The Duo Making Political Clothes for Critical Streetwear Kids

Souvenir wants to democratize art and provoke political action with hoodies.

by Calum Gordon
Apr 20 2018, 1:00pm

You don’t expect to find a gallery or museum’s most radical works in the giftshop. But what if you could? What if, by changing the medium, you could spread the art, or ideas of an artist, further than a typical gallery space ever could? That’s the question posed by Souvenir, a Berlin-based art-slash-fashion label, which seeks not only to democratize art and hook a new wave of young followers, but also to spark them to political action.

Founded by Karin Oender and David Mallon in 2010, Souvenir collaborates regularly with artists, providing them with a platform to toy with the concept of merchandise. Their work has resulted in a set of temporary tattoos by filmmaker Marc Brandenburg, and a beach towel that explores “youth, freedom, and sexuality” with Berlin-based painter Norbert Bisky. For the past year, Souvenir has been working exclusively in partnership with Berlin’s seminal Koenig Gallery to create products that accompany its exhibitions. (That partnership has since ended amicably.) “Johann [Koenig, the owner of Koenig Gallery,] is very up for democratizing art and speaking to a new audience,” says Mallon. “Especially to youths, to inspire them.”

Koenig and Souvenir’s collaboration was notable not simply for exploring new possibilities of the products that can exist in a gallery gift shop–which, with a few exceptions, are generally underwhelming–but also for its aesthetic choice. Most exhibitions over the past year were accompanied by a t-shirt, executed in the visual language of streetwear, from the typography to graphic layout. Take the “Issie Energie” t-shirt, created with German contemporary artist Isa Genzken, for example. Sleeve prints? Check. Left chest print? Check. Photographic print on the back? Check.

But rather than simply feature artwork from the exhibition, the shirt features two personal photographs of Genzken herself. “I don’t want to see the same piece on a t-shirt as I’ve seen in the exhibition,” says Mallon. “I know it’s more iconic–but I want something more personal, that you can only get here, from the artist.”

“In these times, after Trump’s election, you can’t say, ‘Politics are not my thing.’ You have to care.”

Souvenir’s ethos is perhaps best exemplified by, its EUnify hoodie. Created for a talk hosted by Koenig Gallery in the run-up the UK’s Brexit vote–and coinciding with the pro-EU poster campaign of German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, who spoke at the event–it was a simple blue hoodie, with the EU’s motif on the front, and a single star removed. Virgil Abloh wore one on the cover of System Magazine issue 10, as did Juergen Teller on POP magazine’s S/S18 issue. British model Adwoa Aboah was spotted at NYFW wearing one. With the Abloh blessing, it sold out quickly, and Souvenir has struggled to keep it in stock ever since. Certainly the Instagram-fandom and various high-profile wearers helped push sales, but Mallon and Oender also point to the fact that the hoodie helped disseminate the debate held at Koenig Gallery last March much further than any recording or livestream could have.

“What people told me was that with the hoodie you get a lot of reactions. You’re wearing one, you walk somewhere and it starts,” explains Mallon. “In the airport, at security or whatever, everyone has to say something about it. ‘Why is the star missing? Is it about Brexit? Are you against it or not?’

“The game for us was about starting a dialogue,” he continues. “Please talk about it. We have to communicate more and share our thoughts.”

It might seem incongruous to be discussing the rise of far-right nationalism over a flat white at the Soho House’s Berlin boutique on a Tuesday morning. We’re surrounded by Balenciaga bags and Vetements sneakers, and but less than a hundred years ago, the building was a department store whose Jewish owners were pushed out by shareholders, before it was eventually sold to Nazi Reich Youth leadership. While we talk, at least one teenager walks by wearing an EUnify hoodie, browsing the rails of Raf Simons. But can a t-shirt, or a hoodie, really bring the kind of political discourse its founders seek?

“What we’re trying to say with the hoodie is that it’s so important to protect this fragile construct,” adds Oender. “With France, you saw four or five months [after Brexit], it was also on the edge,” referencing the 2017 emergence of far-right French nationalist presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. In Germany, meanwhile, the recent national elections also saw the right-wing anti-immigration party, Alternative for Germany, gain its first parliamentary seats.

“In these times, after Trump’s election, you can’t say, ‘Politics are not my thing.’ You have to care,” says Oender. Even if a popular hoodie is merely the starting point, hopefully at some point the consumer will question why exactly that star is missing, the duo argue.

Though Oender and Mallon have parted ways with Koenig, Souvenir will still continue to create merchandise, often with a streetwear-slant, in collaboration with other artists. Souvenir has retained its brand name and now has “new perspectives” on other artists and galleries they wish to work with, they say. Meanwhile, Koenig Gallery has launched “Souvenir by Koenig,” though Mallon and Oender have no hard feelings about the possible confusion. “That was also why we chose the name Souvenir,” Mallon says with a shrug. “No one can own it. It’s in every language. If I go to Japan, to some village, the only word in English on the shop is ‘souvenir.’”

For both Koenig and Souvenir, however, the aim of democratizing art through merch ostensibly remains the same. “[Streetwear kids] are more critical,” says Mallon. “Really young people, you show them this big artist, and they’re like, ‘I don’t care. I don’t like it’. They have opinions on things, because of the internet, which I didn’t have at that age. Which I like.” In translating art and its often complex political and social ideas onto t-shirts, even some of the toughest critics are beginning to be swayed.

Virgil Abloh
Adwoa Aboah