Rent it like it’s hot! Circular business models go for haute couture in Berlin

Rent it like it’s hot! Circular business models go for haute couture in Berlin

Rent it like it’s hot! Circular business models go for haute couture in Berlin

It’s the end of the year, and for some, this means dressing up, shopping, gifts, and a bit of bling and sparkle. I had the pleasure of donning some bright yellow party feathers on a rainy Black Friday a few weeks ago in Berlin’s Galeries Lafayette: all in the name of circular economy. Mais oui!

Let me present WeDress Collective, founded by valiant entrepreneuse Jasmin Manai-Huber. WDC allows you to hire haute couture items for a few days or longer, in your city, without having to buy, or you can rent out your own for a day or more. It has a pop-up store presence at Galeries Lafayette in Berlin until early January, on the ground floor (on the left when you walk in, for those in Berlin), off the Friedrichstrasse. WDC is otherwise present in Hamburg and Vienna so far, with plans to develop elsewhere.

It took me a bit of time to let go of my inhibitions about haute couture – I don’t own any, my clothes are more basse couture I’d say, often second hand no-names. So it was a privilege outside my usual non-bling bubble to be able to hold and touch some of the exquisite garments I could now rent from someone in my city. I can’t quite think when I might wear that (chic) chick yellow feather dress in my everyday life, but voilà, being able to walk around in a dress I’d never normally get to touch was a fun, unexpected live 3D post pandemic experience…

… And we need more such experiences to make circular economy and being (more) sustainable inspiring and, yes, fun. After two years of Corona and now inflation-driven austerity, telling people to just tighten their belts and be greener is rarely an attractive proposition. Fashion is one of the major culprits in our consumption-driven, wasteful culture, so there is much progress to be made. We need to value the clothes we already have, and keep them circulating for much longer – and develop business models that work based on this. Why? So that we cut the use of raw materials, transport and massive waste that have such negative environmental and social impacts. The second-hand fashion market in 2021 was valued at around $36bn, according to thredUP’s Annual Resale Report. This is expected to grow to $77bn by 2025. 

Clearly haute couture and renting it out, or renting it for oneself, is hardly within everyone’s reach or aspirations. As I stood there with young and older fashionistas mingling with guests from Zalando and H&M who’d come to investigate, I mused: these circular business models need to address all segments of the population. And if those owning or wearing haute couture are inspired – likely part of that top 5-10% with the highest carbon footprints – then all the better. Chanel & co will just have to catch up. Now I need to find an event for my first WDC rental. Perhaps not the safety pin hat or the yellow feather dress pictured above, but a nice green jacket for my next keynote talk might be an idea.

Dress: courtesy of David Tomaszewski – I had a lot of fun wearing his creation, despite not being equipped with the right shoes (heels would have been better, arriving in the rain by bike was not ideal!).

Handbag: STAUD, founder’s own.

Photo: Nhu Ha Dao, co-founder of circular power suit Berlin/Copenhagen startup LOTTA LUDWIGSON which I had the pleasure of mentoring earlier this year at Impact Hub Berlin, alongside a dozen other circular startups. Good to meet her here!

Thanks to WDC Founder Jasmin Manai-Huber, who it was a pleasure to meet in person courtesy of one of my circular economy networks.

Tips and takeaways for Readers: (CUT)

  • Think about renting a special outfit next time you have a big, special event and see what services might exist in your area by searching online, asking your local Zero Waste firm

  • Try to buy quality electronic goods if you do have to buy new: do your homework, check what they are made of, what plastics they are made with, how long the brand has been around, any policies on repair, modular design, which parts are likely to wear and tear first and which parts can be replaced.

Links / Credits:

From Berlin to Ulan Bator and back – again and again – with a new watch strap!

From Berlin to Ulan Bator and back – again and again – with a new watch strap!

From Berlin to Ulan Bator and back – again and again – with a new watch strap!

Keeping an object you care about in use by replacing or upgrading a part of it – so it can keep reminding you of those good memories

My lockdown birthday in Berlin, again. On a weekday. The weather was cold and occasionally blustery, so doing something fun outside to make it a special day was limited to an erratic ping pong chat/combo session with a friend, a popular Corona activity. Even a month ago, travel on my birthday was not going to be an option. So it looks like my special day, if it was to involve any kind of excursion, let alone travel, beyond Friedrichshain park’s ping pong tables, would have to be of the mental kind.

