Poverty exploited by the privileged: how Berlin Fashion Week exposed the industry’s dark side

By Miriam Partington 

The 3rd – 7th July of this year saw Berlin’s annual Fashion Week take to the streets. Vogue voiced how “logomania and streetwear were alive and well”, and how “wild prints” and effortless ensembles were “perfectly complemented by Berlin’s eclectic architecture”. In accordance with Berlin’s eco-spirit, sustainable fashion took centre stage. And then there was Florian Schulze’s collection, ‘Put Me Back Together Again’.

fashion week poster
An outline of Florian Schultz’s collection at Berlin Fashion Week 2018. Credit: @slowberlin 

Schulze’s collection “revisits romanticised ideas of homeless women dressed in shabby layers of discarded clothing”. Taking inspiration from the “bag ladies of New York City”, Schulze has created garments that reflect their “beauty of imperfection”. Through his collection, the clothes of these women, drawn from “dumpsters” and found in the streets, were showcased in all their glory. Using “detailed handwork” and “precise processing”, Schulze supposedly applied intricacy to their “shabby” aesthetic. His website notes how his homeless muses received a “well deserved upgrade regarding their appearance” in exchange for the inspiration they so willingly provided. Now this is just offensive.

There is something quite incongruous, or perhaps even unsavoury, about using the clothes of the homeless to inspire a collection for a multi-billion pound industry. Simply put, this is poverty exploited by the privileged.

The ‘bag ladies’ of New York City do not carefully select their fabrics for aesthetic purpose as fashion designers do. They look this way because this is all they have. Their “fashion choices” are based on accessibility, not taste. Their “craftmanship” derives from necessity, not free will. Florian Schulze takes their scraps of survival wear and “puts [them] back together” again for his own artistic purpose. And was their uproar on the runway? In the name of ‘Fashion’, not one critic batted an eyelid. With very little stir in the press, the incident seemed to slide under a perfectly woven rug into insignificance. This kind of exploitation is clearly nothing new in the underbelly of the fashion world.

Vivienne Westwood also took inspiration from homeless attire for a 2010 show in Milan. Credit: Douglas Carlos

I wonder what Schulze’s first thought was when walking the streets of New York, gazing intently at the outfits of homeless people with an artist’s eye. He looked at the homeless women of New York and saw an aesthetic worth replicating. He saw inspiration, rather than desperation. I slightly winced when I scrolled to find a comment from a friend on his Instagram reading, “I told you, you were going to be famous”. Amidst the showers of compliments lies a moral problem obscured from view. The homeless people of the streets of New York do not profit from their “shabby” aesthetic, but fashion does.

This is symptomatic of a wider global problem in the fashion industry. Schulze’s decision to replicate the garments of the homeless and “upgrade” them using high quality materials fits into a wider framework of cultural appropriation – a controversy woven into the fibres of many designer’s work. Gucci’s Fall 2018 collection, for example, came under fire for producing looks for white models which were inspired by the turbans worn by the Sikh community. Schulze’s negative appropriation of poverty commits the same kind of crime, placing high fashion over cultural sensitivity.

A quote on Schulze’s website reads “Fabrics sometimes need to be destroyed before they show their real beauty and become a part of their actual usage”. His artistic vision involves denigrating before creating: ‘putting things back together again.’ Whilst this is an interesting philosophy – it’s not entirely original, nor something that should be applied to real people in real circumstances.

In what perhaps began as a noble artistic pursuit to take inspiration from destruction, Schulze’s collection turned quickly into a patronising reimagining of the homeless ‘aesthetic’. Schulze used the shabby scraps worn by the people of the streets to exhibit his own artistic skill and provide a collection worthy of Fashion Week’s scrutinising eye, and in doing so, he chose style over moral substance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s