Fashion victims turn Berlin prisoners' designer label into an online success story

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The Independent Online

The biggest prison in Europe has hit the fashion headlines in Germany by becoming the first jail to set up a website advertising designer clothes made by convicted criminals.

Laceless trainers glued together by burglars, classic striped prison shirts sewn by murderers and handbags styled by convicted drug dealers are part of the daily work output for the 1,670 inmates at Berlin's grimTegel prison.

Its convicts have been making clothes since 1898 and until last month they had to be content with making the rough and ready gear mainly for themselves.

But now Tegel's Jailwear has been launched on the internet and it is a roaring success.

"The response has been beyond our wildest expectations," said Ulrich Fehlau, the prison's labour unit director, who supervises fashion production. "We have even had orders from as far away as Canada."

The idea to market the clothes professionally came from Stephan Bohle, a fashion expert in the Berlin marketing agency Herr Ledes.

Months ago, Mr Bohle dropped in at Tegel's prison shop where, among the humdrum selection of items, he discovered a chic pair of trainers styled in an unusual combination of brown and turquoise.

"I was sure the shoes would sell like hotcakes, if they were marketed with the right trend and lifestyle attributes," Mr Bohle said. From this month, internet browsers who click on the word Haeftling, which means prisoner in German, will arrive at Tegel prison's online fashion shop.

Customers can order 100 per cent cotton prison shirts, complete with traditional stripes, for a mere €29 (£20.50). Hard-wearing summer prison jackets, available not only in classic blue but also in fashionable orange and olive green, cost €32.

The product range includes leather handbags, fashioned into the style ofprison warders' briefcases and stamped with the word Haeftlingon their buckles, and standard laceless prison trainers in a variety of bright colours.

Mr Bohle claims that the range makes the products of established designer companies such as Adidas look boring.

"We opted for the Haeftling label because the term is catchy and a bit provocative," he said. "We're selling not only in Germany, but in Britain, the Netherlands, Austria and Scandinavia."

The prisoners pack the products themselves, although each item is X-rayed before being dispatchedto ensure no convict tries to smuggle out anything illegal.

To prevent prospective customers being put off, the prison authorities have banned sexual offenders from making the clothes.

Last week, 15 Tegel inmates were hard at work in a prison workshop, ripping apart a discarded black leather sofa that was being turned into Haeftling handbags.

Christoph, 45, who is serving 10 years for murder, said: "I'm glad it's worked out with the internet project because it gives us real contact with the outside world. We are making things for others to enjoy."

With 40 per cent of Tegel's prisoners unemployed, the internet project has come as a welcome boost to the jail. The prisoners get an allowance of €26 a month, but ones working on the clothing line can earn up to €12.50 a day.

The cash from the sales is divided among the bankrupt city of Berlin, the prison and the inmates.