To learn more about Berlin Fashion Week 2022 and the city’s love for sustainable fashion, aware_ sat down with Berliner and green fashion expert Cherie Birkner
As the world heats up, sustainable fashion has also become a hot (and pressing) topic. It is now well known that the fast fashion industry contributes a great deal to the destruction of our ecosystems as well as climate change through its processes of production, consumption and disposal. The situation is summed up by Cherie Birkner, Berlin-based founder of Sustainable Fashion Matterz:
“According to Clean Clothes Campaign, we are producing about one hundred billion clothes a year. From these, about 70% are sold, of which on average only 20% are even worn regularly. With this calculation, we have a yearly surplus of 85 billion items of clothing! We do not need more new clothes. We have enough.”
Evidently, the global fashion industry begs a serious transformation. To coincide with Berlin’s second annual Fashion Week (BFW), aware_ is delving into BFW’s relationship with sustainability. And to get a clearer picture of the event and Berlin’s intimate relationship to conscious fashion, aware_ talked to photographer and sustainable fashion expert Cherie Birkner. Her platform Sustainable Fashion Matterz offers a comprehensive curation of sustainable brands, projects and industry leaders as well as educational information for the public about the complex issues around fashion and sustainability.
aware_: Cherie, when did you decide to start Sustainable Fashion Matterz and why?
Cherie Birkner: I was working as a creative director for a fast fashion brand, and I came to the point when I could no longer handle the contradiction with my values. For example, I would always buy second-hand before I would buy anything new while simultaneously going into an office to sell more and more of a product that nobody really needed with a price tag that made production practices extremely questionable.
I felt the need to talk about problems in the fashion industry, so I quit my job and decided to become a photographer. I wanted to work with people that cared about the impact of the fashion industry. At the time, in 2017, I attended the Green Showroom (today’s Neonyt) to take portraits of these change-makers and tell their stories. By the end of the event, I had taken 60 portraits and realized that there are sustainable solutions to every consumer need – people just do not know that they exist!
aware_: Which designers are you most excited to see at BFW this year and why?
Cherie Birkner: I am most excited about the ESTETHICA event that is featuring ten designers from Berlin and Ukraine including one of my favourites – Melisa Minca – who is a fun and provocative up-cycling designer. Also, Vladimir Karalef who I discovered last season showing a dead-stock capital collection. These designers and those featured at Fashion Revolution are mostly engaged in up-cycling materials and really working with what is already there. That is also a thing that changed for me over the years. Six years ago, it was the organic fair-trade t-shirt that was sustainable and now the situation is like this: we have enough stuff on the planet. So let us use what we have and re-purpose it.
aware_: What makes Berlin the green capital of fashion?
Cherie Birkner: If you look at BFW, you see that the focus is on designers and events that prioritize sustainability practices. For example, if you are a brand that uses new plastic sequins, you are simply not up with the times anymore. The events around fashion week go deeper, it is not just a fashion show where the model is walking down the catwalk and you do not know how anything is made. In contrast, 202030 – The Berlin Fashion Summit is all about sharing the latest knowledge to educate the public. Also, Berlin has a culture of people gifting their clothes on the street or exchanging them. The city is even investing in circular fashion projects such as the A-Gain Guide which maps out all of Berlin’s options for pre-owned items.
aware_: What are the most innovative sustainable fashion trends that are here to stay?
Cherie Birkner: I would like to answer this after attending the 202030 summit! One thing that I have seen is that brands are making their own resale platforms. High-end brands are taking ownership of their brand style while giving their own customers the opportunity to re-sell their own products to keep them in the loop or taking them back to recycle the clothes properly. I am also very interested in clothing rental services such as Kleiderei, Pool Berlin and Clothes Friends, which work very well in big cities where people want to try the pieces on location.
– by Tina Ateljevic
Imagine a cleansing of the senses. Noses are exposed to the smell of trees due to programmes of reforestation, the acrid smell of diesel a distant memory. The sense of touch is exposed to organic, natural materials, a far cry from the synthetic substances humans are exposed to today. The taste of fermentation hits the mouth, probiotics set to work (Healthline). We see solar panels glint in the sunlight, able to absorb vast amounts of energy, power planes, and send cars gliding through landscapes. The sound of wind turbines moving through the air, the elements are given back their space on the planet.
aware_ writer Eliza Edwards explores one aspect of society which has the potential to be radically altered: the way in which technology, through the introduction of digital clothing, could improve the fashion industry, the world’s treatment of its resources, and bring an end to the pressure of conformity within the industry. This envisaged world presents potential challenges, secondary (emotional and anthropological) consequences of such a seismic shift in how we interact with one another and demonstrates a wholly new method of self-expression.
A Time Before Digital Clothing
Consumerism has evolved, from the development of new manufacturing processes during the Industrial Revolution, to the steady rise of capitalism over the 20th century, to the exponentially growing levels of mindless buying evident since the dawn of the internet and the 21st century. The world’s economic status quo remains dominated by a few monolithic companies who control not only the rhythms of our daily digital lives, but also our modes and methods of expression.
