DESIGNER TURNED SUSTAINABILITY REPORTER - CHERIE BIRKNER

Today, many are picking on the trend of sustainability and making money by writing about it, branding it or simply banking it. But there are some who actually believe in it and live it. Our recent encounter is young, bright and free Cherie Birkner from Berlin who fits the latter. As a former designer she has closely dealt with the perils of fashion industry and in time decided to quit it and embrace modernity aka sustainability.

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OKOLOLA: What makes Cherie who she is today?

Cheri: Laughs! It’s a difficult question but I will try to answer. So, last year I was on a date and this guy on a casual side note said to me, ‘Oh Cherie, you are a good person!’ And it just made me think because about 10 years back when I was in high school, I told the same thing to my then boyfriend's parents that I am a 'good person'. And of course it’s not something I had thought about in a long time. But somehow hearing such a casual compliment from this guy ten years later made me question my being good. Thereon, I seriously started thinking about what I was doing and then the realisation slowly sunk in that although I had good intentions, I was not practically applying them to my work and life. I desperately wanted to live by my values. And that made me leave my comfortable fashion job and what eventually led to starting Sustainable Fashion Matterz or who I am today.

OKOLOLA: Sustainable fashion has many definitions and yet a common understanding. What does it mean to you?

Cheri: Sustainable fashion and sustainability is something we cannot achieve 100% because to do that we will all have to stop existing. I see sustainable fashion in two layers. The first one starts from a brand or company that goes beyond the set norms and puts effort into doing it better and supporting sustainability. On the second level are the consumers. So, for instance, I rarely buy new things. I always look for used, second-hand stuff. I put a lot of thought into asking myself if it is something I am going to want and need and for how long. And in general what drives sustainability is being conscious about all the hard work and resources that go behind making a single piece of clothing.

OKOLOLA: You interview so many people involved in sustainability. Do they all have something in common?

Cheri: They all do have one thing in common, which is the belief that they can make a difference or else they would not do it. They know that each person makes a difference.

OKOLOLA: What's your take from all the interviews you have conducted so far?

Cheri: I have learnt a lot since I started but one of the most important takeaways for me is the value of networking because this niche and new industry is made with people who don’t just have shared values and beliefs but they are also living them through what they do. It is very important that all these people work as a community, support each other, collaborate, motivate and practically help when needed. They all have long term shared goals and commitments and that makes connectivity a lot more vital. We can all together make a strong sustainable community that can’t be shaken up easily.

OKOLOLA: You were a fashion designer yourself. What is your personal style?

Cheri: Ooo! You should never say never but I rarely wear patterns. I feel clothing should always put the person in the centre of focus and accentuate their beauty and not distract from them. And I often get distracted from a person when they are wearing pattern. I love feminine cuts and timeless pieces that are ever classic.

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OKOLOLA: A trend you absolutely detest.

Cheri: Ok! One thing I am really no fan of are sneakers. I see them as time bound and not timeless. Besides, they are not that long lasting. Saying that, I do have sneakers myself but if I could and if sidewalks were smooth in Berlin, I would only wear high heels but honestly they are not that convenient.

OKOLOLA: And how did you switch from designing yourself to promoting other conscious designers?

Cheri: When I quit my job, I was thinking about different options. One of the goals or still is to make my own fashion brand but that is a huge amount of work. Even worse if you want to do it sustainably. You need money and time! I do still wear my designs and this gives me a chance to analyse the timelessness and practicality of my designs.

But purely the understanding of all the hard work, patience and passion that goes behind making a sustainable brand, made me start a platform to feature them.

OKOLOLA: Where do you want to be in five years with your business.

Cheri: What I want is literally every person who shops for fashion to have the words #sustainablefashionmatterz in mind and as a result feel good about the choices they make.

OKOLOLA: Starting an entrepreneurial journey is never easy. What challenges have you faced so far and what can others learn from you?

Cheri: The most important thing is to surround yourself with people who inspire you, who you can learn from, who are good for you and not people who bring you down.

One thing that I would advice anyone about networking is to put some time into researching who you want to know, and addressing them directly. We usually think we need to talk about ourselves and tell the entire world that we exist and have this amazing idea (also important), but knowing who we have in front of us is much more valuable. Then you can make a proposal. This approach will increase chances of you being heard and your proposal accepted. So for example, if you are a photographer and you meet someone who just started a website; you can push in the idea by asking them if they need help with their pictures for a new campaign they are starting. It is a really good way to get work.

OKOLOLA: Who do you look up to for inspiration?

Cheri: My biggest motivation comes from reactions. So, if someone read the interviews or heard a podcast from me, it drives me.

OKOLOLA: What do you think of OKOLOLA?

Cheri: I love the aesthetics of OKOLOLA. I also really like that the idea of sustainability is approached on a fashionable level because I don’t know anyone who just buys anything for the sustainability aspect. People generally buy anything for how it looks at first. They might reject or not buy something if it does not align with their beliefs but the primary reason of buying is always the look of it. And I really like that OKOLOLA is really putting a lot of focus on style and fashion and not using vegan as the main selling point.