GOOD TALKS Ettina Blaison, founder of Thone Negron
Ettina Blaison grew up in West Berlin during the 80s, exploring the streets of the East with her friends after the fall of the Berlin wall, absorbing a dystopian landscape right in the heart of Mitte. One can only catch a glimpse of this city today, looking at the predominantly gentrified Berlin that surrounds us.
Design was always at the core of Ettina’s being, from sketching her first fashion drawings at the age of 12 to founding the Konk Store in Berlin Mitte in 2003, to finally launching her own brand Thone Negron in 2008. Despite facing the challenges of location upheaval, splitting from a business partner, and venturing out to establish an independent label, Ettina consciously manufactures beautiful pieces – ready to face the every day. Over the years, Ettina has earned a devoted customer base, one that appreciates careful selection of materials, a high quality standard of manufacturing, and the recontextualisation of traditional prints in a contemporary sphere.
The Good Store is proud to represent a Berlin designer, who despite being based in France, still manages to execute the boyish elegance so loved in the German capital.
We sat down with Ettina to learn more about her unique journey, inspirational influences, and what makes Thone Negron so special.
Eliza: You grew up in West Berlin during the 80s and 90s, how did that time influence you creatively?
Ettina: I must say, it was pretty wild. I grew up in West Berlin, but after the wall opened we were allowed to roam the streets of East Berlin. At the age of 15/16 exploring this city, can you imagine? It was pretty rough back then, nothing renovated, the air thick with the smell of brown coal and there were illegal bars and clubs at every corner. My daughter is growing up here in the countryside in France, it doesn’t get more different…
Gerda: I grew up in the East, I remember the smell of brown coal in the air like it was yesterday… At that age, where you are already discovering so much for yourself, exploring Berlin Mitte with all its empty buildings, illegal basement clubs and bars with so much space available for ideas, concepts and opportunities must have been exhilarating.
Eliza: I mean, that’s a Berlin we dream of now, an unspoilt, un-gentrified landscape.
Ettina: We didn’t know that then though, that it would become so desirable. I remember walking down a small street on the
border of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg and there were brutalist East German high rise towers and run down buildings from the 19th century. It was dystopia – like discovering another world.
Eliza: I can imagine it was a very inspiring time. Your passion for design began at a relatively young age - when was your enthusiasm for designing first ignited?
Ettina: I grew up in a very artistic family. I have memories of my mother sewing a lot when I was growing up. My grandmother was a fashion illustrator and my aunt a costume designer. My father always bought my mother Vogue to read, but in actual fact he was buying it for himself. I was browsing through them from a young age, those inspired my first fashion drawings that I did at the age of 12. I discovered them again recently when I was going through a box of things at my parents place. Then we created these terrible velvet pants after I had taught myself to use the sewing machine, there was no stopping us.
Eliza: So you started early…
Ettina: Yes, for a while I wanted to be a painter but then I decided on fashion design. I guess for most parents fashion design feels like a risky decision, but because of my ancestors careers it felt like a very natural career to pursue.
That doesn’t mean this career hasn’t come without risk: My sister is a doctor, my brother is a lawyer and my other brother is an architect. I am the only one of all my siblings who has been self-employed since the age of 22. A pension and stable income are both risked when you go into self employment and that should not be underestimated. But it’s worth it, I can’t live without being creative, it brings me an immense sense of fulfilment.
Gerda: I think that certainty you have in what you do is reflected in your designs. They emulate a sense of calm, it’s a different approach to design that is reflected in the pieces you create. You notice it with your pieces we have in The Good Store, the clothes have a certain depth to them that the customers recognise, it’s very special.
Ettina: I think that’s because I have grown to understand my customers. For over 18 years I have been engaging in conversation with my customer base, whether that was for the Konk Store (a fashion and interiors concept store in Berlin) or my own brand, and that fundamental understanding of their desires and tastes provides unique insight when designing today. Perhaps also because I view myself as a product designer more than a fashion designer. It’s vital for me that the pieces are wearable, can be worn throughout the day, no matter how many times you have to jump on and off your bicycle.
Gerda: It’s interesting as your pieces are uncharacteristically feminine for Berlin. In Berlin women are often very conscious about not looking “too cute”, dressing feminine is not really part of many womens style. For them, it’s a relief to be able to wear your dresses that are simultaneously relaxed and feminine. They master the look for riding your bike, juggling multiple tasks and looks during the day. You can pair a beautiful, feminine dress with a pair of sneakers – it just works with your designs. In The Good Store the people who buy your pieces are confident in their sense of style, they know what works for them. You have developed a language around your brand which is truly unique, and carried it through to your social media, the online presence remains very special.
