Kostas Murkudis: A Forgotten Pioneer
Much like Pieter Mulier is to Raf Simons, the Dresden born designer Kostas Murkudis was Helmut Lang’s right-hand man. When Helmut Lang started his label, the two were close friends and roommates, and it was Murkudis who helped build and design Lang’s new kind of fashion house—one for the old punks and artists. For nearly a decade, what they created together was subversive and illustrious. Collections played on proportions, with paper dresses, sheer layering, shiny fabrics, padded clothing, underwear over outerwear, and of course, silver denim. Many of these pieces found their way into the clubs of Paris and Vienna—a subcultural acceptance that would forever shape the brand.
Despite Lang's universal recognition, Murkudis' contributions to the brand are never mentioned in the press—largely because Lang himself was so under the radar about his work. But after Lang's departure in 1993, Murkudis took a few years off and decided to start his own venture in 1996. In seasons to come, he innovated his own shapes: drapery, fringe, chaps, scalloped waistlines, and allover prints. But what truly differentiated Murkudis' work from the rest was that his womenswear was intellectual yet Amazonian: bold, modern, and unapologetically sexy. Models like Gisele wore his bodycon dresses without bra, and often, underpinnings without a dress. His poster children included Chloé Sevigny and models like Guinevere Van Seenus, Karolina Kurkova, Hannah McGibbon, Kirsten Owen, as well as Maria Carla Boscono.
Murkudis continued to work for major houses like Balenciaga, Ter et Bantine, and Pringle of Scotland, yet nonetheless remains the most underrated designer of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Whether he receives mass accolades for his success or not, Kostas Murkudis’s legacy is influential in the modern scope of fashion. I spoke with Murkudis about his roots at Helmut Lang, the bittersweet nature of plagiarism in fashion, and his current projects, including a collection of garments with sound artist Alva Noto.
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I read in a past interview that you wanted to be an architect—what did you study?
I studied chemistry, which was quite weird at the time. Due to the fact that my parents were not too happy with me studying art or architecture, I was trying to please them. So, I studied chemistry. I did that for two years, and then, it was clear to me that this was not going to happen for the rest of my life.
You lived with Helmut Lang when he started the brand. What was it like working as Helmut’s right-hand man in the earliest aughts of the brand?
It was actually, in a good sense, very intimate. We started in the morning at 9:00-9:30 and had a coffee together. We lived in the same apartment which was also our workspace. We started working around ten. At night, we finished fittings, meetings, discussions, creation, whatever, had dinner together and worked again until six o’clock in the morning. During the weekends we would try to work on other things—enjoy life a bit. We went to flea markets, to the forest, changed the apartment. We moved furniture from A to B, back to A.
When I met Helmut Lang he was preparing his first show outside of Austria, which was Munich at that time. He was completely unknown outside of Austria. I didn’t know about him, he didn’t know about me. We got introduced to each other at a dinner and found ways to immediately talk to each other and exchange ideas. Two weeks later he asked me if I could join his company which was literally just him, a freelance accountant and a freelance patternmaker in Vienna—and that was it. We started working on a project where we could create traditional Folkloric garments—traditional Austrian costume which was made with embroideries from Bulgaria and special buttons. It was fun. All of a sudden [Helmut and I] got the chance to show at an exhibition which was taking place at Centre de Pompidou Paris. It was an exhibition about Vienna with some iconic artists of Austrian heritage and we got the chance to be part of that [exhibit]. So, we prepared our first show in Paris in this environment, which was very funny, naive, and strange, but was a good start to becoming part of the international press. I was there since the very beginning.
What did you enjoy about your time there?
I had to make the designs, I was drawing, and we were working together on the decision of the garments we wanted to realize. At the beginning, I was assisting him and later I had to do the fittings on my own. So, I was really invested in the design. I was not interested in the PR or interviews of fashion. This was amazing for me because I was far too shy to get in front of the public and I was getting the enjoyment and comfort of how it was to create.
You left the brand in 1993, and I read somewhere that you left for family reasons. Is that true?
I had a little boy who was born in 1987. At the beginning, it was easy to deal with but when he began calling me asking if I could ‘come back’ and simple things like, ‘dad I want to play with you,’ so that had become difficult to deal with. I was landing in Munich and Helmut Lang was asking when I was able to come back and work with him. At a certain point, I had to decide to stay in Munich or find another way to move the family to Vienna. This was not really an option for me, so I decided to quit. Why would I have a son if I could not have watched him grow? It doesn’t make any sense.
How do you feel your work at the brand differed from what Melanie Ward went on and did after your departure?
I don’t know, I think it was all there, she just found a way to refine it and to give it, let’s say the English flavor. Working with Melanie meant to work with David Sims, who was the upcoming photographer at the time. I guess when you start working and collaborating with people outside of your box they hopefully inspire you and push you to go a step further. And I guess this was Melanie’s strength, to push things further.
What changed for you when you went from Helmut Lang to having your own brand?
