words & interview by Marie-Pauline Cesari @itsjustmp

The worlds of fashion, photography and underground culture converge in a collaboration between denim brand G-Star RAW and nightlife icon Sven Marquardt.

G-Star RAW denim brand and nightlife icon Sven Marquardt have joined forces to blend fashion, photography and underground culture in an exciting collaboration. Together, they have crafted an exclusive capsule collection, drawing inspiration from the brand's archives. This collection is presented in a unique exhibition of 12 portraits - entitled '11 +1' - captured by Sven, featuring talents who embody the vibrant essence of the club scene. The G-Star x Sven Marquardt collection and exhibition are a fusion of creativity and authenticity, a testament to the underground spirit, and a showcase of Sven's photographic style. We had the opportunity to meet him in person at the exhibition opening on the 18th of October, and we discussed his inspirations and his journey as a Berlin photographer. 

How did you first become interested in photography and start your career?

My photography journey began in the 1980s in East Berlin. There was a thriving punk scene, which was highly inspirational. Despite the authoritarian atmosphere and the division between East and West Berlin, creativity was still alive. That’s when I started out. I met up with friends, and the camera became a tool for capturing this ongoing creativity. Fashion played a significant role too. The question of what to wear was a constant consideration.

Through the punk scene, the darkish gray clothing became a symbol of how people were living during that time, expressing their emotions and lifestyle in Germany.

Can you point to a specific experience or period that deeply influenced your photography and artistic perspective?

Essentially, a new form of youth culture emerged during a time when East and West Berlin were divided. Despite the division, inspiration flowed from both sides. For example, Vivian Westwood was a prominent figure in the West who hosted fashion shows, while in the East, people did the same, often regardless of legality. They took whatever they had – be it inspiration, clothing, or garments – and molded it into their unique fashion culture. This period served as a foundation for my career and creative journey as a photographer. 

How would you describe your photography style?

So, my photography is primarily characterized by the use of analog techniques. I’m dedicated to preserving the authenticity of analog photography, yet I also incorporate a contemporary element, as the final results are often translated in digital format. It can be challenging because I engage in various types of photo shoots for different purposes, including PR and commercial work, even when collaborating with brands like G-Star for instance. But I always stay true to my personal style, by considering the location, lighting, and other elements, it remains essential to infuse a part of my personality and style into the images. But it’s also thanks to my team! For example, by bringing my makeup team and other individuals from my friends and long-time partners. 

You capture individuals with captivating, deep gazes in your photographs. They are not only models but mostly talents, with their own personalities. Can you describe the creative process happening during the shooting? 

What I find most intriguing about my profession as a photographer is the opportunity to be in front of the protagonists. Beyond capturing the complete image, I focus on the portrait aspect, and the emotions I capture often happen by chance or unintentionally. It’s a spontaneous, automatic process, and that’s the essence of my photography—aiming to naturally depict, catch the emotions of the individuals in front of my lens.

I don’t like it when models attempt to display a range of emotions rapidly, just because they’re working with a different photographer. It’s challenging to switch emotions that quickly, so they might be surprised initially to work with me, but they often come to appreciate the quieter and more intense approach that I provide. It’s essential to create a comfortable atmosphere during the shoot, and I’m pleased when my team and I receive positive feedback from models who feel that it was a moment of genuine intensity we shared.

So, it’s all about using the lens to establish a connection between you, and the model?

Yes, exactly. Building an interpersonal connection with the individuals in front of my lens is essential. Analog photography is distinct because it doesn’t have the automatic focus of a digital camera. It takes time to set up everything correctly to capture the image. With professional models, it’s a moment of realization that it might take a bit longer to get the perfect shot.

This slower pace allows models to feel comfortable and authentic when expressing their emotions during the shoot. Models often see themselves transformed through makeup and styling, and it’s crucial for them to have that post-shoot moment of reflection where they realize, ‘Wow, this is me.’ It creates a sense of melancholy and mystique, a feeling of having achieved something truly remarkable. 

You recently collaborated with G-Star on an exclusive capsule collection. Could you share how this collaboration came about and what your experience was like?

Well, it was a truly fulfilling experience, and quite an extensive one! The collaboration was built on a foundation of trust between G-Star and my personal style. There were, of course, multiple checkpoints along the way, but trust played a significant role in the collaboration. The essence of G-Star’s idea was to reimagine the talent’s outfits into tailor-made denim club couture. I cast them, and when they arrivedit was truly exciting to see how their looks would be transformed.

Throughout the collaboration, the skilled cutters and designers at G-Star worked closely to create the unique looks in the few weeks leading up to the event. The models who participated in the casting contributed their own style, and this process gave birth to the individual looks, tailored to each talent. 

The collection includes unique pieces, with a lot of volumes and layers. It seems that you approached and sculpted denim in a way similar to working with leather or latex. Where did you find the inspiration for these designs?

