The empress of vintage

Germany’s largest, most beautiful private collection of vintage fashion is the lifework of a most charismatic East Berliner, Josefine Edle von Krepl – whose life has primed her to be a true vintage sovereign.

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Photos by Letizia Mariotti

Berlin boasts two much-hyped fashion weeks a year, two dedicated fashion schools and countless designers and boutiques – but it is still missing a fashion museum. Germany’s largest, most beautiful private collection, the lifework of a most charismatic East Berliner, is to be found in a Brandenburg Schloss.  

Deep into the pumpkin and pear country celebrated by Theodor Fontane in his lyrical Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg, a few kilometres from the famous wandering novelist’s birthplace of Neuruppin, and an hour-and-a-half drive away from Berlin, lies the town of Meyenburg.

It’s well worth a visit, not just for its prettily renovated neo-Renaissance castle and the local history museum it houses, but for its temporary resident, Josefine Edle von Krepl, and her breathtaking collection of vintage fashion. Since 2006, Modemuseum Meyenburg has been attracting eager visitors from France to Japan.

Step through the small palace’s antechamber into a large room filled with a jumble of bygone bags, hats and shoes. A few mannequins are outfitted in precious beaded flapper dresses and tapestry bags.

All over, tables are frocked with 100-year-old linen and lace, topped with refined porcelain cups. Here you can drink coffee and enjoy a slice of cake. If you’re lucky, you might catch sight of a shock of red hair over two green-shadowed cat-like eyes, a small dame with a startling resemblance to the late French novelist Colette in her twilight days. Like her, Josefine Edle von Krepl loves cats and owns a dozen of them.

But cats are not her only passion, as testified by the collection on display at Schloss Meyenburg: 1000sqm over two floors of mostly women’s outfits sorted by era (from the late 1880s to the 1970s) and colour scheme, exhibited with a stunning collection of handpicked accessories (bags, clutches, hats, glasses, parasols and jewellery) and surrounded by original fashion gravures and photographs.

There’s background music to match, and even the chairs you can rest on to gaze through the glass cabinets are authentic pieces. So are the mannequins. This is obviously a true labour of love, the result of five decades of collecting – or “rescuing” items, as Von Krepl likes to say.

She points to a spotless, ravishing 1920s hortensiapink silk dress with a superimposed layer of silver lace fabric with large floral leaf patterns, a matchless blend of iridescent tones: “I found it in a suitcase in a Prenzl’Berg dumpster. It had quite a few bad holes,” explains the former East Berliner, a trained seamstress who’s spent a lifetime repairing, renovating and rejuvenating discarded garments.

It all started 54 years ago with a 1930s black silk dress the then 13-year-old Von Krepl decided to rescue from her grandmother’s zealous house cleaning. And then the gorgeous yellow-and-gold bridal outfit her mother wore for her wedding in 1936: a Greek goddess-inspired, bias-cut silk satin gown with a skilfully draped cross-over bust, fastened on each shoulders by a double row of rhinestones with a choker-style necklace to match. This and the bride’s gold woven metal shoes have been kept intact and, to this day, comprise one of the most alluring exhibits.

“It was no ordinary wedding dress. My mother had a taste of her own. She was a very beautiful woman,” says Von Krepl. A “notoriously elegant” Austrian singer, Therese Edle von Krepl would perform in cafes and restaurants in the Vienna of the 1920s and 1930s, together with her husband, an engineer and a talented pianist. “No matter how dire it got, even during the war, she was always impeccably dressed.”

She was not alone: the museum’s 1940s room pays homage to female resourcefulness in wartime. When scarcity requires it, women’s vanity summons up boundless creativity – enough to awe today’s DIY upcycling fans: pillowcases were trimmed with lace and turned into blouses, boleros or skirts, bed sheets cut into stylish dresses.

A gang of mannequins are dressed in linen sheets cut to the latest fashions and ornamented with embroidery – to sate women’s perennial longing for elegance. Elsewhere, silhouettes with the typical boxy square shoulders, adjusted waists and straight above-the-knee skirts further illustrate female ingenuity in deprived times.

Josefine Edle von Krepl was born in Fürstenwalde, Brandenburg during the war in 1944, two years after her parents came to Germany. By the age of six, she had moved with her family to eastern Berlin.

Von Krepl has been an Ostberlinerin for as long as she can remember. “Back then, people used to not give any value or consideration to old clothes. It was not vintage, just old stuff. People would laugh at me. What are you doing with these old frocks and rags!”

The Workers’ State was never reputed for its fashion sense, a prevailing notion that this former fashion reporter vehemently disputes. “East German fashion was actually extremely creative – it had to be because we didn’t have all the things the Wessis had. GDR designers were as good as Western designers, equally as inventive and talented; they just didn’t have the material and opportunities.”

Von Krepl worked for the East German women’s weekly Für Dich for 13 years. “Of course there was the Modeinstitut, which dictated the direction of fashion in the entire GDR and had to be followed. There were no small or private boutiques. Everything had to be bought from the large firms.”

That is, until 1980, when she opened East Berlin’s first private fashion boutique. “It took a lot of convincing, and letters to the right people,” she admits coyly. There, for seven years she sold her own creations under the label Josefine. Nine years and a Mauerfall later, Von Krepl was running an antique shop in former West Berlin.

In 1996 she returned to the eastern part of the city with a new shop on Kollwitzplatz. By then, her collection had grown to over 5000 unique pieces: “I just didn’t know what to do with it. I wanted to share it, show it!”

So when she was contacted by Schloss Meyenburg, after they read a newspaper article about her large collection (they needed content for the palace after a restoration), it was a bit of a dream come true. The Modemuseum opened in June 2006.

Each piece has its own story. “It’s not like something anonymous you buy in a shop. They’ve been worn. They’ve had a life of their own!” says Von Krepl, who knows the private history of nearly every garment, having acquired them from their owners or their families.

“I never went to auctions or wholesales,” she says, though she might occasionally flout her own principles to complement an outfit, as with a tiny boxy 1920s wicker bag she found at a flea market in France. But the collection is mostly German and acquired before 1989.

“Once the Wall was gone, everybody started to throw everything away,” she says. And now? “You don’t find anything anymore. Not here.” Von Krepl’s collection ends with the 1970s. “The 1980s are ugly,” she quips. “I experienced them myself. I know how bad they were!”

It’s not as if she needed more. Only 10 percent of her vast collection is on display. Von Krepl’s passion project has created a treasure trove so unique, so rare, that she worries about its future. Contrasted to the throwaway fashion of today, the cultural (and monetary) value of this lost world of style is priceless and only growing.

“That was the project of a lifetime, my life… But, see my life was not enough.” At 68, Josefine Edel von Krepl feels it will soon be time to retire: “I give myself another two years”. She has yet to find a successor caretaker – someone with a passion and knowledge for fashion to match her own.