The location is as stunning as it is unexpected. As you leave central Berlin heading southwest, you pass a massive power plant, a recycling facility and a cement factory. And just when you think there's nothing noteworthy between you and the city limits anymore, you suddenly stand in front of the Funkhaus Berlin, an extensive building complex that was once the home of the GDR's state broadcaster. Those days are long gone but the building still houses a number of recording studios, concert venues and this week: the Ethical Fashion Show Berlin.
Yes, it's Fashion Week in Berlin. That time of year when red carpets and doormen in tuxedos suddenly block the bike path on your way to work and black vans shuttle stylish designers, bloggers and models to various event locations and shows around town.
The Ethical Fashion Show Berlin has its own share of those people roaming its halls, but the vibe is slightly different than in the city's trendy Mitte district. That's because those presenting their products here are trying to combine style with sustainability and some of the results are both stunning and unique.
Case in point: María Beltrán. The young woman from Cadiz on the southern tip of Spain has come to Berlin to find a distributor for her unique collection of handbags, which are made of cork combined with upcycled textiles. She didn't choose cork at random. Her region is home to extensive cork oak forests where it's been harvested for centuries (if done right, it leaves the trees unharmed). Like many products at the show, all her bags are handmade.
As I wandered through the halls, one thing I kept noticing is that most companies vying for business here seem to be small and young. Like Airpaq, founded by Adrian Goosses and Michael Widmann, two recent university graduates who designed a backpack made of various used car parts, most notably old airbags. Their product is so new that the only place you can currently buy it is Kickstarter.
Others like Rolf Ihmels are veterans of the manufacturing industry but have only recently gone green. "I have been wanting to develop more sustainable products for a long time," he told me. But his family was in the business of manufacturing plastic coat hangers. That's not terribly green, he says. It wasn't until he left and started his own business that he could try to make more sustainable products. His company, Greenbelts, now manufactures high quality belts and other leatherwares using only European leather that is 100 percent vegetable tanned to avoid toxic chemicals.
Most of the products on display at the show were - not surprisingly - clothes. Now, I'm no fashion expert but one thing that was glaringly obvious to anyone who stepped into the large, light-filled space was that we've come a long way since the options for environmentally conscious consumers were limited to reindeer wool sweaters and clunky, wrinkled hemp dresses. Hemp dresses are alive and well, by the way, but they have become elegant and a lot more comfortable to wear.
And hemp, that fibre with its myriad of uses has been joined by many new sustainable materials like bamboo and even milk. Belgian designer Fina Vanbuel works with the former. At her booth, she displays a large glass jar with something white and fluffy. "Feel it! It's incredibly soft," she says, holding it toward me. "These are bamboo fibres. They are what we use to make our clothes."
The first association that came to my mind when I heard clothing made from bamboo was something rough and starchy. But the dresses Vanbuel showed me were more reminiscent of silk than cardboard. "It keeps you warm when it's cold and cool when it's hot," she assures me.
I can't say from first-hand experience if that's true but there is little doubt that bamboo is an interesting alternative to cotton or wool. Bamboo is among the fastest growing plants in the world and can grow on land that would be unsuitable for agriculture. It also requires little water, unlike cotton, for example, whichis incredibly thirsty.
While I couldn't buy anything at the show - it was strictly a trade show - it was still great to leave there knowing that my next shirt or pants could not only look good but make me feel good about buying them, too.