(Portrait by Lee Wei Swee)
It’s hard not to believe in a better day when you’re talking to Bruno Pieters. On my way to our interview, a lady accosted me asking me if I spoke Dutch (rude) while clutching a box containing the tiniest little bird. She asked me if I could step onto a bench and place the baby bird back into the leafy confines of the nest from whence it had been defenestrated. She didn’t speak those exact words, I’m being extra, but obviously I obliged and she cried out - verbatim this time: “You’ve earned your 7th heaven now!” I could’ve scarcely dreamt up a more bizarrely fitting prelude to a conversation on sustainable fashion and ways to benefit this planet with such an esteemed designer, who has been revolutionary in melding the concepts of honest production with covetable designer clothing. Though the award-winning Bruges-born designer’s CV reads like fashion gospel (Martin Margiela, Christian Lacroix, Delvaux, Hugo Boss…), working behind the gold-plated doors of the industry’s most powerful brands didn’t quite bring him the joy he had anticipated as a young student at the Antwerp Fashion Department. In a fashion age plagued with breaking news of creative directors quitting due to extreme pressure or simply being dismissed after long years of service (Alber, I know you can see this, please text me back), Pieters already read the writings on the wall loud and clear in 2010 and quit his high profile jobs to travel. After a two-year hiatus, he returned with a renewed sense of purpose and a radical concept: ‘Honest By’, the world’s first 100% transparent company. If the ‘sold out’ signs on the ‘Honest By’ website are an indication - seriously, head over there if you don’t want to be mad missing out on those amazing Harris tweed tartan looks - the people were ready. As Pieters is currently curating the not-to-be-missed expo '(Behind) the Clothes', which sheds light on the processes and people grinding behind the scenes of your new outfit, we reckoned it was the perfect time to sit down and talk about the exciting times fashion is - and should be - bracing itself for and why sometimes you just have let your dreams be just that: dreams.
BRUNO PIETERS: The expo I’m currently curating is divided into two sections: ‘Clothes’ and ‘Behind The Clothes’. ‘Clothes’ is partly a tribute to Katharine Hamnett, a revolutionary fashion designer who was the first to venture beyond colour, shape and proportion and used fashion to express her opinions on political and environmental issues. Another part of ‘Clothes’ is devoted to transparency and features six ‘Honest By’ looks. The final section is ‘Remade’ and features fourteen pieces that I designed between 2001 and 2009, which we reconstructed in sustainable fabrics.
KNOTORYUS: That’s a great idea. So what lies behind the clothes?
BRUNO PIETERS: ‘Behind The Clothes’ features a fifty metres long portrait that I took of 43 Antwerp creatives - people like pattern designers, flax growers - who work behind the scenes. Whatever brand you’re purchasing, there’s always a big network (of people) behind your outfit and that’s the kind of awareness I hope to inspire in visitors. I was able to do what I wanted, but I opted to keep it positive and light; everyone in the portrait is dressed in white so the attention is on them and not on the clothing. That’s also the idea behind the CMYK colours (cyan, magenta, yellow, key: a printing colour model - ed.) running through the expo. It all represents the beginning of a new consciousness.
KNOTORYUS: How did the expo come to fruition?
BRUNO PIETERS: '(Behind) the Clothes' is part of the ‘Born In Antwerp’ project, a new cultural festival backed by the city of Antwerp and shaped by five curators, which runs till the beginning of October. It focuses on the city as a creative economy and contains, for instance, an evening of fashion panels coming up called ‘Fashion Whispers’, featuring designers Mats Rombaut (who makes high fashion, sustainably engineered footwear) and An Vandevorst. Also, don’t miss out on a special course running through the city during which students of the Antwerp Fashion Department showcase their designs, which is a part of 'Born In Antwerp' too.
KNOTORYUS: Before you got to this point, you had to take a step back. Could you talk about the events that led up to your sabbatical six years ago and what exactly inspired the changes in your life?
