“The message is: You don't need to buy anything”

Fashion stands for a lifestyle, but also consumerism. A debate about sustainable clothing in the age of climate crisis

Berlin-Karina Papp and Nika Zvierieva are part of a community that deals with slow fashion. They are demanding a radical rethinking of the fashion world. The two of them met with the Berlin designer Michael Michalsky – a conversation about consumerism, sacrifice, and why the industry can no longer continue the way it is.

Fashion designer Michael Michalsky
Fashion designer Michael Michalsky

Mr. Michalsky, do you actually wear second-hand clothes?

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Michael Michalsky: Yes, always, and very intentionally. I had my first job as a designer at Levi Strauss and we found a lot of inspiration in the second-hand sector. Fashion is always quoting things that have been there before. I also wear second-hand clothes privately. Of course, a bit more selectively than previously; today I’m looking specifically for certain designers, which is also research for me.

Ms. Papp, Ms. Zvierieva, you collect used things and hardly spend any money on clothing. Why?

Karina Papp: I always wanted to have my very own style and not have fashion companies dictate a uniform to me – a mixture of vintage, original for me, perhaps odd for others. Since I’ve been in Berlin, it’s very simple: there are always boxes on the street with a “Please Take” sign on them. You just have to keep your eyes open.

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Photo: Berliner Zeitung/Paulus Ponizak
Michael Michalsky
was born in Göttingen in1967 and raised in Rümpel, Schleswig-Holstein. He is one of the most famous German fashion designers. In 1995 Michalsky became chief designer at the sporting goods manufacturer Adidas. In 2005, the creative director from Berlin became the dusty luxury label MCM, which made Michalsky socially acceptable again. In 2006, the fashion designer founded a label under his own name and has had a couture line under the title “Atelier Michalsky” for about four years. Michalsky also launched accessories such as sunglasses and interior design under his own name. In 2016, Michalsky, who Vogue once described as the “"new German fashion pope,” replaced Wolfgang Joop as a juror in the 11th season of “Germany’s next Topmodel”.

You can see the finds on pictures of your blog “Found_on_the_street” at Instagram. What is the idea behind it?

The most important aspect for us, the makers of the blog “Found_on_the_street”, is that we believe that too much clothing is produced anyway. You don’t have to buy clothes to be dressed cool, to have an individual style. We found all our favorite pieces on the street.

You don’t buy anything at all?

Nika Zvierieva: Yes, underwear, of course. And maybe eight individual pieces a year.

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Photo: Berliner Zeitung/Paulus Ponizak
has only one topic: Slowfashion. Fashion that opposes conventional production methods and mass production. You can wear what you like, only you can’t buy it yourself; what’s found on the streets of Berlin is chic. The makers Karina Papp and Anna Vladi focus on sustainability and the credo: “No one needs more new clothes” – the two women have 16,000 followers. Papp, 31, was born in Latvia and raised in Russia; she is a translator and has been in Berlin since 2013. Nika Zvierieva, who gave this interview together with Papp, has staged many of the photos in the blog as stylist. Zvierieva, 28, was born in Kiev, Ukraine, and is a cultural critic and fashion designer. She uses her talent as a stylist mainly for the creation of social projects, slow fashion initiatives. She moved to the German capital in 2014.

For comparison: the average German buys around 60 textiles a year.

Nika Zvierieva: It’s also very interesting that we usually find completely intact clothes, not things that are thrown away because they’re damaged, but things that you can really give away. These are the products of an affluent society that we find. We don’t need any more outerwear. For example, I collect things that are broken and repair them and then give them away. This is also a form of respect for the people who designed and produced these clothes.

Karina Papp: We are concerned about conscious consumption. Everyone should ask themselves whether they really need a particular thing. It’s not about collecting and owning.

But that’s time-consuming. Not all people have this time.

Karina Papp: It’s clear to us to create an awareness of it, but it’s still important.

Nika Zvierieva: Whether I buy trousers from Dior or H & M ultimately plays a subordinate role in production: several thousand liters of water are needed for each pair of jeans, for both brands. For a single pair of jeans. Of course, I am more sustainable with a pair of jeans from a second-hand shop. They weren’t produced by this store. That’s not ideal, of course, but in our opinion it’s the better way to consume.

Mr. Michalsky, what do you think as a designer, as a producer of clothing?

Michalsky: Four years ago, I made a conscious decision to stop making ready-to-wear clothing, because I found that the collections were moving much too fast. This is an industry that is setting an ever-faster pace: you can absolutely forget it with two collections a year. Four a year is now the standard, and we’re not even talking about discounters yet, who are now throwing their assortment out of the window every two weeks. And even that is now considered slow.

Did you want to avoid it?

Michalsky: What I’m doing today is a radical alternative to fast fashion: haute couture. It allows me to realize my ideas better and I can keep an eye on all production channels. The result is also of much higher quality. I was a rocky road to make this idea a reality because I first had to build up a network of artisans whom I could trust and who offered the necessary quality. Everything that runs under the label “Atelier Michalsky” is produced in Berlin.

