Carla Lehmann is sitting on the floor surrounded by sketches, fabric samples and finished pieces. The designer has one square piece of dark, checked fabric in one hand, and a light, plain-coloured piece in the other. She lays one sample over the other and assesses the combination. «I want to create items of clothing that can be worn with each other,» she says. The 34 year-old designer from the canton of Bern is herself wearing a white tone-on-tone outfit from her own label «Sode», which she founded last autumn. «Sode is Japanese and means 'sleeve',» she explains.
And as one might expect, her fashions have a touch of the Japanese about them: wide cuts, flowing designs and soft drape fabrics. The latter are, in the main, remnants of designer fabrics. By contrast, the original material for her knitted garments grows in a field in the Emmental valley: the flax plants are later turned into soft linen yarn, and then knitted into complete garments in Huttwil. Carla Lehmann has about 20 items produced for each design. She has just taken the first prototypes for the coming autumn/winter season to the workshop in Thun.
This will be Carla Lehmann's second collection; the first sold out within two months. She sells her fashions primarily through her own webshop. Since June it has also been possible to buy her clothing in the new Laufmeter online shop. The Laufmeter project receives funding from the Migros Pioneer fund; and has itself been promoting Swiss fashion labels for many years now.
A counterpoint to fast fashion
With its initiative Laufmeter is taking a stand against fast fashion. «Sustainability is extremely fashionable in the world of fashion at the moment,» says the designer Adrian Reber. He is president of the Swissmode association and teaches at the Ecole d’Arts Appliqués in La Chaux-de-Fonds. But he views the current wave of «green» clothing on offer with a degree of scepticism: «Many companies are using buzzwords like slow fashion or fair fashion primarily for marketing reasons.» But a far more intensive assessment of, and wholesale changes to, the entire production chain are required in order to make it truly fair.
Like Laufmeter, Reber sees the raising of consumer awareness as part of the solution. «Nobody buys clothes today because they have to, but because they want to,» he says. And for most people, the two main criteria when buying clothes are what they look like and how much they cost. «Where and how the garment was produced is of no interest to many people.» For this reason, it's imperative we instil a new appreciation of quality in people. Or reinstate an old truism. «We need to return to a state of common sense – so, for example, that we only possess one winter coat - but a good and more expensive one - rather than buying a cheaper one every year.»
Carla Lehmann knows that sweet feeling of success. Her blue eyes light up as she tells the story of being at an exhibition in Zurich, when a young woman kept returning to her stand and looking at the same kimono - without, however, buying it. But the last time she came to the stand she announced that she had just cancelled an order for a five-piece Zalando outfit, and would now be buying that one kimono from Carla Lehmann. «Later she wrote on Instagram that it had become one of her best-loved items of clothing.»
Not everyone can or wants to afford a kimono, pair of trousers or a blouse for 100 francs or more. Both designers understand this. «But if you shop less frequently, it really isn't much more expensive to buy locally», stressed Reber. In this way, a high-quality, sustainable wardrobe can be put together over time. «Class, not mass,» as he says, by way of a summary.
Made in Switzerland, a fair wage paid
Furthermore, he argues, in this way consumers will be helping to secure vital jobs in Switzerland. He himself has his menswear fashions produced in-country - and is therefore paying Swiss wages. As a comparison: in Vietnam a seamstress earns 600 dollars a month. «Here she earns the same amount in three days.» This is why an Adrian Reber-branded merino pullover costs around 300 francs.
Carla Lehmann, too, was in no doubt from the start that she would produce in Switzerland. «I am proud that I can vouch fully for the products I'm selling.» Back in her studio, she runs a loving hand over the garments ready for dispatch, hanging on the rail - a mix of salmon pink, black, white and checked fabrics. All from remnants or from the Emmental valley
One shop, twelve labels
Since 2013 the project "Laufmeter" has been raising public awareness of Swiss fashion design and manufacture, bringing it out of the studios onto the streets. What started with the annual «Modeschau uf dr Gass» al fresco fashion show in Bern now lands direct in people's houses.
The Laufmeter online shop offers a carefully assembled collection of basics from twelve Swiss labels from different regions of the country. At the same time the website provides information on the designer of the garments and where they were produced. The shop is being continuously expanded and new labels added.
Photo/Stage: Raffael Waldner