03.02.2021 202030

Interview with FRIEDERIKE VON WEDEL-PARLOW, Beneficial Design Institute Interview with FRIEDERIKE VON WEDEL-PARLOW, Beneficial Design Institute

"Fashion needs to be reevaluated from the bottom up."

Friederike von Wedel-Parlow teaches Sustainable Design Strategies in Fashion and Creative Industries at the AMD Academy for Fashion & Design in Berlin. She embodies the axis between vision and practical implementation of holistic design approaches in the fashion industry. What drives her is her specific understanding of sustainability, the union of quality, innovation and beauty.
She believes in the new generation of young, aware consumers and entrepreneurs who see and celebrate fashion as a positive contribution to our world.

Interview: Uta Gruenberger

Your master’s programme has produced many impactful young thinkers and fighters for sustainability. Who were your role models?

I learned fashion design from scratch – with an apprenticeship as a dressmaker and everything else that went along with it. But it was only when I met Vivienne Westwood at Berlin University of the Arts that my understanding of quality was formed and defined. Namely, how important it is to unite quality with innovation and beauty when designing relevant, forward-thinking fashion. Vivienne Westwood also taught me how vital the in-depth study of historical and ethnic sources is for creating something fundamentally new that goes beyond trends. And there was also the practical research and development of garments on the body, of how fabrics fall, how they give shape and stability, and consequently the impact they have on our posture and our being. This is the kind of profound, unconventional thinking I try to pass on to my students and get them fired up about.

“I am very proud of my young ambassadors, whose commitment and bold message are truly making a difference in the world.”

Take, for instance, Ina Budde and her international company, circular.fashion, Renana Krebs and her Algalife, and Ricardo Garray, who presented his message before the United Nations in New York – sensational!
But back to my own mentors and role models. Buckminster Fuller’s processual, sculptural thinking inspired my first collection together with Regina Tiedeken. He was a major influence on our label. Back then, in 2001, I was making the first prototypes of solar cell bags for Greenpeace, Volkswagen and others, but more out of a sense of fun and zeitgeist – even though Fuller’s Manual for Spaceship Earth had already shaped my desire to benefit the overall system.

And then you discovered Michael Braungart’s cradle-to-cradle design concept?

That was later, in 2011, when I was invited to establish the Sustainable Design Strategies programme at ESMOD Berlin. At the time, I was still running Von Wedel & Tiedeken, my label with Regina Tiedeken. Our focus was on clothes that can be companions 24/7 and that can transition from the playground to a night on the town. But I still see us standing between all the other ambitious young designers at the trade fair in Paris, rushing from one season to the next, with collections for people whose closets are already full to bursting, and …

“… with a yearning for much more intelligent ways of putting fashion into practice and of celebrating it.”

At that juncture Braungart’s cradle-to-cradle vision really was the turning point in my career as a designer. From then onwards the focus of my teaching in the master’s programme was on circularity with an unequivocally positive intent and purpose. Around that time Trigema put their first organic cotton collection on the market, which was based on the cradle-to-cradle concept. Their T-shirts said, “Eat me”, and the materials they were made of were designed to be so healthy, you could have  shredded them and put them in your muesli.

“This holistic blend of quality, innovation and beauty – that’s what sustainability means to me.”

At that time I also established my professional axis between teaching the new generation of fashion students, who are themselves highly critical consumers, and advising textile companies and gradually implementing sustainable transformation concepts and processes in their factories and production facilities. It’s vital to actually see the production process for yourself, before serving up nicely packaged theories.

Is that why your Fair Fashion Guide and the study you did for Christliche Initiative Romero are so close to life?

Putting sustainability into practice in day-to-day life, in real life, is my main priority. And something that plays a key role is a positive, motivating attitude and language! We won’t bring about the necessary shift in awareness or a more conscious behaviour in our society by guilt-tripping people and setting zero-emission goals. The transformation will only come about through joy and pleasure, through emotion. And that requires a whole new way of communicating, as well as a different view of fashion fans and customers, namely as “appreciators” and “users” of fashion.

“We need a positive shared vision.”

The main problem at the moment is this gap between the assessment criteria. On the one hand, we look in the mirror and wonder, “Do these clothes suit me? The cut, the colour, the style?” On the other hand – if at all – are the questions about where the material comes from, what chemicals were used, what the production conditions are like, child labour, etc. These two worlds of quality perception need to fuse to form a natural unit. That would then be an impactful understanding of sustainability – the decisive step. We are currently trying to close this gap with the Sustainable Natives project we’re working on for Armedangels. 

Do you have a dream customer you’d love to advise?

Of course. A traditional, major fashion company would be fantastic. At Vivienne Westwood, we at least succeeded in putting an anti-plastic strategy into effect after talks about the long-term impact of micro-particles and polyester. Other than that, Stella McCartney is the only designer of that magnitude far and wide who doesn’t use animal products and fur, at least. She explored circularity issues early on and has become a respected pioneer in the fashion industry. Unfortunately, the efforts with regard to transparency and green fashion that the others at this level are making are still extremely limited.

“Current studies have found that less than 5% of all textile products have been produced sustainably.”

That means that 95% are not yet sustainable. Sure, every now and again there’s an organic cotton collection. But generally speaking, it’s either cool, young design newcomers – i.e. micro-businesses – or outdoor companies like Vaude and Patagonia building their businesses on sustainability. Combining high-end aesthetics and design with fundamental sustainability in one of the major fashion companies – that would truly be a dream come true.

Is Covid-19 affecting the industry?

Well, I’d say the pandemic is like a burning glass. It is shining a clear spotlight on supply chains whose structure is far too global, that aim for fast profits and are therefore shockingly unstable. But it’s also showing how ruthlessly some players in the industry are trying to find loopholes for now unsellable collections from Bangladesh or other financial obligations.
At the same time, there are also heart-warming examples of what a fundamentally different, new way of thinking can look like: Armedangels provided their organic cotton producers with cows as an alternative income to help them get through these challenging times. What does a fashion producer have to do with cows, you ask? Well, they are just as important as silkworms – and consequently butterflies – are for agricultural pollination. It’s all about true beauty. This kind of systemic thinking is possible! It would suit us well.