By Amber-Rose Hurst
As part of our series of Instagram live sessions during Fashion Revolution Week, our Founder Esther Knight chatted to Cherie Birkner, Founder of SUSTAINABLE FASHION MATTERZ (SFMz) and member of Fashion Revolution Germany, about how she got into the sustainability movement and a bit about her career within the industry.
Cherie has over 18 years of experience in the fashion industry. What started out as a mere dream to see her designs upon the backs of passers-by as a fashion design student soon transitioned into a career as a creative director at a fast fashion company. However, working for a brand with such damaging practices eventually started to play on her conscience. “After three and a half years, I reached the point where I thought, you know, this feels so wrong and I feel so out of touch because the voice I have on the inside said this is exactly not what we should be making… Clothing that is not valued, that is not of high quality. And the thought of me being able to finance my life because somebody else is sitting in a room filled with materials that are just full of chemicals.” So, she quit.
“I decided to become a photographer. One of my first projects was to portrait people who were making a difference in the fashion industry, which has now become Sustainable Fashion Matters!” SFMz is a solution-based online platform that aims to shine a light on the world of sustainable fashion and champion the groups and individuals involved in making change. “You can use our website to educate yourself on sustainability and sustainable practices in the industry. So all of our blog posts, whether they’re editorial or on a specific topic like microplastics, there’s always something to learn,” Cherie explained. “We have a fact page with really well researched and sourced facts…We have a page which lists lots of change-makers like bloggers, designers and activists.”
“WHAT IS ACTUALLY WORTH BEING MADE AND WHAT DIFFERENTIATES SOMETHING THAT I COULD DESIGN FROM SOMETHING I COULD FIND ON THE HIGH STREET?"
SFMz also holds sustainable fashion campaigns and networking events each year surrounding Fashion Revolution Week. “I actually enjoyed our last event the most. It was when Coronavirus was already starting and we had a really, really small turnout, like eight people. I enjoyed that so much because I was able to really have a conversation with everyone who was there.” Other events that Cherie has most enjoyed have been those in collaboration with Frauenmacht, an initiative that brings female founders to the forefront and allows them to share their stories of founding a business. “We did a sustainable fashion edition and had some really amazing female founders sharing their do’s and don’ts of business and how to crowdfund and things like that.”
Cherie says that the thing that got her into sustainable fashion was the question that she asked herself as a student: “what is actually worth being made and what differentiates something that I could design to something I could find on the high street?” The answer to that was materials. “When you're going shopping with these companies, you have so much polyester. I don't know about you, but if I wear a polyester acrylic sweater, I do not smell very good and I haven't enjoyed wearing it. I have started to appreciate good clothes”.
Wearing fast fashion items that are infused with harmful chemicals originating from the manufacturing process can actually harm the wearer, causing skin conditions like Eczema. Not only does it hurt the consumer, but these toxins have serious effects on the garment workers that have to handle them every day. During the Instagram Live chat, Esther gave a little insight into the devastation that the industry is causing on the workers at the bottom of the pecking order. “It's hard to be sustainable. Yes, it does take an element of infrastructure, but it's actually just considering people's needs and not putting profit first all of the time. What I found shocking from The True Cost documentary was about the chemicals. In India where they dye fabrics, there is a whole village that has cancer. Lots of them are born with disabilities because of the chemicals that are going into their water streams from the clothing industry. We are poisoning villages. That’s just mental.”
Being a sustainable fashion advocate with a successful platform like SFMz, it’s obvious that Cherie takes her personal sustainable fashion buying seriously. From second-hand buying, vintage, swapping and upcycling to just sticking with what’s hanging at the back of her wardrobe, she loves it all, but one of these methods holds a special place in her heart.
“I think upcycling is something I, I get really excited about. I love upcycling brands such as Fanfare because it’s a unique item. I wish all brands were upcycling! The way it feels when you wear something where there is only one of those and someone gives you a compliment, it makes you feel so special!”
As for Cherie’s role within Fashion Revolution Germany, since April 2020 she has been involved in launching the organisation’s very own fashion brand, CRISIS Fashion. But it’s not what you might first expect. The launch holds an incredibly strong and thought-provoking message aimed to raise awareness around the crisis that has been created off the back of the COVID-19 crisis which has plunged garment workers from countries like Bangladesh into further poverty. “If you haven't seen it yet, definitely go to CRISIS fashion on Instagram and check out the website. You'll find out why Fashion Revolution Germany is, in fact, launching a fashion brand and what that's about. I don't want to give away too much…”