London artist talks about childhood memories, brutalist architecture and the importance of perception in his work
Johannes Warnke reveals the dynamic potential of fashion design
Johannes Warnke is a great thinker. The London-based designer makes ethereal dresses, intricate headdresses and whimsical shoes, designs that are reminiscent of Hilma af Klint’s paintings with their perfect geometry and rich color. The infinity of Warnke’s mind is also evident in his manners; he speaks deliberately and introspectively, arguing the belief that fashion is simply a practical artistic medium – his clothes are his masterpieces, no different from a sculpture, novel or symphony.
Warnke grew up in the German countryside and studied at Central Saint Martins in London. Since graduating in the summer of 2020, his designs have captured the attention of the haute couture and performance spheres: you may have seen the dress he designed for Lady Gaga, which she wore in her music video “911”, or the several dresses that equipped the choir of Post Malone at the Grammys 2021. In an interview with Document, the designer in-waiting talks about his roots in modern dance, his penchant for architecture brutalist and the visions he has for the future of his career.
Morgan becker: What are your earliest memories associated with clothing?
Johannes warnke: Oh my God, so soon. I remember my mom – she gave dance lessons, and she wore really nice shiny black shoes and a black dress with red lipstick. Every time she went to those dance classes, it was kind of her outfit. Then in kindergarten I always cut these paper magazine figurines in advertisements, playing with them and straightening them. There was a kindergarten which looked particularly fashionable. I was just sitting in the sandbox watching her all day.
From the start I was very interested [in clothing]. I think I was maybe four years old when we walked past a mall window. I asked my mother, “Who makes these clothes? It was the first time I discovered what a fashion designer was, or what fashion meant. Since then I think this has always been my dream job.
Morgan: Tell me about your collection of graduates, Perception windows. What do you cite as inspirations?
Johannes: Perception windows is conceptually inspired by the idea that we are in a very disconnected world which is, at the same time, hyperconnected. We watch each other’s Instagram stories all day; we know so much about the other, but we don’t really participate in the other’s life.
I was looking for a german movie called Wings of desire, which is very philosophical and poetic. It depicts Berlin in the late 1980s: you can see post-war Berlin, and all those gray, brutalist buildings, and the wall between East Germany and West Germany. The story is amazing – it’s basically about two old men who wear long suits and are angels. They look at the city from above. One of these angels falls in love with a trapeze artist and turns into a human. And then that black and white film turns into color – that kind of shows how [the angel] transforms from a non-sensory [being], who can simply observe from a distance, in a person who can taste, feel pain, smell, breathe, and experience the world.
Morgan: How did these concepts visually manifest in your clothes?
Johannes: I was very inspired by Brutalist churches — they visually sum up what I’m talking about conceptually. They’re really tall gray concrete buildings, but they also have these delicate stained glass windows that bring in that colorful light. Sculptural and round shapes [in my graduate collection] were inspired by arches and windows [of the churches], and the sectioning of windows. When you see looks one through six in a row, the collection changes from white to orange to red, then red to green to purple to yellow. The gradient represents the color that enters through the windows. A brutalist church is a space that immediately has a meditative effect on a person, and I find that quite fascinating – this architecture can create that kind of environment.
In addition, durability was an important point for me. I have worked with durable silk, cruelty-free silk, from a silk supplier called Cocccon. And I worked with hand dyeing techniques: cornstarch, resin and recycled upholstery and wind chimes. All of my dresses have been draped without causing any waste of fabric.
Morgan: What was it like finishing your studies in the midst of the pandemic?
Johannes: For me, graduating during the pandemic – and that sounds a little weird, maybe – was almost a boon. It’s a horrible thing happening in the world. But it made us stop, and made us think. On the one hand, the pandemic forced me to return home to the German countryside and literally be alone. I had to rely on intuition, and I think it benefited my designs – I just trusted it and went for it. No distractions.
I’m definitely conceptual and emotional at the same time with my design process. It’s always a balance. I have to have the context and the reason I am designing something. But, at the same time, my work must have an emotional impact both on the viewer and on me.
Morgan: Can you detail the sensory elements in your work?
Johannes: With this movement of mindfulness, yoga, meditation, self-help, I think people really want experiences. So I incorporated experiential elements into my clothes. I have wind chimes in my shoes so when people are walking it makes a noise. I have these accessories which are blinders, they block out the distractions of the outside world.
Morgan: Does this have anything to do with your experience in modern dance? What are its tangible effects on your designs?
Johannes: Really, [my background is] in many forms of dance: modern dance, ballet, hip hop, contemporary, acrobatics, tap dancing. I did a lot of different styles from seven to twenty I would say. Dancing would probably have been my second career, it’s still a big part of my job. I’m very focused on “What does it look like when the model moves?” “Which fabrics are comfortable to wear?”
This is also where perception comes in. Perception is the idea that when you see something, you feel it or smell it too. When you see cherries, you also automatically know how they taste. That’s how you get emotionally attached to things, and that’s so important in fashion. If you see a silk dress, you automatically want it because you know how soft it can be on your skin. This is why I am very aware of the material I use, how it feels on the body, how it works with the movement of the body. I do very structured pieces, but they don’t trap the body, they actually improve its movement. I think this is a very important part of my job.
Morgan: Did you expect your designs to rise in popularity, especially with pop culture figures?
Johannes: No. My intention was to be really true to myself and do something that feels like one hundred percent me. When you want to create something that has never been done a thousand times before, it is very important not to think about trends, not to be calculated, not to think, “Oh, I want this to be worn. by Britney Spears or Ariana Grande. ‘ It will decrease your creativity. I think what you need to do is create a universe and go to it a thousand percent.
Morgan: What is your goal for next year?
Johannes: “Goal” is difficult, I think, because it is so focused on “the end goal”. Mine is actually growing up in what I do as a creative practice. Every day is part of this goal.
Morgan: And during your lifetime?
Johannes: Finally, I would like to work a lot more with performance, and I would like to do exhibitions. I would really like to see my work go in a more artistic direction. At the same time, I am preparing things to sell. It’s sort of a balancing act between very artistic pieces and functional pieces that can be bought. What interests me less is creating a ready-to-wear brand with seasonal catwalks. My strength is more creativity and concept. I think I will definitely continue to work with performing artists, ideally even theaters, dance theaters. I want to continue my brand as a fashion brand, but also to continue my work as an artist.