for meaning and a more inspiring space to create, and it worked! I ended up learning about myself so much and got a better sense of what I actually want in life. I truly feel that the city really made me who I am today.
You are both at different stages of your respective careers – Kristian, you have years of experience, while you, Saara are starting on this path. How do you engage with this generational gap in your professional and personal relationship?
KS: Strangely, we have so much in common and we even listen to the same kind of music. I learn a lot from Saara, even when the opposite might seam to be happening. A fashion designer must stay relevant and that means constant researching, challenging myself and learning form younger generations and not just from the old masters. I’m particularly happy that Saara is finding her voice so young and her choice of field provides a perfect excuse to collaborate. Saara is also very professional and steps up to challenges and having thrown her in at the deep end a number of times now, she has earned my absolute respect. I would never work with a friend or family member unless I could fully trust and respect their work. On a personal level, I have seen Saara grow from a shy girl to a confident young woman and it’s been a privilege to witness! I could not be more proud!
SS: Thank you, Kristian, I appreciate you saying this. I´d say that learning from Kristian is a given – how could I not be learning something at every step? I cherish his advice, and I see the generational gap more like a benefit. I think he is still growing himself as a designer and artist and I consider myself lucky to witness that up close. I love that after many years of experience in the industry, he's still such a humble person.
What role does your native Estonia play in your creative process? Is there something about your creativity and sensibility that could have only been inspired by the nature/history/social layering/spirit of Estonia?
SS: Estonia will always have a special place in my heart; it´s the place where I started to grow my love for fashion. I can see the growth in fashion industry every day. I think it heavily encourages young talents and it´s a cultural space that invites and welcomes creatives thinking outside the box. I think many young artists here are influenced by other places and it truly gives a new fresh look to our culture.
KS: I see this as well and notice this shift in how open the country is becoming. The Estonia I grew up in 30 years ago was a very different place and for me the rapid change from a Soviet state to a modern I.T. society is utterly fascinating. What’s constant is the Nordic nature of the landscape, as well as the people. The sparsely populated small towns, the summers with midnight sun and the harsh winters that create a Nordic sensibility, which hates clutter and treats colour with caution. We are introvert, yet highly emotional; true crafters in traditional and modern sense, and have always been fenced from the world by our own language (something that the young generation is now breaking down by adopting English expressions at high speed). I’m a product of Estonia, Sweden, and the U.K., and due to having studied seven languages, travelled extensively, and learned much about the history of ideas and cultures, I do feel like a global citizen but with a Nordic core.
How are influences from other places than Estonia/Europe impact your creative views?
KS: My colour sense is tuned to the Nordic light but there’s something else: I struggle with the same northern anxiety that always destabilises the seemingly calm nature of us Baltics and Scandinavians. Some call it Scandinavian Noir, but I need quietness and to be alone on regular intervals and to de-clutter my head as well as my surroundings. It’s a kind of meditation I’d say, and strangely it is through Japanese martial arts I have learned to do it in a more purposeful way. Strangely, Japan feels like a distorted futuristic alternative to our culture and Japanese and Estonian even have a strangely similar sound when spoken. The Japanese are also crafters and for me it feels easy to understand how they view the world. Japanese influences are very easy to spot in my work.
SS: I'm closer to home than Kristian, in this regard. I´m heavily influenced by London, but I keep an open mind everywhere I travel, for bits of inspiring shapes, colours, and attitudes.
Saara, you once mentioned some advice from Kristian – to try and think of design work from a stylist´s perspective, with emphasis on the story and overall result. How did that turn out; did it make sense in your work? Kristian – do you ever take this approach?
SS: Yes, that was valuable advice indeed! It made things easier for me and made me even want to keep doing more stylist work, rather than design. You keep pushing and pushing yourself in the wrong directions and sometimes approaching everything from a different angle makes you realise your true passions.
KS: I´m certainly glad to hear this, Saara! My comment was driven by what I saw as Saara´s strength; whenever I work with students, I try to identify what they are particularly good at. I do take this approach myself occasionally, but my strength lies elsewhere, and I focus more on making materials to do most of their potential, build conceptual platforms for new collections and process trends.
We live in a time when everything is politically loaded, and creativity tends to universally blend with one form or another of activism. Is this something you find yourself experiencing? As a young female designer, just starting in the industry, are there any walls you feel you´re hitting, Saara? Kristian – how do you employ gender in your work, especially in your shift from menswear to womenswear? Do you feel more pressure when designing womenswear?
SS: I do feel touched by the problems and limits women still encounter in the fashion world, and it is something I will continue to educate myself on. I feel lucky to have a voice for myself and for my work, and I hope that more women will experience more freedom and independence in this industry.
KS: For me, gender identity is very important, as I feel rebellious about the status quo. I have had struggles of my own and it has been the perfect opportunity to dig deeper and to really understand gender, sexuality, and identity. Doing womenswear felt no different in that sense, as I just continued the working method I developed when undermining “traditional” views about masculinity. The difference is that my womenswear collection was a first step in saying something about feminism, rather than re-interpreting what a woman can be. I think enough people have done that already.
This is one of my favourite questions to ask in interviews: who would play you in your biopic? Who would direct the film?
KS: It would be a Wong Kar Wai film featuring Michael Fassbender!
SS: It would be David Frankel movie, starring Michelle Rodriguez. My mother would write the script – she´s always been the one telling me to follow my dreams, so she would write an amazing story for my life´s film.
What are you currently working on? Is there any collaborative project you´ve done or planning to do together?
KS: My to-do list is long but some near future highlights are the interview with a feminist politician in the Estonian media, work on a new brand concept for the busy travelling professional and then starting a new collection, which is likely to unite menswear and womenswear.
SS: I´m working on a project with Paris-based stylist Jeffrey Cameron; he´s incredibly inspiring and the work very exciting. We did collaborate recently – I did photography work for Kristian´s first womenswear collection, and we are currently part of a film project about his career. With some experience in fashion writing, photography, and styling, I´m excited to try art direction for a magazine or a brand. Let´s see what´s in store!
Words: Elena Stanciu