We Like Being Misunderstood

Una Meistere

An interview with Latvian fashion designer Rolands Pēterkops


2015 marks Marenunrol's (Mārīte Mastiņa and Rolands Pēterkops) tenth year in the world of fashion. In a sense, this is a birthday conversation. A conversation on fashion as a way of thinking. Because even though today's supersaturation of objects and impulses, as well as a teetering value scale, seem to have worn down the value of fashion to that of a lollipop, fashion – in its purest form – has always been and is an intellectual endeavor of the mind. And the way in which we use fashion is also a story of values – values that we support and that are important to us.

This is how Mareunrol's have always responded to it. They are quite singular, a mixture of a soulful dreamer of the surreal with a pragmatist who is well aware of the harsh reality of how the world works. Their clothing poses questions, demands immersion, and experiments with the norms, prejudices and boundaries of the language of fashion. Their collections are a room for thoughts – in the form of apparel.

Mareunrol's are still the most internationally well-known Latvian fashion label. In 2009 they received two of the main awards at the 24th Hyères International Festival of Fashion and Photography, and since 2012 they have been officially showing at Paris Men's Fashion Week. They've participated in several international fashion exhibitions, as well as in fashion and theater festivals. They've created the costumes for many theater and opera productions (eight operas so far, and they are currently working on the Latvian National Opera's production of “Macbeth”, opening February 2016). The 2013 Phaidon Press book, “Pattern”, listed Mareunrol's among their international survey of 100 of the most significant and groundbreaking contemporary designers.

Among other things, a quick internet search will verify that Mareunrol's are also the most copied Latvian label. We covered all of this, and more, in the following conversation.

Collection “Episode 1”. Photo: Rolands Pēterkops, 2010

When recently organizing my bookshelf, I came upon a book from the 1980s that contained predictions by the leading fashion designers of the time, on the fashions of the next millennium – that is, for the year 2001. It was basically a forecast of fashion just 20 years into the future, but it was rather spot-on. Lagerfeld, for instance, said: “People will become programmable; it's dangerous, but that's the future.” And that's exactly what has happened – most people have been 'zombified' by the industry.

The 'zombification' is serious. An increasing number of simply calculating companies are being created; brands often don't even have a designer – because one isn't necessary. Realizing that the industry has zombified a certain level of society, as a businessperson you simply calculate that such and such a product will sell. And then you've come down to this level yourself. Because everyone has eyes and everyone can see what is currently hot and being hyped, and they often take the same things that society is already zombified with and just continue to zombify; and at the same time, they make a lot of money. That's why it's no surprise that a lot of brands right now are simple brands. They're not even aspiring to be something valuable, like ending up in a museum or going down into history; profit is their priority

Right now one can sense a marked stratification of the fashion environment. One group is heading more into self-analysis, thinking about (and also showing) development and innovation; whereas the others are very aware that it is easier to choose the well-traveled path and be assured of having clients. This can be clearly seen in the Paris showrooms right now, too.

How do you understand the designer's place and value right now? On one hand, the big conglomerates have made him a ping pong ball, thrown from one fashion house to the next. On the other hand, according to the social networks and tabloids, it's a 'glamorous profession'.

Of course, it's sad to see that a bunch of things that you like have become completely mainstream, and you have to look for that depth somewhere else now. In a sense, the image of the designer has become absolutely commercialized. For instance, musicians are creating their own clothing labels. Of course, that doesn't happen without the help of a designer, and it's pure marketing, but nevertheless, it demeans the idea of a fashion designer as such. Because looking at these kinds of people, it seems that being a designer is extremely simple – indicate the direction, the colors or prints, and you're set...

I think that throughout time, a designer has been a person who – with great piety towards his work – creates things that supposedly make a person's life better. With the tools at his disposal, he sort of opens the door to a new world, one that we perhaps can't even yet explain. A designer has the ability and the responsibility to, at a certain point in time, put two seemingly incompatible things together, and something beautiful comes from it. A different kind of beauty – it's that small keyhole you look through, and a different beauty aesthetic opens up for you.

