vor 4 years

Berlin cult designer Esther Perbandt has always been one of our favourite local cool girls. And now, she is also our favorite reality TV star.

She made Berlin proud with a highly successful stint on Amazon’s new show Making the Cut, hosted by Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn. If you haven’t binged it already during lockdown, do so now, because: spoilers. When Esther offered me a private appointment to preview her new collection entitled “Hungry for Life,” this fan girl couldn’t wait to hear all about her experience and to do some shopping! After all, Fashion Week is back on for September…


DAO TRAN: Congratulations on Making the Cut!


How did you get to be on the show?

Apparently, they had an official announcement, but I didn’t see it. I received mail from a casting company in Los Angeles last January, saying that they found my work interesting, could I imagine participating? My first reaction was like, oh, no, this is not for me. I’m so in my niche and that’s arty, I’m not commercial. Then I thought about it for some days and thought ‘well, why not, what do I have to lose? I have no husband, no kids, no dog or cat, so, ok. I sent in my portfolio and did some Skype interviews.

There was a casting in Los Angeles that was like the semifinals, I think there were like 26 people then. We had to bring some collection pieces and we had to present every day. We had to present in front of Heidi and Tim for them to see the quality of our work and we had an interview with the people from Amazon. Because it’s not only design, it’s a TV show. So they have to think about how they put this group together, how entertaining the people are. They checked how you react under stress, how you present yourself. Then it took some more weeks.

We had lots of papers to fill out and lots of questions. There was one question about our skills, whether we can draw, sew, and make patterns. When I looked at it, I was like, I can’t do any of those! Because I’m not usually on a sewing machine, and I don’t do patterns.

But you learned how to do it at school?

Yes, I studied fashion, but I was a very lazy fashion student. I only designed what I was able to sew myself, so it was very limited. I mean, I can put my ideas on paper. I’m not a fashion illustrator, but I can show someone what I want and how it should look.

And making patterns?

Same. I learned it a bit at school, but I’ve had my label for 17 years and have been working with a patternmaker for 17 years. So I might not make a perfect pattern, but I have a sense. And if we have a fitting, then I can make it work.

So, did you practice, to get up to speed?

They only announced the designers participating in the show four weeks before filming. They told me I was in, and recommended I use the next four weeks to practice. Like I didn’t have enough to do! Organizing being away for all this time! That’s why I was super nervous when I arrived. I was so stressed the first two episodes.

That’s interesting because it looked like you were totally in your own universe.

Yeah, that’s true. When Heidi asked if I was freaking out or stressed, Jonny said, “She didn’t talk for 2 days.”

You know, I just closed myself off, tried to focus, and just do it. This was the interesting experience for me – to see how much I’m capable of. Because I was never under that kind of time pressure to deliver. In the end, that was the joy: For ten weeks, they just asked me to be creative. That was the biggest gift they could give me. It was so wonderful to just be creative for ten weeks and not answer phones, answer emails, do accounting, be in the store, serve customers, whatever. I was just there. And I could play again. I think this collection really looks the way it does because they gave me this possibility. So I’m really, really grateful. It was super tiring and I would probably not do it a second time, but I learned so much about myself and what I’m capable of. It’s fantastic.

Would you say this was a dream come true?

Yes. It came at the right moment, I was ready for it, and I gave everything. This is what the brand and I needed: international attention.

What was also really special was when I made the haute couture dress in the second episode: I felt like I was back at the playground, the little girl Esther who had this big dream of becoming a fashion designer. This was the moment, doing this dress, this was so joyful. This was so important. And I’m so happy that I had this experience and I carried it inside of me before corona because I’m still living off this feeling that it’s joyful to do what I’m doing, and I still want to do it, even if all around you, the world is collapsing. I mean, we are all here for different reasons. And I always had the dream I want to bring beauty and aesthetic things into this world. It might be a stupid task, but I think we need it, we need beauty.

That’s definitely what got me through the corona crisis: beauty. I don’t know how other people were dealing with it, but I definitely sought cultural products, from photos and art to fashion, music and film.

There are so many problems in this world, and you feel stupid, like, is this really what the world needs now? But I think yes, otherwise, I don’t think it’s worth living on this planet.

Absolutely. Although, if you’re at home and not going anywhere… you’re not getting really dressed up in your own apartment, are you?

Yes. I dress up every day, even on Sunday… I always wear my jewelry, I always wear my hat, this gives me strength. You know, this day could be the last day or whatever, I could not stand it if I spent it running around in sweat pants!

That’s a great way to approach the day. Is it specific to Corona, or is it that just how you roll?

