There is a recent spark to be found in the streets of Riga, Latvia. On a recent visit, it quickly became apparent, there is so much moving here, beneath the surface. Historically, we are still speaking of a country in development, finding its own identity and seeking for ways to express itself. Today, it is a wonderful myriad of creatives sprawling about the cities treacherous cobbled streets. During my trip, one of the most remarkable and sincere encounters was with KETA GUTMANE, who has her studio in the old city port, tucked away in a monolithic former factory. Here, she crafts her eponymous world, with calm intent and always with so much reflection. Let us embark upon a journey into her universe, defined by the framework of her homeland.
Keta, could you tell me about Latvia and what triggered your need to express yourself?
Well, I am a proper city kid and grew up in our capital, Riga. Nowadays, it remains still impressive for me to look back at those times and the opportunities that I experienced as a kid and teenager. A time, manifested by the Soviet regime, the totalitarian mindset. As a creative, I belong to the generation that experienced a very complex, absurd and at the same time a very saturated era. My family always was my ‘’untouchable isle’’, we had free talks about the cult of certain personalities and the meaning and principles of being humane.
There were some cult happenings that “poisoned” my personality and served as a life raft that made me acknowledge fashion as strong medium, that allowed me to speak in a progressive language. During my teenage years in the 90s, music and the alternative scene of the creative intelligence of Riga played a really important role. It was remarkable to experience the energy of the rave and club scenes; its night owls quickly became cult figures.
The main challenges of the nineties was the fact that artists and other creatives, now lived in a system that suddenly deemed them to be unnecessary. At that point it was like living without knowing what you will do next. ‘’The Untamed Fashion Assembly’’ slowly started to show its totally ferocious attitude towards the Soviet ideology, which was an absolute phenomenon of that time. Its presentations were visited by followers of alternative movements, from Post-Soviet territories but also by the representatives of European alternative fashion, such as Paco Rabanne, Andrew Logan, etc. This assembly was avant-garde and even hooligan, uniting design, rock and body art at its happenings. It sparked so much!
As you indicate here, Latvia’s history plays such an important role in your work. Could you tell me about the connection to your home?
Indeed, I am aware of the fact how exclusive it is to speak Latvian, a language that belongs to the oldest of Baltic language groups. Next to this, I belong to a this unique nation of less than two million individuals. Overall, I feel that masculine energy is prevailing here, with its survival instinct and self-rescue aspects. The place allows me to sink deep into myself, as if there is quietness all around, so there are no irritating impulses. For solitude, I can always escape to the seaside or wade into the deep forests. It is important to mention, that I always acknowledge my habitat and accept its peculiarities, this is the true foundation beneath my feet.
Let’s return to what you create, as Keta Gutmane features garments for women. However one could argue the pieces are wearable by both sexes. How do you see gender in fashion design?
This, I see this rather philosophically, as to me clothing is just a projection of our inner worlds that have no gender, no religion and no race. It is the mind that needs borders and definitions. When making womenswear, I am rather seeking for the mystery in the image of a woman, where the masculine and feminine unite. Beauty is emphasized not in a physical sense but in a unworldly one, which has great physical and spiritual power. I would like to think that it is the body that gives form to clothing and not the other way round.
Your e latest collection (FW15), works a lot with texture, fabric and distorting silhouettes. Could you tell me about its theme and what it stands for?
The collection is centered around the theme of a “Return” . Imagine, a passage of sad poetry about the rationalism of the modern, which is ironically contradictory to the romanticism of the lost times. For me this contrast allows people to raise above their own times and over this limited profane space. For me it felt relevant to explore the romantic and emotional riot of feelings, a feature that has sunken deep into the past. The woman here is like a knight ready to go until the end for her ideals. The image of the woman has symbolic meaning, its silhouette is like a structural temple, a marble figure showing discreet individuality, it’s sad, melancholic, observing, sombre, contemporary, and the shapes are dark.
With simple and clean structured tailoring, I have reinterpreted the ladies’ half-fitted cloak, the long skirts and gloves worn by Victorian fencers, horse riders and dapper women, into lush long cardigans and coats. My dark coats are done in a rich wool that has rough yet shiny texture with sharp unfinished edges. Furthermore, I use rough Japanese cotton and leather finishes, that bring a masculine touch and enhance texture. This contemporary functionality works with saturated textures, using architectural precision.
When we speak of fashion, we also need to take into account, that you need to build a connection with the wearers of your work. This interaction is a pivotal condition towards crafting garments. How do you wish for your designs to be perceived?
For me, designing clothes is about crafting a world where I can build my vision. However I am aware, that my clients will only catch a fragment of this. It is a most wonderful experience to explore, how to connect and meet at crossroads, how stories and relationships happen.
As a designer, I am grateful to experience the reactions people have towards my creation. It is simply marvelous to see how my designs are incorporated into their wardrobes. I want them to feel confident when wearing my garments, so each pieces organically comes into their personal space and time. Hence, it forms a language where both sides understand each other. People choose their own style and its application, and if my clothes fit in there, I am grateful. This is a process that always needs to happen in an organic manner.
Your world is so personal and almost fragile, to the observant on looker. You must however gather external Inspiration. What triggers you?
This for me is quite open. I seem to get inspired by all kinds of cultural experiences and imprints of the past. Here, I often ask myself how would they fit into a modern context? When I work on my approach and on finding new worlds of technical possibilities, I feel a bit like a detective. This is the search for contexts and the question how to include them into one drop of essence. I bring forward my topics and then do my research, this is like a ritual every time. In our universe, each new collection sort of shapes a continuation towards the previous one. As a foundation, I work with classic tailoring, details with sharp cuts and the silhouettes come in layers. In the beginning, this is a very intimate and abstract process, until it shapes up and becomes a language that you develop further every day.
As you have quite some experience behind you, I would also like to ask you about the future. Especially what you would advise younger aspiring creatives?
If your goals are clear, it is never too late to start a process, there is no need to be afraid. Just do it, be ready to work hard and immerse yourself completely in your work. Mistakes will definitely occur as you go, but they make you think, decide, to be focused and honest. Do not be afraid even if you do not succeed, the main thing is not to lose yourself, as there will always be open doors to other choices and opportunities.
Let’s close with a more personal question, what would you say is your best characteristic and what would you still like to learn?
Well, I am very much driven by profoundness and boldness. I very much want to keep learning what my strong sides are and where my strengths lie precisely. Lastly, I definitely do not want to lose my omnipresent curiosity!
All images by: Martins Cirulis.