Fashion: Precision engineering for the body

As German exports go, Strenesse clothes are the fashion equivalent of the Mercedes: modern, sophisticated and meticulous. Rebecca Lowthorpe meets the couple who have transformed the company's fortunes
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The Independent Culture
IF YOU THINK of high fashion, Germany doesn't readily spring to mind. Reliable cars, yes; fancy frocks, no. Admittedly, there's Jil Sander, the fashion equivalent of a Porsche - expensive, exciting and extremely desirable. And there's Escada, which is your Audi - well-made, reliable, solid. But until recently Germany had no fashion counterpart for the Mercedes.

Step forward Strenesse - modern, sophisticated and meticulously designed. A 50-year-old company that has been transformed in the past few years, Strenesse has its headquarters in Nordlingen, a medieval town between Munich and Stuttgart - in fashion terms, the back of beyond. The company has a pounds 60m turnover, owns three stores in Germany and sells its mainline and diffusion range (Strenesse Blue) in 30 countries.

Gerd Strehle is Strenesse's financial wizard and his wife, Gabriele, is the driving force behind the design. As a boy, Gerd longed to be a concert pianist, but instead he inherited the business from his parents. "It was one of Germany's sole manufacturers of post-war coats," he says, "so stiff they stood up on their own."

Four years ago, Strenesse made its bid to become a globally recognised brand by showing on the catwalk for the first time, in Milan. The effortless, clean-cut minimalism met with approval, but the name lacked design- house credibility. Last year, the Strehles cleverly changed the catwalk collection's name from Strenesse (an amalgam of Strehle and jeunesse) to Strenesse Gabriele Strehle, giving the line the personality of a designer and a figurehead to whom the fashion clan could relate.

"You mustn't think I'm an egotist to put my name on it," says Gabriele. "I really wanted to remain anonymous. It's just that Strenesse sounded too industrial."

Gerd and Gabriele are opposites in every sense. Gerd passionately gesticulates; Gabriele is practically motionless. She wears casually elegant wide black trousers and a black silk top, her hair loosely pinned up. He wears a formal suit, and his hair is short and neatly clipped. While Gabriele remains seated throughout on a large leather sofa, Gerd repeatedly gets up to demonstrate. He wheels out boards covered in graphs and diagrams which are intended to illustrate the mindset of the potential customer. "Demanding director, dancing queen, movie buff, couch potato, inventive problem-solver, caring mom," reads one particularly efficient multicoloured pie-chart. "These help us figure out a lot," says Gerd enthusiastically. "We'd like to double the turnover by building export structure and attacking the Asian market," he says.

Gabriele, by contrast, reflects on the philosophical nature of fashion: "A person is well-dressed when it is the character and not the clothes that rest in the mind."

A long corridor in the Nordlingen offices is hung with framed photographs of past Strenesse advertising campaigns, shot by the likes of David Sims, Mario Sorrenti, Juergen Teller, Ellen von Unwerth. The most recent, shot by Steven Meisel, pictures Amber Valletta as a space- age siren in a white outfit, with kohl-black ringed eyes, a look reminiscent of the replicants in Blade Runner. "Using Meisel was like moving into the big league overnight," says Gabriele.

These images, because they have been shot by the god of fashion photography and feature fashion's favourite supermodel, will no doubt earn Strenesse respect from the style cognoscenti and glossy magazine editors. But their spirit could not be further from that of the clothes.

"Strenesse will never be funky," says Gabriele. "It's about shape and quality. The focus will always be on the woman." Where the mainline collection offers individuality - a funnel-neck jumper in unusually thick but rabbit-soft yarn, or a luxurious long mohair skirt - its younger sister line, Strenesse Blue, gives the customer her trustworthy basics: a perfectly shaped T-shirt and flatteringly cut jeans.

Strenesse is often mentioned in the same breath as Jil Sander because the two labels share a spare, modernist streak, and many people assume that Strenesse is as expensive as Jil Sander. When I mention this, the Strehles look shocked.

"But it's 40 per cent cheaper than Sander," says Gerd, and he wheels out another pie-chart to demonstrate price variations in the market.