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UNDER THE INFLUENCE.

UNDER THE INFLUENCE MAGAZINE INTERVIEWED HONEST BY FOUNDER BRUNO PIETERS EARLIER THIS YEAR.
DISCOVER THE ENTIRE CONVERSATION HERE BELOW.

IN THE LATE-1960S, WHEN THE LITERARY CRITIC ROLAND BARTHES SET HIS SITES ON FASHION FOR A SEMINAL STUDY OF SEMIOTIC (LINGUISTIC) SYSTEMS IN OPERATION, HE DISCOVERED A SYSTEM THAT WAS UNRELENTINGLY DRIVEN TOWARD THE PRODUCTION OF ITS FUTURE THROUGH THE DOGMATIC PROMOTION OF CONFORMITY IN THE PRESENT AND ARDENT ‘REFUSAL TO INHERIT’ ITS OWN PAST. SINCE THEN, HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF ‘MUST-HAVE’ LOOKS HAVE COME AND GONE, WHILE FASHION REMAINS FASHION AND THE SHOW MUST GO ON.
ONE BYPRODUCT OF THE TYPE OF PROCESS DESCRIBED BY ROLAND BARTHES IN THE FASHION SYSTEM – OF FASHION’S SELF-BECOMING THROUGH THE ENDLESS, ACCELERATED ONSLAUGHT OF NEW FASHIONS – IS THE SHOCKING MATERIAL WASTE PRODUCED BY THE FASHION INDUSTRY EACH SEASON, THE UNDENIABLE BURDEN THAT THIS IMPOSES ON EARTH’S ECOSYSTEMS AND THE HARSH LABOUR CONDITIONS THAT MANY PRODUCERS FIND HARD TO MONITOR DUE TO HIGH TURNOVER AND THE ECONOMIC INCENTIVES TO MANUFACTURE GARMENTS IN AREAS WITH CHEAP LABOUR AND FEW REGULATIONS. THESE ARE THE TYPES OF CONSEQUENCES OF THE FASHION SYSTEM WITH WHICH WE ARE MOSTLY ALL FAMILIAR, JUST AS WE MAY BE AWARE OF BRANDS WHO PROMOTE THEIR PRODUCTS ON THE GROUNDS OF THEIR SUSTAINABILITY. HOWEVER, EVEN THE MOST CONSCIOUS CONSUMERS CAN FIND THEMSELVES IN AN ETHICALLY INSOLUBLE POSITION WHEN IT COMES TO REFRESHING THEIR WARDROBE, DUE TO THE OVERALL LACK OF TRANSPARENCY ACROSS THE INDUSTRY WHICH MAKES IT HARD TO FIND OUT SPECIFICALLY ABOUT THE ORIGIN AND ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT OF ONE ITEM OF CLOTHING OR ANOTHER.
THIS LACK OF TRANSPARENCY IS A CHALLENGE THAT BELGIAN FASHION DESIGNER BRUNO PIETERS DECIDED TO FACE HEAD ON WHEN HE LAUNCHED HIS COMPANY HONEST BY IN 2012, WHICH HE DESCRIBES AS ‘THE WORLD’S FIRST 100% TRANSPARENT COMPANY’. PRIOR TO THAT, PIETERS HAD HELD A NUMBER OF PROMINENT CREATIVE DIRECTOR POSITIONS, AT THE HELM OF BELGIAN LUXURY GOODS COMPANY DELVAUX (2005-07) AND HUGO BOSS, WHERE HE RAN THE AVANT-GARDE DIVISION HUGO FROM 2007-10, ALONGSIDE HIS EPONYMOUS LABEL WHICH HE FOUNDED IN 2001. IN 2010, HIS GROWING DISILLUSIONMENT AND FATIGUE WITH THE INDUSTRY COMPELLED HIM TO TAKE A TWO-YEAR SABBATICAL FROM FASHION, A PERIOD OF TIME WHICH ENABLED PIETERS TO DRAMATICALLY CHANGE HIS POSITION AND AGENDA WITHIN IT.
IN TAKING A FIRM STANCE AGAINST SUPPLY CHAIN INJUSTICE AND POOR WORKING CONDITIONS, HONEST BY PROVIDES AN ALTERNATIVE MODEL TO MAINSTREAM FASHION. HONEST BY PRODUCTS HAVE ONLY BEEN AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE THROUGH THE BRAND’S WEBSITE (WITH PLANS TO OPEN A FLAGSHIP STORE IN ANTWERP THIS DECEMBER), ENABLING FULL CONTROL OVER ITS MESSAGING AND HOW INFORMATION ABOUT ITS PRODUCTS IS COMMUNICATED. AN IMAGE OF EACH ITEM IS PUBLISHED ALONGSIDE AN EXTENSIVELY DETAILED BREAKDOWN OF MATERIALS (ORGANIC, NATURAL AND ANIMAL FRIENDLY WHERE POSSIBLE) AND SOURCES, COMPANIES AND LOCATIONS OF MANUFACTURE AND THE FULL PRICE CALCULATION. IN MAKING ALL OF THIS INFORMATION AVAILABLE, HONEST BY PLACES ITS CUSTOMERS IN A POSITION OF KNOWLEDGE, EMPOWERING THEM TO DECIDE FOR THEMSELVES WHAT IS ACCEPTABLE IN TERMS OF BEST PRACTICE FOR BUSINESSES. THIS RAISES SERIOUS QUESTIONS ABOUT A DIFFERENT, MORE RESPONSIBLE, CATWALK-FREE FUTURE FOR FASHION.