Eliza: Gerda, the point you make about accommodating to the Berlin lifestyle is really interesting; you are both women who have built a fashion-focused business for the Berlin customer. Ettina, you have the experience of running two such stores in Berlin, can you tell us about the transition from running the Konk Store to establishing your own brand?
Ettina: During the first years of running the Konk Store I worked together with a partner. After we decided to go our separate ways I took over the Konk Store completely and spent two years building up the store financially. But in the back of my head I always had the lingering thought of designing my own pieces. In 2008, I started designing the first blouses and in 2010 I had the first complete collection. Then in 2012 I began renting an atelier in the Schröderstrasse, and realised soon that I had to create a proper store where people could browse my pieces. That resulted in the move to the final store in Linienstr. That was definitely a demanding time. Finally after ten years of self-development I felt like it was working and I was able to see the benefits of my hard work.
Then in 2017 came the typical Berlin catastrophe, they started on a brand new building project right next door to the store, with the skip sitting right outside. This began a painful process of deciding what to do next. On one hand, I had invested so much time and energy into my label that it was unbearable to think about uprooting again but then I was experiencing dramatic shifts in the Berlin landscape, particularly in Mitte, worlds away from the Mitte I knew as a teenager. But was I just part of the problem? I found out that the construction plans had included the sign of my store, to elevate the image of the project – so in the end, was I my own victim? During that time my husband was offered a job in France and despite having to leave the store and venture out on a path unknown, pregnant with my second child, I wonder now whether that was fate.
Eliza: It must have been difficult that you saw the “raw” Berlin at the age of 15/16 but then due to gentrification move out of your store years later.
Ettina: Yes, totally. Although I acknowledge the role I played in contributing to the gentrification. The Linienstr was no place for a concept store when I moved there, at the time, it was no classic shopping destination. Now look at it…
Gerda: As the prices rise I feel there is new pressure on brands and commercial concept stores to produce and sell. In previous years as the rental prices were still reasonable, the Berlin pace of life was different. New Yorkers are happy to come and pay 1,800$ in rent but it’s not compatible with the laid back Berlin way of life of the 90s and early 2000s. It’s difficult to be creative with such financial pressure nowadays.
Ettina: At one point there were too many changes, I had to leave the city. It wasn’t the Berlin I had grown up in anymore. I remember speaking to our Kindergarten teacher, who grew up in East Berlin. I said: “I don't feel like this is my Berlin anymore” - and she said “Ick ooch nich”. (“Me too.”)I can recall the conversation in my head to this day.
Eliza: Now you’re based in France, where do you look for inspiration?
Ettina: Ethnological subject matter has always intrigued me, when I visit the quai Branly in Paris I always leave feeling utterly inspired. Similarly, the ethnological museum in Berlin Dahlem, which sadly doesn't exist anymore, was magical and always left a great impression on me.
Where I live now, 70 km from Paris, is truly “the middle of nowhere”. In the countryside here there is such beauty to be discovered, I truly admire what a unique feeling the French have for aesthetics. From the exact shade of the painted shutters to the matching colour of the flowers outside the house, the French have such a sense for beauty, it’s truly inspiring.
Gerda: Did your thought processes around the brand change during the last few months?
Ettina: I have placed even more emphasis on further strengthening relationships with environmentally conscious suppliers based in Europe. I produce in Romania with a fantastic team over there, I’m so grateful to have them on board. I have an incredible sustainably focused supplier based in the Netherlands and they have one specific linen that is never out of stock. I know I can rely on these suppliers to supply me with the high quality cloth that I need. Next to this, exploring my passion for interior design; I’ve been developing cushions and dressing gowns from this beautiful new Dutch linen cloth.
Through these explorations I realised that I want to engage in a more fluid way of designing.
Eliza: Just to wrap up – it sounds like you are planning to go in a slightly new direction, do you have a plan for this?
Ettina: Interesting that you ask, I have lots of ideas but I know that I have to stick to working with textiles, otherwise the opportunities would be endless but not necessarily feasible.
Gerda: I’m glad to hear that, your work with textiles is proving to be fascinating.
Ettina: My ultimate goal with the brand is to make the women wearing my pieces feel good and confident with a clear conscience, it won’t make me a millionaire but I am truly fulfilled by my work.
Thone Negron is available via thonenegron.com, The Good Store Berlin and Wolfen.