The ‘RECOLLECTION QUARTETT’ staged by Mercedes-Benz and MoMu Fashion Museum, Antwerp, opens yesterday in line of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Berlin. Together with the Belgian artist and photographer Frederik Heyman, four international fashion designers will be mounting an exhibition featuring four iconic Mercedes-Benz models dating from the 1970s to the early 1990s that still have great appeal today.

The exhibition is on at the paint studio of the Deutsche Oper opera house’s former stage services company in Berlin-Mitte. The settings takes visitors to the exhibition back to the era associated with each car. They reflect the spirit of the time, the prestige enjoyed by these legendary cars, and their image as well as that of their typical owners. The memories and stereotypes they evoke are then transposed onto the 21st century. With a knowing smile, the exhibition links collective memories of a bygone age with the fashion and design of today.

“The young classics on display, and the stereotypes associated with them, have played a major role in defining the image of the Mercedes-Benz brand, and they continue to do so, even today. These cars have left their mark on people’s collective memory, which is why they still remain desirable,” said Michael Bock, Head of Mercedes-Benz Classic. “This exhibition shows that many seemingly backward-looking stereotypes of this kind become amazingly incisive once more and regain their relevance if they are put in even a slightly updated context –and that is their connection with fashion. Fashion brings itself up to date all the time by constantly reinterpreting past trends and styles,” explained Kaat Debo, curator of MoMu Fashion Museum in Antwerp.

The vehicles on display are a 1974 ‘Stroke 8’ saloon, regarded as the archetypal company car, a 1977 SL ‘lifestyle convertible’ which has become a byword for the wild 1970s, a 1981 ‘tradesman’s estate car’ and a 1991 S-Class coupé that has gone down in recent automotive history as an ‘éminence grise’.

The artist Frederik Heyman has created unique photographic backdrops for each of these four Mercedes-Benz ‘young classics’ with scenic motifs that are full of humour and surreal imagery. The four designers, Mikio Sakabe, Bernhard Willhelm, Henrik Vibskov and Peter Pilotto, have each brought their own fashion creations to the sets.

The ‘company car’ and liberation from the grey suit
Known as ‘Stroke 8’ models and built from 1967 to 1976, these saloons still exude an aura of extreme reliability. The W115 model series has travelled 4.6 million kilometres, a record that is still unbeaten today. This unpretentious, functional saloon epitomised the German company car, and in the 1970s they could be found in use as taxis all over the world.

Frederik Heyman features the car in a surreal setting inspired by the endless staircase in M. C. Escher’s 1961 lithograph ‘Ascending and Descending’. A secretary at a typewriter sits inside the car typing ‘Taxi for sale’ in Arabic. She is wearing a dress by Mikio Sakabe that is reminiscent of a classic cocktail dress but it is printed with a contemporary design of large eyes. Around the car, other women can be seen liberating themselves from their grey suits, the prototypical uniform of secretaries and office workers.

The ‘lifestyle convertible’ and the legendary playboy
The SL roadster with removable hardtop (R107 model series), built from 1971 to 1985, is a symbol of the 1970s like no other Mercedes-Benz vehicle. It represents the move away from uncompromisingly tough sports cars towards refined, but powerful luxury two-seaters. Seen in US series, such as Hart to Hart and Dallas, it became part of the American way of life.

In his installation, Heyman picks up on the great popularity of this convertible in the US and also on the Mercedes-Benz advertising campaigns of the time that featured the SL convertible driving on sun-drenched Californian beaches and along Sunset Boulevard. Fashion designer Bernhard Willhelm has translated the typical 1970s playboy, with his unbuttoned shirt revealing a hairy chest and a gold chain, into a modern version – with a gym-honed body wearing a tight Lycra outfit and mirror sunglasses.

The ‘tradesman’s estate car’ and the traditional lumberjack shirt
Mercedes-Benz launched the S123, its first T-model, in September 1977. The ‘T’ stands for tourism and transport. Produced between 1977 and 1985, this estate car’s generous luggage space quickly made it very popular with tradesmen, although the vehicle’s spaciousness also appealed to families. Because it was used for sport and leisure, the S123 is seen as one of the first lifestyle estate models.

Appropriately, Heyman’s installation focuses on leisure activities in the great outdoors. He depicts an idyllic picnic scene with a father and son by a campfire, reinforcing the stereotype of the sturdy lumberjack. Henrik Vibskov adds a fashionable interpretation of work clothing in the set, with the return of the classic checked lumberjack shirt as a playful accessory.

‘Éminence grise’ and global power play
The C126, which was built in the period 1985 to 1991, is a grand old man among the young classics. The discreet luxury of this coupé model series, combining the straight lines of its exterior with opulent engineering, appealed to diplomats and international captains of industry.

In his installation, Frederik Heyman represents it balancing precariously between a game of chess and a three-dimensional model of the earth. He is playing with the image of power and its inherent duality. Three women in dresses by Peter Pilotto are participating in the global chess game but their shadows indicate that they are also pawns in the game. The style of the women’s clothes is similar to 1980s power dressing – whose striking colours and shapes commanded respect.

Mercedes-Benz – the art of long-life design
This exhibition of young classics extending across almost three decades provides a striking illustration of the way in which Mercedes-Benz design has changed over time. The process has been evolving for 125 years. Each Mercedes has its own character yet it is clearly recognisable as belonging to the same family as its predecessors and the other models in the series. This has always been the principle motivation for chief designers at Mercedes-Benz. Professor Gorden Wagener, the current head of Mercedes design, puts it like this: “A Mercedes will always be recognisable as a Mercedes. And a Mercedes never looks old, even after 30 years on the road. That is what makes it so alluring, and what we call long-life design.” A Mercedes-Benz combines continuity and creativity, tradition and modern features. These are the foundations on which the style will continue to be valued for its elegance over the long term, and the reason why many of the cars have become such coveted classics.

Design has even greater significance for Mercedes-Benz, though, because it is literally its trademark. The brand’s image has always been dominated by design in the form of the three-pointed star representing the characteristic Mercedes brand values fascination, responsibility and perfection. Design has two key requirements that Mercedes has fulfilled with great success for many years. Not only should the lines of a car evoke enthusiasm for the product, they should also reflect the philosophy and profile of the marque. In other words: design is the visualisation of brand values – and it defines them – in the past, the present and the future.

The ‘RECOLLECTION QUARTET’ exhibition runs until Sunday, 23 January 2011 and it is open every day from 12 noon to 8 p.m. (closes at 5.00 p.m. on Friday). Admission is free. More details are available online at www.recollection-quartett.com

Source: Daimler AG / Pictures: MB Passion