Essentially, a designer is the person who knows what should be, but isn't yet. That's why, in my opinion, it's very good that there still are these few big, stable brands that live their own life, because they nevertheless do hold fashion down as a value. And they also keep people – the kind who are themselves looking for things that have value in life – employed in the field. For the large nations, fashion has always been an intrinsic part of culture. And that's why clothing has always been important to them. In a sense, the big brands, the ones that develop the language of fashion, still keep us safe in the knowledge that nothing has changed – everything that is good continues to live on; it just may be less visible.

What do you think – how big a part of today's fashion world is made up by this intellectual, cerebral branch?

I think many from this whole big fashion-family would actually like to be within the intellectual niche, but it's much easier to climb into a rational construct where you understand that you can make money from it. I'd say that Comme de Garçons is a good example: they create a product with added value, but at the same time, they make their money off of primitive things.

But isn't that also one of the few brands that have managed to keep a balance?

Yes, and I believe that is how precisely in today's situation, they may even be making greater gains. Because they illustrate the farsightedness of thinking. Even when compared to the presentations of other fashion houses, Comme de Garçons is still looked upon as an outlier, with many people asking – Can you wear that? And that's great, because they're creating things that people don't really understand yet. They don't adapt; they present things that people might understand only after a couple of seasons have passed.

At the same time, there's a feeling that the era of the big fashion-persona has ended. Only a couple of bigwigs are left.

Designers have become more like characters these days, like brand-names. Everyone has their own Instagram account and everything is tuned towards the personal. And when a fashion house senses that they need to go in this or that direction, they take a particular designer who already has his or her own followers. What actually happens is this kind of 'playing around' with images in a physical space. Let's say you have an iPhone, and you can sense what the space around it is like. Or around a coffee mug. There are designers, and then there is a fashion house – a stable ship that has been sailing for who-knows-how-many years, and every so often it throws out bits of 'hype' or 'pop'.

...and basically, keeps on sailing with just as much stability as before. Because in broad strokes, what it is selling to the mass market (except for these few nuances or 'bits'), doesn't change...

Actually, that's how the classic fashion houses add fuel to their fire – in order to make it clear that they are alive, au courant, and that they understand what is going on in society and where the industry is heading, etc. Because by choosing a particular designer, they are also expressing their vision of the direction in which they want to head. Why did Dior take on Raf Simons for its women's line back then? Because he didn't have any connection to women's fashion and had always been an alternative menswear designer – a kind of intellectual hooligan who, in that combination and at that specific time, worked well with classic Dior.

A good example is Kirsten Delholm, with whom we worked on the production of “Rienci” at the Latvian National Opera; in a way, she could be likened to a fashion house. Every time she works on a project, she looks for its intellectual side, then its 'pop' side, and then what that third edge of the triangle could be. Then she puts them all together in order to create some sort of new emotion. That's exactly what the fashion houses do. And that's what we try to do. With the tools you have at hand, you put together some sort of unprecedented structure. Of course, one always has to follow along and make sure that everything keeps to an aesthetic, because it's easy to go off into extremes.

Opera “Rienzi. Rise and Fall”. In collaboration Hotel Pro Forma. Latvian National Opera. Photo: Gunārs Janaitis

In a sense, it's like a drawing which, when you look at it, you're looking at the vibration of every individual dot. If a fashion house senses that its intensity is not up to par, they begin looking for new blood – at the level of a new dose of 'hype'. On one hand, of course, it is sad that these days, society's opinion has fallen to the level of the number of 'likes' on Facebook or Instagram. And a great mass of people are so zombified that they just follow some built-in system, and they're overstimulated with everything that is new. With this sort of a backdrop, content and meaning greatly suffer.

This zombification probably comes with its own inertia.

