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Social Fashion

Can you save the world with fashion? A little bit, says Bernd Keller, designer and creative director of the new label 1C1Y. Every time you buy a new piece of clothing – and make a child happy for a year.
11/15/2022

Katharina Hesedenz: Your career at 1C1Y began with a single T-shirt, although you were a manager at Boss, Marco Polo and Puma for many years before that.

Bernd Keller: That's right. I knew very early on that I wanted to do fashion, although everyone in my family was a doctor. So I studied fashion in Italy and in New York, then just took jobs – and life has been good to me. My wife works as a nurse in a kind of hospice. Within my own family, I was always in charge of glamour – and she was in charge of social. When I left Marc O'Polo in 2019 and started my own business, I thought about how I could bring the two areas together. As a board member of Marc O'Polo, I had of course made an impact, but that accounted for maybe five percent of the time, the rest was business-related. I wanted to try out real social engagement with my own brand and was very pleased when Christopher Philipp and Tom Lupo called me in the spring of 2020 after they had become aware of me through an article. They introduced me to Arthelps. In the course of further meetings, the vision developed to jointly develop a social fashion label in the luxury segment, characterised by clear-cut aesthetics and inspired by the conviction to do good with fashion.

Tom Lupo was formerly creative director at Jung von Matt, Anna and Christopher Philipp come from a large German family of architects. They themselves belong to the fashion label. Is that the reason why 1C1Y seems much more rounded and stylish than other charity fashion projects?

Bernd Keller: Arthelps is an initiative of creative people and artists that helps people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds in a special way: with art. I was able to build on this in terms of fashion. The task was: How can I, when I do something good, also create the most beautiful thing? We thought about enriching our product with inner values by means of an additional 60 euros, and that it should address a target group that understands this social aspect. This - we agree – can only happen in the luxury segment. This is where we can act best as a group, this is where we know our stuff.

Bernd Keller

How do you define your clients?

Bernd Keller: As a designer, I have adjusted to the target groups of Marc O'Polo, Hugo Boss or Hussein Chalayan for Puma and have been able to understand how their aesthetic sensibilities and buying behaviour work. Surprisingly, we complement each other perfectly as a group at 1C1Y when it comes to decisions. Tom Lupo sits at the table, next to Anna Philipp, who as an architect also knows exactly who her clients are. Then there is Bernd Keller, whose heart throbs for beauty, but who basically adores the simplicity of a Bauhaus style and the timelessness of Marcel Breuer's creations. I love clear lines and reduction, essentiality. Pure doesn't have to be unadorned, what matters to me is that it catches the eye. The fabric creates the space, proportions set the frame, the focus comes from drawing through the key design detail. When I look back at the history of German fashion, there are not many designers who have made the international breakthrough, but there is Jil Sander, who placed a purism that is not poor but simple. The span we want to build includes architecture, art and fashion.

With one exception, all the pieces are black. So your looks seem predestined for architects or agency heads.

Bernd Keller: We agreed from the very first meeting that we would take purism as a basis and enhance it with beauty in materials, structures and reflections. Smooth, slightly shimmering surfaces meet rough, pleated mesh and semi-transparency, yet all volumes are large and clear. We found each other immediately when it came to the question of colour, namely when we were discussing which colours make the most lasting impression on our own wardrobe. So we focus on black, and every now and then there is a neutral colour such as ivory; in later collections possibly beautiful additional colours such as tobacco. But it will always be the case that the basic elements I just mentioned will be retained, even if others are added. We want to move away from a disposable society towards building a wardrobe that develops its own style and attitude. It should not be about trends.

1C1Y calls itself "the first luxury fashion label". To what extent is this claim justified?

Bernd Keller: I have been working on the issue of sustainability for 32 years and always try to go one step further. At 1C1Y - an abbreviation for 1 child, 1 year - we have taken sustainability as a basis from the very beginning. We don't see it as a USP (unique selling point), but it is our basic foundation. On it, we want to bring together two areas that seem very opposite - namely social commitment and responsibility for our fellow human beings and self-centred presentation through superficial fashion. It starts with the fact that we take social responsibility in selecting and dealing with our partners. The working conditions and social standards in all companies involved are constantly checked and the entire production chain is fully traceable. We use recycled or high-quality organic materials and also address animal welfare. At 1C1Y, the manufacturing process complies with the "Five Freedoms of Animals", an international assessment concept that exposes abuse.

But the focus is actually on making children happy.

Bernd Keller: Exactly. We dare to say that we do social fashion because we incorporate a contribution into the sales price that is automatically provided for a child. First of all, we don't want to annoy the customers with "do something good", but we want to surprise them with beautiful aesthetics, with good quality that embodies style, and only then talk about social commitment. In the end, this collaboration means that we can enjoy adorning ourselves and enjoy life because we pull the garment out of the wardrobe with a good feeling. From the sales price of each piece, we direct 60 euros to Arthelps to support a child for one year.

In doing so, you accept that only higher earners can afford to buy them. Actually, T-shirts made of good cotton are already quite expensive.

Bernd Keller: The mission of the project is to give disadvantaged children and young people in Iraq, Ukraine and also in Germany the chance of a fulfilled life. We hire social educators, we build hubs, we are currently in the process of acquiring a plot of land in Kiev. In the beginning we discussed very different concepts, but in the end we found that our message is easiest and clearest to understand if we add 60 euros to every purchase for Arthelps.

