Kai Lehmann


Interview with designer an professor KAI LEHMANN

How would you briefly describe your professional background?

All my life I’ve had a great interest in theatre and opera, which is why I always wanted to make costumes. In fact, I quite spontaneously decided to do my tailoring apprenticeship and then worked at the State Opera in Hamburg. Later, however, I decided to take the fashion route. I then trained specifically in tailoring and design in southern Germany.

I won first prize in the Hugo Boss design competition, and thus got an internship at the company. At Hugo Boss, the motto at that time was still: “We are not designers, we are tailors”. The connection to the handmade men’s suit was particularly important to them. I got my first job in the pattern cutting department after getting to know the house and its various departments. Women’s fashion and men’s fashion were still very separate at that time, and I had to gradually acquire the know-how in men’s fashion myself.

After three years at Hugo Boss, I was in the mood for new challenges and moved to London on the off chance. In a roundabout way, I ended up at Vivienne Westwood. She was looking for someone to help build up the menswear collection at the time. I was there for nine years, as head of the atelier, pattern maker, product manager and designer for Westwood MAN. I also ended up managing the Italian license of the men’s collection. At the end of my time in London, I started working as a visiting tutor at the Royal College of Arts in the menswear master’s program, which I really enjoyed. Since 2002 I have been teaching here at the Hochschule für Künste (University of the Arts) in Bremen, and in parallel I started to build up my own collection. I did that for a few years, but when the decision was made that I would stay in Bremen, it became more and more difficult in terms of time to design my own collections. At that point I wasn’t brave enough to go my own way as a designer. So I decided to pursue the professorship full time and pass on my knowledge to the next generation. In addition to teaching, I do projects and collaborations – just not a regular collection anymore. I am always looking for new challenges to develop myself on all levels of fashion. By now I’ve been at it for a long time, but there’s always something new to discover.


What was the defining moment that led you to choose a career in fashion?

I have always been interested in craftsmanship and especially DIY [do-it-yourself]. A key moment was certainly my first suit; I applied for the tailoring apprenticeship with it. From the outside it was okay, the head seamstress hardly believed that I had made it myself. But when she saw the workmanship from the inside, nothing really fit anymore. I worked together with her on the cut and fit until it fit perfectly, which was really great fun.

Additionally, I grew up in the zeitgeist of the 80s, when DIY was a big thing. Also, my fascination with theatre – slipping into different roles and dealing with identity – was an important influence and also enriched me a lot in my work at Westwood. But the final idea to follow this path intensively developed only gradually. I’ve never regretted it – quite the opposite.

"It's not what you wear - it's the way you wear it."
Kai Lehmann

You are a designer and a pattern maker in one person, although they are originally two professions. Is that an enrichment or more of a burden?

For me, it’s more of an enrichment – for my designs but also for making the cuts and sculpting. It gives me an unshakable foundation of knowledge, and I’m interested in the form, the processing, the anatomy, the movement, the process and the cut. All of this is considered in my designs. I’m all about the balance of all these aspects.


Where do you draw your inspiration?

For me, clothing is primarily exciting in context. In my research, the suit was essential as a starting point for the intersections of themes such as gender, sportswear, history and the deconstruction of clothing. But Madeleine Vionnet’s modern approach of abstraction and the reduction of the human body to geometric shapes, as well as the three-dimensional work on the tailor’s bust, also always flow into it.

In addition to deconstructing and modelling with vintage pieces, the cultural history of clothing continues to inspire me. I love going to London’s archives and to the School of Historical Dress. They have original pieces there that you can explore up close. Travel is also a big source of inspiration for me. So are influences and methods of art, for example the biennales or theatre.

Of course, it is also important to observe current street style, which I take in on the streets of London or through the research and topics of my students. I get to know a lot of things through my students. I still appreciate making discoveries at flea markets.


Please give us a little insight into the evolution of men’s tailoring. The year 1666 is known as the birth of the suit. What was done differently from that moment on?

