We first learned about übertalented mom Selina von Holleben when contributor Anna Winger photographed Elfen Couture, Holleben’s avant-garde kids label in Berlin. We caught up with her in the German capital recently after a family “time-out” in Morocco, where she lived with her kids last year.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to do what you do?
I grew up on Northern Germany and studied philosophy and literature. I worked as a freelance copywriter and journalist in Berlin after I left university. I have been living here ever since.
I had my first child when I was twenty-three, so I was immersed in children’s experiences and their imaginations at a time when most of my friends were going out at night or backpacking around the world. Motherhood has been a beautiful prism through which I have seen and done almost everything in my adult life.
First I wrote a book for children, a fairytale about a child who doesn’t want to cut his fingernails called Anton Schneider. Then I felt inspired to make the fairytale environment come to life, which is how my company Elfen Couture was born. We started out in 2006 making all kinds of things, including furniture, and then finally focused on clothes.
How old are your children and what are their names?
Thaddeus is almost 13 and Lavinia is 8.
You recently took a semester off with your children and lived in Morocco.
Because I had children young, I always thought I would discover new places with them. But because of the school routine, we never were able to stay long enough to really penetrate another culture. Finally, I decided to just do it.
I had been in Morocco briefly for work and loved it. Given the political discussions around Islam in Germany in recent years, I wanted to my family to experience Muslim culture first-hand, not only through hearsay and the media. I thought it was important that they have the chance to get to know a liberal Muslim society. So we spent half a year in Marrakesh and Essaouira.
Most of the time we lived in a beautiful riad in the Marrakesh Medina. My son and daughter had a local tutor from the Goethe Institute, a generous young Muslim woman who taught them a great deal about her culture. They played with kids in the neighborhood and learned some French and Arabic and how to deal in the souks. They rode camels in the desert. It was really an adventure, a time out from the usual routines and a very special time together for us as a family.
What was it like to come back?
In some ways, because we came back to the same apartment and family friends in Berlin, Marrakech quickly felt like a dream. But the kids were so much more mature and independent afterwards. Before we left, we had already decided that they would switch schools when we got back. So it was a good way to transition, almost like an especially long summer break. They came back open to new challenges.
We were all so enriched by the experience, I would really encourage anyone else who is considering it to do something like this while your kids are still young.
What are you working on now?
Right now I am really focused on the creative side of Elfen Couture, which has evolved into an avant-garde kids brand that produces limited editions of dresses and separates for girls. Our motto is, sophisticated girls fashion at the edge of reason!
We are collaborating with the magazine kid’s wear on a project that was inspired by my time in Morocco called Dressing the Message.
First we worked with students at the Berlin Fashion School Esmod to create designs for girls that explore women’s roles in the five big religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism & also one dress for Atheism).
Elfen Couture produced the designs and now the photographer Achim Lippoth, who is also the publisher of kid’s wear, is creating a series of photographs that elaborate on the same themes. The photographs will be published during the next month. Both will also be exhibited during Berlin fashion week.
This is our second Dressing the Message project. The first one was exhibited at the Sprengel Museum Hanover in 2009.
We are developing a line for mothers now, too. And my free time, I am writing on a novel based on some of my experiences in Morocco.
How do you balance all the things that you do, between work and family life?
I have my atelier and showroom in the same building as my apartment, my kids walk to school around the corner, and I stop when they get home at four. I am efficient during the work time that I have, but very clear about the separation between professional and private time. The afternoons are for my children.
Also, my husband does the cooking, for which I am very grateful. He loves to do it and it is meditation for him after a long day at work.
What’s your daily uniform?
I like to mix high, low, but always casual. Most days find me in skinny jeans, tank tops or blouses from Isabel Marant, Paul & Joe, fun jackets like my Alexander McQueen salt & pepper one, or an orange leather one that I bought at the souk. I always wear a cap. Some I bought at Hut-Salon a hat store around the corner from me in Berlin-Charlottenburg.
I love things that tell stories, so I love vintage and ethnic accessories, for example a beautiful fairytale ring from a Kurdish designer that I bought on Crete. And I am currently carrying an antigue Tuareg purse, that I found in the Marrakech Souk.
Where do you like to shop in Berlin?