As a buyer, I seem to get a better price ratio when I buy a coat, for example. When buying a T-shirt, a surcharge of 60 euros seems disproportionately high.

Bernd Keller: Of course we talked about that when we developed the concept. In the end, the clarity of the message was more important to us. As a consequence, we have reduced our profit margin on T-shirts, so that we earn much less on a shirt or beanie. In any case, everything we earn goes into building up 1C1Y over the next three years. Economically, it is not a profitable business. Of course salaries are paid, but everything that goes into profit is immediately reinvested.

Can your fashion only be bought online? Or is it also available in concept stores?

Bernd Keller: Originally we only wanted to sell B2C (business-to-consumer). Then we received a few enquiries from boutique owners who liked our idea - and we had great experiences. For example, there is a shop in Dortmund called Lindner Fashion. The owner contacted us and we gave her pieces on consignment. When she presented the collection live in the shop, one of our employees was there and she was really impressed. A lot of customers really showed up and bought that the shop staff could only explain to them on the way to the checkout that it was about a social idea - and that they were supporting a child. These people bought because they liked the aesthetics - and only then found out that they had done something good. I think that's great. Ideally, our consumer society would always function in such a way that we buy because we find something beautiful, but at the same time support a whole project. We are allowed to be a beacon in the consumer society.

In an earlier interview they said: "Doing is more important than talking".

Bernd Keller: If you have heard this interview, then you also know that I lost a lot of money with my own start-up True Standard three years ago, basically everything I have earned in the last 30 years. An investor suddenly jumped in November 2019, the new virus came in December, I had to file for bankruptcy. I paid off five employees and every producer, even though I didn't have to. Now I am working with them again for 1C1Y and the label is benefiting. We have such good suppliers and producers because they all know me.

Does that encourage you to stick all the more firmly to your values in this job?

Bernd Keller: Of course, everyone has remembered the honesty and fairness. Otherwise you probably wouldn't get these producers now that everything is different. They now only work with bulk buyers and no longer accept new start-ups. The fact that we still managed to work together means that we are familiar with each other on all levels. Honesty, sustainability and reliability in terms of money are the planks on which we all rely.

What does the cooperation in the creative area look like? Do the Philipps or Tom Lupo help decide what the collection should look like?

Bernd Keller: Each of us decides according to professional competence in his field. If you want to make good fashion, you can't let too many people have a say. I am ultimately responsible for the collection because otherwise there is no common thread. But the collaboration is also characterised by my curiosity, for example when Tom Lupo introduces new ideas or Anna brings in inspiration in the form of architecture and buildings. We have a design camp at my place in Bamberg, in my little studio, where everyone provides impulses. My colour concept and my range plan emerge from this design day, then Christopher Philipp joins us to cover the business part. It's a nice way of working. Sometimes you go out exhausted because it was a full day, and you could still pull out trees with inspiration. The title of the new summer collection is "Workers of Hope". We also want to give others a push and say "Do something!". We should not feel demoralised and small all the time. Even if politics is not getting us anywhere right now, you can still make a difference in small ways.

How many pieces does the new collection have?

Bernd Keller: 25 – and we want to keep it that way. As a new element, we have added a unisex section. This is not driven by a gender discussion, but by a fashion drive, because I am convinced that women look more sexy in a cool oversize piece, which actually comes from the men's wardrobe, than casually in a little black dress. Of course, men's pieces have to please and fit the man, but we do the fitting so that women can also wear them and feel comfortable in them. That has a lot to do with details and proportions. But it's important for me to say that it doesn't work the other way round. We don't make semi-transparent mesh T-shirts for men, that's not our thing.

We all know how important brand ambassadors are for a brand. Do you want artists or rather architects as testimonials?

Bernd Keller: We work with brand ambassadors from different areas, from fashion to show business. Anna Philipp is the representative in the architectural field; Michael Patrick Kelly comes from the music industry, Rose May Alaba, David Alaba's sister, who makes Afro beats, also. Then there is Samuel Koch, a fantastic actor and a great person. We are currently preparing a project in Senegal with the male model Alpha Dia.

What economic benchmark do you want to achieve within the next three years?

Bernd Keller: 1C1Y is a start-up that has to pay for itself within the next 3 years. There is no immensely rich investor, but the architectural office Philipp is the sponsor at the moment. It has to work in such a way that the big costs are paid off to some extent within the next 3 years so that the project can grow at some point. Of course, we all look with a sharp pencil to make sure that the costs are sustainable, we can't draw from the full. Sometimes I feel fear when I see the numbers. Fortunately, we are gaining more and more supporters. Alpha Dia was not our brand ambassador from the beginning. We asked him if he wanted to do a photo shoot with us and because he liked the idea, he agreed. We were in the studio in Munich taking pictures and he said of his own accord: That's different, I'll join in! There are the Pradas and the Bosses of this world who put 80 million euros into a fashion shoot and then control the clicks it generates. And there are us, who are driven by social commitment and a love of aesthetics. That has our chance!

1C1Y | FOUNDATION Campaign AW 2022