Creativity is what matters at "People Design Berlin," a label founded by two young designers that brings out the talents of homeless teenagers. Here they are treated with respect regardless of where they come from.
"I will be a millionaire one day. One should dream big," says Franky J.J. Jones, gazing at me with big brown eyes and a bright hopeful smile. Here he is again today, a place where dreaming is allowed for people like him. An old renovated brick industrial building in southeastern Berlin, where homeless or drug-addicted young people, socially deprived boys and girls can hope for a better future. A place where they can get in touch with the glossy world of fashion.
Because Ayleen Meissner and Eva Sichelstiel, two young German designers, believe that fashion should not be an exclusively elitist matter. They founded "People Design" in 2014, a label created together with homeless people, aimed at bringing fashion closer to society.
Tailoring a way out
It's Monday morning and the rooms at People Design are getting busy. One can feel the fresh October breeze swell into the cozy workshop every time the door opens. Some girls are sitting in front of sewing machines, carefully guiding the fabric under the fast-moving needle. Others are drafting patterns, measuring, taking notes.
Franky is the chattiest person in the room. Probably also the oldest of them, although nobody knows for sure how old he is. Officially the non-profit organization offers support for people aged 13 to 27. He claims he's 25 and no one presses him. With stiff fingers, icy from the damp weather outside, Franky pulls out his smart phone and shows a photo of a dress he co-designed for the latest collection, called "Snow in Summer." "Everything I made sold!" he exclaims proudly. Although he has contributed to a few design pieces, Franky is more into drafting concepts and writing. In fact, he has written two novels: "Seriously, you can google me. Look up Franky J. J. Jones, this is the name I've given myself for my novels."
At the back of the room, Maria, a far less extroverted teenager with long blond hair, begins working on a pair of trousers. She does not want her real name disclosed either. "I'm not good," she says, looking shyly at the black fabric. Ayleen, one of the designers, disagrees: "She's really good. She is back in school and has started an apprenticeship in tailoring. A year back she would not even speak to people. She was scared of strangers." Although the two professional designers don't provide therapy, there is a certain sensitivity in the way they deal with the kids. "I'm treated like a normal person here," says Maria says, who doesn't really make eye contact and refuses to talk much about herself. She does though mention that she had fled from a psychiatric clinic before joining People Design in Berlin. The deep scars going up her left arm say more than her words do.
Smells like home
People Design, a subsidiary of "Karuna," one of the largest German organizations that support street children, shows one collection a year and sells the items at pop-up shops. The kids take part in the whole creation process, working hand in hand with the designers: doing research, drafting designs, shopping for fabric. They visit museums for inspiration and even design pieces of furniture for their pop-up shops. Creativity as a result of team work is what this project is about, says Ayleen: "It is not meant to teach socially deprived kids the craft of tailoring, but rather to offer them motivation and hopefully get them to stand on their own feet."
Our conversation is interrupted at 12:30, as Roxanne, a young woman who's doing community service at People Design announces: "Lunch is ready!" Everybody gathers in the dining room, in a different part of the building where it's warm and smells like food, like home. On the menu today: scalloped potatoes and lettuce. For some of the people at the table, this could be the first lunch anyone has cooked for them in a very long time. The designers and a few social workers join in. There is small talk, some laugh at Franky's jokes. A few people seem absent-minded. After lunch four teenagers will go to a therapy session elsewhere in the building. The rest will go back to the workshop.
A deeper meaning for fashion
Maria is still busy working on the black trousers. They were her favorite piece from the collection and she's considering remaking them for herself. Behind her a few garments left unsold hang in neat rows: a transparent blouse with light-blue polka dots, a matching skirt, a woven pair of trousers. "I made this one," Maria says, with a faint smile.
Franky joins in: "They are all high quality, you know." Each piece costs a few hundreds euros, as much as his monthly rent. He now has a home. Things were not so good up until a few years ago: "I was young and silly," he recalls, stuffing his hands in his pockets, pulling up his shoulders. "I came to Berlin and had friends who were stealing. I was doing the same at the time. Then I went to New York, I washed dishes in restaurants, worked as pizza delivery boy, slept on the streets. The day I came back to Berlin they arrested me. I had dodged paying for tickets too many times." Franky found out about People Design after a few months spent in prison. Eva and Ayleen recognized his wit and talent from the very beginning.
Before starting the label Eva had worked in a PR agency in Berlin. Ayleen had been a fashion designer in Amsterdam. They were both driven by thoughts of how to give fashion a deeper meaning. At People Design, street fashion is made by street people themselves. Each item has its own story, like the people who create it. And some stories have a happy ending, like Franky's. He has finished school, has a job and hopes that one day a film director will discover his novels. Because he has found a place, where dreaming is allowed for people like him.