Ocean Waste, Spice Girls and the United Nations as Fashion Inspiration at KADK

On a recent trip to Copenhagen I paid a visit to the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art (KADK), where I met a group of BA and MA fashion students working under the tutelage of Ann Merete Ohrt, Head of Programme at the Academy.

The visit resulted from an Instagram exchange between student Nina Balstrup and I, reconfirming the power of social media as a connector and entrepreneurial tool for switched-on creatives.  To the work…

Michelle Lyhne Schjerbeck dived, quite literally, into an underwater exploration of our littered oceans, recreating oil slicks and fish nets with locally sourced fabrics for her collection entitled ‘Beautiful Disaster’.  When quizzed about sourcing materials for this, her final collection before graduating, she explained  “It’s so hard for us to source sustainable fabrics”.  “In my process it has become clear how hard it is to make a difference as a fashion student and how hard it is to source materials in an eco-conscious way. Therefore, I have for now chosen to shed light on the matter of water pollution by using textiles and shapes that can represent the issue. I am however hoping that in the future I will be able to work a solution to the issue into my actual designs.”

Joining the discussion on textiles and sourcing, Nina Balstrup explains that there are only two quality fabric shops in Copenhagen, making options limited.  It strikes me that an alternative approach might be to source materials in general, rather than fabric shop textiles, and plundering neighbouring architecture and art student media might bear fruit.  In fact, Michelle has experimented with latex and mixed materials, portraying the idea of ocean waste adhering to the skin.  She did experiment originally with actual ocean waste materials, but they proved too soggy and un-salvageable for use in her collection. 

Michelle Lyhne Schjerbeck – “Beautiful Disaster” collection in progress

Morten Alberto Ishøy’s final collection ‘In desert, creatures appear telling lies’ began with an image that posed for him a philosophical question – how can something real look so manufactured – so unreal?  In the current climate of fakes (news being at the top of the list), this rumination led to an exploration of objects through a layer, or ‘filter’ – in this case, clay sculptures vacuum-packed and metamorphosed into other forms.  Morten’s design ideas are clearly driven by form, rather than textiles or materials.  The silhouettes of his collection were sketched from photographs he took of the trapped, skewed and partially melted vacuum packed clay sculptures which he had crafted.  At each step of his creative process a translation happens, making it an incremental design approach led by fine art.  

Morten elaborates on his process:  “Like in the Bible, Torah and the Quran, the prophet’s sights are that of  blurry human like figures. I have made my silhouettes for the collection by pouring sand on a human behind a plastic curtain and documenting it and then selecting the most interesting shapes.  From these I made clay figures and vacuum packed them, making them a blur once again. Out of these experiments I’ve drawn my collection – inspecting the vacuum packed clay figures closely for details that could be interpreted into garment elements such as lapels, cuffs, etc.”

Morten Alberto Ishøy’s ‘In desert, creatures appear telling lies’ 

Nina Balstrup’s work is a journey through her childhood and an exercise is search and discovery into what makes her so fond of bright colours and glitter.  She tracks back to her first toys, childhood outfits and even nursery school drawings to put together a collage of her design ideas that have been germinating since she was just a few years old.  She reads to me from her school report, which mentions early signs of creative talent and penchant for colour.

Nina’s inspiration includes her school report, childhood drawings and photos

In order to compile a final collection based on memories and nostalgia, Nina has undertaken a huge sourcing exercise, buying jars of Barbie shoes on ebay and dividing them into colour-ways for embroidery, as well as POGs for a Paco Rabanne-style sheath constructed with umpteen ‘o’ rings.  A myriad of 90’s vintage clothing and blankets are piled up on her desk, from which her four final looks for her collection will be crafted.  Her biggest challenge now, she says, is to navigate the garment construction process carefully to add refinement so that the end result is accomplished, yet youthful and fun. 

Nina ponders her journey through her BA studies, including the term she spent studying at Ravensbourne in London.  She says it opened her eyes to a fiercely competitive London scene and pushed her to her creative limits.  Access to all manner of heat transfer, prototyping and digital embroidery machinery at Ravensbourne kick-started her enthusiasm for experimental textile applications.  She hopes to intern at a fashion brand in London after graduating from her BA and before studying for her MA, which is virtually a right of passage in Denmark.  She elaborates by explaining that both BA and MA degrees are paid for by the Danish government, and students’ living expenses are also supported during their studies.  This means that the BA is taught almost as a precursor to the MA, rather than an end point leading chiefly to employment. Nina’s final collection is a bright and punchy textile, knit and embroidery adventure and I can’t wait to see where it leads.

