When the old Stasi files were declassified, Grit Seymour skimmed through a file they had kept on her from her time in East Germany, part of the communist Eastern Bloc from 1949 to 1990. The file contained copies of letters she had written to friends, evidence of her whereabouts and travel plans as well as her “subversive” ideas. The file was titled “Operation Poet.”
They must have titled it that way because of her artistic interests — though she’s not a poet, she is a fashion designer. And the Stasi also knew she had in her possession forbidden books and music.
“Artists in general and designers in East German communism were very strictly controlled because they were kind of considered a threat to the government,” Seymour says. “As an artist, you make a statement about the society you live in or the world around you. That wasn’t possible. … If you were too explicit, you would practically go to jail straight away.”
“We had to work between the lines,” she says.
Disenchanting Truth about the Communist Ideology
She was born and raised in East Germany, officially called the German Democratic Republic (GDR). She was one of only four people in the whole GDR allowed to study fashion in college. In her first semester, she was expelled and publicly denounced for not following the Party line, then banished to a dismal factory in the countryside.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Seymour looks back on the stunted beginnings of her creative career. In the past 30 years, she has worked as a designer for Hugo Boss, Donna Karan, and Max Mara, among others. Her illustrious modelling career includes shoots for the famous fashion photographer Helmut Newton and shows for Hubert de Givenchy and Gianni Versace. She was, until recently, the creative director at the luxury lingerie label Wolford, and she is now a fashion design professor at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin.
Though the GDR tried to shackle the arts, Seymour’s creative spirit was indomitable. She’s like a flower that has grown up from a crack in drab cement.
Clothing in the GDR was purely functional, boring — unless you had the skill and gumption to sew your own clothes out of curtains and tablecloths. “It was an economy of restriction; there was no choice whatsoever. It was very difficult even to get a hold of materials, to get a hold of attractive material that people would want to actually wear,” Seymour says.
She did make her own clothes this way, and so did many others. Though the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) tried to make people into communist comrades who shun the frills and fancy dress of the West, the SED only made people more ingenious in creating their own frills.
Seymour’s love of fashion started when she was a child. She was able to watch Paris fashion shows twice a year on television. The world of fashion seemed so far away, so different from her world, but it captivated her.
Watching West German television was strictly forbidden, though everybody did it, Seymour says. “We had to go to the roof and turn the antenna in order to receive West German TV. There was a region in the GDR where the West German signal did not arrive. We called it ‘The Valley of the Clueless.’”
Seymour was always disenchanted with the communist ideology. As a teenager, she wore a badge on her jacket to show her membership in a group called Swords to Plowshares (Schwerter zu Pflugscharen), a Christian peace movement. One day, she saw police coming and pulled a sweater over her jacket to cover the badge. That day, police arrested several of her friends whose badges were visible. Some were deported, some imprisoned and tortured.
“It was never clear,” Seymour says of the rules in the GDR and consequences for breaking them. “If you got stopped by the police, you didn’t know whether you go straight to prison, whether you got sent out of the country, or whether you just get beaten up or thrown out of college. It was very random and unpredictable.”
Denounced As an Enemy of Her Country
When she was in college, she was arrested. She had stayed in touch with her Swords to Plowshares friends who were deported. She occasionally met with them in Hungary or Czechoslovakia. Travel outside of the GDR was limited to a few communist countries, and required government permits. Hungary and Czechoslovakia were two destinations open for East Germans, and her exiled friends could more easily enter these countries than East Germany.
On her way home from meeting with one such friend in Czechoslovakia, her train stopped unexpectedly as soon as it crossed the border back into East Germany. Police boarded the train and went straight up to Seymour. They opened her bag and found books and vinyl records that were banned in the GDR.
They detained and interrogated her all night long. It wasn’t about the books and records, she says. They knew all along about her visits with her friends and targeted her for her general disillusionment with the SED.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” she says. It was still dark when they drove her to a forest and stopped the car. She got out — and they drove away.
She had to find her way back to Berlin. “That was very strange, but I was very happy I wasn’t in prison,” she says. She wasn’t in prison, but that wasn’t the end of it, either. She was expelled from college, in a grand and humiliating ceremony. All the students were called to attend as she was denounced as a capitalist and an enemy of her country.
She was sent to a small town called Mühlhausen, about 350 km south of Berlin, where she worked in a factory sewing pockets on garments. Occasionally, she had a chance to design some garments there, but overall it was a dreary existence.
An Exit Visa
An exit visa wasn’t an easy escape from the regime. It came with the price of leaving one’s family behind, to be separated perhaps forever. If an exit visa were denied, one risked having to stay in East Germany under greater suspicion and surveillance than if one had not applied to leave. But Seymour had little to lose, already practically in exile, she applied for an exit visa.
It took about three years for her to receive her exit visa. It was 1988, the year before the Wall came down and two years before the official dissolution of the GDR. “I left in November, and in East Germany everything was kind of very grey and dark,” she says. “Literally just a few metres after crossing the border [into West Germany], it was full of light and colour and advertising. It was kind of overwhelming.”
“What I remember most was that feeling — as though a huge, huge mountain of rocks fell off me, because I had for the first time the feeling that I can actually be who I am and say what I think, and live my own life.”
The First East German Designer Having a Show in Paris
She started studying fashion in West Berlin, and eventually in London. “I had a friend in East Berlin who told me while I was still locked away behind the Wall with no prospect of ever getting out, ‘You will be the first ever East German designer having a show in Paris.’”
“At the time, I thought she was crazy, but it was a prophecy. Ten years later, I was onstage in Paris, showing my work. I was the first East German woman to become creative director for an established Parisian fashion house,” Seymour says, referring to her work for Daniel Hechter. “This is an accomplishment which still fills me with pride.”
She had the most fun with Donna Karan. “We worked crazy hours, swaying in the most exquisite materials, indulging in luxury and spirituality, living a designer’s dream,” Seymour says. “She taught me that having fun with pure and unobliterated creativity is the key to success on all levels.”
Seymour says people often describe her aesthetic as having a “feminine lightness.” She describes it herself as “purist, sculptural, timeless.” While the first thing you notice about a garment is its colour and shape, Seymour says that the way a garment feels is just as important — she focuses on the quality of material, the comfort and fit.
Sustainability in fashion is also of great importance to her. She’s part of a movement called Fashion Revolution that aims to make clothing production ethical, from farms to factories to stores.
She appreciates the freedoms of the West greatly after her virtual imprisonment under communism. Yet she has found that everything in the West isn’t as wonderful as it looked on West German television. “The television was always giving you a rosy, ideal world,” She says. “We took [it] for real, because that’s the only thing we saw.”
Today, the West is looking for something to fix what ails it, Seymour says. In fashion, she focuses on sustainability and on an approach that is more about savouring what you have instead of frenetically seeking more.
She’s not sure about the bigger-picture solutions, but she says in a tone of wry understatement, “I wouldn’t suggest communism as an alternative.”