No, it has nothing to do with Corona. It’s so short, our lives, I don’t want to spend time with people I don’t like, I don’t want to spend time on things I don’t want to do. I mean, I want to live a happy life. I have another 40 more years, maybe, they should be great. I want to be surrounded by great people and wonderful places. I have this energy and this drive. I mean, the last one and a half years have been exhausting – from preparing the show, then being on the show, then afterwards preparing for when the show airs. But this is what has brought some joy to me.

So, going back to the little girl on the playground, when did you know that you wanted to be a designer, that you wanted to make clothes?

I decided when I was 12. That’s when I knew. I grew up without television, in the 70s and 80s Berlin with a very free-minded surrounding, very supportive parents. Instead of television, my sister and I had a huge box of things to play dress up. And this is what I loved the most. I experienced the change when you change your outfit, understood that you can slip into different personalities with the way you dress. I was experimenting with identities at a very early age. This made me want to become a fashion designer. When I was a teenager, I experimented with lots of different styles just to see how people react to you, how it makes you feel different.


“I want my creations to empower people.”


I talked about it in the show, that I want my creations to empower people. I get feedback from lots of customers that they feel strong when they wear my clothes. They grow two centimeters. I get postcards from customers saying I got the job because I was wearing your outfit, because I felt really strong and self-confident. This is a 25-year-long experiment with what happens if you wear something like this, how people react to you. And now I have this lexicon of experiences which I can offer my customers.

Love that. What else have you learned from Making the Cut?

One very new experience for me was working with a plus size model, which I had never done before. I didn’t have the financial capability to produce the whole range of sizes before, so I had never seen my work on a fuller model. I really enjoyed that because it showed that my pieces could and do look really good on plus sizes as well. So this experience was an eye opener, and I’ve decided to start offering a wider range of sizes in my online store.

That’s great.

When we did the photo shoot for the online store, I had two models, one in size 36 and one in size 44, and it looked awesome, every single piece. Even the model was like wow, this is crazy, it looks great, I have to buy every single piece. This is a very good development for the brand. I have the feeling I’m now at a turning point because I’m exploring a completely new market for the brand Esther Perbandt. And I’m very very grateful.

What kind of expectations did you have going into the competition? Did you think you would make it that far?

No. I don’t know. I was just hoping to get as far as possible.

It’s a strange situation, because I had my comfort zone for 15 years. I had my store, and I had people coming who like my stuff, so I felt very safe. Leaving this comfort zone and going out into the world to present your work to judges – that was really new. You have this when you study, but not when you’ve had your business for so long. So that was stressful, but it was also interesting. I also really liked that they asked me again and again to use colors, because this made me think about why am I doing what I do. I had to again and again find my arguments, and that made me so much stronger in my conviction.

That was the only reservation that they had – your singular use of black. And, ultimately, that’s why they decided for Jonny, because he was willing to do more accessible for a larger audience.


Did you recognize that at the time? It was something that they kept coming back to.

Somehow, I expected that this will be the issue the whole time. Also, someone had told me that in Project Runway, there was once a designer who always did black. Then they convinced her to do colors and everybody was like, this is so amazing. And I didn’t want to repeat that story. At one point I told them it’s not a rejection of color in general, it’s just at the moment I feel this is the best thing I could do for me and the brand. You never know… in the future, I could do color. But it needs to be my decision. I’m not going to do color because some judges say please do color.

Well, they also respected the integrity of that vision and recognized the strength of your brand. I mean, it’s very recognizable.

This is what I liked. Explaining and finding these arguments made me so much stronger in what I do. I think since the show, the DNA became even stronger, which is great. The way I look at it, black is timeless and so many pieces are classical pieces, I don’t need to reinvent the collection every six months. I want to add some pieces when I feel like it. I have customers who come back and want the same trousers, so there is no real season in it for me. You buy a piece and you keep it forever in your wardrobe. I feel so happy when customers are coming with a jacket which is ten years old and they still wear it and are proud of it. That’s how it should be, for me. This is how I want to have this brand and grow this brand, very organically.

Some people think I’m crazy, that I should have just done three looks in color for the final show and probably would have won. But, no, I’m so stubborn, I stick to my black. But I’m so happy that I did. It’s perfect the way it is. I think Jonny really wants to become a big, global brand. I don’t know if really becoming that big is my goal. I love working in small teams and really close. This is family. It doesn’t mean that I cannot grow my brand, but it’s just a completely different approach. All good.

You do you.

Sometimes it’s better when you are second, because of all the things which are connected to winning that prize. You have all the attention, but not all the obligations and the restrictions.

It must have been so hard to come so close, though.

