This fashion label from Mannheim just won an award for strong ideas –
with sustainable style.
Christiane Illius, Jessica Padmanabhan and Helga Behrmann connected while studying in Mannheim. Today they run the fashion label SOOME and their EcoShowroom with a clear vision: the perfect alliance of style and sustainability.
SOOME stands for „social organic original modern easy“. How did the name come about and how is it correctly pronounced?
Christiane Illius: Here in Mannheim many people will pronounce it the way a German would read it – though the right pronunciation is in English. By now the correct pronunciation has mostly caught on, which shows us that we have made a name for ourselves.
Jessica Padmanabhan: We were inspired by the Finnish word „Suomi“, which they use to address their own country. When translated that means something along the lines of „cultivations“, or „fields“. This fits in well with our wish to pass on our ideas.
You met while studying. What were you guys studying and how did the idea of founding a fashion label come about?
Jessica: Christiane, Helga and I were studying graphic design in Mannheim. We worked in the field after we finished university and never lost sight of each other. Christiane had the initial impulse to create SOOME years later.
Christiane: I had the idea way back in the 90s, but back then I didn’t see a way to make it happen. I was frustrated as designer because I was not leaving any real traces with my work. Flyers and booklets are throwaway media. At that point the idea arose to create a fashion label that had a special focus on sustainability. I wanted to have a positive impact on the future. I knew I wanted to build it up together with my friends as I wanted things to be fun as well.
And so three graphic designers founded a fashion label?
Jessica: I was the only one of the group with absolutely no experience in fashion. Helga and Christiane had studied fashion design before they entered graphic design, and even before that they were classically trained as seamstresses.
Christiane: It was no big deal. Jessica has an amazing talent for organisational processes. She takes care of marketing and finances. And by now we have taught her some sewing as well.
SOOME stands for „social organic original modern easy“ – tell us about the name.
Christiane: „Social“ means we treat our employees with respect and pay them right. We handpick our seamstresses from the region. This saves transport costs and maximizes efficiency. „Organic“ refers to our materials. We use only GOTS-certified (Global Organic Textile Standard), organic and natural textiles.
Jessica: „Original“ stands for individuality, be it in questions of style or the number of pieces. We create limited series. Our collections are „Modern“ and timelessly elegant in design. We want our pieces to provide lasting enjoyment. SOOME is „Easy“ as we aim to create uncomplicated pieces. Our collections can be worn for any occasion.
Your environmental standards are enjoying great popularity at the moment. How do you feel about big international fashion companies getting involved in this movement?
Jessica: You’re correct. At the moment the market is full of movement and activity. There is also quite some hype surrounding things, but we do this with conviction. The development has advantages as over the years the textile fairs offer more and more products, great colors and better materials. In the beginning we were the odd ones with our high standards, but in the meantime a process of rethinking has taken place.
Christiane: It’s great to see that for a new generation there is no divide between environmental consciousness and fashion. The way people consume things is changing. One can see this in many aspects of life, such as diet and mobility. The quality and origin of materials is becoming more and more important. In the end I welcome the fact that someone shopping at H&M can be a sustainable consumer at a low cost. I hope the big companies are in this for real and not just freeloading. It’s about time things took a turn for the better.
When did you beginn this process of rethinking?
Christiane: When I was young being ecological was no big thing yet. The only relevant product was wholegrain bread, not cola, ketchup, or television sets. Those were the days yoga clothes were not sexy or sporty.
Jessica: I grew up the same. Those clothes looked bad and were baggy. As a child and teenager I was committed to the conservation and protection of the environment. After that came a phase of my life were I did not want to be part of it. In the end I realized that these things are important. Thankfully the stigma of such a lifestyle has vanished by today.
Did you get to know each other in Mannheim? Did you grow up around here?
Christiane: I am born and bred here.
Jessica: I come from the district of Bergstrasse. I live in Weinheim now and commute to Mannheim, which I have been doing since I started studying there. What I love about the region is that everything is so close by. From contemplative Weinheim over to urban Mannheim is just a short ride.
Christiane: Our third member, Helga, originally comes from the Palatinate. At the moment she’s in Berlin working on her thesis on the future of fashion. This brings us many advantages. We’ve got our very own trend scout in the capital. Helga is regularly back in Mannheim and we have a great access point to the Berlin Fashion week.
Do you feel connected to the Mannheim startup scene?
Christiane: Tough question. All of us are still working regular jobs next to SOOME. I’m a lecturer at a fashion school, while Jessica works as a graphic designer. Next to our professional background we have been independent for years now and so we kind of fall through the net of the start-up community. We also never got any grants, despite our trying. Textile production just isn’t given high priority in Mannheim. I mean Dorothee Schumacher did prove one can make great fashion even here, but that kind of success won’t fall in your lap.
Jessica: we had to fight for many things and made plenty of different experiences. I assume that for many we hadn’t positioned ourselves sufficiently enough for commercial success. Nevertheless we stand here in our EcoShowroom and can feel very proud of how far we have come.
Tell us about this EcoShowroom in the Palais Lanz in Mannheim. What was the initial idea behind it and what is the concept?
Jessica: It was a big coincidence. When we were scouting locations for our first exhibition we received the offer to use the ground floor of this wonderful historical monument of french belle-époque architecture.
Christiane: At the time we were suffering from a notorious lack of space. Helga and I had nice little studios, but there was not enough storage space and no place to showcase our collections. After a successful exhibition we were given the opportunity to stay here in the Palais. We couldn’t let that chance slip and we enjoy being here: beautiful architecture, great light and the unique „studio-charme“ with the big loft-style windows.
As of late you have begun sharing the space. Who are your partners?
Jessica: We want to offer like-minded people a platform here. Young labels kann exhibit their work for eight weeks and we hold an opening reception every two months which includes a cultural supporting program. We also show our new designs at these events. This keeps the EcoShowroom alive and interesting. Were open from 3 PM to 8 PM on Thursdays and from 3 PM to 6 Pm on Saturdays.
Christiane: For our first exhibition we have CharLe from Berlin, Fremdformat aus Heidelberg, Kerzenslust from Mannheim, Evermind from Köln and Pearls of Laja from Munich. We will be showing jewelry and accessories, men’s fashion, jeans and childrenswear. All products are sustainable and fairly produced.
And you have a reason to celebrate. Congratulations on winning the MFG Baden-Württemberg award for strong ideas!
Jessica Padmanabhan: Thanks! It was really a big surprise as we were not anticipating it at all. When I read the specifications I didn’t feel it was for us. It seemed aimed towards the film and media industry. We were pleasantly proven wrong.
Christiane: Winning the awards was really special – 100 contestants, 24 of them in the final round and in the end we win the award! In the three rounds of interviews we were not handled gently. They had done their homework and asked the right questions. Now were are really excited to see what the coachings will bring. The winners are given the opportunity to take part in workshops and seminars to acquire further business knowhow.
You’ve got your own showroom, won an important award: you’ve done everything right! Do you have a message for people that are interested in founding their own business?
Christiane Illius: Follow your heart! I can really push this: don’t lose your vision in preemptive calculations. Just believe in yourself!
Jessica: We live by the motto: do what you do with great commitment, capability and passion. This is how we go about things.
Interview: Andreas Stanita
Fotos: Daniel Lukac