Interview by Kate Peña Ríos
I personally never consider a knit garment to be the highlight of my outfits; knitwear is mostly part of the basics of my closet, as I usually choose other fabrics to stand out on my looks.
When I think of knitwear, 3 words come to my mind: coziness, warmth and nostalgia. Therefore, I dress with knitted clothing when I want to feel comforted and comfortable.
However I have recently discovered another side of knitwear.
“ Positive knitwear” is the main technique of Olivia Rubens, homonym brand of her creative director.
Canadian designer Olivia Rubens embraces 2 important concepts, sustainability and standing up for women, with her brand, while exploring a fashionable and eccentric side of knit garments.
Read more of this talented designer and what’s behind the essence of her brand as well as her compromise to environmental and social causes, in the interview below.
Where do you find the inspiration for your designs?
I take inspiration from social theory and human nature, prodding at behaviours we might normally take for granted with a hint of dark humour.
I enjoy somewhat humorous or playful artworks or photography, such as the works of Martin Parr, Chloe Wise and Nadia Lee Cohen, and most recently Gladys Nillson. This probably stems from my love of cartoons, the basis of which is dark humour because many of us use humour to deal with our hardships and with awkward conversations or situations.
How would you describe the style of your designing?
My design aesthetic is eccentric, and just like myself, as I have always strived to be myself to the Nth degree, despite criticism or traumas, I stand for every womxn who has battled their way to the boardrooms, to running their own studios, to standing their ground ang believing in the truth of their path and their fate.
I design sustainable, eccentric, playful, boyish, sometimes scandalous knitwear. In its presentation, it can be a bit eery, and is definitely styled in a maximalist sense, but taken apart, there is a variety of pieces for diverse womxn.
Which traits or concepts do you want your public to directly relate to your brand?
My design identity is entangled completely with my values, so I strive for both my aesthetic and thus what I stand for in a socially-driven value sense, and what I stand for in an environmentally-driven value sense to be understood and shared. My values are rooted within sustainability, and not just in a circular sense, but in also creating positive impacts for both people and the planet. They are also rooted in social enterprise, and this means that those that I work with and employ, as well as initiatives, whether with womxn or youth, that I undertake, aim to create positive impacts socially. Similarly with my aesthetic, the message I try to put out is a celebration of diversity, of self, and, if not most importantly, of resilience, and I like to express this through my work in a playful and humorous fashion.
What main subjects have you materialized or illustrated with your collections?
I am not sure whether I am answering this correctly, but here is my answer to how I’ve interpreted your question:
My AW20 collection presented a kind of nihilistic view of the self, in the sense that we may never be able to communicate ourselves clearly to other people as they’ll never understand us completely, and that we may never even know ourselves totally in our lifetime. This included references to nature versus nurture through Victorian children’s portraiture and pageant kids, a photoshoot I created where I modelled as various ‘people’ in order to experiment with people’s interpretations of who I was (a criticism on people watching and a nod to Cindy Sherman), and the mask as a way to hide our identities but also to create community and a safe haven to hide our differences and thus prejudices. Recently, for my SS21 capsule collection, I’ve been seeking out manifestations of the celebration of the self, with all its complex facets, rather than separate ‘categories’ in which people might tend to put us. We are all complex beings and I’m trying to shine light on our journeys. The artists I’m referencing (Jeffrey Gibson, Sonia Gomes, Tim Fishlock, and Gladys Nillson) represent themselves as complex intersectional people through their art, represent their own self-sabotage-like tendencies and thoughts, and the appreciation of people and small nuances of their behaviour and postures, as well as the fact that we are ever-changing. Nillson expresses this in that we may dip our foot into the same river, but we never touch the same water twice. I’ve also been interviewing various people/artists within the queer community about self-discovery on their paths, as well as other interviewees about meditation, growth and travel as a route towards self-discovery.
Why did you choose knitwear to be the main technique of your brand?
I have loved knitwear since I first started experimenting with it in Hong Kong during my exchange in my BA in 2014. I love the tactility of textiles, and building a story from the ground up through not only shape, but also through knit. I can’t quite explain it, but I don’t get the same jaw-dropping, drooling reaction as much over a beautiful piece of couture, versus an intricately knit garment. I also love the knitters that I work with, and the exciting process of knit development. I’m constantly learning, and it's a challenging field, especially since I didn’t have that course available as a pathway during my BA, so I am basically self-taught, but the possibilities are endless, so I really enjoy the challenge and the never-ending journey. A benefit of knitwear as well is sustainable sourcing: I find that with fabric, as they are one step more removed from the original fibre source, that most companies aren’t as capable of transparency as they have less knowledge. With yarn, they are often more vertically integrated or connected directly with their sources, so it seems to be easier for them to implement sustainable practices and innovative fibres within their supply chain and their product offer. They are more knowledgeable about it, and there seems to be less greenwashing.
What does it represent for you and what do you want to communicate with it?
Knitwear offers so many possibilities, both within sustainability, and technically. For me though, I place emphasis on craftmanship and collaboration. I work with so many knitters, spinners and dyers, each crucial to the creation of the collections, and I’d like to continue nurturing these relationships by connecting innovation within environmental sustainability and craftmanship in order to innovate together and to create positive impacts. I’d like to continue to be transparent and to create or continue dialogues surround quality, accountability, consumption, and the purpose of clothing.
What makes your brand sustainable?