Nika Zvierieva: But you also have other lines besides your work as a couturier. You sell sunglasses, bags, sofas, everything all the way shower gel. So it’s not that you don’t produce much. That’s not slow fashion.

Michalsky: I do this consciously because I want my aesthetics to become a kind of lifestyle. Everyone needs a shower gel, and when I look for a partner for the production of shower gel or a company to cooperate with me, I make sure that they are renowned companies, companies where the production processes are transparent and easy to follow.

Karina Papp: You said you sell lifestyle. What is the message behind it?

Michalsky: The message behind my lifestyle is that I have a certain aesthetics and a certain style.

Karina: Also a certain lifestyle?

Michalsky: Yes, also a certain lifestyle. It’s very urban, very cosmopolitan, it’s interested in trends, but in long-lasting ones, in quality. My lifestyle now isn’t to sell people a hundred pairs of glasses, but the real reading glasses with which people are really happy and maybe the right sunglasses.

Nika Zvierieva: There are a lot of people on Instagram these days with thousands of followers selling a whole lifestyle. Those who follow them want to live like them, with a sofa like that, with glasses like that.

Michalsky: I think it has something to do with the fact that our society has changed so much that for many people the ultimate goal is to be famous and prosperous. That fascinates many people. I took part in TV shows myself. Many people only participate because they think that you can quickly become relatively famous and earn a lot of money without working hard.

Karina Papp: Do you think this is today’s generation or ten years ago? I think it’s a bit different today. With Extinction Rebellion and the other environmental movements – they don’t want to be famous, they want to live on this earth.

Michalsky: You’re absolutely right. Something is happening right now and it’s interesting. But what you shouldn’t underestimate is that it’s only a part of the people. I think it’s great that they’re doing it and I don’t want to disparage it. There are many of them, but it’s not the whole generation.

Nika Zvierieva: Maybe not everyone is rebelling against the system yet. But that’s why we say yes, we have to initiate something.

Michalsky: Not everyone who demonstrates fundamentally has something against the system.

Nika Zvierieva: I mean the system of how clothing is produced.

Michalsky: As I said, I always like it when you go out on the street to fight for your rights or to denounce something that isn’t right. Especially when you consider that we are celebrating 30 years of Peaceful Revolution. But there is also a lot of hypocrisy.

What do you mean by that?

Michalsky: I live across the street from a large hostel where many school classes stay. When I come home in the evening, they also come from their excursions and 90 percent of the kids carry huge paper bags from fashion discounters in their hands. They want to consume and they don’t care whether it’s Fairtrade or sustainable. They want new clothes.

Karina Papp: But it’s not just pressure on the seller or the consumer that needs to be exerted, it also needs to be regulated by law. The production of fast fashion brands, for example.

Michalsky: But you can’t force people to live like you do.

Nika Zvierieva: But I disagree. They sell a lifestyle. Why don’t you tell your customers that I’m only staying with haute couture, I don’t produce sofas and carpets anymore because I don’t need them anymore. I concentrate only on high quality clothing. You could be a positive role model.

Michalsky: But the example is a bit difficult. You don’t buy a new sofa or carpet every two months.

Nika Zvierieva: There are people like that.

Michalsky: Well, I don’t know any of them. If I knew them, I’d love it for my sofas and carpets. There are studies that show that living is more important for people than it was 30 years ago. It’s about cocooning, you want to be comfortable at home. That’s important to people. But people buy a sofa every ten years on average.

Karina Papp, Nika Zvierieva and Michael Michalsky.
Karina Papp, Nika Zvierieva and Michael Michalsky.

But don’t you basically finance your haute couture with the products of the other lines?

Michalsky: I don’t talk about financial numbers as a matter of principle, but haute couture is important to me because it’s my creative lighthouse. That’s where I develop my ideas and my radiance. And for many people, sunglasses are just what they can’t afford as evening gowns or costumes or blazers.

Is that your concept of democratic fashion? By offering something in every price range?

Michalsky: If I have the opportunity, yes. I would.

Karina and Nika, can you understand that?

Nika Zvierieva: No.

Michalsky: Because you have a fundamentally different attitude to consumerism.

Nika Zvierieva: Exactly.

Karina Papp: For me, the question is whether you as a designer can even imagine that fashion exists without the label of ownership. In our culture of exchange, we talk about things we don’t need to own.

Michalsky: This new social or socialist thought is your life model. I respond by saying that I think it's great. There is enough space for all of us and if you want to live like this, you are welcome to do so. In the same way, you must grant me the right to do things with my best knowledge and conscience as I like them. Just to say that we do it the way you say it, were almost back to a dictatorship.

Karina and Nika, you are basically also part of the system. If fashion wasn’t produced, people wouldn’t buy things, people wouldn’t give things away.

Nika Zvierieva: But there are already a lot of things. Just think how much clothes and food are thrown away every year. Because nobody needs or wants them or can afford them.

Michalsky: You’re absolutely right, but every single person has to be smart enough themselves.

Karina Papp: But you have this influence.

Nika Zvierieva: And the responsibility!

Michalsky: No, you have that.

