Fashion-forward: How coal miners turned into unlikely catwalk heroes
Drawing from mining heritage and tradition, Grubenhelden honors its home region while creating a sustainable streetwear brand.
"Without coal, I wouldn’t be here,” says Matthias Bohm. It’s a surprising admission for the owner of a sustainable startup business, but for Bohm it’s a truth he cherishes. And it’s an identity that’s inherent in his company, Grubenhelden.
The streetwear firm is based in Gladbeck, a small town in the Ruhr region, Germany’s “Rust Belt.” Coal mining drove Gladbeck’s economy – and much of Germany’s – from the 1870s, and continued to do so throughout the region for close to 150 years.
Grubenhelden, which means “heroes of the mines,” was founded as an homage to Bohm’s great-grandfather and the many other coal miners whose work powered Germany. “Their work and sacrifices are sometimes forgotten in the race toward eco-friendly energy and modern technology,” says Bohm, whose clothing brand uses visual and cultural touchstones to celebrate mining and working-class culture through its design, bringing the message of traditional values such as team spirit and hard work to the fashion-forward clientele.
Building on history
While Germany has largely moved on to greener fuel sources, coal and prosperity were once inseparable here, particularly in the postwar period.
The mines provided around half a million jobs to the Ruhr region, and brought people to Germany from across Europe – immigrants from Poland, Turkey, Greece and Italy.
“With coal, strangers became friends,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, referring to this wave of workers, in an address at the closure of Germany’s last black coal mine, Prosper-Haniel, which shut in 2018 after 155 years in operation.
The year Prosper-Haniel, Germany’s last black coal mine, closed after 155 years in operation
This is precisely the legacy that is exemplified by Matthias Bohm’s Grubenhelden. “I wanted to tell the story of my home,” he says. “And I started with clothes, because everyone in the world wears clothes.”
Grubenhelden launched as an online shop in March 2016. Three months later, the apparel brand opened its first retail location in Bohm’s hometown of Gladbeck. There are now three, including one in CentrO Oberhausen, the biggest shopping center in Germany, and one at the UNESCO world heritage site Zeche Zollverein in Essen, plus a mobile pop-up shop.
On offer? A range of casual garments for men, women and children, each featuring a special nod to mining. The brand’s signature blue-and-white striped original fabric can be found in every garment – lining the pockets of shorts, as a small strip inside a T-shirt collar, as a patch pocket on a dress or prominently featured as a color-blocked element. Some pieces feature a coal wash effect, or a numbered zipper pull tab based on the miners’ identification marker. These are printed, in remembrance, with “306” – for March 1906, when the Courrières mine disaster took place. It was Europe’s worst such incident; German mining teams traveled to France to aid the rescue effort.
There’s one more unique thing about Grubenhelden designs, explains Matthias Bohm: “In each of our items we print a verse from a German coal miners’ song – it’s called ‘das Steigerlied’.”
Such harmonious touches have helped put the brand in the spotlight and broadened its reach. Grubenhelden received the Tacken Marketing Prize for best startup in 2017, and took part in New York Fashion Week in 2019, receiving a writeup from The New York Times – a usually unattainable coup for a small fashion label.
“I have the chance to tell this regional history on the biggest stage in fashion,” Bohm told the newspaper. Next up, Bohm hopes to bring a collection to Tokyo Fashion Week.
From black gold to green style
Coal and sustainability are rarely in tandem, but that’s proven to be the case for Grubenhelden. The brand produces according to fair conditions in Portugal – but more importantly, also locally in Gladbeck, which helps to keep carbon emissions lower. Recycled plastic is used for packaging and as many garments as possible are made from recycled fabrics. Yet their eco-friendly approach hasn’t really been talked about; the mining story has always taken first priority. That’s soon to change, says Bohm.
“This year and next year we will be communicating about the way we produce our clothes,” he explains, noting that many believe – and often insist to him – that local production is too costly. “Germany has a huge history in producing clothing. It’s not expensive, it’s all about how you produce. We want to tell this story, too.”
Miners know that working together guarantees success. Teamwork is definitely a value that’s embraced at Grubenhelden. Many of the firm’s employees have mining history in the family, sometimes going back generations. And the team also includes five former coal miners, the oldest aged 70. Now above ground, they put their skills to work creating handmade leather belts, as well as also telling stories to their younger colleagues about their days hundreds of meters beneath the Earth’s surface.
Sometimes innovation comes from instinct. Grubenhelden’s latest success came courtesy of a prescient moment.
“When we went to scout Tokyo last September, ahead of our planned Fashion Week appearance, I was one of the very few people not wearing a mask at the train stations,” remembers Bohm. With a show at Tokyo Fashion Week in its sights, Grubenhelden began to discuss making masks for the event as a fashion item geared to local preferences – far ahead of the coronavirus crisis in Europe.
When the pandemic hit Germany, doctors in the region were severely short of personal protective equipment. So they contacted Bohm and asked him to put his sewing team to work stitching masks. In a matter of months, Grubenhelden became possibly the largest mask producer in the Ruhr area.
The firm then teamed up with DHL to make masks from couriers’ upcycled polo shirts. At first, the red and yellow masks went exclusively to DHL, but they can now be purchased by anyone.
Up next for the alliance is a collaboration with DHL Express: limited edition, DHL-Grubenhelden T-shirts and hoodies that wed the colors of DHL with the charcoal grey and striped mining shirt motifs that are the signature of Bohm’s firm.
Forming the future
Remaining calm under pressure is another core value for miners. And nothing has put retailers under more stress recently than the global coronavirus pandemic. Before COVID-19, Grubenhelden’s three stores in Germany generated 80% of sales. Now, online and in-store sales each contribute 50%.
Grubenhelden’s percentage of online sales in the wake of COVID-19
Before the virus struck, Bohm and his colleagues had already laid the foundations for online growth with a sustainable economic and logistics plan, with the goal of making Grubenhelden an international brand. Through social media, the firm has already found interest and affinity with customers in the many places across the world that share its mining history. With e-commerce and deliveries possible around the globe with DHL as a partner, Grubenhelden hopes to break through to the next level soon.
“This region where I come from,” says Bohm, “has changed in the last several years, and will in the next few years, too. We are determined to play a part in that.” — Susanne Stein
The founder of fashion startup Grubenhelden was born and raised in Germany’s Ruhr area. After studying sports science, he worked for many years in the sponsoring and marketing department of a Bundesliga soccer club. Grubenhelden started out as a hobby that turned into a passion, with Bohm deliberately giving up professional security to gain freedom and fulfillment. His mission is to honor his great-grandfather who was a miner, and pay homage to all the miners who helped lay the foundations of Germany’s economic prosperity.
Published: December 2020