“The real change I see is in the young designers”
Interview // Orsola de Castro
Fashion Open Studio, an initiative of Fashion Revolution, is entering Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Berlin for the first time this season. MBFW Berlin talked to Orsola de Castro, founder and global creative director of Fashion Revolution, about Berlin’s creative potential, the challenges small brands face and a cultural shift taking place in the fashion industry.
What did you expect when you decided to bring Fashion Open Studio to Berlin?
Well, I expected to find a certain sense for sustainability. My understanding of Germany is that the citizen’s understanding of sustainability – and demand for sustainability – is pioneering compared to many other European and global cities. We have not had this kind of cooperation with a city or a full fashion week so far. So in that sense, it feels like a very right place for us to be.
How do you assess Berlin’s creative potential?
For me the potential of a city like Berlin lies in its rigor – you know sustainable brands are rigorously accepted by the mainstream public, which maybe we don’t see so much in the UK. And it lies in its youth, the sense that it is attracting a lot of innovation when it comes to new brands. You also immediately think of Berlin and some kind of freedom…creative freedom, expressive freedom. And I like that smaller brands are appreciated. You do not need to be massive. But I was told in Berlin the word “small” sort of connotates “unprofessional,” and I really don’t mean that. I mean small in the best possible sense of the word – as in small, with a conscious and considerate growth plan. That’s what I consider small: not someone who intends to somehow dominate the entire world, but is happy with a more paced and gentle speed and size for the brand. That’s what I mean. And I think that Berlin recognizes these different sizes, respects them and gives them equal visibility to many other more mainstream counterparts.
You once stated in an interview that the future is for small brands…
I am bored stiff of H&M and Zara and Gucci and Michael Kors and every street in the world looking the same. Right now, forty brands hold 97% of the market. I do not want to see this anymore. I want one million brands holding 100% of the market and I want those little brands to be different in each area where they come from.
You work a lot with small brands. What do you personally take away from the mentorships you are involved in?
First of all: Teachers are students. We are learning as we teach. To be honest with you – I sound like some fairytale witch – they are my lifeline. They are the only reason I can believe that my work is possible. It is not just that they need me, we need each other – that fits perfectly to finding a solution together. So I can use their energy to keep believing in it and I can pass my experience to them to make things.
What common challenges do brands aiming for a sustainable or philanthropic approach face today?
Their main challenge is staying alive and selling a product at a time when it is difficult to put that product under everybody’s nose – a time when the competition is unbeatable. But what is interesting is that there is not one common denominator. Everyone faces a different journey, and therefore different challenges. And this is why, in a way, we are breaking apart those challenges with Fashion Open Studio – maybe one designer is looking for more sustainable leather, but then another one has just found that more sustainable leather but they are looking for better communication. You know we come from a system that divides one against the other, so it’s considered helping the competition to share your research with another designer. But if you actually put together two emerging designers, it’s the opposite: Things multiply rather than becoming divided. This is a cultural shift in this industry, but these younger kids are more prepared to do that.
So it is basically about changing a mindset?
I think it’s simply about sharing resources and it happens in other industries, too – fusion food brings together all sorts of different areas in one place, musical artists sampling other artists. For me, blending into each other is a sign of strength rather than a sign of weakness. The beauty of Fashion Open Studio is to see how willing the designers are to support the new ones that are coming in. Giving your time, your resources, your materials to the younger ones…you just see the world in a really different way.
We spoke about designers and their ability to promote change. Let’s talk about consumers. Researchers say that Gen-Z and Millennials are buying differently…
Yeah, in terms of buying there is definitely hope, because the cyclical nature of fashion implies that what was absolutely overrated yesterday is going to look like shit tomorrow. So there is inevitably going to be a backlash against the fast, the cheap, the too-much. I think that there is going to be a massive shift in that. The real issue is that there is an urgency. We cannot wait for this actual shift to happen as a trend. We need to enforce laws and regulations in order to make it happen faster.
In this context, is transparency the most important accelerator for change?
Transparency is literally step number one. So if you are a concerned citizen, if you are somebody that wants to scrutinize, that is your first step. To have an opinion, you need to study. You need to find out if you believe a brand, if it is making credible statements. And it’s about changing our habits completely.
This is what we’ve needed to do in many ways due to the current pandemic. What impact has Covid-19 had on the fashion industry?
Covid was like the big magnifying lens. In the UK, we had the story of Boohoo – this brand paying garment workers in Leicester 29 pence an hour in broad daylight to make clothes that cost 2 pounds. And there were more examples. I think that was Covid: It kind of exploded, with all of this becoming visible. But at the same time, I think there is an oxymoron in fashion, as with everything. The minute we were out of the past lockdown, every government was saying: “Buy, buy, buy! Spend, spend, spend!” To kickstart the economy. It is a very confusing message, which is why it is important to get it absolutely right. As a citizen, I would like to say yes, I want to “buy, buy, buy” to support dignified paid jobs, living wages for the people that are making that product. There is no sense in “buy, buy, buy” to make certain companies even richer. So that “buy, buy, buy” is fine – but show me where that money is going.
Last but not least: Fashion Revolution was founded eight years ago. What have you accomplished? Are we going in the right direction?
We really woke people up for sure. We wouldn’t take all the credit for it, as it’s not just ours to take, but we were certainly part of a growing movement and we just got it right from the beginning. The branding we used, the fact that we were so open, the communication – we were quite accurate and inclusive in what we discussed. We have a massive global presence in 92 countries, so in terms of citizens’ awareness I feel that we have accomplished a lot of positive steps. What can I see in terms of real change? The real change I see, which is proof enough for me, is in the young designers. Because if these guys are coming out 100% revolutionaries from minute one, then something has been done.
text by Sophia Steube
edited by Melissa Frost