I can judge this based on my own experience. Often when working on the computer, one submits to Facebook, Twitter, the whole mass information thing; and whether you want to or not, just through this you become zombified in some certain direction. My computer broke down once, and for a while I lived with nothing; and I realized – Crap, this can be done! Take any random book and read it; do simple things. There are, of course, people who can remove themselves from all of this. But for most, it won't stop. There are so many beautiful things that people don't even know exist; they have no idea – music, film, art. They have no idea because they live on their own paved road and there is no opportunity for something random to take place through which they could then see it.

Today a lot of things are surrendered to hype – surrendered to this quick-melting candy that you eat and you're satiated for a while, but soon you're looking for something new. And the fashion consumer then lives off of these pills/candies. Season after season, he or she swallows them and get's excited about stupid, naïve things. Seeing this, you realize that you don't want to be connected to this industry.

What are the most popular pills right now?

One is: everything black.

False intellectualism?

Yes, that's a good descriptor. Because you understand that the people creating it are not the ones who have come up with it – they've just accepted it as a form. Because someone else – for instance, Rick Owens – has created this intellectual vision. Going forward in time it becomes mass produced, and people follow it in this sort of primitive wave of emotion. Even if you just gave it a bit of thought, it would be clear to you that it's just empty pop music. Sometimes it's very dangerous if you get too much of a good thing. Because those who overdose don't see the boundaries anymore. In the 80s, for instance, underground electronic music appeared; by the 90s it had become so popular – practically every artist was interpreting it – that it became cheap and lousy. Similarly, at  the Paris Fashion Week of today, amongst all of these black-clad people, you feel like you're in some sort of environment that isn't showing you the next thing that will be in fashion, but is simply creating fashion so that someone else can follow it. And that's not the message that you want to see around yourself.

Essentially, every collection is a sentence you write. And it's easier, of course, to give a safe black sentence because you know how you're going to write it; in addition, there's not enough time between the seasons to come up with a more colorful sentence. This doesn't mean that colors are more complex; black is also a color. But the fact that you know how to work with them – now that's a completely different stage and level in which to be.

Another pill is prints. It was interesting a few years ago, but now – OK, it's fabric that's been printed, but there's no innovation in it anymore. Consequently, there's no basis for why you need it.

I think that one of the biggest negative points in the evolution of society is that we appreciate people wrongly. Or more precisely – we don't appreciate them. Even in the field of music. Let's say that one mainstream media decides that people like a certain kind of music and they don't want to hear anything else. And then they feed the people with only that, thereby slowly degrading them. I've always believed that whatever you offer your client/a person, you must not look upon them as beneath you. It's the exact opposite, in fact – she or he deserves the very best. And we try to give them this information – through the clothes, through everything we do.

I know how I grew up myself – often getting inspiration from things and random events around me. For instance, in early childhood, seeing a really good film on television or hearing something in a piece of music that really inspired you. I believe that one of the things that has driven us into a dead-end today is the lack of quality random events – atypical impulses that would serve as an antithesis to this daily deterioration, this culture of mass consumerism.

Kristin Delholm told us about a fantastic project in Denmark. The Danish Opera House gave 10,000 free tickets to children from rural areas so that they could go see the opera. If we did something similar, then to some of the kids that would be the greatest experience of their lives up to that point, and maybe in the future, a couple of really good musicians could come from this group of kids. But if they don't have the opportunity to experience and understand that there are places where really good things take place, and if they don't have the chance to hear these things randomly, then it's no surprise that society is deteriorating. Of course, these days the internet supposedly lets you find everything yourself, but taking into account the surrounding environment, most people end up on one and the same channels. The chance of getting, by happenstance, into a medium that offers up something unique is quite minimal; that's because firstly, there won't be a social-network link to it, and secondly, when stumbling upon it by chance, one won't be in the right state of mind or have the correct context.

Collection “Episode 5” | Gone With The Wind” AW 2015/2016. Photo: Mārtiņš Cīrulis

From one end, the main function of fashion is purely functional – to clothe a person. On the other end, it's a language that we use to communicate with one another.

