The Hague, being the epicentre of politics in the Netherlands, doesn’t appear to be much of a fashion city on the surface, but something is blooming underneath. It is the city of the KABK (Royal Academy of Arts) and home to the Dutch collective Das Leben am Haverkamp, formed by four young fashion designers – Anouk van Klaveren, Christa van der Meer, Dewi Bekker and Gino Anthonisse, who have a novel, rebellious approach to fashion. I’ve always wanted to talk to them, drawn by their philosophy and designs. Their studio has a strong creative vibe and is full of colorful collages, images and designs. I wouldn’t mind getting lost in here. Gino is on leave during my visit, so it’s just us girls. We decided to head out for lunch in the collective’s favourite lunchroom and had a long talk about the collective, fashion, MOAM, the pace of the fashion industry and sustainability.
What is the strength of the collective?
Christa: I think that’s in terms of strengthening each other’s creative vision, enabling to grow individually and as a collective at the same time. We find inspiration in the same things, but each has a different way of observing something, unique to their own creative vision. This allows fresh ideas, highlighted from different angles.
Anouk: You can achieve more in a team, especially in our field of career. I think that’s the strength of this collective, it is 4 people with the same passion and a common goal, who share knowledge with each other. It’s like being part of a movement, each member attributes to its existence.
Dewi: And I think the important aspect is that we’re on the same wave length in terms of how we work. We all want to work with fashion in a different way than what is common right now- and as a team there is opportunity to develop that forward.
In what different way would that be?
Dewi: For one- we are not focused on fashion shows, and in consequence we don’t do many. The average fashion show is about 15 minutes. More importantly, when you create a collection, you want people to experience them to the fullest and create their thoughts around the garments- that rarely happens during a fashion show. What we prefer is to present our clothes in a more meaningful way, like exhibitions or presentations and décor.
Christa; Fashion shows are fast and abstract, before people have really seen your collection, it’s over already. We want to create an atmosphere- the atmosphere that the clothes are made to breathe and there are lots of innovative new ways to do that.
What are the challenges you’ve faced working in fashion?
Anouk: What I have found challenging so far is that we do want to innovate in fashion, but that this is very difficult because you have to deal with the way that the industry is constructed today.
Anouk: An example- a while ago we had a very edgy idea for an interactive exhibition in a place you wouldn’t expect a fashion exhibition to be held. We were advised not to do it- because the fashion districts in Netherlands are set out- mostly to Amsterdam- that no one would show up. So in fact- you want to innovate but you are confronted with how the fashion industry works today. As a starter you need to compromise between what you want and local industry rules.
Christa: But then again we are new in the business and we understand that we sometimes have to compromise in these crucial beginning stages- to get our work out there first. Once you’ve reached your audience and have built a sustainable foundation, you can do things your way.
You are familiar with Amsterdam Fashion Week- what is your take on the Dutch fashion scene?
Christa: It’s not developed yet.
Anouk: For one- Amsterdam Fashion week is a bit of a false fairytale for me. You can show your collection on the runway but there is no opportunity to sell or to get more exposure. It’s all about image, but you need more than that to succeed. Especially as a young designer, starting a label.
Christa: Well it depends on your expectation. If you are looking for a beautiful show and good catwalk pictures for your portfolio- Amsterdam fashion week is a good place for it, but if you want to sell- you need to find a different platform.
Tell me about MOAM- this is the second time someone from this collective has been nominated to design in the prestigious Moam collective.
Christa: Martijn Nekoui, (founder of MOAM), attends every graduation show in the Netherlands and makes a selection, based on extensive research and third party advice. It’s how he discovered our work.
This time it’s you (Christa) – for the launch of HEMA’s special collection this December – congratulations!
Thank you. It’s a very cool assignment and it’s a privilege to work with HEMA and the team. You get the chance to work on a commercial label and think of innovative ways to keep your signature within that commercial frame- so it’s a unique experience for me.
It is very different from what we are normally used to see from your work.
Christa: Very, but that’s exactly what I like about it so much. I mean- I’ve never worked on things that actually went in to production, on such a large scale. It gives you that layer of knowledge about the journey of a collection: from the design table to production- and most importantly how to sell a collection. I’m glad that I am doing this now, right before our presentation in Paris in January- where I can apply this knowledge to good use.
There has been a lot of talk lately that students of fashion that need more knowledge on the business side of fashion- that the focus within fashion departments is mostly on the creative development – what is your take on it?
Dewi: Well it would be good to learn more about it during your course, but I think you can learn that business aspect afterwards. We live in an age where information is available to us at large and you can always learn by connecting with experienced people in the industry, all you need is a good network.
Anouk: Personally I don’t think I would have had the time to focus on business classes during my studies. The way the courses are currently constructed, doesn’t allow one to read comprehensive business books and theories- it clashes with what you’re having to do. We connect with different professionals from all layers of the industry- we set up network meetings to share knowledge and ideas- if you want to learn business you have to be assertive and be ready to get your hands dirty.