Yes, 1666 is the birth of the three-piece suit. The idea of taking a piece of fabric, painting on a cut and cutting it up, then sewing it back together as a garment to form a three-dimensional shape on the body continues to shape the suit and the craft to this day. This movement came with Charles II of England, who moved away from the elaborate accoutrements of Louis IX and the French court at Versailles and established the suit with a long coat and vest. But in such an opulent time, he could initially convince only a few people of his ideas.

I also see the French Revolution as an exciting break because the world and the whole bourgeois order were renegotiated. Then came the Industrial Revolution and, with it, a focus on wool as a material, as it had been for Charles II. From 1666 on, it was more about the shape and cut – about making clothes fit the body well. What must not be forgotten is that a chief means of transportation was horseback riding, in addition to the horse and carriage. This had to be taken into account. The three-piece suit became an expression of modernity and social change.


Are tailoring systems still relevant?

In 1891, during the industrial revolution, the constructive cutting system was developed by Müller & Sohn. Before that, experience was merely passed on from master to apprentice. With the cutting systems, however, an attempt was made to put the ideal body into a mathematical system. Müller & Sohn established itself, not only in Germany, as a mathematical construction method, which it honed continuously. The cutting systems were initially particularly important for ensuring the quality of the custom tailoring (which was widespread) but also for ready-to-wear clothing. The cutting systems gave rise to standard templates, which made the first ready-to-wear garments in menswear possible. Made-to-measure became less and less relevant.

The dominance of the constructive cutting systems is currently waning. As a framework, they are essential, but today the scope and approaches are much more versatile. It’s better to work out your own individual approach as a designer and find your own style. Nevertheless, for me the suit still forms the basis of men’s fashion. At the moment, many things are changing. Sportswear is on the rise, and new, exciting fusions are emerging from this. I think the need for good tailoring is still there but has now become a niche. It is insanely time-consuming and complex to sew a suit completely by hand. To make a men’s suit, you need at least forty hours of pure working time, excluding fittings.


What exactly are the differences between women’s and men’s tailoring systems? Are the differences still adhered to today?

In general, it has to be said that men’s tailoring, in contrast to women’s tailoring, started working with shapes and cuts very early on. For ladies, fabrics were often modeled or draped directly on the body, and the focus was on the abstraction of the clothing. For centuries, there were two separate tailoring apprenticeships, but that was abolished a few years ago. The differences are increasingly dissolving and influencing each other.

I already had this experience in Italy in the mid-1990s. There were great, qualified cutters there, but they couldn’t easily relate to Westwood’s ideas and designs. I had to teach them on the spot about the modern movements of fashion, and we all learned a lot from each other.


What makes a good handmade garment?

Functionality and freedom of movement. When you wear a tailored suit, you hardly feel it. What makes a good-quality men’s suit is that you can lift your arms without the jacket riding up to your ears. A suit will move like a second skin if it is not industrially glued. Of course, there are great inserts and adaptations available today, but a handmade suit is just something great and always superior to ready-to-wear. Of course, you have to find qualified tailors who are good with you and understand exactly what you want.


Does the tailoring profession have a future, or are we just seeing a brief trend of romanticizing the craft?

The profession of tailoring has a future, but for men’s bespoke tailoring – like the artisanal Parisian ateliers working for haute couture – the value of clothing, quality and craftsmanship needs to become more real again. The profession must evolve in the process or it will become museum-like. We need good tailors with excellent technical, craft talent and creative understanding. Even though the shift to digital and 3D is just beginning to accelerate, I see these more as tools. Digital body measurement, for example, can facilitate but not replace time-consuming in-person, physical fittings. These fittings are still important to see the customer’s movements and reactions. It would be a shame if this experience were lost. Pattern drawing in a craft context is also about fit and fabric properties, and that can’t be replaced by digital work. Craftsmanship has always adapted to social and technical developments.