Since he was a young boy, art has always been Ian Bernhard’s passion.
“I always knew I would someday do something that revolved around art,” he says.
But the 22-year-old never thought it would be fashion. At school, Bernhard prepared himself to go into architecture, but a chance encounter with WOW® changed his mind.
“In my last year of school, I had the opportunity to see wearable art garments designed for WOW®by my art tutor and her mother,” he says. “Before that, I hadn’t really thought about fashion and never considered it as a career. But seeing what garments could be drove me towards wanting to do fashion. It was really inspiring.”
Fascinated by his new interest, he made a few dresses and filled a portfolio with sketches. He was accepted into Auckland University of Technology for a Bachelor of Fashion Design – the only place he applied.
“I had no intention to study anything else,” he says. “Throughout my study I continued to read, learn and experiment in my own time with different techniques and materials. I entered WOW® in my first year of uni and have done so ever since. I love taking part in WOW® because it encourages art, not simply function.”
He’s had successful entries three out of five times now, and won 2016’s WOW® Factor award with the dramatic Incognita, a “dark and mysterious” baroque belle made from fabric, paint and paper. Each year, the award is presented to the garment that is WOW® founder Dame Suzie Moncrieff’s favourite piece.
“I was more surprised than anything else when I won; I wasn’t expecting it,” Bernhard says. “It was a lovely moment and I was quite proud and grateful. It was also lovely to meet Dame Suzie. She said she loved it, and that more than anything was so nice to hear.”
Bernhard says inspiration can strike at any time, and comes in the strangest of ways. “Inspiration is a hard question to answer – it’s whatever you’re surrounded by in the moment,” he says. “Quite often I’ll say to people one day ‘I’m not going to enter WOW®, I haven’t thought of any ideas’, and the next day something just pops into my mind and I think ‘That’ll be a good one to do’. That was kind of what happened this year. You never really know where inspiration is going to come from.”
And although he turned away from architecture for his career, its principles still feature in his garments, with their structured silhouettes. “I think architecture is a big part of fashion, in a sense you are constructing the garment as you construct a building.
“With Incognita I was looking at a lot of vanity painting – memento mori types of things. I find that so interesting and that fit in well with baroque.”
To make Incognita, he started by working on the base, then sketched with Vivid marker pens to lay out where he wanted everything to go. He then started painting sections at a time, layering on opaque colours and then working with transparent ones over the top to build up depth.
The win will help with exposure for his fashion career, he says, and he plans to keep entering WOW®. After finishing his honours year and entering this year’s WOW® show, he set up his own fashion label, Bernhard. He’s already finished his first Winter 17 collection and is now designing for next summer. His 2014 graduate collection The Antique Shop was a riot of beauty, bringing to life the Aladdin’s cave of materials and shapes found within a secondhand store. Asian and Middle Eastern influence rub shoulders with strong pops of colour and a rich variety of textures from fur to heavy brocade.
Bernhard says he loves creating special garments that are interesting and one of a kind, and hopes his work encourages others to explore their creativity as well. He’s also thrown himself into other areas of fashion, making, hats, jewellery, and bags, and he still keeps his painting alive.
“It’s become mostly a hobby now, although I am exploring ways to bring it into fashion; artwear, as they say. I’d also love to learn how to make shoes.”
His goals for his label are for it to have “a unique perspective”.
“I’d like people to come to it and get clothing designed for them rather than it being a mass market label,” he says. “That’s what appeals to me: the personal touch.”