LEANNE WIERZBA YOU HAVE HAD A UNIQUE TRAJECTORY AS A FASHION DESIGNER, BEGINNING YOUR CAREER IN QUITE AN ARCHETYPAL WAY BY LAUNCHING YOUR OWN LABEL AS WELL AS WORKING AS A CREATIVE DIRECTOR FOR A MAJOR BRAND. YOU THEN WALKED AWAY FROM THAT TO DEVELOP AN INDEPENDENT CLOTHING BRAND AROUND THE PRINCIPLE OF TRANSPARENCY WHICH, CONCEPTUALLY AND PRACTICALLY, STANDS APART FROM THE HIGH FASHION WORLD IN WHICH YOU WERE PREVIOUSLY IMMERSED. WHAT INITIALLY MOTIVATED YOU TO EMBARK ON A CAREER IN FASHION AND WHAT CHANGED FOR YOU ALONG THE WAY?
BRUNO PIETERS I really liked how fashion combines so many art forms. However, when starting out, I never thought about how fashion is also a business. I think that a lot of people who choose to study fashion design forget that; I did completely. This became problematic for me after a few years, which is why I ended up stopping everything and taking a two-year sabbatical. I realised that, ‘Here I am at 35, all of my dreams are coming true – I’m making loads of money working for a big brand and I can be creative – so why am I not happy?’ The reason was that I was becoming a businessman and I never chose that. It was making me feel really uncomfortable and stuck.
 
LW. ONE OF YOUR CORE OBJECTIVES WITH HONEST BY IS TO INTERROGATE THE BUSINESS MODEL OF FASHION. DOES THIS MEAN THAT YOU HAVE ULTIMATELY EMBRACED THAT SIDE OF YOURSELF?
BP. Well, I think that I can be a good businessman, but it’s difficult to combine business and creativity all the time, at the same time. In a job like the one I had at Hugo Boss, that’s the part I didn’t like: that I had to sell a dream, an illusion, an image, a heritage or whatever. That bothered me.
 
LW. SO, YOU THINK THAT THERE IS SOMETHING DISINGENUOUS ABOUT THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE BUSINESS OF FASHION AND THE ASPIRATIONAL VALUES THAT FASHION SETS OUT TO PROJECT?
BP. Yes, that is why I started a brand called Honest By that is completely honest about what we are and what we are doing. We present everything just how it is and don’t try to add an extra dimension by, for instance, coming up with a story about heritage or creating a type of atmosphere. I try to keep it as focused and to the point as possible.
 
