The Power of Perception: How people Berlin Challenges our Idea of a Social Fashion Project


Fashion lives from images in our heads, sometimes even from its eccentric creators as identification figures. Whether we like it or not, fashion creates stereotypes in our minds, a certain lifestyle we want to participate in. But fashion also has the power to break those patterns. People BERLIN plays with this mechanism and reverses it in many ways: While the fourth collection of the fashion brand based in the German capital is about to be launched, hardly anyone knows the faces behind the label. Together with homeless youths, three designers work on yearly editions and create a safe space for their joint creative power. People BERLIN deliberately focuses on the expressiveness of the clothing itself while their creators remain hidden yet appreciated in the anonymity of the brand’s name.

Photos by Filine Fink, words by Kristina Hellhake.

Many faces instead of one, many voices (usually unheard) expressed in a common collection: this was the vision of Ayleen Meissner, Eva Sichelstiel and Cornelia Zoller who founded people BERLIN as a “social fashion project” in 2014 as a part of the Karuna e.V., alongside the Drugstop house. Young adults come to the integrative day facility to eat lunch, wash their clothes, or take a shower. The fashion workshop is part of the concept and only a few metres away. Once you’ve made it to this welcoming place on the edge of Lichtenberg you can easily find your way through the garden next to the communal kitchen, where stone steps lead into the small studio. 

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This institution offers a special opportunity: The young people attending are valued for what they bring to the creation process. Here, their origins and their destinies are not in the foreground, but rather their ideas, visions, and wishes. Whoever enters this place can feel the creative flow in the narrow but cosy container that holds a delicate mixture of security and openness. Fabrics pile up in storage behind the entrance: high-quality wools, silks, and linens that are carefully sourced and refinanced through the sale of each collection. Sustainable materials, their usage being a key interest in the production, are marked separately for the customer. Next to this colourful arrangement are shelves with documents, large tables for drawing, works and tailoring, and sketches next to open laptops. A people BERLIN collection is a creative process that takes about a year, during which the young adults join in – sometimes only for a day, sometimes for months. “The talents and interests are different”, says Ayleen Meissner, “Some kids supervise the conception and brainstorming phase, while others turn ideas into concrete designs and sew them.”

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Moodboards lean against the walls, full of pictures, sketches, questions, and anecdotes. Sentences like “Making the night the day” express much more than the hedonistic thought of eternal celebration: It’s about life in the darkness, away from the norm, where the street is the everyday centre. A life in which the teens and young adults sometimes choose not to be seen but also unintentionally stay invisible to those people who simply don’t want their worlds to collide. How they handle this stigma and how they observe the other side, is part of the new collection BLIND WORLD. “The kids also have preconceptions”, Eva Sichelstiel says. “Where others identify them as from the street, they call out the bourgeois mainstream.” What remains is the chance of curiosity, a deeper look into common aesthetic points of view and needs. People BERLIN examines this potential creatively: Aren’t we all the same in the end? 

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While the fourth collection is being completed, work on the new one is already underway. Oscar* is collecting the moods. His inspiration lies in the music, he listens to Trap music, a sub-genre of Hip Hop. He can feel himself into the world of this artist, the rapped dreams and the auspicious lifestyle you want to escape to. “I’ve taken a lot of drugs while listening to this music,” says the young man, and I can’t help but feel briefly concerned. My gaze then falls on his shoes, a very similar model to the one I’m wearing today. The collection makes conscious what you often can’t or don’t want to see; it reverses habits. Here the fashion norm that stands for our society is being deconstructed: the inner lining of the jacket is found on the outside and becomes a special structural design element. Or the silky inner lining hangs seemingly negligent from the back part of a luxury beige blazer while being hand printed with the title of the collection. 

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The fashion of people BERLIN is both aesthetically alluring and mentally challenging. Meissner, Sichelstiel and Zoller guide the creative process, pay attention to the timetable, advise on how the ideas can be put into practice. And sometimes they themselves are surprised and delighted by the talent they discover: “These young people don’t know the fashion campaigns of the 70s or 80s, but nevertheless they develop familiar design concepts, for example, reminiscent of Margiela from that era”, says Cornelia. They are refined, precise and clear in form. “If people buy the pieces because they fall in love with the design and don’t even know about the background – that’s amazing!“

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This statement encapsulates the subtle philosophy of the brand, that might find its way into the closet of fashion lovers only by the power of its unique and excellent design. It means the world to the young co-creatives to see their work and not-so-secret-message roaming in the streets of Berlin – a place they are part of and connect to on so many different levels. One of the participants decided to create a skirt mainly made with fabric remnants. It simply seemed a waste to her to dispose of the remnants – after all, they are just as precious as the whole piece.  

The fourth collection of people BERLIN, BLIND WORLD, is available from 21.02.2019 in a limited edition. You can follow people BERLIN on Instagram.

*name changed by the editor

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Text: Kristina Hellhake for Lissome
Photography: Filine Fink for Lissome