Nina and work in progress for her final collection “REWIND”

MA student Alexander Marstrand is working on a UN-inspired brief for his final project, provoking some interesting political and social questions.  Alexander explains that from his research, he understands the UN to be, ostensibly, a unified group with equal representation and influence from all member countries – the UN flag looks down on all countries across the globe on an even plane.   However, five countries maintain the right to veto resolution votes, and communication is conducted in only six languages: Arabic, Chinese English, French, Spanish and Russian. “I see the project as a comment on the current condition of the globe as such with my personal mix of melancholy and playfulness” Alexander says, of his collection in progress, entitled “UNspiration”.

So how, fair and balanced is it?  There is a hierarchical seating structure at the UN, which he references in his visual inspiration and sparks his consideration of who truly has a voice and who does not.  He asks how the voices of those in Bangladesh, for example, are heard amongst the dominant voices of the west.  

His visual inspiration extended to Swedish artist Bo Beskow and Matisse’s cutouts, in addition to Picasso’s surrealist works, which have informed Alexander’s illustrations reinterpreting the flags and symbols of the UN countries.  The cutout theme extens to his garment silhouettes and pattern making techniques, where he has sculpted 3D shapes onto a mannequin before draping fabric on top.  He has then cut and pinned the fabric in a patchwork technique to use as pattern pieces for cutting and sewing his final garments. 

“UNspirational”, by Alexander Marstrand

Already making and selling a printed silk scarves, Alexander has a foot in commercial fashion.  He wants more platforms and opportunities, though, and explains his frustration at a lack of collaboration between music, arts and fashion in Copenhagen.  “It’s not like in London” he said.  “Fashion East (an emerging designer presentation platform during London Fashion Week) would never happen here”.  Why? I ask.  “It’s a small city” he explains, and cross-collaboration is rare and difficult.  In terms of creative scenes he says that “we don’t really have subcultures and underground movements don’t really mix.  We have been trying to create a street party with the music institute for years (he gestures out the window to a nearby building), but it hasn’t happened.”  

He also mentions what he believes to be a large gap between the fashion industry and fashion students in Denmark, seconded by Nina.  A ‘hands-off’ approach makes it difficult for students to break into the industry, and to be part of professional events, such as Copenhagen Fashion Summit.  Without a fashion week, or a platform to show their final collections (along the lines of Graduate Fashion Week in London, for example) the challenges are clear.   What these students do benefit from is immense support and work space, which is in very short supply at London-based fashion institutions, and the opportunity to study abroad, fully supported by the Danish government.  In the current climate, where creative degrees are under serious threat as tuition fees skyrocket and would-be university students feel under pressure to gain vocational degrees in order to justify fees, this freedom from financial shackles is golden.

Keep up to date with Nina, Michelle, Morten and Alexander‘s work on Instagram.

Header Image:  Nina Balstrup “REWIND” collection in progress

All images: Techstyler

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Achieving Sustainability Requires a Paradigm Shift, Says Kering’s Marie-Claire Daveu

As the driver of Kering’s global sustainability strategy, Marie-Claire Daveu is the company’s spokesperson on what amounts to a mammoth mandate to effect global change management across supply chains and drive education of students and designers to mindfully choose sustainable materials when making creative decisions.  Following the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, I spoke to her about how Kering is identifying, adopting and funding sustainable fashion solutions to mitigate environmental and ethical disasters within the industry.

The subject of sustainability in fashion is complex in that to understand its meaning and implications, designers must understand the technicalities of raw materials and the processes that grow and cultivate them – for example the links between climate change and cattle farming – in order to fully understand the role and importance of sustainable materials.  In luxury fashion, designers make the ultimate decisions about materials usage, so communicating the mechanics of sustainability to them is key.  During an enlightening and in-depth conversation with Marie-Claire Daveu, the complexity of the task became clear, as did the multi-pronged approach that Kering is taking to diagnose, develop and fund sustainable materials solutions.  It also became clear that in order to communicate this topic, Daveu’s engineering credentials (declaring herself an unlikely fashion person) are essential in making the connections between the mechanics and technicalities of the supply chain and the aesthetic and sensibilities of the design teams.