LW. HOW WOULD YOU APPROACH THE CREATION OF A COLLECTION OR DESIGN OF A GARMENT WITH THIS ETHOS? A LOT OF DESIGNERS RELY ON SUPPLEMENTARY NARRATIVES AND MUSES, DRAWING ON OTHER REFERENCES FROM HISTORY AND ART.
BP. We have only done three collections in almost five years. When I decided to stop fashion, I really meant it. I came back only because I had this idea about what I desire as a customer. I wanted complete transparency. I had all of these questions that I wanted answered about raw materials, about manufacturing and about price calculations. I had this awareness that a lot of the problems that we see in the world are related to consumption but that fashion is something that people follow and that it can be a great tool for change.
I had this idea for a business, but I didn’t see myself designing clothes anymore. The first collection that we did was actually designed by Glenn [Martens, now Creative Director of Y/Project]. My briefing was that all of the pieces would be essentials, like the beginning of a wardrobe. We were only going to sell them online, which is often very difficult for fit. Glenn designed clothes that were adjustable and could be worn in different ways. If you were a different size or shape, you could change elements [of the garment] with buttons or belts. He had these incredible adjustable trousers that you could wear at high-waist, mid-waist or low on the hips through a button technique that he had devised. It was very clever.
All of the colours [for this collection] were very neutral: beige, navy, black and white. The second collection was really to prove critics wrong about typical eco fashion and how limited you are by sustainable fabrics, so we made it very colourful with a lot of prints. The third collection was mostly about shape and volume, and we were more experimental in our approach to patternmaking.  We also do a lot of collaborations with other designers. I’m always interested when the work doesn’t look sustainable or ‘eco’. For me, ‘eco fashion’ doesn’t exist. There is only fashion and some people produce it in a responsible way and others don’t.
 
LW. I’M CURIOUS TO KNOW A BIT MORE ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND PRIOR TO HONEST BY. YOU TRAINED UNDER SOME INCREDIBLY WELL-RESPECTED DESIGNERS. DID WORKING WITH THEM INFLUENCE YOUR OWN APPROACH TO FASHION, AND DOES ANY OF THAT INFLUENCE REMAIN RELEVANT TO WHAT YOU ARE DOING TODAY?
BP. I worked for designers who were very opposite to each other in style. I worked with Martin Margiela, which was one of my first jobs, and I worked for Christian Lacroix. What was misunderstood about Margiela is that people saw him as an artist, or because of [things like the deconstructed dressmaker’s mannequin waistcoat from Spring 1997] thought that he was really more of a patternmaker. That was very much the opposite of what was going on. It was a very business-focused house. The reason that he started it with Jenny Meirens, who was the president of the business at the time, was that she had a boutique in Brussels which sold Comme des Garçons – she was one of the first people to import it, in the 1980s – and she thought that it was a great product but too expensive. She met Martin and the idea was to launch a collection that would be like Comme des Garçons but more affordable, more democratic. That was the concept at the beginning of Maison Martin Margiela. All of their ideas were very practical and business-oriented. For instance, the flat clothes that they did [Spring 1998]: they thought they were a great idea because they would save on space for shipping. These were great concepts, but they were always very logical. I liked that part of it. I thought it was very honest in a way, though I think it often got interpreted as something else.
Lacroix was the opposite. [His designs] were always highly decorated and had that real artisanal quality. He is truly an artist: he sees in colour and the way that he draws … It didn’t matter that his style wasn’t always fitting with what was going on in fashion, because he stayed true to it and I loved that. I also loved being in the couture ateliers. That is what fascinated me about fashion when I was little; I have always been fascinated by how something has been made.

LW. BOTH MARGIELA AND LACROIX WERE INCREDIBLE INNOVATORS, BUT REALLY OPERATING WITHIN THE CONVENTIONS OF MAINSTREAM FASHION – SHOWING THEIR BIANNUAL COLLECTIONS IN PARIS, AT THE VERY LEAST. WHAT SORT OF RELATIONSHIP DO YOU SEE BETWEEN WHAT YOU ARE DOING WITH HONEST BY AND MAINSTREAM, PERHAPS MORE ROMANTICISED, IDEAS OF FASHION?
BP. I see myself as an activist. I speak at a lot of conferences and give talks in schools. The designers I try to help [including through Honest By’s Future Fashion Designer Scholarship, which grants €10,000 awards to exceptional students to develop their MA collections] I choose them first because they are good designers, but also because they are working in a way that is important to encourage and support.
 
