Inclusive Fashion and Celebration of Cultural Diversity


Martha, could you please tell us what you are doing?

I am a clothing designer from New York City, now living in Bern. I am currently organizing the fashion show for the Festival der Kulturen. It is the third festival, but the first time that there will be a fashion show among the juried categories.

Martha Kellerhals

Could you please explain more about the fashion show?

First, as it relates to the festival: the Festival der Kulturen is a celebration of cultural diversity in the arts. We have music, dance, visual arts… This year, for the first time we are going to present fashion in front of a panel of judges. It takes place at the beginning of the 9th Aktionswoche gegen Rassismus in Bern. We are, naturally, all opposed to racism, but our position is to have a positive message – the celebration of cultural diversity. If you celebrate people’s cultures, then you cannot be racist.

This year, I volunteered to organize the fashion show. We have five designers from different countries. We have a jury of three judges who are all professionals in the fashion industry in one way or another.

We have 20 models and, as with the designers, they all have different cultural backgrounds. They are not professional models. They are women who have volunteered to model for the designers because they believe in what we are doing. So, I am very fortunate to have such an amazing group of people come together all as volunteers.

Rahma, CEO of „Reyma Say“. Picture: Festival der Kulturen

How did the selection process for the models take place?

I basically posted a “plea” (laughs) – an invitation on Facebook – and then people shared with their networks. People have come together in a wonderful way. I asked a few people I knew. I also asked strangers on the street, and I was really surprised that people were receptive to being asked if they would like to participate.

One young woman I saw on the Bahnhofplatz in Bern. She was walking with a friend and I thought she looked like a student. So, I told her about the festival and that it was part of the Action Week Against Racism. I asked her if she’d like to participate and she gave me her email. It turned out that she is an under-18 Swiss champion in the triple jump and long jump! She is going to be modelling for Rahma, a designer who is originally from Tanzania.

I also asked each of the five designers if they would like to model and I am very happy that they said “yes”. That is a very special aspect, because they will walk with the other models. So, the judges and the audience can get a feeling about the person who is behind the collection. Since the designers agreed to model as well, I only had to find 20 models instead of 25, and it worked out well. A few other members of the festival’s organizing committee reached out to their networks, which was a huge help.

Were there any specific criteria that potential “models” had to match?

I did not want to work with professional models – mainly for two reasons. I come from the fashion industry. I worked in New York for many years as a designer.

My interest in fashion is more about the creative process and the amazing range of technical skills and expertise required to create a clothing collection. I believe that well-made and well-fitted clothing can empower women to feel and be their best.

I am not interested in the idealization and objectification of women – the perpetuation of an unrealistic ideal of beauty. I think fashion is for everybody…. Real people.

So, I wanted to find real people as models. That was okay for the designers as well.

Also, there was a very practical reason: we had no budget to pay professionals. The festival is run by volunteers. So, I could not hire professional models. My idea was to find women who felt confident and comfortable with themselves. It does take a certain amount of courage to put yourself in front of the public like that, as a model. I said, “I am not looking for classic models, I am looking for women who feel good in their skin.” I was really pleased to see how many people came forward. There are actually a lot of women who feel good about who they are. That was the only criterion. They are tall, they are short… Of course, they have to fit into the designers’ samples, so there were some limitations. I just put the message out and the people came. I have met some amazing women in the process of doing this. It has been wonderfully organic.

Was there a limitation by age?

No. In fact, I really wanted to have women of all ages. I imagined we could have students as well as older women. I thought: the standard of beauty is getting younger and younger and it’s not healthy. That is one of the big criticisms I have about the fashion industry. Also, there is very little racial diversity. There was more in 80s and 90s, when there were African and African American models who were celebrated in Europe and the US, but then it changed. And, as I said, models are getting younger and younger, which is not a realistic representation of beauty. This fixation on youth is not my only objection. The issue is not only about the pressure it puts on women and customers to achieve a certain unrealistic ideal, it is also about the models who are objectified. The way they are treated in the industry is horrible.

Modelling is a demanding job. Professional models are not just pretty ladies who get to dress up and go out in nice clothes. They have to run from one fashion house to the next and stand for hours while the designer and staff fit and review the collection. When they (models) are auditioning or at casting calls, they have to stand in front of people who assess and talk about them as if they were not there – like a cattle auction.

I think that, on every level, women are being treated as objects – as products – and not as individuals. Of course, we are all drawn to idealized beauty, but I think it’s important to celebrate female beauty in all its shapes and sizes – and ages.

I knew that all the designers in our show were also making custom clothing for private clients, real women. They are used to working with women who do not have a “classic” figure. They also work with some older women. I wanted to invite some older women to come forward. I think there may be one woman modelling who is in her forties. I had hoped to find women in their 50s, 60s, even 70s. In the end, I had too many models.

