Anja Wakeham is a designer, tailor, and all around sewing machine. She is also my mother’s cousin. On a family trip to Germany in June, I saw (for the first time since I was 14) just how hard Anja works. Though she and her husband, Dave, took some time out of their busy work days to make us breakfast and show us around Hamburg, where they live, Anja was constantly working. From restaurant uniforms to wedding gowns to her own line of organic clothing, Anja sews it all. Luckily, I had time to hang out in Anja’s home studio and hear a little about what she does.
How did you dress as a teenager, and how has your style changed since then?
As a teenager I was a punk. When I was 15 I went to London to learn more English. When I came back after three weeks I wore my new black and white checked trousers that I bought on Carnaby Street and my hair was red. My mother’s first question was: “Does that wash out?” My style is still a bit rock ‘n’ roll, but more stylish. When I started to study fashion design, the biker style was very trendy and I made a lot of stuff out of black leather and studs for myself. That was in 1989.
How old were you when you first started sewing? Why did you start?
I was 18 when I first started sewing. I still went to school and I made trousers without a zipper, because I couldn’t do difficult things like that. I just sewed loops on them for a belt and the belt would hold them up. Some people even asked me where I got the trousers from. I always knew exacty what I wanted and so I thought it was better to be able to make it myself. It happens to me all the time with other things, like shoes, that I want something that I can’t find in a shop. Sometimes it’s in the shops a year later!
Did you study fashion in school?
I studied in two different private schools in Hamburg, Germany. The first one was a one year preparation where I learned sewing techniques and how to make patterns. Later I studied Fashion Design at the AMD Academy for Fashion Design where I learned design, drawing and textile technology. Other subjects where photography, Italian, and how to run a business.
What things in particular inspire your designs?
I get inspired by films, especially historic ones. An example is a parka I made where you can fold up the sides with a pushbutton which was inspired by a Prussian cavalry uniform. It’s a modern uniform for riding your bicycle in the city. I really loved the TV series The Tudors for the costumes and I will try to use details from that in the future. I certainly always look at trends, but these days there are so many different styles, that it’s more about the shape.
What do you hope to accomplish with your designs?
My intention with everything I design and make is very easy: I want people to look good and cool. That’s all I want and I believe that that’s what fashion should be. If you wear a good piece of clothing it makes you feel good. I also think of practical details.
Besides designing your own line of clothing, what else do you do?
I do a lot of different things. I design service uniforms for the gastronomy, as well as workwear (for dentists, for example). I make made-to-measure evening dresses and bridal wear, I work one day a week as a freelancer for a company that makes sportswear, and I sew curtains for customers. I even designed and made a cuddly toy for a friend who is a cartoon illustrator. The character was an elk named Roffe.
You often use organic and fair trade materials. Why do you think that’s important?
All fabrics I am using now for my Organic Fashion collection are fair trade and made of organic cotton. Some are even hand-loom or naturally dyed with herbal colours. When I studied we had a project with a school in Berlin called HDK Universitiy of Art. The students there were studying how to create a marketing concept and corporate identity for a product. We had to form groups, and our part was to design a collection with a certain concept and they had to create the marketing. That was 21 years ago, in 1990, and I had just read something about pesticides in cotton and how dangerous it can be. I suggested to design a collection made of organic cotton. Looking back now, I was far ahead of the times, because now many labels are doing this. In the past I worked with natural un-dyed linen, because it was not possible to get organic cotton fabrics. When I was able to make my own small collection in 2009 it was clear that I would only use organic cotton.
Do your clothing designs for customers reflect your own personal style?
My own collection reflects my own style, but I also make clothing for customers how they want them, which I would probably never wear myself. I only wear certain colours, like black, white, grey, and pink.
When you’re not wearing your own designs, what do you wear?
I buy clothes from H&M, and I bought the first organic cotton T-shirts they offered. I am not willing to pay a lot of money for expensive labels. I make most of my clothes myself and I got fleece jackets and a rain-proof jacket from Jack Wolfskin. They have a good design and the materials keep you warm in the winter.
Interview and photography by Stephanie Fereiro