LW. THIS SUMMER, YOU ORGANISED AN EXHIBITION IN ANTWERP, ‘(BEHIND) THE CLOTHES’, ABOUT HONEST BY. IT ENABLED YOU TO COMMUNICATE ABOUT THE BRAND, ITS ETHOS AND COLLABORATORS. IN THE EXHIBITION, YOU HAD A SECTION WITH SLOGAN T-SHIRTS DEDICATED TO KATHERINE HAMMETT, WHO IS THE PERSONIFICATION OF FASHION ACTIVISM.
BP. She’s definitely one of my fashion heroes. She was the first, I think, to use fashion as a tool to spread a message about a political or environmental issue. She also recently changed her entire production system [to make it more sustainable]. She lost manufacturers who were not willing to work with organic cotton, so I thought that was extremely courageous. There are environmental activists who are in the press more than her, but she’s really incredible and visionary. Her slogan t-shirts must make her amongst the most copied designers in the world.
 
LW. MANY FASHION STUDENTS TODAY SEEM VERY INTERESTED IN ACTIVISM AND SUSTAINABILITY. THEY ARE CURIOUS ABOUT HOW THEY CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE.
B.P. This has not always been the case. Just a few years ago everybody was much more concerned about belonging to this or that group. We have been praising the luxury houses for years and years, and there has been no criticism. In recent years, I see students becoming critical again, and not just believing that it’s all good.
 
LW. WHEN YOU WERE STUDYING IN THE 1990S WERE YOU TRAINED TO BE CRITICAL?
BP. It was a very critical moment. I studied from 1996 to 1999. Raf Simons was coming up and he had a new way of looking at fashion, which was quite revolutionary. It was really a moment that was about young blood and new talent. A lot of people started in those days and then became the establishment. So I’m happy to see now, after 20 years, there is a new opportunity for people who are thinking differently, who are more critical. Sometimes I’m disappointed because I think that somebody has something to say or is more rebellious but then see that it’s actually not by choice. The moment that they get the big job or attention from the establishment, they switch priorities.
 
LW. SOMETHING THAT KATHERINE HAMMETT TUNED INTO SO SUCCESSFULLY WAS THE IDEA OF FASHION AS COMMUNICATION. HOWEVER, WOULD YOU AGREE THAT FASHION HAS A BIT OF A PROBLEM WITH COMMUNICATION, IN THAT THERE SEEMS TO BE A BIG DISCONNECT BETWEEN CLOTHING AS SUCH – HOW IT’S TALKED ABOUT AS DESIGN – AND ANY CONVERSATION ABOUT INDUSTRY ETHICS AND HOW CLOTHING IS MADE? SO, YOU OFTEN READ THAT SOMETHING IS REVOLUTIONARY AND AGAINST THE STATUS QUO, TYPICALLY ON THE BASIS OF AN EXTREME SILHOUETTE OR SLOGAN, EVEN IF IT ADHERES TO CONVENTIONAL SYSTEMIC VALUES. THE WAY FASHION IS DISCUSSED BY THE MEDIA DOESN’T AFFORD MUCH CRITICAL INSIGHT ON THAT LEVEL.
BP. There are two types of conversations in fashion. The classic way of looking at it is that this or that type of silhouette or proportion has the potential to be revolutionary. There is the aesthetic and the shape, the materials and the look, and people can say, ‘Wow! That’s revolutionary. That’s new.’ However, what’s new today is this demand or desire for transparency and to know more about the product, because it’s become a mystery. Maybe we didn’t have to do this as much before because we knew that a couture dress was made in a particular way and there was a natural, spontaneous transparency.
Today everything has changed. [The industry] has become so big and complex that it is difficult for a customer to keep track and there are a lot of questions. The reality today is that you can buy a £50,000 dress and you don’t know who was working on the farm where the silk came from. I think it is crazy that you can pay that amount of money and there is still the possibility of child labour being involved. That is why we always work with certified suppliers, where there is accountability. They are being checked regularly and there are certain conditions that must be met which are in fact getting stricter every year.
 