There were several key takeaways from the discussion with Daveu, during which she and I bonded over mutual previous careers in engineering and science respectively, before undertaking careers in the fashion industry.  Perhaps most potent was her assertion that a “with incremental progress you will not change a paradigm” and that disruption through innovation is needed in order to achieve transformation of supply chains to circular systems.  Specifically, she declared that incremental improvements (like using recycled textiles in capsule collections or isolated products, for example) were not sufficient.  Kering is firmly focused on finding disruptive technologies, and to do that they need to identify startups creating game-changing solutions.  Enter their Fashion For Good initiative in partnership with Plug and Play and the C&A Foundation, based in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Plug and Play incubates ideation and growth-stage startups in various industries – previous success stories include Dropbox and Paypal – to research, develop and test potential sustainable solutions for the fashion industry.  In partnering with C&A, Kering is demonstrating its belief that in terms of raw materials, a collaborative effort is required to create an industry-wide shift to more sustainable textiles.  Fashion brands spanning the high street and luxury sectors use cotton, for example, so a collaborative approach between brands increases buying power and provides the scale and volume to support the cost and change management required to transform materials supply chains into circular ones.

The key aim for Kering is to introduce sustainable materials and processes within the supply chain.  Marie-Claire Daveu is clear in her assertion that designers cannot add sustainability at the design stage – it has to be inherent in the raw materials and textiles.  She mentions current Fashion For Good incubee startups Pili-Bio, which uses micro-organisms to embed dye into materials in place of toxic and water-intensive dyeing processes, and Amadou mushroom leather, already product-tested by Irene-Marie Seelig and covered here in depth on the blog last year, when she was a recipient of the Kering Award for Sustainability.

Marie-Claire Daveu at the Kering Award for Sustainability, London College of Fashion – Image: Dave Bennett

Amadou is a potentially viable alternative to animal leathers and Daveu mentioned its promising development a number of times throughout our conversation, along with external innovators Bolt Threads, who have created a synthetic spider silk that she confirms is already a material being explored within the Kering group brands.  Given that Stella McCartney does not use animal skins, developments like Amadou mushroom leather have a clear opportunity to fulfil the brand ethos while maintaining the required levels of luxury and quality.

Irene-Marie Seelig’s Amadou mushroom leather shoe – Image:  Irene-Marie Seelig

Underlining Kering’s Sustainability drive are three pillars:  Care (reduce environmental impact by 40% and greenhouse gas by 50%); Collaborate (working with companies within the supply chain and other brands) and Create (launch disruptive innovations and link sustainability to a circular economy).  Innovation is the point pushed most heavily during our discussion, and it’s clear that the game-changing sustainable solutions will come from outside the brands themselves – most likely from startups (which Kering are investing in) and manufacturers within the supply chain.  Daveu explained that Kering are working very hard with NGOs in Mongolia, for example, to establish sustainable cashmere farming which respects biodiversity and supports animal welfare.  The foundation of this is transparency and traceability, as it is with all sustainable materials development.  Kering have also established programmes with suppliers in Italy and China to have a clear diagnosis of the usage of energy, water and other natural resources in order to analyse their consumption and begin to develop sustainable alternatives.  It’s when considering the complexity of changing entire factory manufacturing and processing systems in order to reduce natural resource consumption that the magnitude of this task to achieve sustainability becomes clear – we are not simply talking about choosing organic cotton in favour regular cotton – this is a deep, expensive and technical change needed to drastically reduce the demands the fashion industry is placing on the planet, across the entire industry. 

Sustainability in Motion – Kering.com

In addition to looking outside of their company for innovation, Kering has developed an in-house materials innovation lab based in Milan, headed up by Cecilia Takayama, who spoke at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit as part of the panel discussion on circular design.  Kering’s lab has been particularly successful in creating sustainable materials for its Gucci and Bottega Veneta brands, and Daveu reveals that they now want to apply this same focus to creating materials for their watch and jewellery brands.

Kering’s Cecilia Takayama on circular design – Image: Copenhagen Fashion Summit

Kering’s commitment to sustainability comes from the top – led by François Henri Pinault, who is active in the implementation of the sustainability strategy for each brand in the Kering stable.  He meets with executives and design teams across all brands to demonstrate the prioritisation of sustainability and the level of seriousness with which it is taken at Kering.  Marie-Claire Daveu also explained that formal KPI’s are in effect to ensure that sustainability remains a focus and targets are met.  

François-Henri Pinault receives the GCC Global Leaders of Change Awards 2015 at UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) – Image: Kering.com

Via Daveu, Kering’s message is that it wants to set the global standard in sustainable luxury by 2025, by delivering on targets within its three pillars.  Underlining their commitment, she said “the new generation will make the future”, and that Kering has a “360 degree approach” including sustainability education via university initiatives at London College of Fashion, Parsons, Central Saint Martins and Tsinghua, along with investments in startups and game-changing innovations.  This, combined with its EP&L and supply-chain efforts aimed at identifying and overhauling environmentally harmful processes, mean Kering are attacking sustainability challenges from all angles.  Keep an eye on Plug and Play Amsterdam and Kering’s Sustainability news to see how it all unfolds. 

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