The History of Carol Christian Poell
The History of Carol Christian Poell
- Words Gunner Park
- Date May 19, 2017
Within the past few years, a small group of ultra-niche designers has monopolized the craze for dark clothing and intricate, artisanal production techniques, rising to prominence alongside a revived interest in archival fashion. While there was always a small yet fiercely loyal clientele for brands such as Boris Bidjan Saberi, Guidi, A1923, Label Under Construction and m.a+, all have garnered a new cult following due in part to the mass-availability of mainstream fashion and to a newfound obsession with all things gothic and handmade. While these labels are held in high regard, none have drawn the same fervor as Carol Christian Poell. Renowned for his ground-breaking design techniques, Poell’s ability to obstruct himself from popular attention has both added to his allure and in turn made him one of the greatest marvels in modern fashion.
Poell’s cult following is a direct result of his uncompromisingly designed garments, chock full of experimental fabrics and so rigid in construction that suits resemble an ensemble of elegant armor. He has almost exclusively occupied the intersection between bespoke menswear silhouettes and experimental design techniques. However, while his designs are in a league of their own, Poell has remained fiercely protective of his independence from commercial and stylistic trends in fashion.
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The eccentric designer has only conducted a handful of interviews in his life, opting to keep himself hidden from media attention. Few people know where he lives or what he looks like and nobody can confirm Poell is, in fact, the man in the photographs that have been made available in the past. Currently, he is holed up in a studio in Milan’s Naviglio district, only producing garments and showing them to the public when he feels necessary. In order to understand why Poell chooses to shroud himself in secrecy, we first need to illuminate his own background and philosophy behind his work.
Born in Linz, Austria in 1966, Carol Christian Poell was raised within the trade of Gerberlehre, or leather-making. His father, grandfather and uncle all worked in the leather business, finding new ways to, “give life back to leather,” a phrase that Poell would later use to define the aesthetic of one of his collections. At the age of 15, Poell familiarized himself with the popular techniques used in his family trade and steadily developed a talent for creating well-constructed garments. His stepfather, who worked in a clothing factory his entire life, provided the young man an opportunity to develop an interest in tailoring at a young age. Shortly after graduating high school, Poell attended the Senior Academy of Commerce and the School of Fashion and Design in Graz, Austria. While living in Graz, Poell was essentially given two choices: Hone his skill in Gerberlehre or pursue tailoring. At that point, he was already an experienced leather-maker with a modest knowledge of tailoring, essentially forcing Poell to pursue the latter.
Although Poell was content with his decision to separate himself from the family business, he found himself dissatisfied after leaving the School of Fashion and Design for The Costume Michelbeuern School for Tailoring and Dressmaking in Vienna. He quickly realized that tailoring in Vienna did not require any sort of university-level education, causing him to pivot his career path one last time towards fashion design. Shortly after, Poell moved to Milan to conclude his academic career at the Domus Academy where would receive his masters in fashion design, meet Sergio Simone and together establish CCP Srl in 1995, CCP’s official production and distribution company.
The concept of how to plan a collection, I’ve learned here.
By 1994, when Poell was set to release his first menswear line, he suddenly realized he had no intention of either working under his own name or releasing a full-fledged collection. Instead, Poell’s first offering consisted of a small array of industrialized garments, perpetuating many of the values from his upbringing and embodying the process in which they were manufactured. Poell released his first collection for Fall/Winter 1994-95, which he would later call the “Unintended Collection,” a small offering of garments consisting of a pair of trousers, a jacket, a shirt and a T-shirt. The “Quintessence,” as he imagined it, was the culmination of four menswear staples that would serve as a pallet for the young designer to express his vision. As fate would have it, a small clientele of Japanese buyers stumbled upon a pair of Poell’s trousers, ultimately ordering 10 more pairs and the rest of his first collection. Even now, Poell humbly reflects that “At the end of the day, I’ve only made a pair of trousers, a jacket, and a shirt.”
The following season, Spring/Summer 1995-96, Poell released his first full collection, the “1st Intended Collection.” The presentation garnered enthusiastic reactions for Poell’s unique vision. He quickly established a reputation as the most “researched” designer in fashion, a refreshing change of pace applauded by numerous figures in the industry, most notably by then-Chanel creative director Karl Lagerfeld. This notion of research applies directly to Poell’s laborious process of developing and manufacturing. From experimental threads and fibers via a novel manufacturing process to rubber object-dyed techniques for finished garments and accessories, Poell has since become an inspiration for unorthodox fashion houses to display their own unique designs, a sort of trickle-down effect of his many innovations.
However, Poell’s true talent lies in an ability to challenge established ideas. His belief—fashion has fallen subject to mass propaganda and is no longer about the personal significance of a garment—powers his ambition to redefine the landscape of fashion. Such can be seen when using human hair as an alternative to wool, dying his shoes after assembly, treating leather after making it up and even inserting individual zipper teeth one-by-one into his infamous leather gloves. Poell’s legacy has become cemented in the fashion industry not only for his unorthodox ideas but because he refuses to shy away from even the most time-consuming and arduous tasks.
I am a designer and I want to make real clothes using a series of artisan’s skills.
By 1999, roughly three years after the release his first full collection, Poell was set to release his first women’s offering. He initially designed his Spring/Summer 1999 collection as a project for men, but he saw that the theme of his newest collection did not conform to the cohesive image he had associated with his previous menswear lines. He instead saw this as the perfect opportunity to release his first venture into womenswear. It only seemed right to him that he begin his women’s collection with a new story. However, Poell found women’s collections to be immensely more limiting, contrary to his previous work. Reflecting on the transition from designing for men to women, Poell said, “With the men’s collection I am able to push myself a lot without falling into the ridiculous regardless of the two extremes of saying too much or not saying anything.”