BRUNO PIETERS: Back in 2009 I had an enormous workload. I was doing eight collections for Hugo Boss and my own menswear and womenswear collections on top of that. That was very tough and I ended up getting a burnout. I had dreams as a student and I actually reached those goals, or I was reaching them. But I realised that none of that was making me happy, even though I’d always thought it would. I said: “Oh, so where do I go now?” It was a moment of crisis and I decided I needed to step back. I was emotionally and physically exhausted, so that decision wasn’t such a hard one to make. (Laughs) It’s not difficult to stop when you’re physically unable to continue. I never thought I’d return to fashion, or would work in the industry again. I travelled, went to India and Australia and moved to Paris. I changed my lifestyle and shopping behaviour. I became a vegan and changed the way I thought about certain things. I started feeling a need for transparency in the things I bought because I wanted to get the best options available. I realised that every purchase has its effect, not only environmentally but also on human and animal lives. As a consumer, I was looking for a brand that provided all of the information so you could decide whether everything aligned with your values. Eventually, I decided to just create this brand myself. (Laughs)
KNOTORYUS: Was there a specific occurrence during your travels that triggered this kind of awareness?
BRUNO PIETERS: In Delhi I saw a huge poster of Gandhi with the quote: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”. It caught my eye as I was passing by in a taxi; I had never seen that phrase before. It touched me. It kept growing in my head and gave me the courage to start again.
KNOTORYUS: You recently shared a quote on Facebook: ‘Don’t let your dreams ruin your life’. Was that also a factor in your decision to leave everything behind for a bit?
BRUNO PIETERS: ‘Don’t let your dreams ruin your life’ to me means that people can sometimes sanctify their own ideas and dreams. But dreams can just be a guide to somewhere; they don’t always have to come true. Don’t let them be dictators. If they don’t come true, they just didn’t. That doesn’t mean your life was pointless or that you’re a failure. Look at the signals around you, that’s what I do. Failed dreams just lead you somewhere else. And often that place is even better.
KNOTORYUS: I think that’s definitely a good mantra for my generation, which is constantly confronted with all of the things we could become but at the same time feel stifled by that excess of information. (Shout-out to my millennials)
BRUNO PIETERS: You don’t need to dwell on dreams. You were meant to arrive at a certain point and then you just move on. That takes courage and time. Don’t stick to something out of stubbornness. (Laughs) Even if you studied for it and you’re doing what you were supposed to but you hate it, let go if it makes you unhappy.
KNOTORYUS: So in 2012 you made your return and founded a revolutionary new brand, ‘Honest By’. What are the most important lessons you’ve picked up from that experience?
BRUNO PIETERS: I was really scared of starting this company because you make yourself very vulnerable working in this way. But being completely transparent has made us stronger as a company and has given me a new source of energy and enthusiasm that I had previously lost. I’m proud of what I do again. Transparency acts as a kind of guide; it sends us in the direction we need to work in. We know that everything we do will be published online so we need to make our choices very consciously. You can’t just run to the fabric supplier around the corner. (Laughs) I haven’t really learned concrete lessons from all of it, I just feel enriched as a person and I’ve grown, as a designer and a human being. It’s nice for the suppliers who work with us to get recognised for their work. They’re proud of what they do so it’s good for people to see what they’ve made and who they are.
KNOTORYUS: ‘Honest By’ is only sold online, not in-store. What prompted that decision and has it complicated or facilitated things?
BRUNO PIETERS: Selling to stores is very difficult because then you need to follow the fashion seasons. Also, some stores are not willing to be transparent about their price calculations. We might open up our own location but that’s not definite yet, we’re thinking about it. A reason why I didn’t want to be sold in multi-brand stores is because the back-story of the concept is lost in those places. In the future, the story won’t be that important anymore because I’m convinced that everyone will operate in a transparent and responsible way. Other designers are really working on this as well but for now there’s still an educational part that needs to be present. The customer shouldn’t feel embarrassed to ask questions and in a multi-brand store you might be more hesitant to ask things or less inclined to investigate, I think.
KNOTORYUS:In the past you’ve stated that a Hugo Boss client had once enquired about the reason why a ribbon was missing from a design she liked and that her question travelled all the way up to your desk. Is the importance of an open store environment motivated by that as well?