Every material and trim used is certified organic, recycled, ethical and/or traceable, and I utilize a number of collaborations to make sure my ethos comes full circle in my design process. I work with a natural dyer in Ireland and a local London dyer and yarn spinner, local production in London and surrounding areas, and manufacturing with Manusa, a knit manufacturer in Pistoia, Italy, who employs skilled African refugees and women with fragilities. Research into sustainable and local forms of production, as well as into sustainable sourcing has led to a large pool of knowledge in this area regarding materials and certifications, and I also aim to help other brands make a less harmful impact on the planet through consultancy and collaboration.
What social justice initiatives has your brand promoted?
Back in 2018, I started an initiative called the Matriarch Project. The aim was to illuminate not only changes that should be made within corporations and systemic change to bring forth equality for women in the workplace, but to illuminate women who were actually making those changes happen, who were running their businesses through principle, and who were starting their businesses with these values in place from the get-go in order to really help their clients thrive too. I partnered with Girls E-Mentorship, a charity that provides mentorship and opportunities for girls who were facing boundaries, whether they were high expectations, socio-economic or racial. I ran an event with a variety of female artists and DJ’s with Kronenbourg 1664, who displayed and sold their art, together raising money for the charity.
Last year, for my MA collection, I worked with the Octavia Foundation in not only upcycling unsold garments from their stock floor and giving sustainability workshops to their staff at headquarters, but I also ran a youth workshop at their community centre, The Reed. The purpose was to create and sustain a dialogue about cyber bullying and identity expression through the creation of affirmations, art and masks, and to get to know their perspectives, especially since the UK and their schooling system is a new space for me compared to Canada.
Now, I am working on celebrating our own journeys to discovering ourselves and the complexities of who we are, so I’ve been interviewing drag queens, various people within the queer community and others about their journeys. My goal is to work on shining light on underrepresented communities within the queer community, and to work with kids who might be identifying as non-binary or expressing themselves through drag at an earlier age than my generation did due to what was ‘accepted’ at the time versus now.
I am also working on a people and planet positive design project, called the “Daydream Believer Project” with Gabrielle Miller, an interdisciplinary designer, and mixed media textiles and sustainability academic/tutor at the London College of Fashion. We are developing an upcycled design based on dreams and hopes people might be having or experiencing, especially during quarantine, to create a nostalgic, surreal, and positive outcome to look to during these difficult and uncertain times.
Lastly, while in isolation here in Canada, I have been making and supplying masks to hospices and care homes, as well as hospital gowns for midwives, and creating online resources to print off your own pattern and sew these gowns at home, which are on my website.
How do you think fashion can make a difference in social themes? In other words, why do you think fashion is a rightful mean to address social justice matters to the public?
There are so many issues within the fashion industry. My belief is that in order to enact change, one must not just get angry about the change from the outside, but one must act in order to make real change happen. The fashion industry is such a massive being that cannot simply be flipped on its head. Hopefully I and many other inspiring and innovative designers can shed light on the path we must all take to make sure our planet and our people can thrive once again, and change the industry from the inside-out.
My own work in social justice with regards to fashion is due to my embarking into sustainability in 2016. I grew up in Canada, having the opportunity to take advantage of nature in its fullest sense, and having the butting heads of our planet crumbling to pieces, against my passion to create and design fashion, made way for my questioning, “Why can’t I enact change through fashion?” Just because I am a designer, especially currently as we all question our roles and blur lines, doesn’t mean I have to be relegated to doing just that and only that.
I’d say that sustainability does not just encompass environmental sustainability, but is also inextricably linked with social justice as that is part of it: culture, economics, human rights, and social impacts. So for me, with regards to sustainability (and anything, really), once you learn something, you can’t unlearn it. I can’t stop asking questions, and how I might improve, and this includes social justice and how I can make positive impacts there too.
If you could choose a public figure to be an “ambassador” of your brand, who would it be and why?
Honestly, I’m not sure I can pick one person, at least I haven’t yet, and I don’t know that I would. I would say personally that I am an ambassador of my brand in the sense that I represent my own life, my own traumas, my own resilience, my own unapologetic eccentricities, and my values, and my goal is to bring together and work with communities that exemplify these values, and to learn from them and expand on those too. I wouldn’t necessarily want to ascribe all of these facets and celebration of different selves and diversity to one single person as that wouldn’t be what my brand is all about.
What do you consider to be the highlights of your career as a fashion designer up until now?
My biggest moment in my career would have to be my foray into the field of sustainability, because I wouldn’t be doing anything that I’m doing now without being pulled into that world, and pushed and challenged.
Next to that would be finding some success during my MA, learning more about myself, and in the end doing London Fashion Week through LCF at the Camden Roundhouse, which was completely surreal and a beautiful moment for all those selected from my course, with my friends. I would say the highlight of all of that though would be the relationships and the collaborations developed in order to make the collection happen, which continue now and are key to how I operate and design.
What are 3 goals within the fashion industry you would want to accomplish in the future?
1) Make all pieces I create climate positive, and not just sustainable and circular.
2) Fund skills training and education to economies in need in order to grow businesses/manufacturers with social enterprise at their core, whose goal it is to give workers who need work new skills and independence, such as Manusa.
3) Promote the dialogue surrounding consumption and questioning of over-consumption, helping the public to question the purpose and meaning of their clothing, developing relationships with the pieces they have, consuming more thoughtfully, and holding brands accountable.
Photography BRIAN RANKIN
Stylist PAOLA NERILLI
Hair Stylists ARISA YAMASAKI AND HIROKI KOJIMA
Makeup Artist MARTHA INOUE
Models NENE AND AUSRINE