The language of fashion is never mute, and I can't say that fashion today has become shallow or obtuse. From the point of a mass, general review – yes, perhaps it has. I assume it was like this in the 80s. One thing that maybe sets today apart is society's weariness from living with a constant barrage of information being thrown at it. And you can't surprise anyone anymore.

I remember when we used to do the styling for the “Dienas Stils” feature [a weekly style pictorial in one of Latvia's newspapers – ed.] (laughs); we wanted to make it look as if the pictures hadn't been made in Latvia. That was the ambition of designers in the early 90s – to show that we can also do it like in the West; a wish, born from an inner inferiority complex, to erase the barriers. Now, cognizant of the fact that the barriers are no longer there, one can no longer surprise with clean and pretty conceptual pictures. It all goes into this huge mass, and its value is lost. It's the same with magazines.

I've also noticed the same thing. I haven't bought any magazines for five years now, and I used to read/look at Italian Vogue while lying in bed as if it were the Bible. Steven Meisel's photographs would come alive in the stories...

Now you get everything through your phone on a daily basis. To break into this flow of information and get noticed is very hard.

How can you do it then?

I think it's very important to strictly hold on to your identity. Even though it may sometimes be misunderstood, or seem strange, or be at odds. That's what gives us strength. Interestingly, when working with clothiers that also work with other designers, you get the feeling that they've latched onto some sort of system/scheme according to which, in their opinion, the fashion industry works. And sometimes I really like it when they look at us like we're weirdos, and say: “What are you doing? No one does it that way.” At that moment, I feel really good. I don't like to be understood in a primitive way like that. Because the way in which you work is your identity. And the people who have grown tired of things that are 'copy/pasted', they'll notice that. The question is, of course, on which platform you execute the process of them noticing you.

Truthfully, there are only two roads. One is the rational one – make appropriate things for a certain form, and market them. The other, which is much more complex, is to develop your own language, your own vision. In essence, that's the visual space that comes along with almost every collection of ours.

Interestingly enough, when I was studying in Antwerp, I almost always had to lie to the teacher that I had been inspired by this or that. Maybe I didn't have enough courage to say: that is my vision – that's simply the way I see it... But for a scholarly assignment, one usually needs to show the research that went into developing the idea. That's a good thing, but in the end, the impetus for a collection comes from some vision that you've seen somewhere anyway. And then you make it fit the arrangement. For a while, I thought that was wrong, until I read a quote by Rei [Kawakubo], in which she said the exact same thing – that she's never liked to 'get inspired', be it from history, museums or books. In practice, she also sees everything as a form, as a vision.

Of course, we still have the impediment that on top of all that, we see a space around the whole thing. You try to make not only a design object or a product, but also a visual story – a space – which is, of course, pure art. The fashion business isn't looking for that.

If I asked you to imagine, for instance, Antwerp's central train station (which has very many platforms), which platform would be yours, and what are the other people on it like – your cohort in thought, your clients?

On our platform there are definitely idiosyncratic idols from the music and visual worlds – personae that are very important to us. In terms of the men, there are about 30 of them: from Tom Waits, Johnny Greenwood, Jonas Mekas, Nick Cave and David Bowie, to David Lynch... These are the characters you aspire to be. Interestingly, almost all of them are over 50 by now. Old; but at the same time, uber-modern. In terms of their outlook on life, they're still young. They haven't given in to some sort of social pressure. They are not many, but in its deepest sense, that's the platform for whom we create – for their cohort in thought, for their followers. And it's not the blackness – when hearing these people's names, one immediately thinks of black clothes. Rather, it's the mysticism, their spirit that unites them all. It wouldn't be right to call all of them classic idols; it's more like a way of thinking, a thread by which you can supposedly express your position.

I, for example, used to be very stirred by Michael Jackson's early years, and some parts of his work in the 90s. The way he looked when on stage – combining ugly sweatpants with some sort of overdone, strange leather jacket, and the third component: his own image.

