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  • Barbara Caveng on turning textile waste into fashion


Barbara Caveng on turning textile waste into fashion

A group of Berlin artists is shining a light on overproduction and throwaway culture – by recycling discarded clothes.

Barbara Caveng (second from right) founded ‘Streetware saved item’ to give discarded clothes new life. Photo: Paolo Gallo

As part of your art project Streetware saved item, you and your colleagues are collecting clothes that have been left on the streets. Isn’t that ewwww?

Yes, it can be and sometimes it takes a moment’s effort. Some of the clothes have personal odour in them and some even body fluids. But: the clothes themselves aren’t ewwww per se, they become that through the hands of humans, by someone who dropped and left them there.

What stories do the clothes tell?

That depends on the angle you take: do these stories concern the people wearing the clothes or the conditions of production? We call this particular search for the clothes’ stories “textile forensics”.

When did you start collecting these clothes?

As a collective, we’ve been doing this for 10 months.

Who is “we”?

There are a lot of we’s in this project. The main “we”, for example, consists of Alice Fassina, a Japanologist and costume designer, who is now delving more into art and circular economy, and the artist Lotti Seebeck, who merges art and science. And for two months now, we’ve been working with Purvi Dhranghaderyia, a fashion designer who concentrates on visible mending: fixing something in an aesthetic way. Then there’s people who walk around with pushchairs that we installed clothes racks onto. Like Jan Markowsky, who oversees an association for homeless people and used to be homeless himself. There are about 350 to 400 people with whom we have cooperated and interacted as part of our events.

How did the idea come about?

I’ve been dealing with value cycles in an artistic way for a long time: that of people, time and goods. The latter also entails clothing. Alice and Lotti got into rag picking, as we call it, through sustainability.

Where do you find the clothes?

They’re scattered all across the city. Alice found two jumpers while strolling through the Tegeler Forst, for example.

What happens to the things you find?

They’re washed, sifted and sorted – just the regular things you do with clothes. Though time and time again, we’re surprised by the fact that most clothes are in perfectly good condition. If that’s the case, then we try to bring them back into the cycle.

The passers-by went completely crazy and tried to storm the shop while we were still setting up because they wanted to have the stuff.

How are you doing that?

We used to exhibit the clothes in our former project room, a little shop on Jansastraße. We had people coming in who had mistaken the room for a normal shop and then were surprised that they could just have the clothes for free. One time, we set up our things at this luxury boutique in Galerie Walden in Neukölln, where you could already see the labels of our clothes through the window: Givenchy, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Calvin Klein. The passers-by went completely crazy and tried to storm the shop while we were still setting up because they wanted to have the stuff.

Pieces by Givenchy, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Calvin Klein – all found on the street?

Yes. And also things by Yves Saint Laurent and clothes from green fashion labels, which had been thrown out. All the things we find get a second tag, our Streetware-saved-item tag. In certain scenes, these clothes already have cult status.

You also took part in Berlin Fashion Week with Streetware saved item…

During Fashion Week, we organised a demonstration for the social-ecological utopia in the streets of Neukölln last September, after which we did a catwalk with the clothes we collected on Tempelhofer Feld. We worked with professional stylists, makeup artists and catwalk coaches to ensure that our show would be on the same level as the ones from big designers – only the models weren’t professionals. They were people from all different ages with different gender identities, ethnicities and body types. The catwalk was a terrific experience, a top highlight!

Your project harshly criticises overproduction and throwaway society…

Exactly. It also criticises global injustice and the colonial structures within textile production. We’re cutting the “made in” tags out of each piece to produce a statistic of where clothing is manufactured. For our installation “The Colonial Matrix of Power”, we sew the tags on a dress. But our events deal with “Kleider-Care”: Who’s taking care of the clothing? In countries like Uganda, for example, where owning a washing machine is a rarity? It’s the women.

Which impulses do you want to give? What do you think should change specifically?

With our project, we’re creating ideas and blueprints for action, that you can get inspired by. We’re building on small ideas which can be linked. It’s not exactly the radical change that is desperately needed in the fashion industry, but that’s not what we’re aiming for. Instead, with our campaigns and installations, we’re banking on thought exchange. That’s the only way in which society and, in turn, the world can be changed.

  • Vestitheque, Streetware saved item’s pop-up store, is open at Haus der Materialisierung, Berolinastraße, Mitte, Tue and Wed, 15-19 through Jul 13, info here.

Barbara Caveng is an interdisciplinary artist living in Berlin. Her work mainly focuses on three-dimensional design, participative art, interventions as well as performance.