The Man-Machine of Wealth and Taste

I remember one meeting. It was in Paris, after one of Bowie’s concerts. He had hired the L’ange Bleu nightclub on the Champs-Elysées for a private party. When we arrived there was Bowie, Iggy Pop and their court, and when Ralf and Florian walked in they received a five minute standing ovation. Iggy Pop was gazing devotedly at them, he completely adored them. Both he and Bowie were transfixed. Bowie was saying to Iggy Pop, “Look how they are, they are fantastic!”

Maxime Schmitt in Man Machine and Music

The musical influence of the electronic pop group Kraftwerk is beyond debate. If mankind lives another thousand years or so, the encyclopaedia entry for Music, 20th century will probably be condensed to: The birth of Kraftwerk. Not only will Kraftwerk holograms in those future days replace Beethoven busts on pianos, they may well continue to be a live band. In preparation the band have been touring their complete back catalogue the past few years, playing a series of nights –each centred on one album — in selected high-brow venues like the Tate Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art. After a certain feeling of scepticism had faded this reappearance posed some interesting questions beyond their hallowed status as Godfathers of Techno. One senses that Kraftwerk is moving towards an important transition. Only Ralf Hütter remains as member of the classic quartet that produced at least five masterpieces of electronic music. But will the musical factory be kept running after Herr Direktor Hütter finally retires? Is Kraftwerk still Kraftwerk when all the original parts have been replaced? And not important: will audiences remain interested in the man-machine without at least one authentic component connecting it to its origins? If one group should be able to survive itself it must be Kraftwerk which has glorified the robotic surge for so long. Obviously the concerts nowadays can be played by remote control, although I think Hütters real dream is to have four sentient humanoids play the music, far into the future.

But what will they wear? Kraftwerk were distinctive dressers who went through some important and influential stylistic changes which are as much part of the mythos as their music. When former member Wolfgang Flur visited a recent show he was slightly amused by the band changing into tight neoprene outfits. His relief of not having to wear this outfit does remind you that their musical apex coincided with a maximum sense of style. Yet this appearance did not arrive fully formed and was carefully refined through the years. One of the baffling aspects of Kraftwerk is how their history has been subjected to a Stalinist rewriting. Members have been purged. Or they fled the stifling walls of the Kling Klang studio. Albums have been disowned and removed from the catalogue. Even sleeves and titles of albums have been modernized, thereby removing the trace of ousted members. The first two Kraftwerk albums were deleted a long time ago. Yet the cover of Ralf und Florian (1973) presents a good starting point for tracing the Kraftwerk style. Already Florian Schneider has the appearance of a young bureaucrat, which he perhaps self-consciously tries to soften by wearing a musical note on his suit lapel. Ralf Hütter still looks like a typical seventies musician or nerdy computer programmer with long hair, glasses and a cardigan over a buttoned shirt. It is hard to imagine nowadays, but that look would still be in place on the group portrait for the original Autobahn back sleeve. This of course had to be changed once the classic quartet went operational.

Ralf und Florian (1973)

In 1977 with punk raging Kraftwerk not only sounded otherworldly, they looked completely different to everyone else. The cover of Trans Europa Express has the band looking very sharp in suits and perfectly combed hair. So sharp that it radiates with irony, forming a sly comment on the German ideal of Ordentlichkeit. Only the loud ties of Wolfgang Flur and Kart Bartos would be frowned upon in the morning if they suddenly decided to work at the local bank office. A style that went against both the rising collective style of punk and the mainstream hippie look turned them into the ultimate outsiders. Just one logical step remained. The difference between members, the individual touches, had to be dissolved.

Kraftwerk live in Zürich (1976) photo: Ueli Frey

The Kraftwerk uniform reached perfection in the following years. The quintessential outfit was introduced on the cover of the Die Mensch-Maschine album (1978). Heavily influenced by the aesthetic of Russian futurist and constructivist El Lissitzky the band chose a simple combination of grey pants, red shirt and skinny black ties. During this period of creative bloom elements of these basics could be changed, for instance wearing black trousers in order to create more contrast, which eventually would evolve into an all-black ensemble. This somehow became the image of the arty German which quickly got parodied in The Sprockets sketches on Saturday Night Live (yes, a Kraftwerk song was used as the title track.) Eventually Kraftwerk chic was rescued in arguably the most striking men’s fashion show in recent memory: the presentation of the Raf Simons fall 1998 collection named Radioactivity (after the fourth Kraftwerk album.) Although the collection was inspired by different musical sources from the early 1980s, the image of four models in perfectly fitted Mensch-Maschine outfits caused a sensation. It also reintroduced a slim silhouette to menswear which still dominates today.

Hütter once told an interviewer that robots would one day take his place in interviews by using a database with all the answers to possible questions. At that time robots with creepy, unfinished arms were already delivered at photo shoots instead of the real members, to be sometimes dressed up in the classic red and black outfits. The hypothetical jump into eternity should perhaps be accompanied by another change in style. Have you noticed how politicians at press conferences these days resemble a Kraftwerk musician? The way they read their platitudes with fake earnestness behind a minimalistic pulpit? The future should never be that boring. So as a final gesture Hütter ought to prepare the band for the 22th century, which, as William Gibson recently observed, is so hard to imagine. Michael Fassbender as David in Prometheus (2012) can act as a credible model to be emulated. Kind and sinister, always elegant, David is the lost member of Kraftwerk from the future. You just know his shoes are made to measure.

This essay first appeared in Man Got Style (2015)