From a visual standpoint, many would think it strange that I'd name Arvo Pärt. At the same time, what he creates – that world seems to live and create that certain space.

We once did a collection with the aim, in a manner, of bringing these people, who are well over 50 and 60 years old, out of their collective environment – they are much more lively than many people in younger generations, and that's due to their experience and power of thought. We still have a collage of them on the wall of our studio.

Essentially, they are very stable people who are also these kinds of life philosophers, seekers and travelers, who are strong enough that they can afford to listen to various opinions – in fashion, in art. Their intellect is so large that they are able to digest this. It's often said that people can't stand classical music for long periods of time because it's so complex. Classical music supposedly affects the other (the left) hemisphere of the brain, and if that isn't developed, you can't stand classical music for long periods of time because you're used to dull sounds.

In my experience, these people are, at their core, unpredictable – you can't even draw them because they are often a surprise. And everything around them is also a certain kind of incalculable surprise.

Collection. “MAREUNROL'S. Fieldwork Nr.3”. SS 2015. Photo: Mārtiņš Cīrulis

I sense that visual collages are, in their way, one of your tools. Even now, working on the costumes for Macbeth, you have a collage on your desk.

As naïve as it may sound, when creating clothes and attempting to visualize a specific idea, you always partly put yourself into it because you're the one who is creating it, along with some visual messages. Sometimes you know that you wouldn't wear it yourself, but at the same time, you are conscious of that being the language in which you wish to express yourself. For example, it's very likely that David Lynch would never wear that, but the mystery surrounding it is what gives it that flavor. Also, I don't have to climb into some sort of “framework”; I have to create something without any precedence. And it's specifically this quality of being unprecedented that gives one the ambition to do something.

In the truest meaning of the word, it's unlikely that you can create something completely unprecedented; you can only take already existing things and put them together in some new combination.

That's the way it is. Everything already exists – all of the parts. What is unprecedented is that you take them and, using your ideas, put them together somehow differently. You're the constructor. You take all of the flavors and stick them together in a manner that is interesting to you, and at the same time, you hope that this will be tomorrow's fashion language – not something 'of the moment', but a language that people will understand tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.

You occasionally present lectures to students in various European fashion schools. What do you teach them?

My job is to show the students the tools that they already have. More precisely – I help them see the tools for what they are. Because sometimes the student – influenced by social networks or something else – chases after something without seeing what he or she has already been given. It's a kind of 'stocktaking' that we have been doing ourselves, as Mareunrol's. Ever since 2000, we've known that we are where we are, and you can't surprise the world by creating a brand according to an approved scheme, that is, by spending huge amounts of money manufacturing in a factory and producing something similar to what others are already producing. Our thinking consists of conscious, little visual pictures, and a special approach to garment construction.

For others, it is something else. For instance, someone may combine fashion with sculpture, and then make their product by pouring plastic or rubber into molds. That's why, in my opinion, the most important thing is to find your characteristic tools as quickly as possible, and then begin building your world upon this platform.

Everything you've done up to now has been very visual – fashion and theater. However, the radio program “Tīrkultūra” (Pure Culture), which you did together with Shipsea, dealt with sound.

Books without illustrations also seem very visual to me. We ourselves formulated “Tīrkultūra” as 'sound lectures'. Not as in verbally speaking and presenting a story about sound as such, but as in presenting the listener with music that is out of the ordinary and that has been created in a variety of time periods, and which has a specific message. In a sense, this is also visual, because sound has always been one of our sources of inspiration. When listening to something, just as when reading a book, you create a world in your imagination – one which you know that no one else can see. It's like this: the shallower the music, the more similar the visualizations; the deeper and more atypical the music, the more diverse are its visualizations. You could say that's my hobby, looking for that special sound, because music often leads to a new direction in fashion.

