Last fall, I met with one of the cofounders of mimycri, Nora Azzaoui, at the nonprofit design brand’s headquarters in the CRCLR House in Neukölln, Berlin—a center for circular economy practices. I first met Nora when she spoke at an event focused on entrepreneurship with social impact and sustainable practices. As Nora explains, mimycri happens to work in both of these ways: “We produce and design bags and backpacks out of broken refugee rubber boats and we do that together with refugees in order to integrate people. We use this material in order to use what’s already there and give new life to rejected material so it has a sustainability aspect. We also do this because we believe it is important to develop a touch point with migration and integration—so it’s basically a communication tool or communication but in the form of a bag. The overall narrative is that we would like to invite people to change their perspective.”
Nora had a few bags from the line (which includes the ubiquitous bum bag/fanny pack and backpack) at the event. I was moved by how these bright accessories—in colors evoking childhood and elementary school—could contain so much more than the physical contents. There is a journey, a profound story reflecting our societies and times, conveyed by each bag.
Mimicry is an analogy that derives from a natural phenomenon when plants and animals pretend to be something different. For example, there is a butterfly that pretends to be a leaf to avoid being eaten by its predators or there is an insect that pretends to be very dangerous and it’s not. We thought this really fits our project because it’s all about changing your perspective. It’s about taking a closer look in order to see that this bag might not have always been a bag but a broken refugee rubber boat or that we can also look differently at people. People are more than just refugees; they are people with talents and skills. So we thought this analogy of mimicking something else and having a closer look really fits with what we want to tell with our project.
Who is your co-founder?
My co-founder is Vera Günther. In 2015, we went to Greece together to volunteer at the shores and work at the camps. There were a lot of people arriving at that time, way more than today because this was before the EU-Turkey deal. That is basically where the idea for mimycri started.
And I think ‘mimicry’ has roots in the Greek language, doesn’t it?
Maybe, that would actually be very nice. It would fit because the project also started in Greece.
So did you come up with mimyci there or did you actually start it there?
Exactly, we went there in winter 2015 and went back again in 2016, 2017 and 2018. We worked with independent volunteer organizations that welcome people at the shores and distributed the clothes, [staff] the storage [facilities] and also work at camps where people would arrive and register and would stay until the rest of their journey could continue. We were confronted or attached very closely to what was happening at that time. We all know the pictures and the videos but I think experiencing this on a very personal level and meeting people as people having names, hearing individual stories, and being so closely confronted with all of the news—which is now so relevant for our politics—really made us think that we also wanted to be more active back in Germany.
We moved away a bit from what we did in Greece, which was way more of an emergency response—giving out blankets, water, and food—to a more sustainable solution. In Berlin there are so many people arriving who might need help with building up a new life and we thought we could help with that. So [mimycri is about] giving people work and also about transforming this very historical but also durable material into something that can make other people think about what is happening in Greece, what is happening in Europe, to Europe. We can trigger a thought process so that it’s not forgotten. We can maybe even motivate people to also engage in welcoming people, or just change your perspective and [get you thinking] about why this is happening and if there’s anything that can be done from your individual point of view.
Did you volunteer with an organization or a job position or was it something you did as an individual?
We did it as individuals. There are a lot of loose networks of independent volunteers; now after a couple of years, they have organized themselves better. It was our winter break actually and we tried to stretch it as much as possible. At some point my boss said, ‘Nora, you have to come back now.’ At the time Vera was between two jobs so she had a good amount of time to spend away.
This volunteer network is a very interesting social structure, because obviously there is some workflow. People that stay longer know how things work, and the local community is also very active. There are some real local heroes who help on the shores and provide all the logistics. They know the people on the island; they know the port police. We are still in touch with the organizations (or what are now organizations) we’ve been with from the very beginning and we extended our network [from the island of Chios] to another island (Lesvos) because there are still people arriving and there is still a lot of waste material lying around at the beaches or on the islands. Instead of throwing this material away, volunteers collect it and store it. Then we pick it up or it’s sent over.