The last stage when I was working at Helmut was very easy—drawings, fabric choices. I was flying in two or three times for the fittings and we had nothing to do with production, deliveries, sales, et cetera. Having the chance to work with him, I had the freedom to create without being responsible for buying accounts, organization, and even the PR side of things. So when it came to handling those things at my own brand, I was pretty scared. It was something I had to face when I went with my own brand and it was not fun at all to deal with all these things—it took away a lot of time, energy, and creation. Creation was becoming fairly little against all these issues. On the other hand, it was also quite exciting. When I was starting on my own it was a very wonderful time, but also, I had to do everything from scratch by myself. I needed to find business partners and to make it work. Going to Paris, on one hand, was very exciting and on the other, was very stressful.
Sometimes your designs have been so subtle and intellectual I feel like perhaps it has taken years for people to get the point. Do you ever worry that you will draw a line too thin that may get lost entirely?
Not really. I really don’t care. I mean, there are always smart people out there and I believe that they can read what I have to say. Even if they can’t read it right away, they will find out maybe half a year later. I don’t want to be in anyone’s face. I’d rather have someone catch on at the second, third, or fourth look—finding something beneath the layers and getting attracted to that—rather than printing something funny on top of a t-shirt. Making statements like, ‘I’m this’ ‘I’m that’ doesn't interest me. Ultimately, I know that I’m going to miss some potential interests, some young customers, but this is not the case of my work. I can only communicate with people that share similar values, aesthetics, and opinions as myself.
There are many nods to your early work in current designers’ collections. How do you feel like the work you created in the nineties and early 2000s has influenced present fashion?
It’s actually nice to hear that. I’ve heard this from so many colleagues and stylists, especially the younger generation who studied at Central Saint Martens. I believe this is the best compliment you can get. So, it seems that our work was not lasting, but it was obviously more than that. What can you do more than inspire people in fashion, whether they are in an expert position or becoming journalists or photographers? I think that’s amazing. I’m really happy about that.
There are even several instances of copies of your work. Even the Spring Summer 2001 bra you created, JW Anderson made one so similar.
It’s exactly the same. And the trousers that looked like trousers, but they were basically chaps. I see them back in so many collections from other designers in the past ten years. It’s fun to see that, even Tom Ford was copying trousers for Gucci and was using it for the main campaign of the season at the time. There’s tons of references, yet, it’s actually a compliment. I’m not embarrassed, I’m not jealous, I’m not sad about it. It’s the opposite. It seems that I did something right.
Do you want to tell me about your current projects?
I’ve started to work closely with my brother and his store [Andreas Murkudis] in Berlin. We have been approached by some designers to either do a concept store or a collaboration. First, we will work on a collaboration with a cashmere brand in Scotland. Second, we will start a new business with a German shirtmaker. Third, we are in the middle of negotiating terms with a big company for making bags—that’s why I can’t tell you any details. There are a few more of this nature, but all with specialists within their fields. For me, this sounds like the best way of creating relevant objects, garments, whatever, that might last a bit longer than just a season. I’m not really interested in this fast fashion. [On the other hand] if I get the chance to work with a brand where it feels right, I have enough power, curiosity, interest, and knowledge and my creativity is still on its peak, so I am not scared.
I’ve also started a collaboration with two guys younger to create objects, like furniture, ceramics, concrete, hopefully cosmetics, and some other pieces like carpets. Hopefully we will release the first objects by April next year. This is about creating objects which last longer than a season. We are aiming to create something that is never out of season or going on sale—the new classics. We are still working with manufacturers on objects that are related to the human senses like hearing, seeing, touching, smelling. I did another collaboration with one of my best friends, who is a musician and artist that I’ve worked with in the past. His name is Carsten Nicolai known by the musical name Alva Noto and we created some garments together.
There are a few other opportunities that involve bespoke tailoring for a women’s line. Whenever something sounds like an interesting project that I feel comfortable to go with, I explore it. It’s not all for the sake of being commercial and creating money. Some of them are art projects and others are commercial projects—in a good sense.
If you were a creative starting now, how would you navigate the current state of the fashion industry?
I mean to start now as a young designer? I don’t know. I feel this is really tough. I guess there are only two ways of doing it: One is probably to start working in one of the big powerhouses and you make your way through in little steps, starting as an intern or an assistant and growing within the company, finding your way up where hopefully you will become a creative director of a brand. This is one way, which is I guess the safest and the easiest kind of—I mean, nothing is easy. Or you are full of yourself and you have such a strong power and you think you have something unique to tell and you are willing to survive three or four years without anything, but really believing in it going for it and fighting for your idea. Gareth [Pugh] did this for a while and so did Craig Green. There’s a few exceptions, other [designers] like JW Anderson or Christopher Kane—they all got backed by big companies, otherwise, they wouldn’t exist. So you have to be very brave and believe in yourself and work hard—very hard, even harder than you might have had to work in the late nineties and eighties. If you are willing to go for your own brand and you have the balls, you might succeed.
Do you feel like looking at the past can hinder innovation?
In general, I’m not really interested in the past so much. I mean, I know about the past, but I’m more interested in the future. It’s good to know to keep in mind but it doesn’t lead you anywhere. To look into the bag doesn’t inspire me. I also don’t like all these nostalgic collections—I mean, there are so many references to the sixties, the eighties, the nineties, but I don’t care. I’d rather do something new, even if I might fail. For me, it’s more important to create something new.