LW. IF YOU WANT TO UNDERSTAND THIS TYPE OF INFORMATION IN SUCH A VACUUM OF KNOWLEDGE AND TRANSPARENCY, WHERE DO YOU BEGIN?
BP. It’s a challenge to work in a more responsible way. On the Honest By website, we have published a list of all of the certified suppliers that we know. We have lists for silk, cotton, linen, wool, hemp, jersey and so on. We communicate all of the research that we are doing and update it regularly. It is accessible for free for anyone to use. You can also begin to ask questions yourself.
From conversations that I have had with designers, the idea that there are limited options and that expensive means ‘good’ are the two biggest misconceptions delaying change. But it’s not as complicated as it used to be. Manufactures have made incredible progress. In the last five years the conversation has also become less marginalised. People take it seriously and are looking into it. They are aware that something needs to change. The next part is to actually do it, and we are in no way there yet.

LW. IN CONVERSATIONS ABOUT SUSTAINABILITY, THE £3 T-SHIRT IS OFTEN CITED AS ANATHEMA – THAT VERY CHEAP CLOTHING CAN NEVER BE SUSTAINABLE AND OUR ADDICTION TO IT IS THE ROOT CAUSE OF FASHION’S ENVIRONMENTAL AND ETHICAL PROBLEMS. YOU PUBLISH THE PRICE CALCULATION FOR EACH HONEST BY GARMENT ON YOUR WEBSITE, AND I NOTICE THAT YOUR PRODUCTION COSTS ARE REALLY HIGH. A LOW COST SHIRT SEEMS LIKE A COMPLETELY UNTENABLE PROPOSITION FOR YOU.
BP. We produce small quantities: about 20 pieces of each item. So, you have to think about those brands who sell thousands and thousands of garments at the same price points as us and imagine their markup!
There is a lot of focus on cheap clothes. When we talk about sustainability we often focus on high street fashion and how bad it is – how irresponsibly they are behaving. However, as I said before, just because something is expensive, it does not mean that it was made responsibly. Equally, something being inexpensive does not mean it was necessarily made irresponsibly – that’s a myth.
When the movie The True Cost came out, everyone was there at the premier and Vogue endorsed it and thought it was great because it really attacked high street fashion. What’s really controversial is when you ask the same questions about high fashion. However, I think we can only solve these problems when we start telling the truth. There is a problem in the whole supply chain and that has nothing to do with the price point.
 
LW. WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE TO SUSTAINABILITY?
BP. Once you have made the decision [to embrace sustainability] you realise that it’s not really that much work or such a dramatic thing to do. The biggest challenge is to make the customer understand that they have all the power to create change, because they are at the top of the fashion pyramid. There is not an American editor who dictates fashion. The industry is only there to grow and to make a profit, and the money only really comes from that customer.
 
LW. DO YOU THINK THAT BEING SUSTAINABLE CAN BE PROFITABLE?
BP. People often ask me this: is working in an honest, transparent and sustainable way profitable? It’s a very difficult thing, because this implies that you believe that it is only possible to be profitable in a dishonest, non-transparent, unsustainable way. Somehow many people really believe it is only possible to profit when somebody else is being used, abused or squeezed out.
 
LW. DO YOU THINK THAT THIS NEGATIVE MENTALITY IS THE RESULT OF FASHION’S SHIFT TOWARD AN INCREASINGLY CORPORATE CULTURE, WHERE COMPANIES ARE ULTIMATELY LEGALLY BOUND TO PRIORITISE PROFITS OVER ANY SHARED SOCIAL VALUES? CAN SUSTAINABILITY EVER REALLY THRIVE IN A CORPORATE CULTURE WHOSE PRINCIPLE DOCTRINE IS THE BOTTOM LINE?
BP. The answer is yes. It’s absolutely possible and it has to be possible. But it will only happen if the customer wants it.
 