Can you describe the design process, how your bags are made?
One of our core activities is to work together and to also learn from one another. When designing something tangible, you don’t even need to speak the same language perfectly. At the very beginning, we thought about potential projects and did some trials in terms of what is and is not feasible with the material because it is a very durable and strong resource. There is no stretching possible at all so we thought that the design should tell something about what it actually is. We wanted to focus on the material and leave it in a more minimalistic way so that the material speaks for itself. Because the material has scratches and might have a little mark, this is the story our bags now tell of what they used to be before.
We had design meetings to discuss potential designs then build prototypes out of paper and other materials before we used our material. We had these design meetings as a collaborative approach, which is not the easiest way to design as a group. I think the first designs for the first collection were difficult for us to make because I am not a designer by training. I could say what I think looks nice but I can’t design a bag which is also the beauty of this project: we can only make it work if everybody brings to the table what they are actually able to do.
We came up with prototypes and did a crowd-funding campaign to see whether there was an interest in our products and if people were actually willing to buy it. After that we iterated the products again and worked with a professional bag maker to add more functionality to the bags. With the second collection we’ve really learned a lot. The design criteria are there so we didn’t have to start from scratch, it was more a question of what kind of product. We also involved our community so we asked people at events and online what they thought would be a nice product. We then had a design meeting where we invited people, volunteers or interested individuals that we found online, to create this moment so people could connect in building something. Then we made a final selection of products and worked on them closely.
You did a fashion show or presentation for the second collection?
Exactly, we did a fashion show in order to present our new collection but also to show what we believe in and make our principles and philosophy tangible. The name of the show was “I am Many,” and with that we wanted to show that our models (who were partly also refugees) also have more than one identity. You can be a refugee; you can be a model; you can be a son; you can be a father. There is so much to our identities and I think that the same accounts for our project. They are men, they are women, independently from any gender, that it was once a broken refugee rubber boat but now it is a bag. So I think that playing with these thoughts of what you think is another person, is another product, was basically the concept of our show.
Your bags are obviously sustainable and they are also vegan too?
Yeah, we think so but regarding the material, we don’t produce the tarp. So as far we know, yes but we don’t want to put effort or focus on this.
Because as you titled the show “I Am Many,” there are many aspects to it.
Exactly, it is one aspect.
So mimycri is about upcycling and involving people. How many people do you have working with you?
Two, so we are a very small team. We are the two founders and then two people work with us on the design and production as a core team. We have a rather broad network that includes for example, an industrial designer who helps us with the pattern making and people who help us when we do events. There is also a base of volunteers that work with us every once in awhile.
So it’s very much a community effort.
Yes, there are a lot of people contributing to it.
When did you first start selling the bags?
April of 2017.
What is your background and Vera’s background outside of starting mimycri?
I worked for the last four years in a strategy and management consulting firm and Vera worked for the environmental program of the United Nations.
I can see how these things would be connected.
(laughing) Yeah, and we knew each other from university. We studied public policy together in Berlin.
When we spoke earlier, you mentioned that it is interesting to see how people respond to mimycri from different industries or fields. Has there been anything that has surprised you in terms of the response?
The responses are very diverse. Some people say, ‘Oh I love it and it’s such a cool idea.’ Then there are people that are really irritated to be all of a sudden holding a piece of history or a piece of broken boat because a lot of people connect the boat with negative news. Then there are other people get very emotional and need to sit down, so it is a very diverse reaction that people have. I don’t think we want to force them to have one certain emotion, just that first of all, their reaction is very interesting for them and also for us. I think it really matters what you do with that emotion. If you are irritated by the [emotion], then I think you really should be because it is very irritating that this is happening and has been happening for so long now.
There are also people that are just interested in the bag and only in the second step do they realize that this is an up-cycled product or project that has a social cause as well. So there are very different angles that you can look at it and the same accounts for what you feel and what you connect with and think about—yeah, [that’s] mimicry.
It’s great that you can reach people in so many different ways. Have you thought about doing trade shows, like the Green Showroom (now NEONYT) in Berlin?
