Heading to a breakfast meeting with Dr Anna Marazuela Kim triggered a torrent of questions, emotions, and reflections. A sharp shaft of sunshine accompanies me during a brisk 20-minute walk to Berlin’s Cafe Benedict. Bathed in this sumptuous light, the German capital’s expanse of differing architectural styles, wide treeless boulevards and surfeit of graffiti and posters all come into full view. The walk compels reflection on the city’s beauty – one of the many themes that engages Anna’s fertile intellect as an internationally renowned cultural historian. The mental preparation for the interview with Anna led to an initial exposure to Chat GPT’s computing intelligence. My Berlin host had rattled off several questions the AI-platform suggested for the encounter with the serious cultural historian. Not for the first time, I was so impressed by this nascent technology that the slate of questions swiftly vanished from my memory by the time breakfast was shared with Anna.
Decked out in an elegant yet understated black outfit, Anna politely greets us before dashing off to the powder room. Our conversation is scheduled to be held over breakfast, but Anna orders tea and her meal only after we speak. The immediate if not enduring impression remains that of someone seeking to bend life and time to her terms, her pace. Anna Marazuela is an American-born, London-based academic who applies a multidisciplinary approach to study cities and seeks to foster democratic values in urban life. But we are meeting on the eve of Berlin Fashion Week and Anna also stands on the edge of a radically new professional and personal adventure.
Our conversation begins with an obvious question – is Berlin a beautiful city? Anna responds with a lengthy arc that begins with summarising her academic studies (on the history of art and architecture and Italian renaissance); research initiative (leading the cultural strand of the Thriving Cities project in the US); and the personal experience of being a regular visitor to the German capital. But Anna’s reflective nature means eschewing the offer of simple answers, hence a measured argument delivered with deliberative precision. “Berlin possesses very beautiful urban architecture and has invested in compelling renovations of its cultural institutions, but the city’s beauty also stems from its street culture and street fashion. In Berlin this is entirely self-made, with a basis in club culture, an aesthetics of personal expression and the notable absence of money. Berliners believe in their city’s authentic beauty, one that contrasts with German formalism and modernism. This produces an interesting kind of tension where a distinctive urban beauty offers a textural richness that coexists with, and resists, the shiny gentrification to which global cities are prone.”
She continues – “In trying to articulate the idea of beauty in cities, one of the questions I’ve tried to address is how graffiti could be considered a kind of ugly beauty. Because beauty is not just window dressing or putting bright furniture on the street. Also, we recognize beauty in its absence: the debilitating effect of slums and deprivation on human capabilities. So, I was thinking about beauty broadly in relation to what really makes us able to thrive, what moves us, brings out capacity or perception for emotion, passion and care for the places that we live. We are seeing the attrition of public spaces in this city and others, with a far greater number of derelict buildings being earlier transformed into clubs or art galleries. Most Berliners would say that even though there are grand public spaces, there is also less public space than before. In my work on developing urban planning strategies in London, we advocated promoting spaces with a generous public realm because societal mixing has assumed greater importance. One of the things you immediately notice in continental Europe is the generous use of public space, for example, people sitting on an outdoor bench and reading or streets also constituting an indelible part of public space. London has belatedly recognised that a creative talent like Storzmy cannot emerge without minority communities being supported.”
The conversation shifts to Anna’s recent work in support of Ukrainian artists. Her marriage of academic and activism summons memories of the adage – action without thought is blind and thought without action is futile. “I was invited last November before the war started to a Kyiv forum due to a consulting report I wrote for a global network of cultural districts. The initiative convened many partners to create the first district of contemporary arts and culture in the historic centre of Kyiv. This brought together amazing people and I completely fell in love with the city and the project. Since February of last year, I have been trying to advance a lot of different projects and initiatives in support of cultural workers in exile.” As is so often in Anna Marazuela’s life journey, personal relations underpin her efforts. In this case, she met the two female curators of the Kyiv-based contemporary art gallery (The Naked Room Gallery) and helped them to support Ukrainian cultural workers and artists. “We need to applaud this generation that has stayed and built their country after independence. Intellectuals that could have easily left the country for appealing jobs at Columbia or Harvard and this heroism is being repeated by the younger generation.”
She sagely adds that “the war in Ukraine is essentially a culture war because Putin believes that the country has no legitimate culture of its own but should be viewed solely as a lesser satellite. Therefore, promoting Ukrainian culture remains an important imperative to empower artists with platforms to grant them heightened visibility and support their work in exile.” She also believes that the Ukrainian cause is ably led by President Zelensky in part through his deep understanding of the power of creative communication. We briefly meander into the realm of fashion when she mentions “I have been supporting these young women who are doing a fashion design popup, bringing great Ukrainian brands to London. One of those brands is featured here in Berlin.”