LW. SO WHAT YOU ARE SUGGESTING IS THAT THE MORE THE PUBLIC PUSHES FOR INFORMATION, THE MORE COMPANIES WILL BECOME TRANSPARENT ABOUT THEIR PRACTICES, REGARDLESS OF WHAT REGULATIONS ARE OR ARE NOT IN PLACE?
BP. There is this fear, and with the elections in the United States there has been a lot of discussion about the power of corporate America over government. But who makes those corporations so powerful? It’s their customers. If you decide to boycott, to say that we will not support this or finance that through our purchases, it ends. I love that quote from Gandhi: ‘Be the change that you want to see in the world.’
I don’t see us as victims of corporations or victims of government. If you have that awareness, you control your situation. Of course, if we are asleep as laws are being signed and deals are being made, then our freedom becomes smaller and smaller. For instance, there have been various attempts to prevent people from growing their own vegetables [in Europe and the US]. In these instances, something more dramatic than voting through your purchases needs to happen.
 
LW. I SUPPOSE THERE ARE ALSO SIGNIFICANT LIMITS TO WHAT ANY ONE GOVERNMENT CAN DO TO REGULATE BUSINESSES THAT OPERATE TRANSNATIONALLY. TODAY, IF YOU WERE TO PULL APART ALMOST ANY ITEM OF CLOTHING, YOU WOULD DISCOVER THAT IT HAS A TRULY GLOBAL IMPRINT. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON GLOBALISED FASHION? IS IT SOMETHING THAT YOU EMBRACE, AS A PRACTICAL MEASURE, OR WOULD YOU RATHER SEE MORE LOCAL PRODUCTION AND CONSUMPTION?
BP. I think that it’s best for the country in which you live – your community, friends and family – to buy as many local products as possible. You will enrich yourself and your country. From my experience as a designer, if you are working remotely with places like China or India, you are not necessarily saving money; of course people do it to save money, but they are actually indirectly impoverishing themselves and their communities.
Certain things are unavoidable. We don’t grow cotton in Belgium or France. We only grow linen here. Actually, that’s something that’s really sad about the UK, because you have a lot of sheep that aren’t being used for wool at all. It’s almost all coming from Australia because even with the import tax it’s still cheaper. All of the UK wool is being wasted.
 
LW. HOW CLOSELY DO YOU WORK WITH YOUR OWN SUPPLIERS?
BP. We are in direct conversation with the linen manufacturers and the farmers who grow the flax in Belgium. It’s nice to see where the flax is grown and who plants it, as well as where it’s woven. With cotton, it is more difficult, which is why we only work with certified suppliers. They are required to meet certain standards, and we know that there is no child labour involved as they are continuously monitored. Occasionally we visit for ourselves, just to see, and the experience has been positive so far. I would like to be able to check on manufacturing more often but we also use our online database to do this; if you know that one of the suppliers that we have listed is not maintaining standards, you can contact us directly. With transparency, we show our customers what we are doing so that, even if it is not entirely sustainable, the person who is buying your product can make up their own mind and decide for themselves whether or not is acceptable to them.
 
LW. A BIG QUESTION AT THE MOMENT RELATES TO THIS IDEA OF SEASONALITY AND ITS MERIT FOR THE FASHION INDUSTRY. SOME SAY IT HAS BECOME AN IRRATIONAL MODEL THAT NO LONGER WORKS FOR RETAILERS AND ALSO LEADS TO EXCESSIVE LEVELS OF OVERPRODUCTION.
BP. I think that the future is to have one collection and to add pieces to that collection over time. You should basically do what your customers do. They have one wardrobe to which they add and remove individual pieces; they don’t throw their whole wardrobe away and replace it twice a year. That’s how I look at Honest By: it’s one collection and we add pieces to it over time. For me it doesn’t matter how fast that happens.
 
LW. IF THE FUTURE IS MOVING TOWARD SUSTAINABILITY, WHAT IS THE ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY?
BP. I’m hopeful that technology will give us a bit more time. I think that in the end everybody needs to become conscious of who they are and what they are doing here. We invented this word ‘human being’ and we describe human beings as kind and compassionate entities. That’s who we are. To wake up to that and become aware of what we are supposed to do will take a while. Some people are in a situation where they just can’t get there. It’s more realistic to think that people will be printing out shirts at home – which would solve a lot of labour and transport problems – than that 7.5 billion people will wake up very soon.

This interview was originally published in UNDER THE INFLUENCE Magazine.
www.undertheinfluencemagazine.com