At Work: Merz B. Schwanen

  • Elliot Watson delves into the heritage of the German company, whose ethos – and garments – have remained the same for over a century
    Words Elliot Watson
    Images courtesy of Merz B. Schwanen

    Resting in Baden Württemburg, Germany’s most south-westerly state, lie the Swabian Jura – a low and undulating stretch of hills cradled by the river Danube and the densely packed pines and firs of the Black Forest. Hardy pine trees sparsely populate the landscape as the limestone beneath them greedily drains rainwater into fast flowing subterranean rivers, depriving the soil of the nutrients and irrigation required for sustainable arable farming. The people here survived solely on their modest crops and requisite resourcefulness until, in the mid 19th century, it became clear that intervention was necessary if its starving farming population were to survive. Forced into action, the German government distributed hand-operated circular knitting machines to the poorest families who, by combining the yields of wool from their small flocks of sheep with their natural Swabian acumen, gave the German textile industry its humble beginnings.

  • merz-5-manufacturing-in-process
    Balthasar Merz founded the Merz B. Schwanen brand in 1911, just as the industry was beginning to thrive. Demand was high for their garments, whose circular knit meant they were created without weak side seams. And with a tighter weave than those made using a traditional loom, they became renowned for their comfort and durability – qualities as essential to Merz’s original patrons as they are to today’s connoisseurs of menswear.

    Since reviving the brand a century after its inception, and decades since its eventual disbandment as textile manufacturing was moved overseas, Peter Plotnicki manufactures his garments almost to the seam of the original designs crafted by Balthasar Merz himself. Indeed, the only deviations from those original designs have been to offer a full sleeve version of the signature button-facing undershirt and a collaborative collection with British workwear expert Nigel Cabourn, with whom Plotnicki shares a sense of history, a meticulous eye for detail and a passion for classic menswear.
    The current collection features their signature selection of button-facing shirts, 1920s and army style T-shirts and a limited range of sweaters and long johns. The brand philosophy remains underpinned by an unwavering commitment to heritage, tradition and quality and a steadfast refusal to surrender to the capricious whims of mainstream fashion. The fabrics, hangtags, buttons and packaging are all German manufactured and Plotnicki insists that he will not waver from this blueprint.

    Elliot Watson: How did you discover Merz. B Schwanen?

    Peter Plotnicki: I love authentic textiles, especially denim. For me there are no better jeans than the original Levi’s, but what I was always missing was the perfect top to go with them. I felt compelled to find that garment and always knew it was something I could not simply ‘create’. I was patient and I had faith that one day that missing piece would find its way to me. What can I say? Suddenly I found this piece at a flea market. I knew that it was the garment, the idea I had been searching for. Then everything began…

  • Elliot: What was it about the garment that compelled you to reproduce it, to revive it?

    Peter: When I first saw that 1920s button facing Henley, made in the Swabian Alps, I knew there was something special about it: it was the characteristics of the material to the touch, the subtle aesthetics, the integrity and understatement of the garment. I was completely inspired.

    Elliot: As you researched the brand and its history, what original characteristics did you wish to bring forward?

    Peter: It’s the appreciation of every single piece, the work behind it and, above all, the people who make this brand so special. It’s this traditional feeling for textiles that is carried in their hearts, the passion felt in every working process. It’s a unique quality.merz-4-circular-knitting-machine

  • merz-8-manufacturing-process-
    Elliot: What do you see in the future of the brand in terms of design?

    Peter: Our aim is to develop more materials from this sense of tradition. We’re currently working with maco imit, a combination of materials invented over a century ago to imitate the qualities of the highly priced original Egyptian maco cotton. It’s becoming our one of our main materials. And there are so many more fabrics like this we can explore and re-invent. It’s fascinating.

    Elliot: And the future of the brand commercially?

    Peter: We are happy to work with great stores and retailers who appreciate our product, who understand it and who know how to tell our story to their customers. Due to our limited manufacturing possibilities (there are a limited number of functional loop wheeler machines remaining) we will continue distribute in small numbers.

    More info HERE