I think that educational programs in schools should introduce the simple act of listening to music. Music class is something different, often with assignments that kids don't understand and that just make them wonder why they have to learn this. But as soon as you're pleasantly integrated into an audio format, that is something that speaks to a person, and then he or she can understand its value more easily.

I don't read music, but I realize how important it is to somehow program noise. It's like making a pattern for clothing. You work on it, work on it, and at some point, you finalize it and draw it on paper. And that's the way it stays. The same thing happens with sound. It must be somehow fixed in space so that it can be repeated. It's all a sort of study of space. And I'm very interested in all of that.

The never-ending story will always be: to see what has not been seen, and to search for that which is actually an accident, a misunderstanding. In essence, to analyze what you see. Often times it's not even all that connected to the human body. When working on a collection, you're actually working more with the space that is between you and the person next to you, or between things. Why is that? We've always wanted to present that surreal cleverness. Perhaps because those are things that we don't see anyone else doing on the same fashion platform on which we find ourselves.

In a certain sense, it's like the job of a scientist. Our current ambition is to create a moving fabric that seemingly creates an illustration, but through the use of completely primitive tools. Like in children's books, those ridged pictures that become animated if you look at them from different angles. It's an old idea, but we thought we should finally give it a try – see if we can get the effect without the use of technology. Clearly, a fabric like that doesn't exist because it's difficult to print with the necessary precision. In this case, the print adds meaning because you're creating a new message that you want the viewer to see. Of course, I don't know if it's going to work.

That's always been the challenge – what can you do with the tools you have at your disposal? In our case, we're not interested in going to some factory in Japan and experimenting on that kind of a level. We can't afford it, and being conscious of this, it's clear what it is that carries our identity. And then, like a scientist, you try to find the keys to a room that is not yet even conceivable.

Collection “Fieldwork. Nr. 2”. AW 2014/2015. Photo: Iveta Vaivode

You recently posted on Facebook a picture of a knock-off someone had made from your hats.

I came upon it by chance on the web. It's not as if I'm upset about it. The only value it has lies in its showing up as a post, because then one can see the link where it came from. This is no longer the time in which to make a ruckus about something like that. After our win in Hyères, at the following men's fashion week everyone was upset that Walter Van Beirendonck had made hats very similar to ours. It all depends on how you take it because, in a sense, it's also a compliment. It's a way to understand your influence. The same thing happens in music, or any field; you can't sit on something. If you want people to know about you, you have to be available at that moment. And the more available you'll be, the more they'll link you to the original.

The essence of fashion is that these things are created for a specific point in time, in which they then stay; but you, as a creative person, go on to work on the next thing. You make something else. It's also not right to invent something and then sit on the idea. That's where the stress is in fashion: you invent something and work on it, but at the same time, you understand that the cosmos is one – the idea is somewhere out there. It's not as if at some point we're all by ourselves in the world. You work on a collection and everything around you is flashing by and making the same impressions, and it's so easy to submit to it and step into some sort of framework and work in this or that type of fashion. That's why it's no surprise that so many businesspeople decide to become designers. When working on our 'birds' collection, for instance, we googled numerous times to see if someone hadn't already done a similar thing. Because the idea was so seemingly simple – it couldn't be that no one hadn't thought of it before.

You really put all of your ideas through an investigative check?

Yes, we try to. Especially the seemingly simple, which has a hard time in coming. Interestingly, the naïve things in life often turn out to be the best ones. The kind that a seasoned person would look upon with skepticism – a skepticism that is so great that he can't even bring any of his own dreams to life anymore. Basically, it's too naïve. Whereas the person who is able to take these naïve things will be able to get results much easier.

He simply hasn't lost the child in himself.

Yes. That's probably the most important thing. Once for the “Tīrkultūra” show we were interviewing Alvis [Hermanis], and talking about Silicon Valley. He said that over there, everyone tries to keep themselves in the mindset of a child. And perhaps that's how they bring their ideas to life. That's very important, and it's very likely that that's how they are able to insulate themselves from the daily pollution that they themselves create.