Germany's capital showcases its young talent in Fashion Week. Up-and-coming designers are vigorously promoted, but few can actually make a living off their work. Sustainable fashion could be their next big break.
Karlotta Wilde is almost finished; she just has a few more buttons to sew on. Her small atelier in a courtyard in Berlin's central Mitte district is stacked full of sketches and clothes rails. Cashmere coats and leather skirts combined with raw silk are draped from the hangers. Clean lines and pure elegance distinguish Wilde's creations, which cost between 200 and 1,000 euros a piece ($273-1,366).
The 29-year-old is all set to present her new collection at the Berlin Fashion Week.
"You have steep fixed costs when you make high fashion like I do and use expensive materials," said Wilde. "Then you also have to organize big events like press dinners and shows, so that you leave an impression. And all that costs a lot of money."
After studying fashion in Munich, Wilde founded her own label and moved to Berlin. Her choice of city was no accident. "Rent is cheap. I can afford a studio here. That would hardly be possible in other places," she explained. "There's also a creative network here of fashion photographers, stylists, PR people - and strong funding."
Success not guaranteed
In 2011, Wilde was presented with the Premium Young Designers Award, which gave her the opportunity to show her work at one of the most important booths at Berlin Fashion Week. Usually, such prominent stands are far too expensive for young designers. But despite positive reviews and a faithful group of regular customers, Wilde is not yet able to make a good living from her work. Her parents chip in.
In the fashion industry, where young designers have to be long-winded, Wilde's situation is not unusual. Some 800 young fashion designers currently live in Berlin - and creativity alone isn't enough to ensure survival. Many of the labels that were once highly praised - like Sisi Wasabi and Macqua - have already had to file for bankruptcy.
The money factor
"The designers often bear the entire financial risk since retailers often work on a commission basis," explained Taja Mühlhans, responsible for the economy of fashion in the Berlin Senate. "Even the most talented designers can still benefit from having some knowledge of economics."
Mühlhans' goal is to keep the best young designers in Berlin. Internationally successful names like Lala Berlin and Kaviar Gauche strengthen the German capital's reputation as a creative hotspot. Whether or not the designers see their bank accounts growing, the semi-annual Berlin Fashion Week certainly means strong revenues for restaurants, taxi drivers and hotels. In total, Berlin boasts an annual revenue of nearly 2.5 billion euros from the fashion industry.
And that's why the city decided to establish its own prize for promising young designers, called Start Your Fashion Business. The two designers from the label Augustin Teboul were among the first recipients. "In addition to the 25,000 euros in prize money, we also got startup coaching and support with marketing and finances," explained Annelie Augustin.
After studying with big labels like Adidas and Gaultier, Augustin took the big step of co-founding her own label with French partner Odely Teboul. In the beginning, their black dresses with intricate crochet patterns hung in their own apartments. Now they can be found in luxury boutiques from Los Angeles to Hong Kong and Rhianna and Katy Perry wear their creations. The German-French duo managed what for many seems impossible: an international breakthrough.
Berlin = eco
According to Augustin, sales don't happen in Berlin. Berlin is still considered the capital of streetwear, and international buyers regard the city as a creative playground. "They look around here, but they order in Paris, especially when it comes to the upscale fashion we make," she said.
The global fashion industry has long seen Berlin as experimental, which is why giants like Gucci and Armani are often conspicuously absent at Fashion Week, along with the most influential critics. Focusing on ecological fashion - the industry's fastest selling segment - could be Berlin's opportunity to establish a unique selling point.
Sustainability plays an important role in Bobby Kolade's designs. The son of German-Nigerian parents, he grew up in Uganda and came to Berlin to study fashion. It was his graduation project in 2013 that won him Fashion Week's young designer prize. A year later, he's still at the beginning of his career.
Kolade is a vegetarian and consciously abstains from using leather and fur in his designs. Instead, he chooses materials like viscose - and even the trunk of a special African fig tree, a sustainable product that's hardly known in Europe.
Style with a statement
"For me, sustainability is a matter of consciousness," said the 26-year-old designer. "I'm against quickly buying, quickly putting it on and quickly throwing it away." According to Kolade, it's the Western world's consumerism that leads to exploitation in the developing world.
Together with an artist, Kolade has developed a sweater printed with press photos from one of the textile factors in Bangladesh that collapsed last year. Over 1,000 people were killed in the accident. The project has garnered praise from fashion bloggers around the world.
"When things go well both on an ethical and a human level, then it's automatically good for the product. Otherwise it's a piece of clothing with a shadow," said the young designer. That's why Kolade has had his latest collection produced in Germany.
He says he's not worried about financially overextending himself, adding that a vision is sometimes more convincing than a price tag.