L'Officiel Austria meets Mark Baigent in a Viennese coffee house on a cold afternoon in November. Baigent, who is in the capital at the time, started his career as a designer here (Mark Baigent has chosen a non-binary address for himself). From here, after a stopover in India, he went to Bali. Today, Baigent runs a textile factory there that produces fashion according to fair criteria.
We talk about the future of fashion in times of global climate change, the place of marginalised groups in our society, and gender-free clothing.
How did you come to unisex? Is it something that is a current expression or an outdated one because it has been around for so long ...
Mark Baigent: "That's a good question because I don't like to use the word unisex because I don't like the word sex in it. In the German language is always a certain aggressiveness to it. That's why I prefer gender-free."
How gender-free is your fashion?
Mark Baigent: "One would argue that some of my designs are more masculine, others more feminine, but that's about tailoring. With my denims, for example, it's like it's reversible to any gender - and there it doesn't really matter what gender characteristics you have."
And how is the market for gender-free fashion right now? Are people looking for it online?
Mark Baigent: "So according to the keywords we researched for our website, gender-neutral clothing is a trending keyword. I've been doing gender-neutral fashion for over 10 years and that was definitely before the trend. It's wonderful to see that what I sell online appeals to both genders. Both males and females balance each other out in the buyer base. It validates my concept and I'm happy about that."
You also sell in boutiques, but you can't tell your story there the way you can on your website, for example. What is important to you as a designer? Are there differences?
Mark Baigent: "I think designers now prefer to sell online. I work with shops that order a number of pieces and tell and share my philosophy. The shops where I am represented also stand for the same values politically."
Now people also say that fashion was particularly apolitical in contrast to other decades until a few years ago - how is the development now?
Mark Baigent: "I perceive it positively and negatively. I perceive it in a way that non-binary fashion is more in focus. The question is: is it in focus because it is a trend or because there is really a change in thinking. That remains to be seen. Big brands have already jumped on it, but with the statements they make, you have to ask yourself whether they are following a message or just a trend. It all seems very superficial. Even when labels like Dolce&Gabbana start doing it."
But actually, genderfree or non-binary is a trend that is now more overarching and is also happening outside the fashion scene ...
Mark Baigent: "Yes, fashion reflects social circumstances. The topic of gender studies has definitely become more public in recent years. It is true that it has gone mainstream. So I suppose some big brands want 'the pink money' now and are quick to jump on the bandwagon because of that. So are they really interested in it or are they just parroting what makes them money? Only time will tell."
Let's move on to another gender issue and that is the Spittelberg collection, which is based on historical Vienna and its marginalized population ...
Mark Baigent: "It's been the first big collection in 2021. As a note, I don't do spring or winter collections anymore. The story with my collections is that I like to work conceptually and every collection has a philosophy behind it. With Spittelberg, I wanted to do a collection with a Vienna connection. I also wanted to draw attention to sex work, mainly for personal reasons, and then I got into Victorian times and people like Josefine Mutzenbacher. Then I came across the fact that there was a large proportion of prostitutes in the population. I wanted to pay homage to the female sex workers and dedicated this collection to them."
And it also reflects a different image of Vienna ...
Mark Baigent: "Definitely. People know Vienna as a beautiful façade. That's still the case today. You don't want to know what's going on behind closed doors, or you do ..."
But that is also the case in other countries.
Mark Baigent: "Yes and no. I live in Indonesia and they make no secret of it there. That is still the case today. But if we look at Vienna: Crown Prince Rudolph instigated raids back then, but he himself went to a brothel in the 7th district. An anecdote says that he once failed to pay his prostitute and was thrown out of the house as a result. It shows how much the upper and so-called lower classes were connected."
Has this bigotry changed to this day?
Mark Baigent: "I worked closely with the historian Mag. Stoiber for my collection 'Spittelberg'. My research showed that it is even worse today than it used to be. Let's take an example: 15 years ago, people in Vienna still knew the Gürtelroses from streetwalking. Today you walk down the Gürtel (one of the biggest streets in Vienna, note) and there are none left. They have been banished to Laufhäuser or to the dark Prater, where they don't bother anyone, but which is a big safety risk for these women. And then there are the high requirements. In general, examples are made of these sex workers when it comes to sexual health.
Let's move on to another topic: How did your move from Vienna to Bali come about?
Mark Baigent: "I moved to Bali because I needed a break from Vienna. Especially as a self-employed designer, it's difficult here if you don't have a certain income because in Austria it's not easy to be self-employed. And then I set off, made a stopover in India, which opened my eyes. There I saw how mass fashion is produced, how many lives are lost, the waste that is produced - the heaviness of the world felt like it was on me because I was in a personal conflict. I was frustrated because fashion is my creative outlet. And on the other hand, I am a humanitarian and I stand up for human rights. It was all contradictory. My goal was to change this. Then I came to Bali, bought into a factory, and was able to create safe jobs. Now I'm about to get the Fair Trade certificate from WFTO (World Fair Trade Organisation, note)."
How has the development of your textile factory been?
Mark Baigent: "We started with 8 and now we have 22 employees. Despite Corona, we haven't had to lay anyone off or cut salaries. There is no social safety net in Indonesia, so this was very important. Many western companies don't even register their employees - this affects 70 percent of the people living in Bali. As a result, they couldn't claim Corona benefits either. A dilemma."
But these are not just cheap brands now, are they?
Mark Baigent: "Absolutely. With the expensive brands, I can't understand at all why they don't produce Fair Trade. There are products that are produced for 10 euros and sold for 500 euros! Why can't that happen on a fair basis? It used to be that 'Made in China' was bad, but that's not the case anymore. Salaries have gone up there now and many brands have left. Only Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka don't have social standards. So when you spot the label in your clothes, you can already imagine how that was produced."
How do you see the fashion landscape in Bali?
Mark Baigent: "When I think about how many Indonesian designers have a label, I would say that the western labels dominate. There is a lot of resort wear, swimwear or yoga wear produced there. From my niche, this unisex and avant-garde, there is maybe only SkinGraft by Jonny Cota, which is well-known and won a season of Making the Cut (a reality show about fashion designers). His fashion is more feminine. But there are not many typical unisex clothing brands. It's more like accessories labels. For example, the jewelry label PARTS OF 4, which also created for Rick Owens."
Are you influenced by the island?
Mark Baigent: "I have to say, unfortunately, yes."
Mark Baigent: "I had a collection called RHIANNON, which was a tribute to Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac. It's one of my best collections, but it's too resort-wear-heavy for me today. It should be more edgy and avant-garde. But it's normal to be influenced by the places you live. You can also be influenced, but the thread of the label should continue to evolve."
So what does your next collection look like?
Mark Baigent: "I did a few jackets in the Spittelberg collection that I thought was good. I want to keep experimenting with shoulder shapes in those because of that and combine that with a 90s look that's a bit more 'boxy'."
Do you mean a Helmut Lang look?
Mark Baigent: "It's going in that direction, but will be something completely unique."
What do you think of the current 2000s fashion trend?
Mark Baigent: "I think it's totally fun, but also serious. Vetements started it a few years ago. Believe it or not, whether it was intentional or not, this anti-fashion trend ... Balenciaga then jumped on it. I think it's a totally cool trend because it allows for a more open sexuality, but I don't think it will last long."