What happens when the imaginative world of high fashion and car design collide? Project Geländewagen is a fictionalized G-Wagen/G-Class racecar, stripped of all clichés of opulence. This experimental project is the collaborative work of the Mercedes-Benz creative chief Gorden Wagener and Louis Vuitton’s menswear artistic director and founder of Off-White Virgil Abloh. The product they have imagined together is the antithesis of the polished and flawless world of luxury to offer an alternative approach.
The Mercedes G is the base canvas here – widened and lowered to appear sportier, then kept bare to emphasizes the uniform character of this highly angular design. Exposed construction elements celebrate the process of making, with partially sanded paintwork adding to the notion of beauty in imperfection. Welds are made to seem like key design motifs here, while the indicators, mirrors and bumper bar have all been removed so the exaggerated wheel proportions retain the distinct personality of the Mercedes G – incidentally one of my favourite of the marque’s cars.
Inside is similarly stripped right back, the safety frame is now the central motif; the dashboard is replaced by a simple shape to frame the analogue speedometer and fuel gauges as a nod to the romance of classic cars. The steering wheel and seats are race-style with the exposed safety features and key drive elements painted in light blue and bright red hues to pop-up against the minimalist interior frame. The layers of contrasting ideas work well to shift the mind and ignite the imagination.
Intrigued by the possibilities of injecting a little of the theatre of fashion to the more subdued world of motoring, I set up a remote interview with the two creative directors to see how the ideas expressed in Project Geländewagen could potentially entertain the future of Mercedes cars.
Nargess Banks: Gorden, what did you learn from your experience of working on Project Geländewagen?
Gorden Wagener: Virgil’s creativity as a multi-disciplinary designer, the creative dialogue and the personal relationship that we built, altogether made this project an incredible experience. It was the best collaboration I have ever had with a designer from a different industry, which sometimes can be difficult; but this was a truly fruitful collaboration. It feels like we were magically drawn together and I’m looking forward to seeing how it will continue.
NB: Your joint project expresses a new vision for luxury – inviting us to think of alternative concepts to the traditional codes in car design. How do you see the world of luxury evolving to be in tune with our changing world and a new generation with very different ideas and expectations?
Virgil Abloh: The idea of luxury is ever changing, but something that remains consistent is the notion that the things we personally perceive to be luxurious are really things that we covet. Project Geländewagen proves that luxury doesn’t have to conform to the ways of the past.
GW: Virgil’s unique take on modern luxury has great synergy with Mercedes-Benz: it is not just about a particular product or one piece of design but building a holistic luxury brand that captures the zeitgeist. I see Mercedes-Benz as a luxury label. We don’t just deliver a luxury product, but intangible luxuries such as beauty and the extraordinary, as well as a sense of emotion – safety as well as security. For this project, we wanted to explore a new definition of luxury, one that is stripped back, honest, and makes sense for the times we live in, which is what Virgil brought to the table.
NB: The project takes a classic car with a 41-year history and a quintessential SUV design, reimagining it as a racecar. Gorden can you explain why you decided to take this step?
GW: It is the most iconic car that we have at Mercedes-Benz, and it just so happens that Virgil and I both drive one – a G-63. We started the design process by analyzing its DNA, breaking it down to the essence to find out what makes it so iconic, capturing the experience of owning and driving the G-Class in order to create a new and different interpretation of it.
NB: And the challenges you faced to translating these codes…
GW: We were both unapologetic about taking risks, which made the journey a fun and inspiring process. With the most important factor being that the end point respected the beginning, which was to offer a new interpretation of the G-Class and create a truly iconic piece of design. Reduction is one of the most important design elements. We stripped back the whole of the G’s exterior and interior, to make a final monolithic piece.
NB: Virgil, you tend to reference work from past and present as way of expressing your current ideas. How did that manifest itself in Project Geländewagen?
VA: With everything it’s about understanding the matrix, what the brand means and also where the brand started – because for me you can’t start designing without knowing the history. The G-Wagen has for centuries been this iconic design symbol and one of the most incredible feats of engineering. It’s rooted in culture in so many ways.
NB: You are a strong advocate of collaborative work and are involved in multiple creative projects. From an art and fashion perspective, how do you see the auto world benefiting from working with someone like you?
VA: My main interests when it comes to collaborations are really two-fold. I want to work with the best of the best, to create the best possible product or concept. Additionally – and this is true in all of my work – I take on initiatives to open doors to make sure that other people, the next generation, can follow in my footsteps. This is more important than anything else for me.
NB: Similarly, Gorden, you have long promoted collaborative work. How do you see your world benefiting from working with the imaginative world of fashion, especially when it comes to utilizing the advanced sustainable materials found in current sportswear?
GW: Culture drives design; it is at the heart of what we do at Mercedes-Benz and our influence is not limited to automotive. Our products and the brand have always had multiple touchpoints onto many cultural industries from music, to sports and of course fashion. We liked Virgil’s approach to collaborations – we didn’t want to just invite a fashion designer to “design” a car for Mercedes-Benz, we are already experts in this field. We wanted the project to be truly collaborative, which would allow us to push the creativity of our respective fields and create a truly iconic piece of design.
NB: How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted on your work and creative thinking?
GW: The Mercedes-Benz design teams are very used to working remotely, across time zones, and finalizing Project Geländewagen over these last months has actually been a remarkably straightforward process. Digitalization, of course, will be important to how all luxury brands engage with their customers moving forward, and we have had fun in exploring a completely different look and feel for this project launch experience. A physical element will always be important to engaging with extraordinary design though – you need to see and feel the craftsmanship. A mix of both the physical and digital will be key.
NB: It could be argued that the pandemic has set a reset button, urging us to rethink what is ethical, sustainable and less wasteful. Virgil you are clearly an advocate of change, helping younger generations reach their potential through your scholarship program. Do you see this historical episode (and the impending climate crisis) as an opportunity for change and if so, how do you see it manifesting itself?
VA: We’re definitely in this pivotal moment where change isn’t only necessary, it’s mandatory for moving forward. I strongly believe that the answers lie within the next generation. They have the vision and the skill sets to get us all to a better place. It’s time for those of us who have a voice already to invite them into the conversation and give them the tools to succeed, which is what we’re aiming to do with the “Post-Modern” scholarship fund.
Read my interview with Mercedes-Benz creative chief Gorden Wagener on the future design direction for the marque here, see the new Rolls-Royce Ghost and its take on post-opulent luxury and then read how it functions on the road.