Since 2015, Damur Shih-Shun Huang has been making fashion for freethinkers from Berlin with his label #Damur GmbH. He combines classical clothing technologies with new methods of textile science – and with politically provocative statements, for example for more gender justice or against racism. For the native Taiwanese, fashion is always an invitation to a dialogue. He therefore gladly talked with the Fashion Council Germany about his label, the Berlin creative scene, fashion messages and the fashion world in times of Corona.
You studied fashion design at the Belgian fashion school La Cambre in Brussels. Why were you drawn from there to Berlin and not to Paris in 2012?
To be honest, I was a little tired of the francophone (laughs). I actually only spent one week of vacation in Berlin, but had already sent out provisional applications and as it happens found a job with a Berlin fashion label directly.
What attracts you to the city?
In Berlin every day is different, nobody has to live a life like everybody else. I love the creative vibe, the craziness – even on the street you can always find someone to have an absurd conversation with, that inspires me a lot. Still, it took me quite a long time to settle in. Life in the Berlin creative scene is precarious, making ends meet was sometimes difficult. Not to mention finding an apartment and without German skills!
For about two years now, I’ve really felt at home, probably also because I have created a solid foundation with my fashion label and am therefore more independent.
Your label #Damur GmbH exists since 2015…
… And I think, it could work that way just here. My fashion is often provocative, I also make political statements. Berlin and the people who live here, are more open, more liberated than in London, Paris or Taipei, where I grew up. Fashionably I could break out here. And of course Berlin, unlike many other big cities, is still cheaper, which is good for the creative industry.
Provocative and political is a good match – your collections have titles like #iamslut or #youarenotblackenough.
And another one was called #thisistrans. The #iamslut collection fell right into the #metoo debate, which we basically wanted to support; Of course we have discussed the collection title a lot, also with our customers. On social media we asked our followers what they would think of it. Now that I make mens and womenswear, the title should be printed as slogan on shirts, for both genders.
What were the reactions?
For menswear, our customers liked that, for womenswear it sparked a heated debate – precisely because slut is used as a swearword only for women. Until today they are unfortunately not as free to deal with their sexuality as men, either they are considered “easy to have” or “frigid” – we want to fight against gender injustice, for us everyone is equal. With our shirts we wanted to give women the chance to own the term. Many customers then found this liberating, which for me was the most beautiful thing. This is exactly what I do my fashion for.
Should fashion always be political?
Generally, I can only speak for myself: For me, fashion is a strong way of expressing one’s own identity and a language with which one can convey messages and feelings. Fashion is therefore a platform for a dialogue. But one where statements can be conveyed with more humor or more softly.
In what way?
Everybody knows it, you sit together with friends or family for dinner, at some point it becomes political, the conversation heats up until someone goes home angry. My fashion is more like a buzzword or a stimulus for a conversation, for which there doesn‘t necessarily have to be an answer.
Is that why you use hashtags, like in your collection titles or label names?
Whoever wants to make a statement these days uses a hashtag – in my opinion it’s fast, precise and as a medium democratic. I have always been curious about the social channels. At the beginning of the millenium, when it was still very new, I already knew that it would change the way we live and communicate.
Under the hashtag #BerlinerRepublik you showed your current collection during the Berlin Fashion Week in the club Griessmühle – deliberately outside the frames of the Mercedes-Benz events. Why?
If I am offered a sponsored slot again in the future, I would also do a show again in frames of the Mercedes Benz calendar. Certainly without support such a show is quite expensive for my small label. My own show also cost money, but I was much freer, could more flexibly invite people from other industries and choose the evening event freely – a slot at 10am would have attracted fewer people, not everyone can take the time off for that.
As a young label, what would you like to see in terms of funding?
Initially, I would like more transparency. The Fashion Week is the best example: the state of Berlin also gives show slots to selected up-and-coming brands free of charge, apparently at the last minute. First of all, it’s not clear to me how, when and according to which criteria these brands are selected – I myself had also tried unsuccesfully in the past to obtain such support – and secondly, I do not understand which brand is only two weeks before the Fashion Week in a position to put on a show at short notice, I don’t think that’s very professional of everyone involved.
In Taiwan, the government supports young designers in equal measure, which could also be the perspective for Germany. As far as Berlin is concerned, I think that fashion week in general lacks a vision.
Is that why you are a member of Fashion Council Germany?
Probably because I see Damur as a German fashion brand based in Berlin. I find the local fashion industry to be rather torn apart, little connected, which certainly has demographic reasons. The Fashion Council Germany helps to bring many strands together. Ultimately, however, it is always about creating sustainable business models – there we are lagging behind.
Speaking about business, Damur is also part of the so-called McKinsey Experience Studios. What’s that all about?
This is a lab initiated by the consulting agency McKinsey, which brings talents and technologies together and ideally moves them forward. A playground for innovation if you will. For us as a young lable it was great that they advised us pro bono. How do you really build a brand, how do you get a business going, how do you improve processes and production? Things, that you don’t necessarily know as a designer, but which are essential.
Have you also learned to inspire local clientele for your fashion? The average German customer is not very open-minded towards young brands.
Honestly, Germany is not our strongest market. Although I try to keep the prices reasonable, the young people who are enthusiastic about our fashion cannot afford the collections. Older people prefer to invest in the classics. Our main markets are the USA and Asia. But we can see that we are growing here too, it just takes time.
Before starting your own label you worked for Dawid Tomaszewski. How important was it to gain experience?
Working for someone else is important in that you can see what others are doing or doing wrong, what you would like to do differently. In general, however, I think that as an entrepreneur one should always preserve something innocent. And let‘s face it: I’ve always wanted to start my own label, but in Berlin you don’t have much choice if you want to work in the fashion industry here – there are no paid jobs with other labels anyway.
Something current: With the Coronavirus we are currently experiencing an absolute state of emergency, which of course also affects the fashion industry. What effect does the pandemic have on Damur?
This is a time of meditation for everyone. For us as a small label the effects are fortunately not so serious at first, for bigger Berlin brands it might look different.
Some people with Asian roots report about racist attacks.
Fortunately, I myself have not yet had this experience. Coming from Taiwan I have to say, however, I find the consequent not wearing of mouth guards strange. It is the other way around here. I just had chickenpox for the first time in my life, on the way to the doctor I wore a mask – people look at you funny with it everywhere. It seems that everyone rather thinks that you are ill when you protect yourself, that is crazy. The doctor then told me that I could take the mask off, that it certainly was uncomfortable (laughs).
As the first Berlin designer you sent models with medical masks across the catwalk in January as if following a premonition – but to speak of a “fashion trend” at the moment would be rather cynical.
You can see in Berlin that even in such an extreme situation, wearing a masks does not prevail, whether as a fashion accessory or medical protection. It is definitely difficult to change the mentality. And apart from times of crisis, it’s probably not as necessary as in many Asian cities, that have to deal with much higher level of pollution – and where air conditioning and crowded subways are a completely different health risk. Again, at least in Berlin, there is still knowingly plenty of room. And air to breath in many different levels.