Karina Papp: We have a few thousand followers on our Instagram account...

Michalsky: No, every consumer has the power. Every person who lives here has this responsibility.

In your Instagram account “Found on the street”, the fashion in the pictures is also beautifully staged. That also makes people want more, doesn’t it?

Karina Papp: But that brings us back to the message behind it. We’ve already talked about the influencers on Instagram and the lifestyle they sell. But our message is that you don’t have to buy anything.

Michalsky: That’s your lifestyle and you’re entitled to it. But not everyone wants that.

Karina Papp: I’m also not saying that people should be forbidden to buy things. But you can also show young people who are looking for fashion alternatives. Open barter shops in your neighborhoods, where everyone can bring things in and get something in return. Get creative.

Michalsky: And you want to ban my creativity!

Nika Zvierieva: No, not at all. But there is a responsibility on both sides. You have a responsibility.

But now not everyone can afford sustainably produced haute couture.

Michalsky: But you can still consume consciously. I believe in consumption, but in very conscious consumerism.

Karina and Nika: Yes, so do we.

Michalsky: Yes, but what you want is less than consumerism. You want to trade. I believe in consumerism because many people simply still have desires and my wish would be to consume more consciously.

Then we can actually agree on the fact that all three of you have the same claim, that you should consume more sustainably.

Michalsky: Basically, we agree that all three of us are of the opinion that people should think a little. Then a lot would change. But I am completely against any form of paternalism. I find it admirable that you are doing this so radically, but you can’t expect 82 million other people in Germany to do the same.

Could one perhaps imagine a more friendly form of paternalism, such as a consumer traffic light for clothes?

Michalsky: That’s regulation and prohibition of something again.

Development Minister Müller has developed the “green button”. What do you think of that?

Michalsky: Yes, they’ve been working on it for a long time. It’s one of those new seals, you have to do certain things and then it’s to your clothes. It’s completely superfluous, because anyone who can read will notice that there are already certain production seals that certify what has been produced sustainably.

Nika Zvierieva: That’s not true. There may be a few certified brands, but it’s often greenwashing from companies that are more ecological than they are.

Michalsky: But there are already a few serious seals. If you want, you can find out about them. Just a lot of people don’t feel like it.

Many buyers are suspicious. They say that the expensive brands are also produced abroad and you can therefore buy cheaply.

Nika Zvierieva: Expensive doesn’t necessarily mean sustainable.

Karina Papp: But a law that applies to everyone could still make sense for consumers. For example, in light of the fact that goods that are poorly produced should not even be sold here in Germany. This would benefit consumers more, because they are individuals and do not have so much power.

Michalsky: Yes, yes! Money makes the world go round. They have decided not to pay money or, if they do, only a little money to someone who has a clothes shop. If there were much more of you, the chains would painfully notice that and adjust to it.

Nika Zvierieva: My question is still who is responsible for transporting these values? For example, it’s much easier for famous people than for Karina with her 16,000 followers.

Michalsky: Then you expect me to stand up and say: Listen, people, from now on I’m not working anymore, I’m not selling anymore, I don't want to be a designer anymore? Then I also have to lay off my 35 employees, of course.

Nika Zvierieva: No, but you could explain that I now only produce haute couture. I don't make shoes anymore from now on, not because the shoes are bad, but because I don’t want more to be produced than we already have. Nobody needs 20 pairs of new shoes, but maybe two or three a year.

Michalsky: You believe that for yourself. But there are other people who want to have the freedom to get 20 pairs of new shoes.

If you buy 20 pairs of shoes, you might not be driving a car. Then all areas of life would have to be regulated, wouldn’t they?

Nika Zvierieva: Yes, of course. But the fashion sector is really harmful to the environment, it’s in second place globally.

Karina Papp: There is the slogan of an organic supermarket that says “buy less.” Couldn’t the fashion industry make this its own?

Michalsky: I changed my business. I don’t sell as many pieces as before. But I’m still selling fashion, and that's a total statement for me; shoes, handbags, glasses, jewelry. It was more important to me to know where it came from and who sewed it. I don’t even have a car personally. I like to consume things, but I decided to do it only when I separate from another part, so that I don't automatically have more. In other areas I try to do the same. Nevertheless, her life would not be an alternative for me. I think it’s great that you do that. Maybe you will become more. But it always becomes problematic when a group wants to forbid something to other people and take away freedoms. I have a big problem with that.

What has to change about the industry?

Karina Papp: The fashion industry must be legally regulated. The responsibility for production must not only lie on the consumer’s side by not buying something. Responsibility must also lie on the producers’ side.

Nika Zvierieva: I think that the shops could also implement a kind of social program by, for example, lending things, not just selling them. In children’s fashion, for example. Children grow fast, they use a pair of shoes perhaps only once or not at all. Larger chains could certainly afford that.

Michalsky: The industry will regulate itself. After all, the customer is the king. And if they no longer feel like buying a T-shirt for 2.99 euros or jeans for 7.99 euros, they will soon no longer be available. But as long as people want that, there will be that. One can change that only through education and instruction.