By Kate Millar / AFP
When Josefine Edle von Krepl fled East Berlin just before the Wall fell in 1989, she managed to save her vast hoard of vintage clothing by wrapping her china and glassware in it.
The fashion designer, journalist and mother-of-two was allowed to take many of her belongings with her to the West because she claimed she was leaving communist East Germany to marry, she said.
Her request to leave was granted three months before the detested symbol of nearly three decades of suppression was pulled down heralding the promise of an exciting new future of democracy and freedom.
But Edle von Krepl’s lifelong labor of love has been to look to the past through women’s fashion.
She has collected over 5,000 items of clothing dating from 1900 until the end of the 1970s that chart social changes for women, wartime shortages, the advent of US influences and new fabrics.
Edle von Krepl, a flame red-haired 68-year-old with her signature long varnished nails who bears a striking resemblance to French fashion designer Sonia Rykiel, can reel off the provenance and, in many cases, the history of all the clothes.
“As an editor I used to go to villages and always asked people if they had old clothes and I bought them. They were sometimes dirty and had to be restored and cleaned which was complicated,” she told AFP.
“In the GDR (German Democratic Republic) people used to keep a lot. But there was no understanding for (vintage) and people laughed. Of course after the Wall fell everyone wanted only Western things,” she said.
Her passion for vintage fashion was sparked about 55 years ago when, aged 13, Edle von Krepl, who claims not to be fashionable herself, “saved” a black satin dress of her grandmother’s which was due to be thrown out.
Her mother’s elegant 1937 wedding dress in a buttery yellow hue also takes pride of place. “She was a beautiful woman. It was a poor time … but she always wore something chic and red lipstick,” she said.
After many years of hunting for a way to display her collection without being parted from it, the small town of Meyenburg, 140 kilometers (87 miles) north west of Berlin, offered its newly-restored chateau.
About 360 of her items, together with bags, hats, shoes, jewelry and other period accessories, went on view to the public in 2006 at the elegant Modemuseum (Fashion Museum) in the historic building.
Leaving her home city to relocate to the grey, eastern German town was a wrench but the longing for a showcase was stronger and she has now made her home nearby, with her seven cats, in a former vicarage.
“This dress I bought from a woman in Dresden, she’s long since dead,” Edle von Krepl says of a dress from around 1900 in one of the display cases.
Among a cluster of turn-of-the-century wedding gowns, a black dress stands out. Edle von Krepl explains that poorer women would dress in black to get married so they could wear the dress again.
She then points to a shimmering white tulle dress worn in 1914 by its owner for her engagement which she planned to wear again on her wedding day with a different colored underlay.
“I was in Hanover doing a show at a fair which was shown on TV and a woman called and said she wanted to give me a dress,” Edle von Krepl said.
“Her fiancé went to war and was soon killed, so it never could be a wedding dress. The woman lived on the fourth floor and had trouble walking so I picked her up and brought her to see the show and showed the dress,” she said.
“She wept. She never met anyone else.”
A 1920s dropped-waist dress in a lilac floral pattern was fished out of a rubbish skip after Edle von Krepl spotted the shiny fabric while pushing her son in his buggy past a building site.
“When I find something I must save it. I have ‘rescuer syndrome’,” she chuckles.
The collection weaves a path through different stages in history — one dress reflects the public clamor for ancient Egypt after the widely-reported 1922 discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb.
Patchwork frocks made from old clothes during World War II demonstrate women’s creativity in times of scarcity together with the requisite hat often made from cutting up their absent menfolk’s headgear.
Until the mid-50s most clothes were homemade but as it became more usual for women to work leaving less time to sew, clothing was increasingly shop-bought, Edle von Krepl explained.
Colors became brighter in the post-war decade as US glamour took hold.
Edle von Krepl said she likes finding “little mistakes” in clothes — and imagining the story behind them.
“Either she died, or said ‘I can’t do any more’ or it was the ball and she needed the dress,” she says fondly of a black evening frock with masses of tiny handstitched glass pearls across the front but with far fewer on the back.
Her collection includes a few top labels but she said her main criteria are always the design, fabric and cut, and that the clothing must have been worn.
Her Austrian parents moved to Germany during the war when her engineer father came to work in an ammunition factory and the family soon moved to Berlin where Edle von Krepl grew up securing a place to study medicine.
But she yearned for “creative work” so studied fashion and journalism instead and learned dressmaking, getting a job as fashion editor for “Fuer Dich”, an East German women’s magazine, where she worked for 13 years.
Her ideas, however, were deemed “too modern” or “too Western”, she said and she decided to open what she describes as the first private boutique in East Berlin in 1980 selling her own designs.
“It was absolute madness,” she said recalling the demand. “That was unusual for clothes. We had queues when there were bananas or oranges. I couldn’t sew and produce, with all my employees, as quickly as we sold it.”
Edle von Krepl has no idea how much she has spent over the years as many items were bought with old GDR currency but she admits to having gone without, at times, in order to buy a vintage item.
Now, her biggest challenge is to find someone to whom she can hand over her “darlings”, preferably as a whole, after she retires.