It had been eight years coming. I first met Dennis Chuene in Cape Town, South Africa in 2014. I was there to work with South African photographer Chris Saunders and immerse myself in the emerging fashion scene in South Africa. Chris and I had chosen four other creatives to collaborate with – one being Dennis Chuene. At that time, Dennis’ work stood out to me in his reuse of the ubiquitous China bags, which he took apart to upcycle into his own streetwear accessories. His attention to detail transformed these throw-away, commuter bags with new value. Over the course of my short stay in Cape Town, Dennis and I worked together to make a one-of-a-kind NOT Interlock Coat out of plastic China bags and incorporating the streetwear detailing he was known for. This was our final artwork, shot by Chris Saunders and modeled by the multi-talented artist Manthe Ribane:
I knew Dennis had moved to Germany in the last few years, so I was so excited to have the chance to reconnect during the first leg of my sabbatical. On a sunny but frigid day, I found myself in Lichtenberg, a neighborhood in East Berlin known for the Stasi Museum, where the headquarters for East Germany’s secret police used to be located. Landing at his studio address, I found myself looking around a historic brick complex with an inner courtyard, the lower half covered in graffiti. I walked up stairs of brown patterned vinyl, marble siding below mint colored stucco walls, with a relief of six Grecian-esque robed women. Later I discovered that this was “Margarinewerke Berolina GmbH,” a margarine factory built in 1909 that flourished in the early 1920s. The plant closed in 1972 and was renovated in 1998 as HB55 with its 240 rooms becoming studios and workshops for artists working in sculpture, design, painting, fashion, and music.
Having just moved to this space two months ago, Dennis was still in the process of setting up his studio, but it had a lot of character already with a painting easel in one corner, a vintage German clock placed between his industrial sewing machines, two racks of clothing, and a little bar. Anyone who knows me knows I love visiting studios of all kinds – seeing into the working space, and thus mind-space, of a fellow creative never fails to inspire and excite me.
I had always been impressed with Dennis’ attention to detail, but his craftsmanship has truly gotten next level. His pieces are evidence of a true textile artist. As before, he is able to take humble materials, such as cotton paisley handkerchiefs, and through his eye for layering, patterns, and textures, create his own magnificent textiles from them. One fabric was created by a checkered layering of grosgrain and velvet ribbons, another was created by strands of cord individually stitched down as quilting. Another fabric was created from an intricately stitched grid over meshes of loose thread to create a soft varied surface, and yet another covered in hand-stitching inspired by Japanese Boro.
There was a fantastic knapsack-style backpack made of pieced paisley handkerchiefs with an overlay of cording paired with nylon and super long zippers that extended past the silhouette, all connected to a vest in front that had multiple different styles of pockets with a mesh overlay. On another jacket, rope cording was meticulously sewn in an illustrative fashion to create the imagery of faces and monsters, complete with mustaches and eyebrows that he trimmed with barber salon tools. A neoprene jacket was pierced with little holes where strands of elastic cording wove in and out and could be scrunched up to create different silhouettes. The best way I can describe his work is couture streetwear.
I was fascinated by how Dennis worked as well – he seemed to have an intuitive approach to patternmaking where he is able to create his complex patterns by creating directly in the fabric – a very different process from my own which involves many prior steps of drawing and measuring on paper.
As the hours went by in the studio, the stories behind each jacket came up in our conversations, revealing the depth of meaning in each work of art. I wanted to ask Dennis to describe in his own words the meaning behind a few of his pieces.
Jenny: You have a jacket with large letter patches boldly appliqué-ed in the back which say “Dennis Who?”. The left sleeve says “I’m Dope” in corded embroidery, and the right sleeve says “The Goat”. What do these mean?
Dennis: Since moving to Berlin, I've battled with where I fit in. Do I want to fit in? I'm a stranger and an individual, but who's Dennis? I made this jacket simply to come to terms with my place in life. "Dennis Who?" is what I think people say when they see my work. I'm an unknown designer and a stranger. I commemorate myself becoming a father by adding my son's birthday in numbers and his name on top of my initials DC. However, I forgot to add the letter "J" and an anchor badge to signify how both my wife, Julia and Maru bring me back to reality because I'm often too much in my creative mind. They anchor me. On the arm, I have "I'm Dope" to remind myself that I'm actually quite dope at being a designer. On the other sleeve, I have "The GOAT" (greatest of all time) which I strive to be, but also I'm reconciling my battle with alcohol just like the legendary South African goat back in the 90s who used to literally drink beer.
J: A jacket with such personal meaning, about your story and identity – who do you imagine purchasing it?
D: It's for a person that connects meaning and craft, and not just aesthetic. As a creative, we all sell a bit of ourselves, but dumbed down versions of ourselves as we hide behind the wall of self expression and symbolism. I'm not one for bold prints on tees. I'm about the craft and meaning.
J: There is a long wool coat that has Japanese Boro-style hand-stitching in the front, and a large artwork screenprinted in the back with imagery of the world news that made up 2020: Trump is on there, along with Biden and Bernie, Carol Baskin, “fake news”, mask protests, police and more. Can you tell me about your vision for this coat?
D: I wanted to summarize every year's events in an artful way. Limited to perhaps just 10 pieces. The front is simply me tapping into my favorite designer's aesthetic - Yohji Yamamoto. I wanted to make a piece that didn't look like others I've made. It's made of 100% wool, hand stitched and well crafted.
J: Can you tell me about this incredible embroidered jacket inspired by George Floyd?
D: At the time, I was rebranding and honing into my true brand identity with the use of cording. After the death of George Floyd, I found that there were many other unnamed/faceless men that died at the hands of policemen. I created faces of these people with the use of cords, using faux fur for mustaches and bias binding stitched flat. The core of the fabric completely disappeared into the background creating just a backdrop. I then added the heavily detailed monster in the back, in the form of a dragon, over the faces to represent the oppressive government and corrupt policemen. I battled with putting this story up for the mere reason that I didn't want to gain from a tragedy however amazing or beautiful the jacket or concept may be, until now.
J: Let’s go back a little behind-the-scenes. You grew up in Limpopo, South Africa and when you moved to Germany with your wife (her home country) four years ago, that was your first time out of the country. How was this experience for you?
D: I moved into the butt crack of Germany in a tiny village called Straubing. Black people are looked down on there, racism is rife. No outsiders are welcomed unless they look like the villagers, that is, white. I wasn't seen as a stranger or an individual, only a refugee.
J: Do you have a favorite spot so far in Berlin?
D: My home. I have two of the single most greatest gifts, my wife and son. I love being around them when I can be home.
J: What’s coming up next for you in Berlin?
D: I'm now actively looking to get into the Japan market.
Thank you Dennis for sharing your stories with us! If you have a chance to visit and see Dennis Chuene’s pieces in person, and to own one of these intricate pieces of art, I know you will treasure it.