Design Exchange with Bangladesh “Dhaka is influenced by fashion”

Raw material for fashion chic: Reels of burlap in a mill that the project participants visited in Dhaka
Raw material for fashion chic: Reels of burlap in a mill that the project participants visited in Dhaka | Photo: Judith Mirschberger

In the exchange project Local – International, designers from Berlin and Bangladesh get to know each other’s world of fashion. Stefan Webelhorst took part in the programme, which was initiated by the Goethe-Institut. In our interview, he talks about indigo plantations and stylish textile recycling.

Mr Webelhorst, last autumn you and five other Berlin fashion designers were in Dhaka. What moved you to take part in an exchange with Bangladesh?

Stefan Webelhorst: Bangladesh is one of the biggest textile importers for the German fashion market. That’s why it was so fascinating for me to see how they work first-hand. For me, the exchange was an opportunity to verify my own demands for ecological, economical and ethical sustainability against reality.

As a textile production site, Bangladesh is known for exploitative production conditions. The images of the Rana Plaza textile factory that was gutted by fire where many workers perished were shocking. Did you get an opportunity to gain real insights on location?

Of course we also visited Rana Plaza. But we also visited many other firms that do decent work. The gamut ranges from large-scale, well-organized factories to tiny backyard shops full of handlooms. But there are also small studios that manufacture high-priced collections for international labels. Dhaka is influenced by fashion and our designer colleagues from Bangladesh are very proud of their production sites.

You were in Dhaka for two weeks. What sort of ideas were you able to bring back for your work?

With my industrial background as a textile engineer, it was great for me to see what a major role the handicrafts play there: every family does the traditional Kantha embroidery on the sari fabrics differently. Viewing the indigo plantations in the north of Bangladesh was also a great experience for me. We visited an initiative that sells fairly traded indigo-printed quilts and shawls around the world and became familiar with shibori techniques in a workshop.

Six designers from Dhaka then came to Berlin this past January. What did the participants experience here?

The focus was naturally on Fashion Week. As similar as the twelve participants’ understanding of our work may be, for the designers from Bangladesh the type and amount of fashion presentations were new. So the shows, fairs and panels were a great experience for them, as well as for us, of course.

The participants in the exchange project Local International worked in tandem on subjects like sustainability, manufacturing and traditional handicraft techniques. What topic did you choose?

I worked on my own on recycling. In Dhaka, I was impressed by how they organized everyday recycling of textile waste. Here in Germany, textiles are mainly recycled for charity. But used clothing bins aren’t enough: the average German buys 14 to 15 kilogrammes of clothing every year. Far too much of it is simply discarded.

What’s your solution?

It’s more an experiment: recycling with the help of modern industrial engineering. I had old wool sweaters shredded and new yarn made from it. In the end I had five wool sweaters that looked like new.

Good idea. Will you make a label of it?

No. It is still too technically complicated and expensive to spin new yarns from recycled fibres and knit new apparel from it. But a pilot project by a Dutch company that is having blankets woven in Morocco from assorted textile waste demonstrates that the industry is also interested in improved waste recycling.

Nina Apin conducted the interview. Courtesy of the taz , where this interview appeared in the issue of 5 July.