Now the earnest segue into fashion was unavoidable with Anna, the serious academic who is about to walk the runway at this year’s Berlin Fashion Week. My invitation for her to share the rationale behind this creative leap was greeted by the now customary measured and reflective response. “This was completely accidental and let me clarify that I can’t say that I am seriously modelling just yet as I have only done this a couple of times. But it happened that three times in one year I was street cast as a model in both London and Berlin. An award-winning film director contacted me after seeing a portrait someone else made of me and registered an interest to working with me.” Other chance personal encounters emerged including with a young German street casting professional for Julia Lange who canvassed the academic’s interest to model. Anna was initially hesitant but later recognized that the spontaneous meeting was propitious as she was reflecting on leaving her academic job to escape its resultant stress and heavy bureaucratic nature. “I dreamt about returning to a project-based life and being surrounded by creative people. So immediately I wrote her and was invited to do a photo shoot with a black shirt but no makeup. I found all this surprising as it was happening to me as an older person, my entire life identifying as an intellectual and activist to be taken seriously.”
Through yet another serendipitous meeting, Anna met the German fashion designer Marcel Ostertag in Berlin. “I arrived at a friend’s architect studio, and as the toilet was under repair, I had to use one at a hotel across the street. It was a stunningly beautiful sunny summer day, I woke up early, put on a kimono robe and flip flops and started walking from the hotel to Mitte in search of breakfast. I met an artist visiting from Munich who invited me to a design pop up around the corner featuring some fabulous designers. There I bought a jacket as I needed something for a special night at the Berghain – the legendary techno nightclub in Berlin. Suddenly Marcel walks in, looks at me and asks if I would walk the runway for him for Berlin Fashion Week. This time I was ready, so I immediately said yes! I walked for Marcel last July and found it to be a great experience. His warmth, support and advice has made it all possible.”
The leap onto the catwalk evoked something deeply personal in Anna Marazuela. Part of this stems from her fondness of professional collaboration, love of design and beauty. But there was something even more profound that catapulted this mature American woman into fashion modelling. “Berlin makes me feel alive, animated, excited and engaged, and therefore I always feel attractive here. Growing up in the US Midwest in the wake of the Vietnam War, I was regularly subject to hatred and prejudice. As a result, I grew up feeling ugly – a sensation compounded by this weird sort of sexual vibe emanating from American soldiers returning from military duty in Asia. This was extremely toxic and alienating as a young person, so I became rather studious and wore glasses to navigate safe spaces of university and academia. I never felt attractive until I went to Brown University, when multiculturalism began to be valued. That was important for someone like me with my Spanish and Korean heritage.”
Unsurprisingly, Anna ventures into modelling bent on pursuing this on her own terms and tied to her intellect and interests. “When I pose, I remain unaware of the impact either on the photographer, clothes or audience. How does one project intelligence while modelling clothes? As an intelligent person entering fashion, one has to address the issue of sustainable fashion and one’s relationship to buying clothing. Yet, I remain acutely aware that I am now just entering the fashion industry and therefore being radically outspoken would be neither wise nor appropriate.” But she insists on embarking on professional collaborations that are consistent with her set of values.
Marcel Ostertag joins us with his opulent whiff of perfume and expressive personality. He shares his perspective on what he saw in Anna to trigger an interest in her modelling his designs. “The first time I saw her, her beauty was obvious. But she also has something inside which is coming out along with an appealing style. Beyond that, Anna has something really mysterious about her as well. I tend not to see age in women but rather beauty and confidence and strength and power. I like women who have a story in life, who are creative, who are personalities. I don’t like to book just blank models that do one show after the other but lack personality.”
Ostertag introduces the philosophy behind his new collection “We have been in the pandemic kind of underground for a couple of seasons with more concrete and more down to earth clothing. But now we are back. I think the new collection reflects a kind of split between Berghain and Studio 54. There is a 1970s vibe, but the clothing items remain both youthful and fresh.” Ostertag further notes that the national mood in his own country is depressing with the impact of the Ukrainian war and energy-fuelled rampant inflation. “With this collection, I want people to have fun again, go out again, inspire and reclaim life.”
Anna interjects and rightly reserves the last words for herself. “I think the first thing that struck me about Marcel is this incredibly positive energy in an industry that I am quite sure is not just demanding but also brutal. I love his spirit of collaboration, openness, and optimism. With this invitation to model, I seem to be coming into myself after many, many years and a heavy load of personal struggle. Something is emerging and I’m grateful to people like Marcel who can see this potential in me.”
Words: Junior Lodge
Photographer: Stephan Ziehen
Hair+Make-Up: Lisa Neubauer@Bigoudi
All outfits: La Bande/Berlin
All jewellery: Luise Zücker/Berlin