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From the Jailhouse to the Runway

Stuck for a new look this summer? Many people wanting to revamp their wardrobe are turning to fashions created, worn and sold by inmates at the Tegel prison in Berlin.

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Style Crime: Prisoners at Berlin's Tegel Jail are making a mark with their new line of fashion.

The fashion world is a fickle one. No one with any sense of what’s hot and what’s not would be seen dead in anything other than the latest collections. In an industry where black is the new brown, which was in turn last year’s green, and where the label means more than the common sense and practicality of the ensemble, a new trend is hitting the streets of Berlin and spreading fast. This summer, those trend-conscious Europeans can be inspired by a new look: prison chic.

Don’t be fooled. Anyone taking to the streets in suits emblazoned with arrows, manacles or Death Row orange overalls will be making a fashion faux pas of disastrous proportions. Subtlety and authenticity are the key here. The range that’s rapidly becoming the latest in cult clothing comes not from the boutiques of Paris but from the very workshops of the Tegel prison in Berlin.

Ad agency promotes prison wear

Sold via the Internet under the label “Haeftling – Jailwear since 1898,” the full penitentiary collection includes shirts, shoes, bags and jackets -- all made by prisoners at Tegel. The concept is being championed by Berlin advertising agency Herr Ledesi, which has been promoting the range of clothing through a poster campaign on billboards and in magazines.

After hearing about the products the prisoners were making for their own use, agency chief Stephan Bohle identified the clothing project as the fashion client that his team were looking for. “We went to the prison after hearing about the products and were very pleased by the quality. It was then that we decided this would be a very interesting project to be involved in,” Bohle told Deutsche Welle.

Initiating a campaign aimed at hitting the trend seekers and setters of the capital’s hot spots and bar scene around Berlin’s trendy Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg neighborhoods, the agency played on the current market desire for unusual yet simple designs.

Unusual and simple

“People are always looking for fashion that’s out of the ordinary but simple,” said Bohle. “There are thousands of types of shoes out there but these shoes are hand-made and worn by prisoners … they’re special.”

Bohle and his team applied market psychology to market the Haeftling range in such a way as to snare the fashionistas: “It’s about unusual labels; it’s about telling a story, delivering an authentic message and conveying credibility.” By being up front about the origins of the clothing, Bohle believes it will only be a matter of time before the Haeftling (prisoner) line takes on a cult following. Indeed, the initial reception indicates that his instincts are spot on.

European wide demand

The Haeftling Internet shop went online July 11, and since then Bohle has been amazed at the response. “Sales for the clothing have been incredible,” he said. “It’s gone Europe-wide. We’re selling not just in Germany, but Britain, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Austria.”

The products themselves seem to live up to Herr Ledesi’s philosophy of transparency. With solid and functional pin-striped shirts in prison-issue blue -- which come complete with an identification tag -- robust boots and heavy jackets more suited for cold mornings in the exercise yard, the Haeftling range makes no secret of where it comes from and who made it.

Project helps prisoners

In the Tegel prison, about 40 percent of the 1,700 prisoners don't do any work within the system, meaning that they have access to little money other than the €26 monthly allowance given to them by the government. But those working on the clothing line can earn an extra €7.50 to €12.50 a day. Prison authorities hope that the success of the project can help inmates find work within the facility and, once they are released, in the outside world. It is also seen as a motivational tool which boosts self confidence and esteem.

Whatever your views on wearing fashions created by the incarcerated, one thing is certain: Once Haeftling products are seen draped over a celebrity at a premiere or glittering party, wearing clothes made by people from the penal system will become so last year, darling.

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