There was one woman I saw as I was leaving the Heiliggeistkirche one day. I’d gone to pick up some programs and she was entering just as I was leaving. It was amazing timing because we opened the door at the same moment and I spontaneously asked her if she would like to model. She was so surprised to be asked! I was really excited to work with her, but in the end I was not able to, because the designer I had in mind, had already committed to another model…He was going to model and four others had agreed earlier. She was the last person and I had to let her go. I am disappointed about that because I think she has a beautiful presence. She is not a professional model but she has a truly elegant style and I thought it would be great to give her this opportunity to shine… So, maybe next year!

So, the people who were picked for modelling were not professionals.

There is only one who might be a professional – I’m not sure. She is the only one who, I think, might do some professional modelling. I saw her on Facebook because we have some common friends and I loved her look and her energy. She called me and we spoke a bit. She said she was willing to do it without being paid because it was for a positive cause.

Another woman, a friend of mine, who is from Kenya, told me recently that she had done some modelling in the past, but it’s not her main thing. Her name is Lilian Njoki and she has created a very interesting platform called „Tell Your Story“.

Was it your initial idea: not to have professional models?

Yes, it was very much my idea from the beginning. It was for two reasons. First, as I said, because I could not pay anyone. So, it was a very practical reason. You cannot ask people to volunteer to do something that is their livelihood… And secondly, I felt that working with a diverse group of women would better reflect the goal of the festival – celebrating diversity. I thought that women who were not professional models might be more light-hearted and have fun. I think the fashion industry sometimes takes itself too seriously.

I believe very strongly that we need to recognize everybody who is involved in the process. Producing fashion is an wonderfully collaborative process, from the start to the finish. There are a lot of people other than the designers who make it possible. I am a designer and I feel that designers get too much of the credit. They cannot do what they do without all the artisans and technical people who play their part – as well as the models.

We live in a culture that worships idols and I think it’s unhealthy. We fixate on celebrities and aspirational, exclusive lifestyles. For me, fashion needs to go in the opposite direction and be more inclusive.

The slogan “Forget everything about Germany’s Next Top Model” – how did you come to this idea?

I just said that spontaneously in my Facebook post, because I find that so many people are obsessed with these unreal “reality shows”. I‘m not a fan of shows, like “Whatever-Country’s Next Top Model”, that create unnecessary drama and seem to try to present the participants in the worst light – pray on their insecurities. The women are made to jump through unrealistic hoops and do ridiculous things to succeed. Modelling is demanding enough under normal circumstances. There’s no need to fabricate absurd scenarios just to keep the viewers entertained. It debases the profession and perpetuates the message that only a few have what it takes to be chosen.

What the models on the show are forced to go through – it’s crazy! And it’s often just to test their resolve or get the “right” shot – which is generally a fantasy of the photographer. The models become a prop for the photo shoot. They are expected to do all sorts of unpleasant things and remain calm and flawlessly beautiful. Neither they, nor the clothing, is celebrated. For me fashion is not about that sort of fabricated drama. Fashion is about creating beautiful clothing to make women feel their best. And, as I said, it is also about highly skilled craftsmanship.

Is your fashion show going to be only about women or is it also about men?

Only one of the designers also makes clothes for men, though he primarily designs for women. The other four design women’s clothes. His name is Kodjo Isaiah and his company is Maison de Kodjo. He was born in Benin and now lives in Finland. He’s married and has two beautiful young daughters. As I said, most of his clients are women but he has some fabulous men’s pieces, so I asked him if he’d like to model – and he agreed to. So, Kodjo will be the one male model in the show and the other 24 will be women.

Picture: Festival der Kulturen

I asked another friend of mine who is half-Swiss, half-Malaysian if he’d like to participate. He lived in New York for few years and started a company called “A New York Affair”. His name is Jamil Mokhtar. Jamil has a line of ethically made T-shirts. He commissions artists to create the graphics. I asked if he would like to have his T-shirts on the runway worn by guys in jeans, but he’s very busy at the moment because together with Salma Aimée Alaoui he’s in charge of Fashion Revolution Bern (23-27 April, 2019). Jamil is one of the key people involved in Fashion Revolution Switzerand and, after helping to organise the big event in Zurich last year, he decided to focus on Bern and create a team to further develop the event here. He is completely overbooked, but – lucky for us – he agreed to be one of our judges. So, Jamil will be one of the three jury members.