His penchant for construction made it apparent that there was a very subtle line that, if crossed, could easily confine and box-in the designer. Poell’s difficulty in designing women’s clothing laid in the normalcy of womenswear to exceed and eventually fall into overindulgence. Poell was brought up to believe that men’s clothing followed a very strict set of rules. In an attempt to diverge from a similar construct, his inaugural women’s collection employed the “Trilogy of Monotypologies,” a collection of pieces that highlighted individual sections of the body and revolved around a single garment.
The “trilogy” was conceived when Poell decided that he did not want his newest collection to become synonymous with a trend or style, but rather one piece of clothing. Poell began designing garments for the lower body, which was later continued by two more phases to satisfy his vision. This is the principal of "Le Corps Présenti," the presentation of the body. Each season, Poell released compliments to garments from a previous show, but never the full look. The focus was always solely on the individual garment presented, regardless of its relevance to the entire set. He wished to give his audience a more ambiguous sense of continuity among his work while redefining how an outfit should be presented and interact with the human body.
Poell perceives dress not as a compliment to the body, but as an annulment of the body. He only considers the human body as a three-dimensional form that serves as a canvas to project his vision. Many of his lookbooks feature models with erased mouth and eyes as to remove their personality from his presentation, finding that “there is not a single type of woman or man that I refer to: I am interested in the body as a volume.” Poell believes the body should not be beautified. In fact, he often questions his work and the usefulness of his career. Still, his presupposition for fashion continues to reign supreme, motivating him to create clothing that serves as a means for self-expression.
While Poell succeeds in expanding the concept of fashion and design, he also excels in deepening it. No detail, fabric, seam, material or pleat remains unquestioned. His materials are manipulated with technology specifically developed to manufacture surreal and personal garments. Such an example can be seen in his frequent use of leather. His grandfather’s tannery played a tremendous role in the Poell’s inspiration and desire to create new innovations to the timeless fabric. For his “Best Before 16/10/00” collection, Poell learned how to tan leather through an archaic and unheard of procedure by diluting the transparency of the fabric. The idea came from a fascination with injury, disturbance, death and having the opportunity to look beyond.
Conversely, as seen in his 2005 womenswear collection, Poell smothered the interior side of leather with animal blood as he was interested in “giving back life to leather.” While his choice of secondary material was definitely obscure, Poell was convinced it was the only way to give true character to leather as the chemical nature of blood changes tone with the passage of time. Poell’s approach is experimental and highly technical where aesthetics take a back seat.
In accordance with his nonconformist style of design, Poell’s presentations have also become storied in the fashion industry as some of the most groundbreaking feats ever attempted by a designer. Similar to many directional designers, Poell constantly attempts to encapsulate the ethos of his collection in any given presentation. That being said, he has never had a conventional catwalk show. His extremely narrow and long-cut jackets, trousers and shirts have typically been displayed in some of the most obscure locations, like behind the bars of a dog kennel, in a slaughterhouse next to skinned cattle and even underneath a sheet in a morgue. These mechanisms were used by Poell to express the confinements society imposes on us and to explore multiple themes of death and disturbance. A considerable amount of his inspiration stems from his childhood. His paternal grandfather was a doctor, while the rest of his family worked in the leather business, so he was constantly surrounded by beings in various stages of life. It was clear from day one that Poell’s talent for integrating his upbringing and philosophies into a singular show were, and still are, unparalleled.
While Poell’s presentations not only embody the aesthetic of his collection and his values, they also serve as a commentary on the fashion industry as a whole. For instance, Poell’s Spring/Summer 2002 show, “Traditional Escape,” sought to explore the idea of breaking the clutches of the “fashion dictate” by showcasing blindfolded men climbing out of a Carol Christian Poell office window. His most spectacular coup, however, took place in Spring/Summer 2004 when Poell invited the public to the Milan Naviglio Grande for his show entitled “Mainstream-Downstream,” a title that speaks for itself. Poell’s presentation served as a metaphor for the state of fashion as he saw it, where mainstream fashion uniformly flows in one direction unconsciously. Models were sent floating down the channel, dressed in complete outfits made up of premium fabrics and hardware that were almost immediately ruined once submerged. “There was no catwalk anywhere, no black dressed assistants, no security staff speaking into headsets, no seating,” he said. Reactions ranged from euphoric to disgust, as many in the industry took this to be an insult to their own work. There was no assigned seating, so any passerby would be able to stop and marvel. In one momentous swoop, Poell obliterated a climate of elitism and conformity.
Modern fashion is riddled with commercial and political influences, arguably defeating its original purpose. Carol Christian Poell incessantly challenges this state through his scientific design process and methodology. He is an artisan who understands that while the fashion community adores him, he has no place in mainstream media. He is an industrial designer who chooses to concentrate on how fabrics and textures relate to form, not one who is concerned with physical appearance. Fashion shows and media coverage have little to do with the garments Poell produces and only impede his process. While few words can properly describe the designer's ambiguity, he is best defined by his core philosophy: “Avant-garde is advanced and individual thinking. The exact translation from French means, ‘before the crowd or the mass,’ therefore it can never be trendy nor fashionable.”
As you see in the collection, there is something that represents a jacket, but there is still not everything, there will also be a shirt…In the trilogy there will be space for everything, but I want to do one thing at a time: 'monotypology.'