The first time I truly took notice of G-Star was back in the 90s and 2000s, with all the commercials they had plastered around Berlin. However, I must admit that I lost touch with G-Star for a while after that. But, with this recent collaboration, what truly inspired me was delving into the history of G-Star. I visited the headquarters, examined their archives and books, and discovered a remarkably rich history of the brand. This deep dive into the brand’s heritage rekindled my inspiration and contributed to what we see here today.

Denim is, of course, at the core of the brand, and they drew inspiration from individual outfits, such as a leather look, to create something intriguing in denim. 

This isn’t the first time you’ve collaborated with a fashion brand. Could you share how this experience has differed from your previous collaborations and what, in your view, makes this collaboration truly unique?

That’s true; I’ve had numerous collaborations in the past, with brands like Adidas, Levi’s, and Boss, both on a regional and global scale. However, this collaboration was distinctly different. It was indeed extensive and a major undertaking, particularly in terms of presenting my work.

What sets this collaboration apart is the deep level of involvement. I had the opportunity to craft the entire collection from the ground up, starting from the roots of the idea. Seeing it displayed in an exhibition like this fills me with immense pride!

As a photographer, you’ve organized numerous exhibitions around the world. Can you tell us if there’s one exhibition that has had a particularly profound influence on your life and career?

The project that probably sets itself apart from the others is ‘New York 22’. 
I met Hardy in New York, and we spent seven weeks wandering the streets, engaging with people and capturing their unique clothing styles and personal expressions. We set up in Harlem, the ideal environment for this extended project.

It was essentially an open street casting process, where style played a significant role, but the focus was on portraiture. Some individuals readily agreed to have their photos taken on the spot, while others required meetings to select locations and lighting. This process led to the creation of a collection of images, which was exhibited in Berlin at a monthly photography fair.

Your photography often features black and white compositions. What draws you to this choice?

I do appreciate color photography, but yes, most of my work is in black and white. I find it adds more drama (laughs). It’s the contrast between black and white. Perhaps it’s a reflection of my origins, as I grew up during the East Side generation, and black and white photography has become part of my artistic roots.

You’ve conducted many photography seminars in Florence and Berlin. Do you enjoy teaching?

Yes, I do like teaching. There have been some challenges due to the ongoing pandemic, like in Florence, for instance. I continue to teach in Berlin at the photographers’ school, Ostkreuz Schule für Fotografie. It’s a fulfilling part of my life. In addition to teaching, I sometimes work on the door of the Berghain on Sunday, and travel for artist talks and exhibition openings like today. 

It keeps you really busy!

Yeah, it’s interesting, but I never really planned it to be honest, I never initially set out with a concrete plan to pursue photography. My involvement in capturing the club culture and my fascination with Berlin, especially with the background of Berghain, played a significant role. For those of us who have been in the field of photography for a long time, it was not necessarily something we foresaw or planned – like staying here in Amsterdam for a major collaboration, for instance! 

Has Berlin’s nightlife influenced your work?

Absolutely. Berlin’s nightlife has played a significant role in my work. It provided me with a lot of opportunities, and I’m truly grateful for the inspiration it’s offered, too. The techno culture, the community, and the youth culture all played a part in shaping my creative path. It began in East Berlin, where I was part of the youth culture, and even now, I continue to draw inspiration from the vibrant youth culture, particularly through my connections at Berghain. This ongoing connection with youth culture fuels my creative process. Everything is intertwined, you know, from teaching young people to learn from them. It’s a mutually beneficial exchange! 

How would you describe your own fashion style?

What inspired me the most was controversy and opposites. For example, the contrast of black and white fashion – like wearing a bomber jacket with a suit, or pairing a suit with unconventional elements like face tattoos. I find these oppositions in styles to be incredibly fascinating. 

The G-Star collection and campaign truly reflect your personal style. It seems you worked on this project with trusted individuals and long-time acquaintances. Is it important for you to maintain and foster a sense of community in your work?

It felt like a community effort, with everyone contributing their expertise, and everything seamlessly fell into place. We would sit down together, discussing each element, from hair to the overall look.

Having a creative team and a learning team is essential. New influences are wonderful, but so are those who understand how to work together. In terms of the collection, what was particularly pleasing was the value placed on new input and inspiration, but also the importance of contributions from familiar faces, especially those from the nightlife culture and the stylist…

What piece of the collection are you most proud of?

It’s a complex question! I truly admire the look of Natisa. He’s such a charming individual. And, well, I appreciate it. The question isn’t straightforward, just as selecting images for the exhibition was challenging. 

How did you select the photos that are exhibited today?

I had to choose a few from many. These are the moments that convey emotions, which I believe are paramount. While the background is significant, I’ve left my signature in portraiture. It’s somewhat of a compromise. Fashion brands often seek full looks for commercial purposes, but this style is also a part of my identity. It encapsulates the essence of the entire collection. So, it’s great to see a brand that encourages you to stay focused and true to your own style and essence.

The collection will be available per request by sending an email to pr@g-star.com