Of course I was very disappointed at that moment. It was three o’clock in the morning. You’re alone in your hotel room. Of course I was crying. I was sad. But, on the other hand, I was not disappointed by myself. Never, not for one second. Because I was really proud of what I did, I have the feeling I gave 180% all the time so there was not a second where I thought maybe I should have done this or that. Never. It was a good feeling.


“I got so much more confident from this show. I know where I want to go, what I want to do.”


And what is that?

A collection like this would not exist without that show. I was always limited financially, so my offering was constrained by what would sell. When we were sent home to prepare the final collection, we were asked to do commercial pieces. But I came home to Berlin roaring to do really expensive, haute couture pieces. I had the feeling for the very first time in my career that even if it’s super expensive, I know it will find a buyer. And that was interesting. This feels so good. This is where I want to go.

I mean, there will always be the very wearable things. I have this base; I know it’s there. I can see it from my customers, who are so diverse. They are between 30 and 75, and they could also be very conservative, but they maybe fall in love with one piece and they match it with what they have in their wardrobe, and I love that.

So I have this base or foundation, and now I can build the second floor of the esther perbandt house. And start dreaming of the top floor, how it would look.

Interesting. Becoming more and more exclusive is the opposite direction of what Amazon wanted. So it gave you a clarity in the other direction.

It’s super interesting. That’s exactly what happened.

So, what are your next steps?

I’ve hired two people, but would probably need two more. I want the store to just be the store and get a separate, larger studio.

Are you shopping that business plan you prepared for Amazon?

I’m not trying to find the finances. I realized that independence is really important to me. Very very important. I need to stay free. I know I’m stubborn, very often. I know exactly what I want and what I don’t want.

The show really helped a lot, I had a lot of sales and orders on my online shop. So I can start this little expansion now and grow organically.

Are you being approached by other people?

No, not at all. I also expected that, but I have the feeling this has a lot to do with corona.

Yeah, everything’s on hold right now.

Yeah, this is really a pitty and I hope that they will remember me.

How exciting to have all this happen …and then the world shuts down.

It has two sides. I have the feeling because of corona, so many more people saw the show because everybody was just at home. And this has a huge effect. But on the other hand, it’s a bit disappointing. Last year, I thought when the show airs, I will do a screening party with my friends every friday. In the end, I ended up watching it at home alone on my sofa.

In a way, it was good because there was so much work, it was incredible. So I was happy that my store was closed; otherwise, I wouldn’t have had the time to concentrate on the online store and everything that comes with it.

Tell me about the title of the collection: Hungry for Life.

It’s a slogan I’ve had for some time for my brand. It’s something which belongs to me, because even if it has been hard at times, I’m a very positive person and I’m always hungry for life somehow. It fit so well in this situation that I just had to use it.

I think everybody’s hungry for opening up again after corona.

That’s why it probably spoke to so many people. Many people bought the chains with the Hungry for Life tags because of what they’re experiencing at the moment. It was the right timing. Thank you, universe!

Now, last question, because I have to ask: Do you ever wear any other colors, privately? Like at home, watching tv?

No. I have a white t-shirt, a white blouse. But I have nothing else.

How long has this been going on?

It was not always the case. When I started my brand, the brand was really colorful. I was wearing a lot of colors when I studied and when I did my Master in Paris. After I did my Master in Paris, I started to work for a French brand in the south of France and this brand was really colorful. All the colors, prints, jacquards mixed together. I worked as a designer there for one and a half years. So of course that influenced me. When I started my own brand afterwards, I used a lot of prints all over and lots of colors.

Wow. I can’t even imagine!

I mean, there was always black. Over time, I noticed that I slowly started to wear more and more black, and then in the end only black, and I thought there’s a gap between me and my brand. But it was a longer process because I had learned in school that you cannot go to a trade show and have a rack of only black garments. That will not attract any buyer. There needs to be at least one color somewhere. I learned this so I thought I need to do it. But only the black pieces sold, so then I thought why am I spending the extra money to produce something in color in order to attract the buyer when they end up buying it in black anyway? So I decided to skip the colors. It’s probably been eight years now.

So you wouldn’t close it off, categorically. You might personally return to color.

Sure. It could happen. There was not one specific moment or experience why I started to wear black. It’s a process and a progress and a change in myself. For example, for years I was feeling a more androgynous style and was not really wearing skirts and dresses. But I developed and became much more feminine and now I love it. [She is wearing a dress as we speak.] So the whole brand became more feminine, too. So it could also happen that I get inspired by color and I introduce it again.

I think a lot of people will be happy to hear that!



IMAGES: Birgit Kaulfuss 

The new collection of Esther Perbandt, Spring/Summer 2021

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