In the little Czech village where he comes from, there are only two options for work, explains AUB graduate Fashion Designer Milan Flicek, "train to be a firefighter or train to be a footballer.
"So, once I was five, I trained in the firefighter camp. After I left to pursue a career in Fashion, my interests followed me and I became known as the Fashion Firefighter!"
Originally from the Czech Republic, aspiring designer Milan's controversially-named collection STOP F****** BURNING CLOTHES has already featured in the pages of Vogue Scandinavia and at Copenhagen Fashion Week, where his work carries a unique story of upbringing and heritage.
“My collection really started while I was studying BA (Hons) Fashion at AUB. I was inspired by an amazing tutor, who told us that to make our fashion collections stand out, they needed to be personal.
“I know that the controversial name of my collection will close some doors to companies – I knew that at the time, and I chose it freely. But I hope that it draws attention and that people will help me to spread the word and fight for this really important issue.”
That issue is the ugly and unsustainable side of Fashion – dead stocking is a destructive and damaging incineration practice taking place across the fashion industry. In 2017, Burberry made headlines after burning more than £28 million of clothing.
Milan explains: “I took on a research project at uni and it was a horrible moment to learn that after so much effort to create new garments, the fashion industry would burn so much of its materials – 94million tonnes of material with faulty zips, or just designs that weren’t popular… It’s crazy. It made me feel sick.
“During my five days of research, I somehow managed to burn myself and I remembered the story of a Czech national hero, Jan Palach. Jan was a Czech student in the 1960s and he was desperate to protest against the communist regime. When the USSR occupied Czechoslovakia the only thing he could do to get people’s attention, was to go into a square in Prague and set himself on fire."
Jan Palach, who died of his burns three days later, would become a growing symbol of defiance against the occupiers, who suppressed freedom of speech and protest.
"People celebrated his action and this became a big demonstration on the day of his act of protest, with demonstrations getting bigger and bigger until we became a democratic country. We now have a national holiday in memory of Jan Palach, and every year people gather to put candles on the street to remember him."
With such a powerful heritage behind him, Milan decided to introduce Palach’s legacy into his own work by incorporating a popular Czech stamp image of the protestor into his collection.
“Before long, people had started calling me the Fashion Firefighter because my collection is made from 95% dead stock; discarded fashion materials that are traditionally shredded and burned by the fashion industry.
“I gather these discarded 15cm shreds of fabric, which I then use in my work with a new technique I call ‘Fire Piping’, which uses lines of thin pipe to join together fabrics in a sort of patchwork. Aside from being sustainable, this makes every garment truly unique.”
Milan, who's currently working with organisations like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, has through his research attracted interest from the Danish Government, who are keen to work with him to look at how laws could be used to ban the wasteful practice.
“I’m working with another academic and the Danish Government to look at how we can make it illegal to burn stock in Denmark – the government here are very willing to help make change. And if one government can do it, I hope it spreads like a wildfire, encouraging all others to do the same. I never really thought that through fashion I could do something powerful like this, but I am, and it is happening right now.”
Speaking about his motivations to continue to speak out and stand against the might of the fashion industry, Milan remains resolute and determined. “Sometimes you can feel like you’re just one person, but Jan Palach was just one person… You have to be bold. Trust in yourself. No-one else lives your life, and everyone else’s life is already taken.
"Find a story that you connect with, a story that motivates you. I don’t do this work for just for myself, it is for a bigger good – I do it for my father, for Jan Palach, to be known as the Fashion Firefighter. If you can change the perspective of just one person, that’s enough, and if anything can do that, it’s fashion!”
Recently winning the Fashion Design award at The Best in Design in the Czech Republic, Milan’s Copenhagen-based clothing brand OUR SHIFT combines activism with upcycling. His brand has attended events like Roskilde Festival, where the Circular Lab project saw them collect up disused festival tents to be remade into clothes.
Milan now plans to take his work to fashion shows across the globe, spreading awareness of the unsustainable dead stocking process, and the need for reform within the industry.