Now bring in the object that would get me to the other side of the globe in a flash: my watch. I bought it on the last leg of my trip through Russia on the Trans-Siberian 8 years ago, in a department store in Ulan Bator. It was made in Japan, Q&Q was the brand (Quality & Quantity), was apparently waterproof, had a bright shiny swimming pool blue reflective surface and white numbering, with luminescent hands. The watchstrap was translucent blue silicone, and the face was wedged into an off-white resin casing on either side. In circular mode, the resin casing had already been trimmed after it had got chipped (my partner has a lathe in his artist’s studio, so that was easily done), and the silicone strap had split and already been replaced once.

So, when asked what I wanted for my birthday a few weeks back, I asked my partner, very simply, for a new watchstrap. My current watchstrap – the second for the watch – was bought with a friend in Montmartre four years ago. I’d treasured it, but it was showing signs of wear and tear, even if not broken – the light coating of grey colour had started to wear off, it just looked worn and shabby, despite being leather. Clearly, spraying new colour and keeping it in use that bit longer as a watchstrap would be the best circular solution. Somehow, after some googling, finding the right spray paint that wasn’t a health hazard, or a watch repairer to do this in time if they could even do this, in a lockdown, wasn’t going to be an option.

So on went the new watchstrap, ordered online in a quarter of an hour and delivered a few days later, in time for birthday D-day. And – tada! The sheer pleasure at being able to renew the prize possession that had travelled with me from Mongolia through South East Asia for 10 months, was somehow more than that I felt for other new presents. It was like a renewed promise of service. The watch had seen me through multiple adventures, hikes, uncomfortable meditation sessions in ashrams at 6am, boat trips and epic cycle rides, a long list of guesthouses, not to mention its role in helping me catch planes, trains and automobiles on said trip. Bizarrely, on my return home, the watch had gone slow and was sadly unreliable. For some reason, I picked it up again a few years later, and it seemed to pick up its slack. With a new strap and perhaps through wearing it again, it was back in service – perhaps it too had needed a career break after our trip together.

Q&Q claim on their website to have sold 500 million timepieces since 1976. No mention of sustainability, let alone circular economy on their website, as one might expect. I hope to be able to enjoy wearing my watch for a while to come. It’s like having a talisman with me, a good luck charm, that bright blue face glinting the time at me: for a woman born in Greenwich, close to the Greenwich Mean Time Meridian, where my parents met in the swinging 1960s, watches have a particular meaning for me. Not least because I’m not the most punctual person: so having a watch and a smart phone help me to keep to that mainstream time zone even if in my head, I’m way off somewhere else.

I’m not sure what to do with the old watchstrap, by the way: I’ll keep it. Given all the circular businesses mushrooming all over the place today, I’m sure finding a new use for it, or keeping it as a plan B to respray one day, will just be a matter of time. As for my renewed watch on my birthday, I look at it and think: roll on Mongolia! And I recall that first night in my yurt in the desert with my sheeny shiny new watch, over 8 years ago, the luminous hands in the dark, reassuring, as I added yet another blanket to ward off the cold of the desert night.

Key takeaways:

• Try to buy quality products in the first place
• Check what they are made of, how long the brand has been around, any policies on repair, modular design, which parts are likely to wear and tear first and which parts can be replaced
• Care for the things that accompany your life – someone made that watch and that watchstrap with their life energy and time
• The objects that we care for can help us feel grounded if we have them for a long time, instead of endlessly zapping from one product to the next one.


• How to replace a watch strap
• Sustainable watches

Nochmall opens in Berlin: everything except new!

Nochmall opens in Berlin: everything except new!

Nochmall opens in Berlin: everything except new!

My interdisciplinary neurones are still tingling from training ten lovely teachers from Spain, Italy, Croatia and Portugal in Berlin this month. The subject: how to bring more creativity into their schools to engage, inspire and include children for the 21st century. A noble ambition. The teachers came from 5 very diverse schools, from kindergarten level to 18yr olds, state school to specialised industrial colleges, for a week-long course on the STEAM approach. STEAM is essentially: how to bring multi-disciplinarity, reality (i.e. ‘the world outside’) and creativity into the classroom. STEAM = STEM subjects, i.e. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics combined with the ‘A’ of Arts & Design.

As a trainer, language coach and facilitator who likes to use creativity as much as I can, usually in the business and academic worlds, Europass asked me to give the course as part of their extensive and growing teaching training offering. The course also needs to help children attain the much-quoted ‘4 Cs’ of creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking, and with the class we spent time reflecting on what creativity means in the realm of teaching. And no, I didn’t add a C for concentration – also a much-needed skill in my view today, by children in particular – or for circularity, although I was tempted. That could be for a further course.