Dewi: A lot of people are willing to give you the information you need, if you ask for it. The rest is trial and error.
Your bow ties of human hair- HYPERTRICHOSIS 2.0 questions the current trend where consumers increasingly like to know about the origin of the materials and the products process- at the same time it questions the purpose of custom made items and their transcending meaning when mass produced.
Anouk: My aim was to raise a question. The individuals were asked to donate their own hair to create a personal luxury item. Their lock was depersonalized, given a serial number and a colour analysis. Their names were then written on the plastic bag, being the only connection to its former owners. This is the idea of mass production- how an object is depersonalized – and I exaggerated that urge that consumers have, wanting to know what they buy, wanting an honest product and being picky about ingredients. People started to think about it and I was able to have a conversation about it right there. On one hand we care about ingredients, but on the other hand we really don’t want to know- because it overwhelms us.
The bow ties are custom made items from human hair. Can something from human hair be a luxury item? Today most people connect the concept of luxury (goods) with a Chanel bag or a Louis Vuitton, mainly because of the brand impact and it’s price. How would you define luxury goods?
For me luxury is about the quantity and uniqueness of an item- when something is mass- produced it loses its uniqueness and creative process with it. My bow ties are also very personal and hand made – in that no two items are the same, they are made from a piece of hair belonging to someone. Luxury today is often tied to marketing, claiming the meaning of ‘luxury’. A garment made out of human hair is luxury, maybe even more than that Vuitton bag- due to its limited quantity.
Raf Simons once said that he’s not in to fashion, because he’s a fashion designer. How significant is fashion to your lives?
Anouk: When I started the course I didn’t know ANYTHING about fashion or about designers. I was just drawn to it because I love art and wanted to do something multifaceted. With fashion your aim is to create something that moves, comes to life by fabric and the body of the wearer. It was that artistic element that drew me to it.
Christa: I’ve never had an interest in trends or what other designers were doing- the latter is also dangerous as it can cloud your creative universe. I was always drawn to the idea how people can reveal a piece of their identity through fashion- as a silent form of communication that is how I see fashion.
Dewi: You can say that we are working in fashion, but that we draw our inspiration from the fine arts.
Christa, you’ve worked with Henrik Vibskov- he has a very different approach to fashion- in a recent interview he mentioned that the people often don’t realize that designers too need time to focus. Have you adopted that work ethos- what is your response to that?
Christa: I agree. There is so much to learn and you need to take your time to focus. Fashion today is very much driven by seasons and ultimately the media. If you get caught up in that, it will take all the fun out of what you’re doing. People need to realize that creativity does not come in a factory pace. We’re not sensitive for that kind of pressure, having learned that we perform better when we feel good and are able to invest in our projects, focused on our creative vision rather than the collective industry tempo.
Anouk: Perhaps it depends on what your goal is. Our aim is not to become the next Chanel or Vuitton. I think it’s important that you know what you want, and what your ultimate goal is. At the same time it’s also a mentality- I mean you can create a collection- but if you want to create ‘a unique collection’ it’s relevant that you find time to renew and recharge, take time to work on your artistic development.
Where is ‘Das Leben’ going in the future?
Dewi: First up is our Paris (debut) presentation during men’s week. We will create a collective atmosphere there, in an exhibition setting, where we will create our individual world- within that collective part. We will also have a showroom- where we will showcase our collections that are being produced now.
Christa: We’re not focused on delivering up to 2 collections a year- doing a lot of shows or building a fashion imperium. We really want to do one big project a year aside to our own individual work and we like to continue our research and collaborations.
What would you like to see change in fashion?
Christa: I would like people start to valuing clothing. There are so many people working on clothes- the design, the sewing, the textiles-it’s a valuable piece and you should treat it with respect – it isn’t a disposable item. Today you have people who rather buy new clothes, than washing the old ones.
Dewi: At the same time it’s also about quality- today quantity is preferred over quality.
Anouk: But fast fashion wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a demand for it- so we’re all part of the mentality. They will stop producing more, if you slow down or stop buying.
What would be the solution and how are you individually and as a collective influencing that?
Dewi: As mentioned earlier by Christa, we don’t follow the general pace of the industry, but that of our artistic intellect. We’re only going to make a certain number of garments – keeping collection numbers low and their production local. That way each piece is unique and exclusive. You want people to think: “There are only 20 pieces of this item, so I should take care of it.” – unlike what is happening today, when people know that there are a thousands of that same item around.
Christa: As a designer you want people to go for timeless pieces to express their unique character, instead of blindly following trends. When something is unique and exclusive- you know you have to take care of it, you want to take care of it.
Is there hope?
Christa: Definitely – there is a growing movement stepping up, I think we’ve reached the peek of the fast fashion hype and awareness is rising, more and more people are questioning chains like H&M and Primark.