I love Cabinet in Quartier 206 for their unique pieces, Sterling Gold the vintage clothing ship in Mitte, Also, Schwarze Truhe for vintage and H&M’s big store on Ku’damm for jewelry. There’s also one great street near Hackescher Markt, Mulackstrasse, that is full of small shops selling young local designers.
I get a great deal of my inspiration from books, it’s my way of traveling at home. The best stores for literature in my neighborhood are Marga Schoeller on Knesebeckstrasse and Hacker & Presting. For art books, Bücherbogen at Savignyplatz. Another great new bookstore, combining classic literature with new media in Mitte, is called Ocelot, not just another bookstore.
Is Berlin a good place to be in fashion?
It’s an inspiring place to work and you can start up a business here easily and cheaply, but you cannot sustain it financially without looking beyond Berlin.
And what about for family life?
This is the ideal place to raise a family. There are so many cultural things to do here, all kinds of people, so many opportunities for kids to learn and explore. But it is relaxed, not hectic, and we are surrounded by nature. So it’s easy to get in and out of the city on the weekends, to go up to the Baltic sea or out the countryside when you want to run around.
Here are some of my favorite songs and music, always on while I am working!
Tinariwen, Mataraden Anexam
Majid Bekkas, Daymallah
Wilco, Either Way
The Rolling Stones, Gimme Shelter
John Zorn, Forrests in the Mist
Chinawoman, Show Me Your Face
Janis Joplin, Bobby McGee
Fabienne Delsol, No Times for Sorrows
The Specials, Ghosttown
John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman, My One and Only Love
Millie Jackson, I Cry
Tindersticks, Yesterday Tomorrows
Bill Evans, The Peacocks, A person I Knew
Pink Floyd, The Great Gig the Sky
Lhasa de Sela, La Mare Haute
Antony and the Johnsons: Bird Guhl
Gluck/ Isaac Stern, Melodie No2, from Orpheus & Eurydike
Herbie Hancock: A Change is Gonna Come
Oscar Peterson/ Itzhak Perlman; Nighttime
Nils Petter Molvaer, Visitation
Rachmaninoff, Elegie, Opus 3, No1
Links you like to explore on-line?
Favorite children’s books?
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Michael Ende, The Neverending Story
Your favorite books?
I read a lot and it’s hard to say, which are my favorites.
Because of the language: Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Alle Wege sind offen
Because of the thoughts: Bruce Chatwin, Songlines
Because of the idea: Albert Camus, A Happy Death
Because of the multi-levels: Novalis, Heinrich von Ofterdingen
Because of the paradoxons: Jorge Luis Borges, Short Stories
Because of the horizons: Roger Penrose, The Road to Reality
I also love the poetry of Hölderlin, Goethe, T.S. Eliott, Else Lasker-Schüler and Gottfried Benn, William Butler Yeats and E.E. Cummings.
Beauty regime or trick?
A perfume place up the street from me is owned by Sufis. It’s called Mekkanische Rose (Rose of Mecca) and since the 80s they have been selling natural oils and essences and incense that they bring back from their travels. You can combine them to make your own perfume there. Mine contains ylang ylang, patchouli and frankincense. I wear it together with Jil Sander III. It smells amazing! Also, I use fresh rosewater I buy there as toner.
Another tip is to take a bath in milk, olive oil and honey. You mix them together first and add to the warm water as it’s running. It makes your skin really smooth.
Also enough sleep and to be happy in being yourself. For me happiness starts if you don’t put requirements to luck – which actually is a paradox…
What are you doing this summer?
We are excited to explore Germany again now, so we are going to Ratzeburg with friends. It’s a village with a cathedral at its center that is on an island of the same name. It’s in the north, surrounded by four separate lakes and unspoiled by tourism. We will swim and sail and ride horses. It’s idyllic there.
The traditional meal of the area are delicious fish dumplings called Hechtklößchen, made of pike, one of the local fish. You eat it with what we call potato snow, something like mash but softer. And the place to eat it, if you ever find yourself up there, is called Maräne, a restaurant that looks like nothing much, but has the best ones in the world!
Also, Berlin is surrounded by dilapitated castles that are open to the public. On Sundays, we like to get big groups of friends together to take a picnic at Schloss Petzow, near Potsdam, about half an hour from home. There’s an incredible park there on the edge of a lake, where you can swim, drink champagne and loll around under the big oak and chestnut trees.