We are quite fortunate to have three highly qualified judges. The other two are Etane Ebako, a sustainable product expert of German and Cameroonian origin, and Salome Egger, a Swiss designer and artist. All three judges are advocates of greater social and environmental ethics in fashion and textile and they all bring expertise in those areas. We have put together a questionnaire for the designers to answer regarding their own interests in socially and environmentally ethical fashion. The judges will read their answers before the show and take them into account when awarding their score.

The fashion show for the festival of cultures will take place in a church setting, won’t it?

Yes – which certainly poses some challenges. There is no real space for the women to dress. In the first two years of the festival we did a fashion presentation, without a jury, and it was crazy because there was no dressing area – only a closet. The women had to change in a closet!

This time around I had two conditions in agreeing to organize the show. One was to have a separate space for the models to get dressed. The other was that there wouldn’t be any clothing changes. The women will only dress once and then they will walk to the church where they will do the presentation. If their dressing area is in a separate building, they cannot change clothes and run back and forth to the church. The timing would be impossible. With around 200 artists participating in the various categories in the festival, including full bands and dance groups, the program has to be very precisely adhered to; the timing is essential. We cannot afford to have any delays – and fashion shows are notorious for delays!

The beginning of the show will be outside. We will start at 17:30 in the courtyard, near the restaurant, “Toi et Moi”. The models will walk around the Bahnhoflpatz for a few minutes, with music playing. Then, they will go into the church and all walk to the back – behind the stage. Next, groups will mount the stage and dance, move, and pose to the music. Each designer has chosen a song to be played during his or her segment.

Picture: Festival der Kulturen

We will see what the crowd’s mood is like. The presenters will introduce the designers and, if it’s possible, they will introduce each model as well. We will have two presenters. Stella Oganwu is from Nigeria and Perpétue Kabengele was born here, but her parents had fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo when her mother was pregnant and she was born a few months after they arrived in Switzerland. They are both remarkable young women and they manage to handle their challenging role as presenters with style and humor. Perpétue will speak the Bernese dialect and Stella will speak English. We have one hour booked for the fashion show in the program.

The next segment on the program, after fashion, will be visual arts.

Please come! The entire festival will be livestreamed on the Festival der Kulturen Bern Facebook page, so, the people who cannot make it can watch it online.

Note on the designers:

Kodjo Isaiah. He has a business and website, called “Maison de Kodjo”. He was born in Benin and he now lives in Finland. Kodjo “believes that all women have the right to wear affordable fashion that is made for them and makes them look their absolute best”.  At "Maison de Kodjo" they are  "reinventing a wholly modern approach to African fashion clothing and accessories. Eclectic, contemporary, romantic” - they “have redefined luxury for the 21st century”. “Maison de Kodjo" products represent the pinnacle of African craftsmanship and are unsurpassed for their quality and attention to detail.”

Salma Aimée Alaoui. She is from Bern. Her father is Moroccan and her mother is Swiss, so she has a bi-cultural background. Her company is called “Terrebelle”. She is passionate about sustainable and ethical design. She is just starting her collection now. Her goal is to create is affordable, sustainable fashion for young people. Salma is a coordinator of the "Fashion Revolution".

Rosalyn Wernli. She is from Liberia, and has lived in the United States as well. She was married to a Swiss and has a lovely grown daughter. She designs using primarily African prints and says her “style of designs are for summer and they can be used casually, for weddings, and social events. They are mostly colorful and very friendly designs.”

Rosanna Bethell. She is half-Finnish, half-English, so she also is bi-cultural. She works for a Swiss manufacturer but also has her own label, “RosaLIEBet” - which was a nickname she had as a teenager. Rosanna is passionate about fashion and often addresses sustainability and social issues in her designs.

Rahma Salim. She is from Tanzania and now lives in Bern. Her husband is Swiss and they have a beautiful little girl. Her company is “Reyma Say”. Rahma “designs clothes mostly by using African Prints which are packed with her history as an African, Thus through her creations she gets to share her history with the rest of the World. However her designs suits people of every type and color, therefore she is also using her designs to link and integrate people.”
Roselyn Wernli. Picture: Festival der Kulturen

It is a nice mix of people. Diversity of age, gender and cultural background. Two of the designers, Salma and Rosanna, are European and committed to sustainable fashion. The other three, Rosalyn, Rahma and Kodjo are African and, although they all use African prints, they have very different styles, and also do custom work for European and African women of different ages.

Über Anna Butan

Anna speaks French, German, English and Russian. She obtained a Master Degree at the University of Bern (Cultural Studies) and a Bachelor at the Lomonosov Moscow State University (Philology). Anna has big interest in such themes as: identity, cultural hybridity, music, and raising children in multicultural context. She is convinced that our children can teach us a lot. They are not born with stereotypes but they risk to acquire them later under external circumstances. Our task as parents is to help them grow as conscious and culture-aware humans.

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