China's farmland inspires Swiss entrepreneur's organic approach to green fashions
A Swiss IT worker's trip to China's countryside led him to launch a designer brand to help local farmers that promotes a sustainable lifestyle
Hans Martin Galliker's first trip to Beijing, to study Putonghua in 2008, was not a great success. The Swiss information technology worker skipped classes so he could go travelling. Having grown up living on a farm, he was keen to explore the countryside. He was more interested in the struggles of the farmers, and food-safety concerns, including a tainted milk scandal, rather than looking at the scenery. He never stopped thinking about how he could combine his interests in farming and IT with helping Chinese farmers. In November 2010 he returned to live and work in the mainland; the next year he set up Neemic, a designer brand promoting an environmentally sustainable lifestyle through the use of organic fabrics and the reuse of discarded items. Neemic's collections - designed and hand-made in Beijing - use locally grown organic fabrics, such as ramie, silk and linen, leftover materials from the textile industry and recycled used clothing. Its garments include a 2,650 yuan (HK$3,350) hand-woven organic ramie top and a 4,530 yuan fleece sweater and trouser combo featuring up-cycled leather from used trousers and jackets - bought in vintage Beijing markets - on the seams and a Chinese word, tian, or "field" on the chest. However, so far there is little appetite - or local recognition - among Beijingers for Neemic's green fashions.
What led you to set up Neemic as a green fashion brand?
The idea came four years ago when I met Amihan Zemp - co-founder of Neemic - in Germany at the Biofach [a global trade fair for organic food and products] in Nuremberg. At that time, she was importing Japanese fashion into Berlin and also looking to do something new. Using my idea of organic agriculture and helping Chinese farmers, we decided to create a good-looking organic fashion brand in China. We chose Beijing as a starting point, not just because I was in Beijing, but also because of its textile market and its environmental impact on China. I thought if we wanted to change the fashion industry we had to do it here. My initial idea was to be an importer - sourcing fabrics - but Amihan knows the fashion industry very well, so we started a designer brand.
What messages do you want to convey with green fashion?
We have three visions at heart. First, we are creating beautiful designs while making the industry more sustainable. It is also a platform for artistic exchange. We also want to use fashion to promote a sustainable lifestyle so we are using organic fabrics and recycled materials. An eco-system of creativity and sustainability is my idea. Neemic stands for not only fashion products, but also a more a sustainable lifestyle platform, combining agriculture with fashion, art and culture. It can be very helpful to promote my ideas using fashion. You can get people's attention with fashion as they like beautiful things, such as garments and photos. When you recognise how cool our green fashion is, you will be attracted to go to the farmer's markets. We want to be an example of China's green fashion - something that still doesn't exist here. In future, I want to do permaculture - [the philosophy of producing things in ways that do not deplete natural resources]. It's not just about how to rotate soil in agriculture, but to bring together things like eco systems, IT, farmer's markets and fashion.
What are the difficulties in making it a green fashion brand?
We have just two to three collections so far [that have] occupied all my time, attention and money. It's hard to make a profit unless you are producing on a large scale, or focused on a small niche market selling to very few people at very high prices. We want to produce a fashion brand that uses a lot of organic fabrics to create the first really well-known brand for sustainable clothing. But we are producing very small amounts. The materials we use are bought at farmer's markets, not sourced directly from farmers; we can't have farmers making fabrics as we can't tell how much we will need. We need a large-scale production and sufficient capacity in order to discuss it directly with the farmer. But we can't take advantage of economic scales of sourcing and production [alone]: we need a partner and more investment. Neemic has received feedback from high-end boutiques abroad, in Melbourne and New York, but we can't even send a sample, or make extra products to sell as we don't have the capacity or money.
What about feedback from Chinese consumers?
We've got very little response from local consumers. We've attracted interest from media people, who came to us as they know it's something important for the future. Buyers or consumers choose our products because of the designs. The fashion market in the West is more mature: there is better recognition of green fashions. More than half of our consumers are international buyers who understand our philosophy better. In China, it's so different. I'd prefer more local consumers. I hope they can get to know more about green fashion.