There have been indications that the fashion industry is changing. Despite struggling to keep pace with the technological advancements of other industries, with the invention of the 3D-printer and CAD CAM manufacturing, progress is evident. In a Levis supplier factory in Mexico an individual needs thirty minutes to sand down a pair of jeans, whilst a Jeanologia laser machine is able to achieve the same result in ninety seconds (Quartz News). Meanwhile, US-based start-up Sewbo are using robots to stitch single white T-Shirts together. These cutting-edge tools and advancements are problematic; as the robots struggle to work with this very fine material the “T-shirt is covered with a thin layer of plastic so the t-shirt is stiffer and easier for the robot to work with”. In the Levis factory more denim can be manufactured at a faster rate, and it contributes both to a process of automation driven redundancy, and exacerbates the world’s overproduction crisis.
Clearly, the industry is not changing fast enough. An ideal future is one that promotes self-worth and interrupts the predatory cycle of brands and consumer, which feeds off the human capacity for insecurity. Real progress might manifest itself in an exploration of digital clothing, and a paradigmatic shift away from exploiting the earth’s resources.
The Early Introduction of Digital Clothing
Today, wearable technology includes Apple Watch, Google Glass, augmented reality apps, avatar based ‘games’ such as second life, and developments in cyborg reality. Most recently we have seen the sale of the first digital blockchain clothing for $9,500. The idea is to provide those whose identities exist predominantly on social media channels with the ability to wear digital clothing, without necessitating the manufacturing of more physical garments. The issue here is that the clothing cannot be worn in the real world, and therefore remains virtual and not physical, creating a tactile barrier to entry for any potential purchaser. The second, and often unspoken problem regarding blockchain technology is the enormous carbon footprint of each transaction, due to the processing power necessary in order to ensure each purchase is unique. One bitcoin transaction uses 288.51 kg of CO2, “The electricity used to complete a single Bitcoin transaction could provide electricity to a British home for a month.” (Digiconomist)
In the sphere of physical retail, Kinect for Windows created a screen for an augmented shopping experience, “The customers can touch real product samples to choose materials, accessories and colors. And they can see how a garment will actually look on them because they can view a realistic, 3D virtual image of the product they’ve selected.” (Surur)
This concept of augmented reality-based personalisation, if developed in the home, would stop the need for the consumer to return an item after purchase – a significant waste of resources. CNBC reported in 2016 that, “Americans returned $260 billion in merchandise to retailers last year, or 8 percent of all purchases”. (CNBC)
The Potential in Digital Clothing
We have already stepped into the unfamiliar, utopian world of digital clothing, but I would like to explore its limits, and look to the horizon of digital fashion. Every individual would have the means to present themselves in digital clothing; their digital persona would be identifiable by others in the real world, in real time, through biomechatronic technology (for example, a chip, an antenna, contact lens, glasses, etc.). Each person would experience the world around them through this technology, viewing the fashion choices of others through a digital lens; clothes would appear superimposed, as augmented reality. Artists and designers would have access to an infinitely novel palette of materials, textures, and colour.
The physical clothes in existence today would remain in a circular ecosystem, repaired and upcycled when necessary; the wearer would be able to make a practical decision on the most appropriate clothing for each day, and the virtual clothing is purely motivated by aesthetic preference. According to a report by ShareCloth, the world produced 150 billion garments in 2018; 30% of these are never sold, and 92 million tonnes of textile waste are created by the fashion industry every year (Fashion United). Digital clothing would provide a solution to the planet’s critical state of overconsumption, saving the fashion industry from itself, and its chronic reliance on overproduction.
The issues of social media – presenting unrealistic imagery of the human form – would dissolve, dramatically helping with the issue of body insecurities. Through this advanced technology, humans would be able to express individuality not limited by the cost of materials and, whilst elitist high-end branding would be certain to find its position within the market, ‘digital clothing’ leans away from fashion solely targeted at the super rich.
The Future of Digital Clothing
There is strong scientific evidence to suggest that our brains are wired to be attracted to novelty; advertising permeates daily life, and the invitation to consume punctuates each waking moment. To envisage a world in which trends don’t dictate the desires of a teenager, or a world in which all advertising is deemed illegal, is unrealistic. However, despite the shocking statistics, the fashion industry can be a powerful tool for societal and environmental change. Any production of new clothing, whether manufactured ‘sustainably’ or unethically, means further physical waste. Conversely, digital clothing might distort any individual sense of identity, put at risk our romantic relationship with the tactile nature of clothes, and fuel the deleterious effect of technology currently in evidence. A total embrace of technology may seem overwhelming and potentially problematic, given our current capitalist paradigm, but it may also – paradoxically – provide an artistically limitless answer.
– By Eliza Edwards