For the second part of this series, FashionUnited got lucky in Mönchengladbach. This is where Ellen Bendt is a part-time professor for knit design and innovative product design at the Hochschule Niederrhein. She has another part-time professorship in Hamburg at the academy for fashion design AMD (Akademie Mode Design). Thus, she travels back and forth quite a bit and to make sure she really uses her train ticket, FashionUnited met the designer in Düsseldorf. Over a big cup of coffee, there was enough time to chat about Bendt's beginning in the fashion industry and her reasons for becoming a professor.
Mrs. Bendt, let's start chronologically, when did you first discover your passion for fashion?
Even as a child, I used to sew and work with textiles but the idea to make this my profession came much later when a friend of mine decided to study fashion design. I got inspired and went with her.
So you just went with your friend to the next fashion university and implemented this plan?
Yes, exactly. I studied fashion design in Hamburg and discovered then itself that especially knitting and knitted fabrics were my passion. I then started out in this direction and kept expanding on it as time went by.
How did you get your first jobs after graduation?
It was actually quite easy for me because of my specialization. Directly after graduation, the company that I worked for on and off during my studies asked me [if I wanted to work for them]. That was Golfino Moden und Design close to Hamburg. The lLabel specialized in golf wear and at the time when I was there, produced many knitwares, especially in Italy. I started as a designer. After two years, I moved to Kammgarnspinnerei Süssen, a spinning company for combed yarn in southern Germany. There, I headed the styling department with a team of six employees. I mainly worked on yarn development and trends, which was connected to planning fairs. That was my short stint in the areas of marketing and fairs - looking at fashion design from the other side, so to speak.
What happened between your excursion into marketing and becoming a professor?
Four years after taking that position, I realized that I actually wanted to do something else and that I felt like going back to fashion, namely from yarn development back to designing. So I went back to Hamburg and started out on my own. At the same time, I got an offer to teach textile technology and knitware at AMD in Hamburg . This is how I slowly but surely developed my own business and gained customers while at the same time, intensified my knowledge and passed it on.
So you came to teaching more by accident?
Exactly. For 20 years, it was something I did along the way while I was always busy with my own business. Early on, certain divisions of the Otto Group were among my customers and I have done consulting for collections and trends for them but worked on various licensed collections as well, for example Buffalo that started out with Otto. I also worked on lingerie, sportswear and young fashion. Despite gaining more and more customers, I kept focusing on knits. That's how I ended up with Bosch Textil in 1998. They hired me as lead designer for the Bugatti collection for the segments pullovers, t-shirts and mens shirts.
Was it very stressful to work for such a big company?
Well, I worked for them on a freelance basis, the same way I did for all other customers and I have to say that I had the huge advantage to always look at it 'from the outside'. That means one doesn't work with blinders on. I think as a designer, it's a big advantage to work from this freelance perspective.
On the other hand, I believe that today, it's quite a typical scenario to work as a licensing partner. Many companies nowadays have lifestyle collections but do not produce one product only but have a whole range, which they license. And especially at Brinkmann in Herford - Bugatti's licensor - it was exciting and a lot of fun to meet the other licencing partners and discuss concepts, colors and materials. Subsequently, everyone left to do their part, just to get back together again.
And then you could see who turned around which concept in which way. Exactly. Sometimes it worked well, sometimes not so well but in the end, we always had a harmonious collection.
Mrs. Bendt, how do you rate Germany's chances as a fashion location?
I think one has to distinguish a few things. For once, it is a fact that there are many good brands in Germany that create very good collections. But the question is where these brands can market their products most successfully. For luxury brands like Hugo Boss, the German market is not so interesting any more. One can clearly see that global structures have changed and that the booming luxury market has established itself in China, Russia and the USA.
The same way there is a gap in society with products that become cheaper and cheaper on the one hand while, one has to say, preferring products that get worse and worse, and on the other hand, there are luxury products of excellent quality and sophisticated designs that attract only a certain customer base. Thus, the median is where there is or would be the most potential and much could happen if one would be more courageous. One would have to go ahead in a brisker way. I believe that there is a lot of creativity but there's no courage.
People are not adventurous enough?
I think that companies do not believe that they can sell this area well. Customers just look for very cheap or very expensive products - or buy according to demand. It is relatively hard to inspire German customers as they have been 'educated' over time by the industry to become bargain hunters. In addition, they are not as fashion savvy as customers in other countries. Brands are defined according to quality, according to a very high standard, i.e. German design that it not known for a lot of creativity. But I think that is wrong. If we'd give young, creative talent in this country more chances, we could achieve a lot. But that requires radical rethinking within the companies as well as among the people who are supposed to buy it.
How did you decide to become a full-time professor?
The idea came to me when I saw a job ad for the Hochschule Niederrhein in Mönchengladbach in the paper. I thought 'hey, that's exactly what I've always wanted to do' – a professorship for knit design, which is hardly there in Germany, as well as innovative product design. Plus, it was just half a professorship, which I liked because I could continue working with my clients. And I didn't want to leave my current job completely, thus it was the perfect solution for me in the beginning.
But I quickly realized that it was hard to combine this with travelling a lot, which was needed to stay independent. Thus I had to decide what I wanted for the future. Like many other women with children, I was looking for an opportunity that would allow me to have a family as well as job satisfaction. This is how I decided on another half professorship in Hamburg. Knowing that I could pass on all of my knowledge to the next generation, even in the areas of fashion and design managment, seemed most meaningful to me and I haven't ever regretted my decision. I even feel that being a professor is more innovative and interesting than my design jobs before as one needs to learn to develp things and spur them on while the job profiles that one is training for keep changing. Ten years ago, fashion designers had a totally different scope of duties than today - and that is something that I especially like. There's hardly a subject where I can use an existing script because they're all changing constantly.
How do you solve the problem of constant change in an elegant way?
I am extremely project driven. That leaves for me - and hopefully for my students too - nothing to be desired.
What advice do you have for your students?
One needs a healthy mix of creativity, commercial sense, good organizing abilities and flexibility - one has to be multichannel designer and manager for the multichannel customer.
Photos: Ellen Bendt, work at Bugatti, student works