In Conversation With Anna Berger of Berlin Swimwear Brand e.a.seawear
Berlin-based designers Anna Berger and Eva Swoboda love to tackle mysterious questions and find surprising answers in a play with antidotes. What links grannies with bikinis? How does one turn knitwear into swimwear? Is there a space for crochet in the 21st century?
What started off as a kooky art project based on a crochet bikini handmade by Anna’s mother in the 1960’s, has over time grown into a successful slow fashion swimwear brand and social enterprise, working with a group of craft-loving women and a small knitting mill near Gütersloh.
We talked to Anna in Berlin, and she not only shared the story of her label but also her favorite slow fashion brands, her most loved hidden places of Berlin and a wonderfully quirky music playlist that you should not miss.
Anna, how did you and Eva meet and how did your collaboration start?
Eva and I met at university, at the University of the Arts in Berlin-Weissensee. Eva was studying stage design at the time and I majored in communication design. We started our bikini project in the framework of a university course that we both attended. I had this bikini top from my mum, this handmade, crocheted piece from the 70’s, and I had always thought that it would be great to reissue it. And that’s what we set out to do. It all started with us searching for pensioners with a passion for crochet, with whom we wanted to produce and market handmade bikinis.
How did you find your artisans?
Via notices in supermarkets. Und we got this lead to publishing an ad in the free advertising papers that exist in all different Berlin districts. They are very popular with old people and we actually got a lot of replies through them.
At the beginning, we only worked with pensioners but now a group of immigrant artisans has joined, as well. At the moment we work together with five women. The two pensioners are women who have a lot of time. Earning money is not what drives them, they are yearning for an occupation that they enjoy doing and that fills their time. They are almost addicted to handcraft. They love it.
Our three artisans are younger. They are part of a Turkish handcraft group that meets every Wednesday at a cultural association in Berlin Neukölln. They come from poorer backgrounds and are happy about having some additional income.
Who are the ladies that you work with and how are they like?
Aysegül is the head of the Turkish handcraft group. She is the main organiser and she translates the instructions manuals for the other two who don’t speak German very well. Meryem is our fastest worker and she is constantly working, also from home.
Mrs. Kluge also produces a lot, especially when she goes on vacation to Tunisia with her husband. She even makes things without being asked to and often it doesn’t really fit. But she absolutely loves the crochet. And Mrs. Roczynski is the one we work with the closest. We develop the cuts together in our studio.
It's Mrs. Roczynski and the ladies from the Turkish handcraft group who carry the big part of the workload. And in a way, it’s not enough manpower. This year it was almost too tight, to get everything ready in time. I had to really rush them and then a lot went wrong because of it. That wasn’t so easy.
Do they all know each other and work together?
No, they work separately. They have met each other at openings and presentations but they didn’t really warm up to each other. Especially the pensioners have real prejudices.
Was it initially part of your idea to start some kind of integration project?
Yes, it was. But it isn’t so easy. Do you know the artist Thomas Hirschhorn? I was really impressed when I saw his work at the Documenta art exhibition some years ago. At the time of Documenta (which runs for a period of three weeks every five years), he sat up an exhibition in a poorer district of Kassel, where mainly immigrants live, and he opened up a library and a café there. The residents of the neighbourhood ran the café and the library, which was designed as an homage to the writer and philosopher Georges Bataille. It was all highly intellectual but at the same time very practical. And it was such an interesting contrast between the art visitors and the neighbourhood youth who were hanging in the philosopher’s library. I like things like that …
Because you think …?
… That it stimulates ideas. Because it changes the view. Because it brings people together whose paths usually don’t cross. For example, I always find it so inspiring to sit in Ayschegül’s kitchen and to listen to her stories. I usually would have no bearings on her world.
Our initial interest was in closing the circle. Our aim was that all parties involved would benefit. We weren’t interested in producing just another product because it's in fashion, we wanted it to have a deeper meaning. I am pretty down-to-earth and I generally find it interesting to look at how things pan out. In our specific case, it means that Mrs. Kluge feels good because she has a meaningful and enjoyable occupation that brings her some additional income. At the same time, her work generates a beautiful product that some other person can wear and take pleasure in.
At the same time, we are interested in opposing pairs and how opposites can stimulate each other. Grannys and bikinis are a kind of antipode. The same applies for knitwear and swimming, or for handcraft and economic viability.
Did you get to work with an artistic pretence?
Yes, definitely. And now we have reached the point where we have to think about how to adapt the product to the market so that we can make money and keep the project financially sustainable. But I think it works, we won’t need to sell out. It's all about specific needs: What do our customers like to wear? How do we design the best patterns?
Your design is modelled on a crochet bikini from the 60’s. Have you modified the initial design or developednew models?
We mainly produce the crochet bikinis for the love of it. Their production is time-intensive and costly. A crochet bikini needs a day and a half in the making. And the development of the patterns takes forever. You always have to crochet the entire piece before you can test it. And if it doesn’t fit you have to start all over again. I think we spent an entire year until we were satisfied.
Knitting bikinis is a very different matter. The process is much easier, you can just create a pattern and test and modify it quickly. This is why we want to focus more on and experiment with our knitted designs in the future. Knitting is more versatile and easier to scale. We can more easily produce larger quantities.
Can you tell me more about the yarn that you are using?
We developed the yarn in collaboration with the Institute of Textile Technology in Denkendorf. It was important for us that the yarn dries quickly. We couldn’t really employ the kind of wool that was used for my mum’s crochet bikini back in the day. It just dries way too slowly. At the moment we are working with a polyester thread that we are buying from Belgium, and that is being twisted in Denkendorf. We are currently working with a conventional polyester, but we are looking into working with recycled polyester. It’s on our to-do-list. We are always on the look-out. We’ve been at so many fairs but so far we haven’t come across anything suitable yet. It’s such a specific kind of knowledge that we are still really struggling with, and we would be very happy about any leads!
Where do you produce your knitted bikinis?
In a knitting mill near Gütersloh.
Is it a big factory?
No, not at all. The knitting mill is tiny. There are only six seamstresses and then the owner, who operates the twelve knitting machines by himself. It looks a bit as if he has transformed his old house into a factory and next to it in the garden, he built a new house in which he now lives. You kind of enter the place and get surprised "Whoops, factory!” (laughs).
We are not really the easiest customers because our production is unusual for them. They usually don’t make bikinis and it’s kind of a difficult process for them. It’s fairly granular labour, they have to insert the rods and the lining, and gather the fabric …
Where do you see yourselves in five years? What are you plans?
It would be awesome to develop e.a. seawear into a successful brand, to produce a diverse range of models and to build a distribution network in different countries. And I hope that we will have enough time for some balderdash.
Yes, for things like going to the zoo and asking if we could use the wool of their cashmere goats to create a special edition. Time for playing out some small, thrilling ideas.
What are your biggest challenges right now?
Our main hurdle is money, for sure, and manpower. The two of us don’t get done enough, especially as we are still working in other jobs at the same time.
I work in a graphic design agency three days a week. This way we can only move forward slowly. More money would be cool.
Thank you so much for the fun interview, Anna!
BUY LESS, CHOOSE WELL!
These two are our favourite models:
Crochet romanticism meets TV noise = big time love!
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