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Paula Votteler: Turning plastic waste into the fashion of tomorrow

Fashion designer Paula Votteler uses unloved material scraps like plastic to create stunning clothing and accessories.

Photo: © Mak

In Paula Votteler’s Schöneberg studio, there’s far more to fashion that just fabric and thread: warped plastic bottles, vegetable netting, glass, old jeans, seashells, beads, embroidery hoops.

Hailing from Saarbrüken, the 26-year-old will use just about anything that lands in her lap to make her handbags, waistcoats and tops. Seeing her creations, you wouldn’t necessarily think that Votteler only started studying fashion design last October.

While she’s still honing her skills, it was her first degree, in packaging technology, that helped her find an innovative approach to making clothes, and if her 65K-strong Instagram following is anything to go by, she’s clearly onto something.

You’ve only just started your degree in fashion, but judging from your creations, you’ve practically already mastered the craft. How long have you been making clothes?

My whole life, actually. But during corona, I started regularly sharing my projects on Instagram. Then in 2023, I founded a small label, Atelier Paula Votteler.

Photo: © Mak

Your whole life?

I’ve always enjoyed being creative. I learned to crochet from my mum when I was five; she taught me everything. Throughout my youth, I attended sewing courses at the Volkshochschule, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that I realised it was the only thing that truly made me happy. I finally had time to start big projects and taught myself weaving and embroidery.

I finally had time to start big projects.

I’ve always enjoyed working with existing materials because they hold more value to me when I know their story or if they have one at all. With my packaging technology degree, where I also learned all the benefits of plastics, it somehow seemed inevitable that I would eventually merge both fields.

Why did you choose to study packaging technology when fashion has clearly always been your passion?

After school, I wasn’t brave enough to apply for fashion design because I couldn’t draw. I’ve always been good at natural sciences and have been very interested in the whole topic of sustainability and recycling, so I choose this degree.

Photo: © Mak

But during the pandemic, I realised that the profession didn’t fulfil me at all. After my master’s I applied for fashion design at the Kunsthochschule Weißensee and have been studying there since October 2023, and I couldn’t be happier.

Your designs, like the bags and tops made from plastic waste, are incredible innovative. What inspires you to come up with creations like that?

I’m most inspired by materials that somehow come into my life. Fabric, beads, but also packaging or anything I find on the beach. I love giving existing, perhaps unloved things, a new life.

Many of your creations are like intricate little works of art. How long do you typically work on your pieces?

I make so many different things, so it’s hard to sy, but I spend at least 50 hours on a piece like an embroidered bag. Once, I spent four months on a waistcoat embroidered with beads; I think its my all time favorite project.

Do you want to get a message across with your designs?

My designs always give me a bit of hope and serve as a cheerful and colorful balance in these often hopeless and oppressive times. I want to make a statement that fast fashion should not be supported and that we treat our planet like dirt.

I want to make a statement.

When I hold one of my bags, completely made from existing resources, it gives me a bit of hope that maybe we can still manage to stop the climate and humanitarian catastrophes.

Looking ahead in three steps, what are you currently working on, what’s your next act, and what is your big dream of the future?

I’m working on a blouse made from vegetable nets and a top made from polished glass that I collected on the beach. Then I want to start working on an online shop. I have no problem spending 1000 hours on a project, but I can’t seem to set up a decent shop, that really annoys me!

Eventually, I would like to have a larger studio with a handful of employees, one of whom would be my mum, so I can work on sustainable collections with her. I don’t need more than that.

In just a few words, why do you do what you do?

Because it has to come out of me. I can’t help it.