A hive of industry
On a side street in the Berlin neighbourhood of Neukolln, past kebab shops and cafes selling vegan cakes and homemade lemonade, is "Rita in Palma", a dream in pink: in the shop and atelier there's a rail hung with elaborately made, delicately crocheted collars trimmed with lace, adorned with feathers, in styles ranging from quirky and fun through to provocatively feminine. Earrings have been carefully draped on a dresser, finely crocheted with brightly coloured thread, as well as beaded bracelets and necklaces.
A cheerful group of women sit around a table and share breakfast. Although most of them are originally from Turkey, their number also includes a couple from the Lebanon and Pakistan. On the table there are stuffed peppers, biscuits and glasses of tea. Founder and manager of the label, Ann-Kathrin Carstensen, comes from Hamburg. "It all began after studying fashion design," she reveals. She went on a quest to find dexterous Turkish women who had mastered the complex art of crocheting and who could make lace. Gradually she got lucky. In 2012, she started up her own company. Today, she employs a total of 30 women.
A passion for crochet
Her own love of crochet stems from childhood days. "I lost my mother when I was young. A Greek woman who was like a second mother to me taught me how to crochet," says Carstensen. With "Rita in Palma" she has turned her passion into a profession. Target customers are women with a penchant for the unusual. And who are willing to spend money on accessories. After all, each individual piece costs up to 600 euros; they are sold in upscale stores such as the Kaufhaus des Westens, paraded at shows such as the Berlin Fashion Week and grace the covers of glossy magazines, Vogue included.
For many women, getting a job in this business offers a route out of long-term unemployment. As in the case of 56-year-old Resadiye Ilhan. She has been able to crochet since childhood, she says. "For the first time in my life, I'm earning regular money and I'm insured," she says enthusiastically. Her family also approves of her work. Her husband is rather conservative, she says with a laugh. He's happy that she's only working with women here, says Ilhan. "He also says to me: we had no idea you were so talented."
50-year-old Yuksel Yerlesmis came to Germany at the age of 14, trained as a hairdresser but wasn't able to work for health reasons. Today she's happy that her skills are valued and rewarded with a wage.
Integration through empowerment
But Carstensen's company not only employs the women, it is also carrying out valuable integrational work at the same time. Her motto: "integration through empowerment". The women should lead a self-determined life and she wants to help them do this. She organises volunteer helpers who offer regular German lessons, yoga courses and healthy living seminars. And if there are any problems with the job centre or other bureaucratic hurdles need to be overcome, Carstensen also gets personally involved. She also deals with the preparation of collections and media work.
In recent months, her workforce has expanded to include women who have fled to Germany from Syria, Pakistan, Albania and Lebanon. "We actively sought out the women," says Carstensen. She aims to support them through her programme of activities, offering a refuge and point of contact for Muslim women.
Schabane from Pakistan has been here for nine months, Rahaf from Syria for six months and Lina from Lebanon for three months. Even though their knowledge of the German language is still patchy, the women feel very at ease here. "It's good that it's not just us here now," says the Turkish woman Resadiye Ilhan, "it means we have to speak more German." The women repeatedly stress that as well as the work, they appreciate the friendly atmosphere, which also tempts other women from the neighbourhood to stop by for a glass of tea.
Accolades and the daily grind
Carstensen is an ambassador for the Ministry of Family Affairs; her engagement has won many awards, including the special prize in the Startsocial Awards made by the Chancellor. But accolades often obscure the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. "We are often held up as a showcase example of integration. But few people have much idea of the huge efforts this demands." The business sustains itself. "Only just," as Carstensen says. It relies on support, especially of the financial sort, but this is in short supply.
Many people ask her why she doesn't have the lace and crochet work done cheaply in Turkey, before selling the pieces in Germany with a high mark-up. "I don't want that," she says vehemently. "I want to give work to the women who live here and pay them a decent wage." At her company, the women earn around 10 times what they would get in Turkey, she says. "Rita in Palma" and the women who work here are Carstensen's lifeblood.
Ann-Kathrin Carstensen has big ambitions. Why shouldn′t "Rita in Palma" be just as famous as Chanel one day? Qualitatively it's in no way inferior to the global brand, she says, and craftsmanship is enjoying a resurgence in popularity in the fashion world as well. "We're just not that well-known yet. But with these wonderful women at my side, I'm sure it's not impossible," she adds.
© Qantara.de 2017
Translated from the German by Nina Coon