Schmidttakahashi – Stories Woven by Time
In the Berlin district of Kreuzberg, the Paul-Lincke-Ufer ‒ named after the composer and honorary citizen of the capital ‒ runs parallel to the Landwehrkanal, a street lined with beer gardens, cafes and restaurants. The low rents attract tenants, and some of the courtyards contain premises in which creative minds vent their energies. Here, at number 41, lies the studio of the clothes label Schmidttakahashi. Here, old clothes are given a new lease on life.
Both designers arrived in Berlin by very different routes. Eugenie Schmidt was born in Duschanbe in Tajikistan, and her family moved to Ulm, in Germany, in 1990. She later moved to Berlin to study. Mariko Takahashi grew up in Hiroshima and decided she wanted to do "something totally different for once," after studying product design in Tokyo. This urge brought her to Berlin where she and Eugenie met during their studies in 2005.
It could be said that they obtain their resources free of charge: The two women collect used clothing in self-made containers – but, these are not just placed on any street corner. Instead, the wooden containers make their way around the globe along a route of pre-selected boutiques, art schools or design studios. "This assures us of a certain quality," Eugenie says while she lifts the lid of a container. In it there are a number of cloth bags, each with a label that can be torn in half. "The donators keep half of the numbered label. They use it to digitally track what is happening to their garments." This satiation of curiosity works in the other direction too: People who buy a newly tailored item created by the design duo also receive a number to allow them to check the pedigree of their garment on the Schmidttakahashi website.
A new t-shirt from a shop is just a piece of material. A worn shirt, however, contains stories that have been woven into it by time.
Before the pieces of clothing are processed, the used goods are cleaned, photographed, sorted according to color and type, and then stored in their archive – an over-brimming steel rack. Small defects are intentionally left in. "Traces of usage such as stains and small holes turn a piece of clothing into a sort of database and transport moments from the life of its previous wearer," Eugenie explains. "That fires the imagination."
At some point, an old pair of corduroys, a knitted sweater and two patterned t-shirts might be transformed into a one-of-a-kind coat. But, not only used materials go in the making of the new garments. Sometimes, new knitted insets and small details such as buttons, zippers or pieces of precious materials are added to give the creation its final polish.
Neither Eugenie nor Mariko had a sibling whose clothing was handed down to them. But Mariko says, "I find it much easier to give away something I can't use anymore if I'm giving it to someone I know rather than if I have to throw it away. As teenagers, we were always trading off clothes with each other."
The custom of passing things on holds a special attraction.
Eugenie thinks back to her childhood. "We didn't have much in the Soviet Union, and I often wore hand-me-downs from my older cousin." Her grandmother and great aunt were both seamstresses, and so the clothes she received were always in good condition and lovingly embroidered. "Getting something like that was always special." She briefly pauses and continues. "After me there was another cousin to whom my things were passed on. I remember that years after she had grown out of them, her mother showed us the garments and referred to them as ‘memories of Annette.’ And all of a sudden, something inside me laid a claim on those memories. ‘These are really mine!’ I thought indignantly." Mariko agrees. "Often stories and certain events are associated with a piece of clothing," she explains. "If I buy a sweater in Paris, it's hard to throw it away when it doesn't fit me anymore. Simply because I associate it with a certain period in time."
Clothes act as a storage device. The longer a person wears them, the more they divulge about that person's lifestyle.
It was during their time at the Berlin University of the Arts that both designers became fascinated by the notion of the stories behind clothes. It became the foundation upon which the two creative minds would later base their label.
Eugenie and Mariko decided they wanted to recycle the stories that linger in garments and keep both alive by reusing parts of the clothing: ReClothing, or Upcycling, as it is referred to in professional circles. "The fact that recycling is ecologically sustainable is entirely coincidental. It wasn't something we actively intended to include from the outset," says Mariko.
Definitions are always applied to an object from the outside first.
And so it came as some surprise when they heard they were being awarded the Green Fashion Award for Sustainability by the Berlin Senate Department for Education, Science and Research. "Which is not to say that we don't support the idea of sustainability. It's always better to recycle something than to throw it away thoughtlessly," Eugenie interjects. "Our main intention, however, was to recycle and resuscitate the garments and the stories that they had accumulated over time. Ecology just sort of got included along the way." Fact is, the system they came up with to record the life cycle of a garment gives them noticeably more satisfaction.
Being able to track the history of a garment by its number in a way creates a little world, giving us the ability to work within a functioning and sustainable system.
"The hybrids that are conceived in this protected environment have a sort of pedigree and this, as a creative element, is very valuable to us," Mariko explains. In the future, they want to draw even more attention to the narrative aspect and are considering requesting that donors write a small anecdote about the garments they contribute. Do they really believe that anybody who simply wants to dispose of their old clothing meaningfully will want to go into that much trouble? They both seem to think it's not an unreasonable request. "Often people drop by our studio and, without prompting, tell us the stories of their garments."
Conscious analysis of such questions as: label, yes or no, are not dealt with at a conference table or put down on paper by Schmidttakahashi. Our awareness for the business aspects grows continually," Eugenie says. "We are making fashion, but art as well," Mariko adds. "It's fashion with an additional dimension if you will." The decision to establish a label was made when New York Times wrote an article about the two of them.
At that moment we realized it's now or never. And so we chose now.
Schmidttakahashi's style – really their entire label – evolves from collection to collection. "It's a bit like having a child," Eugenie muses. "You have lots of plans and ideas, and then, when it arrives, you're simply surprised and amazed. The direction it develops in only reveals itself with time."
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