eco clothing Shades of Green

Berlin is crystallizing as a capital for eco fashion. But what designers and shoppers understand by the term green fashion differs widely across Europe, spanning aesthetics to storytelling to keeping traditional skills alive.
01/21/2016 - 11:56 AM
Green fashion isn't necessarily green.

In a drafty former mail train station in eastern Berlin, Europe's green fashion scene is parading its wares.

The series of shows dedicated to green and ethical designs, which are part of the bi-annual Berlin Fashion Week, has been attracting record numbers of visitors as organic and sustainable style finds a growing fan base in the German capital.

The range of designs on show also illustrate just how much eco fashion has changed and how many ways there are to interpret exactly what green fashion means.

This year, 166 labels making sustainable fashion were featured at the Greenshowroom and Ethical Fashion Show on the fringes of the main Fashion Week.

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    The number of designers exhibiting their work has grown significantly from 39 in 2011. The range of clothing has also expanded, from garments to sportswear, bags, shoes and underwear.

    The growth of the Berlin trade fair and the increasing number of international designers there shows how the city is becoming an important center in Europe for sustainable fashion.

    The designers at the Greenshowroom may have different views on fabrics, tailoring and marketing but this week they were unanimous that fashion needs to clean up and do less damage to the environment.

    “Shoppers are gradually becoming aware of the problems with high fashion,” said Zora Heinicke, a designer from Stuttgart, standing by a table with a lily, flanked by a rack of elegant navy dresses with shiny bows. “They can buy fashion cheaply but someone bleeds for it.”

    One fifth of the world’s industrial fresh water pollution comes from textile treatment and dyeing. Making one pair of jeans requires more than 1,800 gallons of water. More than 8,000 toxic chemicals are used to turn raw materials into textiles, many of which are carcinogenic, corrosive or include biologically modifying reagents.

    Gradually, consumer awareness is increasing about the damage that looking good can inflict.

    The growth of the Berlin trade fair and the increasing number of international designers there shows how the city is becoming an important center in Europe for sustainable fashion. “People feel they really have to be here and there are some great conversations happening here, between designers from the Netherlands, Italy and Great Britain,” said Friederike von Wedel-Parlow who teaches a sustainable fashion course at the International University of Art for Fashion in Berlin.

    “In a city like Paris that’s known for fashion, Berlin can’t really compete in terms of glamor,” Ms. von Wedel-Parlow told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “But eco fashion is really where Berlin finds its niche, it’s perfect. People here want to do more than prettify, there are a lot of people who are working here independently and it’s a very creative area, with space to try something new.”

    Talk at the trade fair ranged from knitting patterns, ripped and torn jeans, and the sandy color of Mongolia’s goats, showing for designers that there are many meanings of eco fashion.

    The designers at the trade fair came from all over Europe and also from Asia, exhibiting work that highlighted different aspects of fashion from hand-crafted leather goods, to natural cashmere and business attire.

    Ursula Karven, a German actress and designer who also modeled in the 1980s, was excited to be showing her work. “There are first class designs here, it’s a wonderful combination of sustainability of fashion that I’m very proud to be part of it," she said.

    The main difference among designers in Europe seemed to be whether the eco label alone is enough.

    Roberta Gentile, a designer for TU&TU, a fashion label from Gorizia in Italy, said what people value most in her country is design. “We don’t have any eco boutiques there so I sell my clothes through high-end boutiques,” she explained. “There’s no sense of eco fashion at all there and women would never buy something just because it was organically produced. She might like it and then come back and say, wow the cotton is so soft, but that’s a secondary factor. It really has to look good so I focus on the design a lot.”

    Two designers from the Netherlands commented that buyers in their country also put a premium on design which is at least as important as the fact that clothes are made in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. “It’s a bit different. In Germany, it’s like if it’s ecologically made first and it’s also fashionable, then it’s perfect. In Holland, it’s the other way round.”

    Attitudes in Germany are changing too as designers and buyers become more demanding. “I went to the fashion show last night but to be honest I was a bit disappointed. Half of the garments could have been pajamas,” said Isabelle Regiere, a German designer of purses and belts, adding that she thinks there is still much room to improve.

    But design and local production come at a cost.

    “My aim is to create fashion that looks good – and of course it should be ecologically and socially friendly, that goes without saying – it’s the same for how I eat and how I live,” Ms. Heinicke said. “But sometimes I think that the people who are drawn to this kind of fashion are young and they might not have much money. People who will spend €600 on a jacket are happy if the wool is certified but that isn’t their main concern – what they want is a high quality, well-designed item. It makes me think the green label counts against me.”

    “The trouble is, in Germany, people are not always willing to pay for high quality, well-cut, well-produced clothes,” said Konstanza Janosch, a Germany-based designer. “For buyers in Germany and the United Kingdom, clothing is a cost benefit question. In Scandinavia, people are more willing to pay for good design and good quality, it’s really a different way of thinking about life and a different set of values.”

    Some German designers are finding access to international buyers thorough their location. Manfred Schild, a designer who set up Sarazul, a label for cashmere clothing in natural colors from Mongolia, said the location of his store in Warnemünde, a tiny seaside town on the Baltic coast, works in his favor. “It’s great because we get people from Canada, all over the world, coming in on the cruise ships, they love it.”

    The question goes beyond ability to pay. Julia Eschment, a young Polish designer studying in Hanover said consumers tend either to be aware of the problems and negative environmental impact of fast fashion, or fearful of the complexity of the topic.

    “We try to tell the stories of each item we design,” said Kate Uzzell who works for design brand Antiform in the U.K. The garments are upcycled, meaning they are made from different items of clothing that have been re-cut and designed into new items. “People are always really interested to hear where the clothing has come from.”

    In the United Kingdom and the United States, younger people are still big fans of mass-produced low-cost clothing, said Iain Renwick, chairman of Eco Age, a London-based brand consultancy working to bring sustainability issues to the fore. “Younger people are definitely more aware of the problem than their parents. But that doesn’t mean they will make informed buying decisions,” he said. “We need to bridge that gap through education.”

    Allison Williams is deputy editor in chief at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact her: [email protected]