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Berlin fashion program director sees 'paradigm shift' in sustainable style

Sustainability is a hot topic on the sidelines of fashion shows, particularly Berlin Fashion Week. But isn't eco fashion expensive? Expert Friederike von Wedel-Parlow says, ultimately, it's cheaper.

Since 2011, the Esmod Berlin International University of Art for Fashion has offered a Master's programm in Sustainability in Fashion. Ahead of Berlin Fashion Week, Friederike von Wedel-Parlow, director of the school's master's program, tells DW about the future of fashion.

DW: Sustainability seems to be what everyone is talking about when it comes to the future in fashion. Why is that?

Friederike von Wedel-Parlow: The textile and fashion industry urgently needs to make ecological changes. More than 20,000 chemicals are used in production, and the result is colored rivers and contaminated water. Humane and fair production conditions are also urgently needed. We've seen the photos of the disaster in Bangladesh, and something needs to change. In addition, fashion has the ability to engage people, to be an inspiration of the times, and to help shape identity.

A white dress from Adriana Stetsyuk's collection called Is it time to rethink Photo: Alex Tsvetkov

A dress from Adriana Stetsyuk's collection, 'Is it time to rethink?'

How do you engage your Master's students with the topic?

In fashion it's about changes, renewal, identity, changing identity, and belonging. How this works sustainably is what we seek to answer in this course of study. Transparency and a holistic approach are important. We not only consider the spectrum of fashion design, but the whole 360 degrees and ask, where do the fabrics come from? What is the production process? What design strategies do we use to produce more sustainably? How do we communicate with clients? And what happens to the products at the end of the production chain?

We address these topics in the classroom on the practical level to the reach the goal: healthy clothing that's beautiful. We want to combine aesthetics with quality.

You and your students are pioneers, a kind of avant-garde in fashion. Which approaches are setting trends now?

Sustainable fashion: a dress from Anita Heiberg's project, '13 Dresses' Photo: private

Sustainable fashion: Anita Heiberg's project, '13 Dresses'

New approaches include design strategies like zero-waste patterns, consumer awareness and involvement, new fabrics and technologies, upcycling, recycling, sharing or leasing pieces of clothing. The concept, "cradle to cradle" is also important, in which the objective is to produce high-quality, toxic-free clothing, and then to use the material over and over again, in a closed circuit. This way, our resources won't be wasted. Overall, we want to make our products solely with renewable energy.

You place great emphasis on a practical approach and cooperate with textile companies.

In the textile industry, there's great interest in converting and making changes, but it's a long road to change because we are still a niche market. Many companies make great contributions to the change, but the important question remains: How do we get our products out of the niche and into the masses?

Collection of work tables at an Atelier at Esmod Berlin Masters students draft their designs in this workshop at the International University of Art for Fashion Photo: Natalie Toczek

Masters students draft their designs in this workshop at the school

How do you want to bring about a shift in consumer consciousness?

We're all aware of what is happening with our planet and the climate - but we are not acting accordingly. So we have to inspire people to act now. It's all about user involvement - that we work together with clients to develop ideas that benefit customers and also change consumer behavior. One important approach is to ask ourselves, what do we really need? Ultimately it's about finding easily adaptable solutions that don't make people feel guilty, but rather celebrate joy, beauty and quality. That's what makes fashion.

How much does flawless, clean, ethical, clothing cost?

Woman wearing backpack from Simone Simonate's project, Sisa Clipping Up Photo: Maria Dominika Photo:Maria Dominika

A backpack from Simone Simonate's project, 'Sisa Clipping Up'

Ecologically produced fashion does not necessarily have to be expensive. But if you're part of a slow process, with craft techniques, small manufacturers, and everyone in the chain of production gets fair wages, it's understandable that the end product is going to be more expensive than a t-shirt produced cheaply in the catastrophic conditions in Bangladesh, for example. You always have to consider what goes into the cost.

Cheaply produced clothing doesn't compensate for the resulting environmental damage. If we add these costs into the end price, then ecologically produced clothing would be cheaper, because it doesn't lead to damage that will later affect the public.

In Germany, eco-fashion has been on the market for decades.

Two models wear Ralf Schuchmann's China Surrealism line of clothing Photo: Jago Li

Designs from Ralf Schuchmann's collection, 'China Surrealism'

Yes, it's been around since the 1980s thanks to great pioneering efforts, which took massive steps toward making production more eco-friendly and sustainable. We're now working harder on the next step to connect green fashion with good design. I think we've reached the point where customers won't accept anymore that something is made in exploitative conditions and people suffer as a result. Businesses can't afford this type of scandal anymore, so it's not short-term thinking. But we're experiencing a paradigm shift with regard to clothing production.

Where do sustainable collections fit into Berlin Fashion Week?

Berlin has established itself as an international hot spot for sustainable fashion. With the Green Showroom, the Ethical Fashion Show and other showrooms, Fashion Week is an important trading center because numerous labels active in the field will be showcased.

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