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Bernhard is a living legend. This has been said about many people, but he truly is one. I am certainly not the only one who has considered his book The Real Gentleman a personal Bible that sparked his passion for classic menswear. I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions around the time his latest book Gentleman - The Ultimate Companion to the Elegant Man - was to come out. This interview was originally intended for publication elsewhere and is more than three years old now, but I still felt it would a shame to just write this for the drawer. So here it is, just for you.
What was your original profession before you started writing books? Do you remember the moment when you said to yourself ‘yes, I can write books about fashion’. How long did it take you to collect enough knowledge and experience about fashion?
I have studied graphic design and finished with a diploma in 1992. Nevertheless I have never worked in this profession because my idea of graphic design was different from what you do nowadays in advertising agencies. I liked Jan Tschichold better than Neville Brody which means that my taste was rather classical in that field too. So I became a copy writer instead and worked in ad agencies until 1999. My interest in men’s fashion and style dates back to my boyhood days but I had always seen it as a hobby. I had collected books on menswear and had travelled to London, Paris, Milano and New York to study menswear while I studied and during the first years of work. When I worked in ad agencies my colleagues always made jokes about my style of dressing which was unusual for so called creative people. I never thought of making this my profession until I had the idea for my first book ‘Gentleman’ in 1997.
Was it difficult for you to fit yourself into the role of an authority in the world of fashion? In this area it’s quite hard to find some objective and irrefutable facts – everything seems to float on water and depends on personal opinion and style.
I have created a role for myself within the small niche of timeless fashion. You might also say that this role was waiting to become my part. As I have identified with what I have been writing about for a big part of my life I also never had any difficulties identifying with that role. It seems that people like my books because I always try to present facts instead of opinions. It takes more effort to find these facts but I believe that the impression someone makes depends very much on rational decisions he makes. If you choose your outfit without much thought you can easily look like a fool. One shouldn’t trust their personal opinion nor follow the trends in great detail! The making of clothes has been an important part of the history of mankind and the more you know about it the better you will be able to judge.
Did you expect that your first book, The Real Gentleman, would become such a success? It has been translated into many languages and for many people it is the Bible of classic style. What does it mean to you personally?
We all believed in the book when we decided to make it but nobody expected the international and long lasting success it became. There is no other book on menswear that has been sold so many times in so many languages. I still love that book like you love your first child, although I have written several books afterwards. This book has opened so many doors for me including the door to fashion journalism. This February the revised edition of the book will be released. It amazes me when people bring old and well worn copies of this book to have it signed after I held a lecture somewhere. You can see that people work with this book and use it as a reference.
Your last book I read - A Guy’s Guide to Style – was a nice surprise for me. It offers exactly what I missed in The Real Gentleman, that is some practical advice on how to build your own wardrobe and style. Was it your intention to start where The Real Gentleman left off?
Indeed this was the idea of A Guy’s Guide to Style. My first book is in a way a very romantic book because it presents a style of dressing that fascinates many people but which is rather remote from their own life. A Guy’s Guide To Style is more down to earth. I have actually based it on the questions that I have been asked by men all over again year after year.
What is the most difficult thing about writing for you? What is your creative process?
I have been a professional writer since 1992. I am used to deadlines and tight schedules. When you work in an advertising agency you must keep deadlines. You cannot sit and wait for some inspiration to come. So when I start a new book the most important thing is the outline of the book. I see it like a construction plan. As soon as I know what I want to do I make a structure of the chapters and then a structure of the exact contents of a chapter in relation to the number of pages that I will have. This stage is most important. If you do work sloppily at that stage you will regret it later. I must know in advance how much I can write about a certain topic and which images I will need. I also need to know in advance whether the images will be produced according to my wishes or whether they will be sourced somewhere. When the structure is complete, I simply start writing. I calculate the number of pages I have to produce per day depending on the time I have. So I really work like anyone else who has to produce a result in a certain amount of time.
What kind of sources do you use when writing? Do you have some personal advisers for different areas you can call and ask them for details? Or do you take inspiration from older books?
My books are not scientific and neither is my approach. I accumulate all the facts in my head and then write freely most of the times. Of course I use reference books for all dates and technical data but I primarily rely on my own research. I have a lot of friends in various fields of the fashion industry who will answer my questions on certain details. I always try to get all the facts right because I know that my readers expect quality.
Tell me something about your next book. What is it going to be like? Do you already have the main topic figured out?
I have written a book on etiquette which has been published in Germany about ten years ago but I am not too fond of the subject. In the moment I work on a book that presents the best classical outfits for men using myself as a model and my personal wardrobe.
How would you describe you personal style? Strictly German, given your origin? Which part of your wardrobe is your favorite?
Basically I dress the same way since I was twenty years old. But classical menswear offers so many variations that it offers a lot of room for individuality. In the late 80s I was very British and I copied the Sloane Ranger style down to every detail. Then I was influenced by the Italians. Later I discovered the American Ivy League look. Today I take inspirations from all sources but overall my style has become less flamboyant and more Northern Italian. But I also like the style from Vienna in the moment. Later this year I will go there to order a suit at the bespoke tailor Possanner. Shoes were my first love when it comes to handmade clothes and I still am rather crazy about them. The biggest delight are custom made suits and the fittings that are necessary.
Have you made some mistakes when building your wardrobe?
I have made quite a few mistakes. Sometimes I pick a cloth for a shirt or a suit that I do not like when I see the finished product. Sometimes I have bought off the rack clothes that were nice but didn’t match anything else in my wardrobe. I have also bought shoes that didn’t fit as well as I had hoped. Fortunately I forget about the time and money I have wasted. The older I get the less I buy so there is less opportunites for mistakes.
Do you like to polish your shoes?
I liked to shine my shoes when I was a student but not anymore. I envy people who live in towns like New York City where you can have your shoes shined professionally at every corner. Nevertheless I do shine my shoes because there is now way of getting around it. I wish I had a valet to do that for me.
Do you think that men are starting to dress better?
I think that the average man has more awareness of fashion and style than he had twenty years ago. But the fact remains that most people wear some sort of casual clothes most of the time and have no idea how to look good in them. But I don’t worry about this fact. If you look back at the late 19th century you will notice that the higher classes of people had very beautiful clothes but the majority of lower class people had very poor clothes, especially in the big towns. We may say that the majority wears very ugly clothes everywhere in Europe, but at least everybody can afford to buy new clothes. Of course at the price of these cheap clothes being made by the really poor in Asia.
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