A long time ago, in 2002, I was the Deputy cultural attaché at the French Embassy in London. A dream job where I spent my evenings going to at least one arts event a day for over two years: it meant I saw dance, theatre, fashion, design, art and music every week, and got paid (not much) for it, and drank a lot of champagne at a lot of vernissages. Time to bring that all back again and use it to inspire teachers to inspire children (without the champagne, admittedly; tea from the staff room would have to do).

Quite a challenge: what would a lesson on photosynthesis, on digestion, or, closer to my expertise, on circular economy and biomimicry for 15 year olds look like, bringing in e.g. mathematics, technology and music, or plastic arts? What about for a 5 year old? I took my group, on my initiative, to spend half a day at Futurium. It’s Berlin’s recently opened and much talked about space diagonally opposite Angela Merkel’s official residence, dedicated to citizens of all ages, on how we want to live in the future. I know the place well and was invited to its official opening two years ago – it seemed perfect as a living lab for the teachers to create engaging multidisciplinary lessons in. So I sent them on a mission in pairs, to work on a theme of their choice and turn it into lesson material for their students back home in Zagreb/Prato/Zaragoza/Lisbon.

Themes covered included Time, Nature and the City, Biomimicry, Circular Economy, Housing & Architecture, AI & Robotics. The next day we looked at lesson plans and the STEAM approach, in the light of our discussions. We ended the week with more creativity exercises I designed for them, looking at nature in the city, and rethinking the way the various schools they taught at integrate – or don’t – multi-disciplinarity. One school in Spain has its own dedicated classroom for bringing together the different subjects: very pioneering. Another college in Italy has a WhatsApp group for getting teachers involved in multidisciplinary work. As for kindergarten teaching: ‘the teachers here are gods’, one of my participants, the headmistress of her school admitted – and they have to teach several subjects anyhow, so they’re doing STEAM continuously, without realising.

One of the main lessons I learnt from the teachers I taught was: if we don’t inspire and energise teachers, keep them interested, learning, and (a little bit) passionate about their subject/s, then they won’t inspire the children they teach. Or the other teachers around them. So teacher training is fundamental, and Europass and similar courses are vital for doing this, getting teachers out of the box, to a foreign, creative and edgy city like Berlin, to rethink how they teach, and meet others from totally different kinds of school. I look forward to training more teachers, students, employees and other profiles around creativity and multidisciplinarity, and where these can be combined with themes such as circular economy, then all the better.

A big thank you to the teachers I trained and to Europass and Erasmus+ for this opportunity.

Further links:



Ellen MacArthur Foundation and educational materials on the circular economy:

Can blenders go to heaven? Product design and longevity revisited, GDR style.

Can blenders go to heaven? Product design and longevity revisited, GDR style.

Can blenders go to heaven? Product design and longevity revisited, GDR style.

How poor product design, the abundance of different products and inbuilt obsolescence lead to massive electronic waste, and how a much-loved blender designed in the GDR makes us rethink our relationship with products and design.

Can Blenders Go to Heaven is the memorable title of a touching German film which I saw a few days ago, in a small cinema in old East Berlin. The cinema is in the street I first lived in, named after Soviet Spy Richard Sorge. I could well imagine that the smoky bar (allowed in Berlin) could have had its fair share of spies in former times, but probably Stasi rather than double agents like Sorge (he even got an obituary in The Economist a few years after I first wrote about the film, to my surprise. He met a sticky end, as one can imagine).

I chose to see the film, directed by German director Reinhard Günzler, due to my interest in waste and circular economy, and because it was at my local cinema – a few minutes’ walk from my studio flat, sublet from a Russian journalist, as it happens, who I’d only ever met on Skype (perhaps the spy connection was why he chose to live on this street. I never thought to ask).

The film follows a young Swiss student, Carmen, as she explores the reasons why the old characteristically orange coloured RG28 blender she finds in a flea market in Jena works better than the more recent blender she was using which gave up the ghost just as she wanted to bake a cake for a student party. Her exploration provides the substance for the film.

The themes of product design, sustainability and e-waste are broached through the main character: it’s fitting that she is a student, still curious and able to question the world order she is expected to then contribute to after her studies. Her investigations question the relationship we have with the things that we use every day, how they’re made, who they’re made by. Our throwaway society. Whether the things that accompany our lives everyday can have a ‘soul’ if we throw them away so quickly. And whether we can respect the people who make those things if they don’t really care about the work they do in their factory, hundreds or thousands of miles away from us, the end users, and indeed whether they can respect themselves, or their work, or indeed us, the users and consumers, in this throwaway culture.