BRUNO PIETERS: (Laughs) Yes, yes indeed. I actually gave that example to clarify the importance of the customer. A lot of people think their purchase doesn’t matter or changes anything. Especially in big companies, there’s a group of designers but on the other side you have marketing managers and business analysts whose sole function is to figure out what customers want. That team is much bigger than Team Designers. When people start asking questions in stores, it really makes a difference. For instance, it’s generally known that ‘made in Italy’ or ‘made in France’ labels don’t always mean that something was actually made there. Often those products are made in Asia and finished in Europe. There are a lot of questions consumers have and because lack of clarity endangers the reputation of so many houses, and they know it does, it’s high time for transparency to arrive.
KNOTORYUS: You’re positive that it’s going to happen?
BRUNO PIETERS: The only reason I can think of for not being transparent is the fact that you have something to hide. Or there’s something in your production chain that you’re not proud of or doesn’t back your claims. Competitive reasons are not real ones. Assistants and creative directors move from one fashion house to the next and bring along the list of names (their previous employers worked with). Everyone knows what’s up. If brands say they can’t be transparent because they’re bound by professional secrecy or because that would help competitors: that’s not the reason. As soon as you go to a fair and visit a fabric manufacturer’s booth, the first thing they will inform you of is the list of clients they work for. Within the industry, there is transparency. The only thing that’s missing is that same transparency towards customers. If you pop the where-did-this-come-from question as a consumer and don’t get any reply, then that is all the answer you need. Why would I pay for something that isn’t made in the traditional way luxury houses made their name on anymore?
KNOTORYUS: It’s been almost five years after the launch of ‘Honest By’. Did you experience any backlash from the industry? How do you keep going against the tide?
BRUNO PIETERS: The hard part of doing what we do is not the way of working, finding the right fabrics or being transparent. It’s the fact that you’re marginalised along the way. I used to operate in the mainstream part of fashion; I was really a part of what they call ‘the establishment’. There was a cabal of journalists, stylists, photographers and models at Hugo Boss that I dealt with, for instance. As soon as you fall outside of that universe, you immediately notice how you’re viewed and categorised differently. Everyone has an ego, and I definitely do too. But I’m aware of that and that awareness has been very healing. It takes some time to get used to that different treatment and just focus on the people who are doing what you’re doing and want the same things. But nowadays, the (transparency) conversation is almost completely accepted. If I think about the last Copenhagen Fashion Summit: you had Suzy Menkes, Renzo Rosso, BoF attending. The establishment was there. Sustainability is not a trend. So I focus on that, on good initiatives like Fashion Revolution and young designers who work in a really sustainable way, like Mats Rombaut, who has been doing so since the beginning.
KNOTORYUS: Is that same feeling of being marginalised something you actively try to go against through your own fund, the Future Fashion Designer Scholarship (a scholarship sponsored by ‘Honest By’ supporting students wishing to work in a progressive, vegan and transparent way, offering a cash prize and mentoring - ed.)?
BRUNO PIETERS: A few years ago I was invited to participate in the LVMH prize. I wasn’t going to do it initially, but they sent over two journalists I really respect who were charged to find designers because it wasn’t well known then. I hesitated because I was building a young brand but did it eventually. Once there, I realised that I was the only designer working in a transparent and sustainable way amongst all of these young brands. It should’ve been the other way around, to me. Then I realised that people always say the next generation will fix everything, ‘let’s have hope for the future’. But in the end, young people are still in the thick of their schooling process; they look up to other designers. It’s the older generation’s job to set the right example instead of assuming the next generation will take care of it. So a scholarship was necessary to support young designers wanting to work in a sustainable way.
KNOTORYUS: How do you mentor the FFDS students, apart from supporting them financially?
BRUNO PIETERS: We guide the students with everything they want to do: if they need a certain fabric we’ll help them find a supplier. We’ll send them to the fair in Paris with a list of questions for certain suppliers and we also help out with the online collection promo, the photo shoot and of course with financial support. All the big prizes I can think of support the classic way of working, they’re not future-driven. ‘Follow the rules as they are set now and you’ll be successful’. And in a sense, that’s true. In the '(Behind) the Clothes' expo, one of the t-shirts sports the quote ‘If you want to be successful, follow the rules. If you want to make history, break them’. There are certain steps you need to follow, magazines you need to be in, blogs you need to be on and stores you need to be in. Everyone wants the same things. If you want to break out of the fashion mould, know that it’s very inflexible and only opens up every 20 years for new talent. The last time that there was a level of interest for young talent like there is now - for Vetements, Y/Project etcetera - was 20 years ago with Raf Simons, Veronique Branquinho and Bernhard Willhelm. What’s revolutionary about what (young) designers now are doing is the fact that they’re succeeding. The establishment is ready to discover new people again. In England that has always been the case, but in Paris, for two decades now, the conversation has only been about luxury houses and the new designers they would attract.
