On a nondescript street in Berlin-Schöneberg, you’ll come across a think tank devoted to contemporary culture. Subliminal Operations GmbH (Ltd), it says on the doorbell of the Sub studio. Andrea Faraguna and Niklas Bildstein Zaar’s design concepts have contributed to a number of disruptive moments in 2020s fashion, music, and art. Among their fascinating works: The set of a Balenciaga show inspired by the European Parliament, Anne Imhof’s Nature Mortes performance at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo, Kanye West’s Donda Academy, and Travis Scott’s Utopia tour.
Andrea Faraguna guides me through their spacious offices, which extend over two floors of an old industrial building. There’s plenty of stucco, wooden doors, and glass block windows. Computer screens dominate the otherwise-empty rooms, along with, here and there, an architectural model, material samples and lots of books. On the shelves, titles like Bunker Archaeology and Positive Nihilism sit next to Raf Simons’s Redux and Wolfgang Tillmans‘s 2017. Old chairs line the hallways, and a T-shirt with the Ukrainian flag along with Balenciaga Knife boots hang like ready-to-wear on the wall.
Faraguna is a trained architect. At an early age, he sought a connection to art. After college, he moved from his hometown of Venice to Berlin, where he found the freedom and the space to grow. In our joint Zoom call, Niklas Bildstein Zaar told me that he never pursued any degrees or more formal studies after age 16. “I dropped out of school then,” he says. At 17, he moved from northern Sweden, at first to London, and then to China for a language course. It was there where he discovered the first generation of online culture. He also wrote a small column for a Chinese publication about absurd aspects of contemporary life, like LARPing, live action role-playing, in which people make and wear hyper-realistic silicone masks. Bildstein Zaar stayed in Asia in his early 20s, learning Mandarin, and then later moved to Paris.
Faraguna and Bildstein Zaar met in either 2016 or 2017. Neither of them remembers exactly. In the meantime, their atypical architecture firm now has 25 employees. About half of the staff are architects, with the other half having backgrounds in 3D modeling, storytelling, welding, and industrial design. Their answer for what exactly they do is as complex as their projects. Their approach to design is cross-disciplinary and structural, interwoven with literature, architecture, art, and music—much like Bauhaus, Dada, and Futurism were in their times. Their shows and stage sets tell stories with sociological, philosophical, and political dimensions, with the experience itself a core element. Something that appears banal at first glance can become a design object. That banality is turned into a stylistic device—but the duo never simply replicates it. Instead, they employ a design language that demands up close engagement in order that you can see more than what is immediately obvious; it’s an approach that Demna Gvasalia, the creative director of Balenciaga, has also been pursuing since he co-founded the fashion house Vetements—when he was often criticized for his DHL T-shirt, and an Ikea bag that, made of fine Nappa leather rather than plastic, became a luxury object.
GQ: Niklas, how did you and Andrea meet?
Bildstein Zaar: Through a mutual friend, I think. The first time we met I had been staying in his bedroom, when he was away for a year. Do you remember? And then eventually we met. I got to know your room before I got to know you, which is a little bizarre.
Farangua: That’s funny. Yeah, we met a couple of times. I remember once you came to Naples when I was living there. And then we met again in Berlin. We started working on a project in Florence in 2016 or 2017 and from then we started working together repeatedly.
When you started to collaborate with Balenciaga, your work shifted noticeably. The shows became more political and included sociocultural statements, almost as if they were performances. Your first project as a team was to design the Spring 2020 show, a political arena that featured clothes styled as power dressing uniforms. I read that you like uniforms, Niklas. Do you and Demna share an obsession with them?
Bildstein Zaar: Both of my parents were in service professions that required uniforms. I always saw my mum when she got ready for work—she would wear an air stewardess uniform. My father had his elegant uniforms ready, lined up in his wardrobe. I’m very uniform in terms of how I dress. It’s usually always in black, pathetically enough.
And you collect uniforms?
Bildstein Zaar: I have a lot of military gear, that’s for sure. A lot. Everything from dress uniforms to more utilitarian ones. But also items that go into sort of different types of fetish as well. That is something where Demna and I have a kind of shared history. There’s something so empowering with a uniform, I think as an idea. It comes with an ideology and a proposition.
What about them fascinates you?
Bildstein Zaar: The ability to become something else is most strongly represented in the idea of a uniform. Notions of uniforms today obviously can be something much broader and it’s not just something that’s connected to your profession. It can be something subcultural or it can be many different kinds of dress codes that exist beyond the formal notion of a uniform.
How did the idea for the “Faux Parliament” come about?
Bildstein Zaar: Demna initially had an idea to do something around sociocultural tropes, an interest that is really close to his heart and informs a lot of his ethos of working. What was interesting for me was really trying to identify something that’s kind of ungraspable that’s happening at a particular moment. In this case, there was a big conversation about politics in Europe and what it meant. It reached a type of peak when suddenly it was clear that one of the founding members of the European Union did not want to participate anymore. [Editor’s note: The Balenciaga Spring 2020 show with the faux parliament took place in September 2019 as the UK was in the process of exiting the European Union.] It held a lot of meaning, not just politically, but also emotionally. I think it was, for our generation, something very, very critical. Then, of course, the political situations in America were unfolding too. We started reflecting on that in terms of how to make people feel embedded within that type of decision making. And out of that, the blue space was born.
Bildstein Zaar: We start with more of a discourse. He, with his confidence as a designer, will maybe give us a word to interpret.