The film is also, on a secondary level, about the former GDR: under the East German régime, there was one main factory in Suhl, in Thuringia, which made most of the electrical household products for the country at the time. Many of these were known for being well made and long-lasting. The RG28, an orange-coloured food blender, the other ‘hero’ in the film, is still legendary for its durability among the older generation who lived during the GDR period, even people my age. And it often still works, over 40 years after its manufacture.

Carmen, a circular economy re-use heroine before her time, makes a successful cake with the blender (the party goes well, even if she loses her boyfriend afterwards), then goes on to research her flea market trophy. She interviews the factory workers, who still feel very proud of the work they did, truly knew about their product, often spending their whole working lives in the factory. She also interviews a theologian, a philosopher, a psychoanalyst, an economist and a historian about how our relationship with things has changed with the advent of capitalism and the throwaway consumer culture.

This could be a case of ‘Ostalgie’ – nostalgia for the old East Germany, as some may surmise from the film’s mood and occasional sentimentality. It is more the exploration of an aspect of the GDR that I, as a foreigner working on circularity, could not help but feel some admiration for. Without cut-throat competition, and with fewer raw materials and no cheap energy, more effort was spent on making long-lasting products with good (enough) materials made by just the one manufacturer. These generally didn’t end up in landfill a few years later. This was in the context of an absent, supposedly ‘free’ market, where many companies make similar products (often on a ‘same same but different’ model, with little to truly distinguish them, even if most brands would naturally contest this). Like many companies after the ‘Wende’ after 1991, the producer was then jettisoned by the new, reunified Germany.

The film touches on the increasingly massive problem of e-waste, a plague of our times with millions of tonnes of products that could be dismantled, repaired, refurbished, but aren’t, because it’s currently cheaper to buy a new(er) model. And because these are exported, often illegally, to countries like Ghana, endangering the health of thousands, including children. One of the most shocking moments in the film is when the heroine walks through a huge warehouse in Germany full of electrical waste, and watches how it gets destroyed. Even today, 6 years later after I first wrote this article, ‘urban mining’ on a significant scale (extracting materials back from products in an urban context) in Europe is still at its inception.

The film, which can be placed in the same family as French film Demain (2015) screened for the first time at the Paris COP21 last year, is a moving and timely reminder of where mass consumerism has taken us. I hope the film comes out abroad soon with subtitles for non-German speakers and reaches a wider audience; we were only a handful of spectators in a small arthouse cinema. My curiosity as often got the better of me, and I had to ask why they’d come. One of the spectators had a relative who’d worked in the factory mentioned in the film in Suhl, in the German region of Thüringen. I gave away my parent’s SEB blender and yogurt maker, which also featured a fair bit of orange, recently. Damn, I should have kept them, perhaps they’ll still be working in 30 years’ time: not produced in the GDR, but perhaps they were better made than those on sale today.

Key takeaways for Readers: (CUT)

  • Remember the Rs – Refuse, Reduce, Refurbish, Repair, Recycle… Do you really need that new electronic product? Can you buy a decent version of it with a guarantee on a refurbished website, or lease/borrow it from a neighbour or tool library? Local platforms like Craigslist, in Berlin, FB groups and eBay can help.
  • Try to buy quality electronic goods if you do have to buy new: do your homework, check what they are made of, what plastics they are made with, how long the brand has been around, any policies on repair, modular design, which parts are likely to wear and tear first and which parts can be replaced.
  • Feel free to email the manufacturer, post on social media to critique (and praise if there is something to praise!) the product in terms of repairability and longevity. This is also how brands shift the goal posts in terms of their practices.
  • Beware the greenwashing, but also be aware that no brand produces the perfect product! French group SEB is doing some interesting stuff on guaranteeing spare parts for all its products, a promise it put in place pre-empting French legislation in 2015 which banned planned obsolescence in France – a worldwide first for circular economy and sustainability.
  • Care for the things that accompany your life – many people made that blender you bought, the parts often in developing countries or even closer to home in Europe, and they will often have worked for low wages. Caring for these objects is also respecting their life time and work.
  • In a fast-changing world, the objects that we care for can help us feel more grounded if we have them for a long time, instead of continuously zapping from one product to the next.

Links / Credits:

  • Film link.
  • Review from Berlin daily newspaper the Tagesspiegel, in German, 2017.
  • Circularity in the GDR: xxx
  • electronic waste repair website: iFixit
  • urban mining (definition)
  • Thanks to the Tilsiter Lichtspielkino, Richard Sorge Strasse, Berlin for showing this film.

#GDR #Tilsiterlichtspielkino #VEBSuhl #circulardesign #Berlin

This article was first published in shorter form on December 4 2017 on Linked in.