KNOTORYUS: In the ‘Honest By’ manifesto, you mentioned that students who can’t afford sustainable fashion need to be afforded some time to think about their relationship with the environment and others - like Katharine Hamnett said: ‘Stop And Think’. Are there any other thinkers or entrepreneurs who have inspired you to do just that?
BRUNO PIETERS: Katharine Hamnett is definitely someone I look up to, as well as Julie Gilhart, the former buyer for Barney’s New York. In fashion there are fewer (people who have inspired me) than historical figures like Mahatma Gandhi or Eckhart Tolle, a contemporary German philosopher. People Tree founder Safia Minney has also influenced me; she was one of the first people to start a brand in an affordable, ethical and environmentally friendly way. ‘Honest By’ is not accessible for everyone, but we’re the exception because most sustainable brands are. I also think that in the future we’ll be printing our own clothes at home, which is already possible now with the accessories ‘Honest By’ has available online. One of the people featured in the expo is the creative director of Materialise, Joris Debo, one of the most important companies in 3D printing globally; they also make clothes for Iris Van Herpen. 3D printing technology is much written about but it’s very young. Once it really sets off, it will solve an enormous amount of issues like unethical labour, slave and child labour since you’re making everything yourself.
KNOTORYUS: When you were still working for big brands, did you already have a sense that everything could be done differently?
BRUNO PIETERS: No, that notion came from stepping outside for a bit. I completely understand designers who are not focused on that at the moment. They just don’t have the time or space to be. If you’re working with these big brands and suppliers, who are considered to be luxury suppliers – you assume the expensive fabrics you’re getting are also sustainable. I don’t know why that logic persists. It’s not because a fabric costs 200 euros a metre that the suppliers can be sure that a child was not picking cotton to make it. Sustainable (products) can be expensive, but expensive products don’t equate sustainability. For cotton or other raw material, if you don’t have a GOTS certificate, an organic or fair trade certificate, you don’t know who was working on the cotton field or in the silk farm. There are so many sub-suppliers involved now that companies just don’t know. That’s the advantage of fabrics that come with a certificate. Every part of the process is certified: the raw material, the weaving and the dyeing. And the guidelines become stricter each year, instead of easier or more commercial. If I think of my own situation at Hugo Boss: if I had wanted to, I could have asked them to provide certain fabrics but in a sustainable version. If a company wants it to happen, they will get it done.
KNOTORYUS: Creative directors do have that power.
BRUNO PIETERS: Yes, but a lot of designers don’t realise that. I used to think that sustainable fabrics meant that the choice would be very limited: only linen and hemp, only beige and white. (Laughs) That was the interesting thing when we sent last year’s FFDS scholar, Marie-Sophie Beinke, to the Première Vision fair in Paris and gave her a list of questions for all the suppliers. At the Gruppo Dondi booth, an Italian (jersey) manufacturer, she asked them if they could make her fabric selection in a sustainable version. They replied they were happy she had asked because they had been preparing for that question for years but no one ever asked them. Designers should know that, some companies are really capable (of meeting durable demands). When I attend forums, big companies often say it’s easier for a small company to change than a big company. But that’s not true, that’s an excuse. A big company can apply more financial pressure than a small company, that’s just a fact. In the end, I just know that awareness will spread and people will realise that they can adapt and reap the benefits. I definitely see the future through rose-tinted glasses.
(Behind) the Clothes
Official Opening: Saturday 04.06.16
8 pm – 10 pm, (No invitation required)
Exhibition: 05.06.16 – 31.07.16
11am – 6 pm
Closed Mondays, Free Admission
Kattendijkdok-Oostkaai 22, 2000 Antwerp