Absolutely, we are very open to new concepts and activities. The industry is very new for us so it’s interesting that all of a sudden we are in the fashion market without knowing anything about it. We would love to get involved more and also reach people that might be interested in our products.
How long does it take labor-wise to make each of your products?
It is very different, but maybe an average of four hours. It really depends on how big the product is; finding a piece [of tarp] that has no holes; having colors that fit together; and this includes washing, cutting, and sewing. But it really varies in terms of how complex, how many belts, and how many extra seams there are.
We have ten design products at the moment and we do them in various colors and those are the variations that we have. The variations stay the same for quite some time. There is a lot of black and grey, which will probably always be available. But there are also colors that are more rare, I want to say, because we don’t have an influence on what kind of boat color is collected on the beaches, obviously. The colors like pink, red, or blue, we do not dye them; they come as they are and we just leave them as they are.
As there is no stretching possible, you have to cut it precisely to make a bag to the quality you want. It was a process of getting the quality we wanted and this is still improving. But I guess every young (and even older) organization tries to improve on the thread, the small little details that might give more quality to your products.
It’s interesting that mimycri specializes in bags so it’s utilitarian but there’s also this idea of baggage—meaning, the things we carry and the stories that we have to integrate, another kind of integration, in a good way. Especially since everyone in this city always carries a bag, a bum bag or a backpack, it makes a lot of sense that you’re based in Berlin.
We’re also very open to suggestions and feedback with regard to our products. For us, it’s not the most important thing that it is a bag. I think the world has enough bags. But it was the most obvious thing for us to do. It’s something that people use in their daily life and it’s something that you have when you are in a conversational mood. We could have done laundry bags but then nobody would ever see them. There are a lot of useful things that one could do with the material but for us it was important that it’s something that people carry consciously. And you do that with this bag.
Where do you source your seatbelts?
We want to use as much sustainable materials as possible. Our seatbelts are not yet sustainable. We are in touch with junkyards to see whether we can get all the old seatbelts. We are also thinking about seatbelts from a plane because they have such high security standards they have to be renewed every once in a while, but then we realized that it’s so important to start doing, to start working and to work on the details along the road. The overall objective should always be 100% but I think you can really lose time in getting to 100%. Having this idea—I have to do everything 100% right—really keeps you from making smaller choices, maybe 80% or 90% choices because you always feel like you have a bad conscience. I think it should be fun also and it’s important that we move toward a more sustainable lifestyle but I think it’s a journey.
How do you sustain yourselves?
For a long time, we received scholarships for starting a business. Now we try to pay ourselves a small salary but it’s tricky. It’s still a work in progress so I still work occasionally as a consultant, doing workshops and business modeling.
I’m sure that’s very handy to have that background and to have started a company like this.
Sometimes you don’t see it. It’s not so obvious to you when you’re in it and you really focus on things you can’t do yourself. But it helps to talk to other people and I think I’ve gotten a lot better at realizing where I need to get help and where I can do my 80% myself. But it’s an interesting learning experience for me to realize how I handle certain challenges. When starting an organization like mimycri, you suddenly do a lot of different tasks you’ve never done before or at other companies there were people whose only job was to do events or PR. So it’s interesting to realize what kind of skills are necessary and where to get help.
I suppose that’s the journey for every entrepreneur. Is mimycri a non-profit organization?
Yes. So it’s a Verein (club), it’s a nonprofit organization. It’s not a company yet. With potential growth this may change and then we will have a hybrid structure. With our sales we try to pay our staff. But we also receive donations, which are actually very important because a lot of our work is talking with schools. We are invited to speak at universities and work with high school or university students or entrepreneurial networks from other countries. This kind of work needs to be co-financed. So it’s more awareness raising and small-scale education, or going with our team members to the doctor’s and writing official letters for them. And these kinds of things, what we consider integration awareness raising work, cannot be financed through the sales of the bags.
That makes sense, and it relates back to “I Am Many.”
Yes, it’s true.