I lock my bike to his and step into his studio. I say ‘bonjour’ to his mum, to his partner and to a few young women focusing on something important on a screen. He brings me coffee and we sit down in his tiny office to talk. When I leave I try to take everything in with my eyes: the clothes on rails and in piles, the Alaïa dress on a mannequin, the images of past collections pinned to a wall. And the focus and friendliness that seems a common trait to everyone who works here.
For me ‘sustainability’ is such a bullshit word. It’s very much a marketing tool today. It’s not about just using organic cotton; it’s about how you act on every level. It’s about respecting everyone you work with – from the person who picks the fibres to the people in your office. We know by now that fashion relies on an unsustainable system that requires us to buy more and more and more. But I don’t believe that fashion is ‘bad.’ It’s complex. Real sustainability is about how you practise it in a respectful way and on a human scale. I’m not saying that we’re succeeding, but we are trying. Atlein has sustainable practises but I would never say that we’re a sustainable brand. The most important thing we do is using dead stock fabrics because the most unsustainable practise is to produce more textiles; the chemical processes involved in dyeing are really harmful. We keep things local by working with a factory in France. But I’d honestly feel like a liar if I went out and advertised the fact that we’re sustainable – and yet we’re more sustainable than most brands who use that term in their marketing. It’s complicated and I’m very conflicted, like most people today.
I’ve worked in fashion houses for such a long time: seven years at Balenciaga, and before that at Givenchy and Louis Vuitton. And there was always something that felt wrong about it, about me being there. A year ago I was feeling so angry and sad about the state of the world. At that time Extinction Rebellion started in France, and I immediately joined them. It was a way for me to actively encourage change. I don’t think the answer is to feel guilty about loving fashion. We have an amazing knowhow and history of fashion in Europe and it needs to be safeguarded, but the challenge is to figure out how to do that in a less destructive way. Moving forward isn’t about saying I’m right and you’re wrong, and I don’t believe in pointing fingers at anyone. It’s our economic system that’s destructive. I mean, who am I to say that fast fashion shouldn’t exist for example? People who don’t have money, why shouldn’t they have access to fashion? I don’t think that we solve anything by saying only high fashion is good and everything else is shit. I’m well aware that I’m making very expensive dresses that very few people can afford. So yes, I’m conflicted. I don’t hold the answer. I try to find a way to work that’s respectful to people and to the environment. That’s all we can do: try, die trying.
In many ways I have my mother to thank for my my environmental consciousness. I remember sweltering hot summers in the car were she’d roll down the windows and tell us that she wasn’t putting the air con on because she was thinking about our future. And this was in the Nineties you know. People didn’t talk about the environment they way we do today. I’ve always felt close to nature, even though I grew up in Paris. I surf. Not as much as I’d like to, but still. I’ve always felt that we’re all connected, all one. When I named my company, I chose ‘Atlein’ as a nod to the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve always been super interested in biology and zoology. I don’t travel as much because I’m mindful of the effect it has on the environment, but I used to travel a lot. I have a big passion for primates, especially big apes. I’ve been to conservation centres all over to see mountain gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees: Sumatra, Laos, Uganda, Costa Rica. Seeing a mountain gorilla is like seeing the god of the mountains: it’s almost mystical. There is so much of us in them, and yet we’re so different.
Today we live in an entertainment society, a media society. You have to be out there. Sometimes I think I’m paying a high price for not being more engaged with Instagram for example. I’m being really unfiltered now, but you understand me don’t you? I can’t help but think that we’d be selling more or be more recognised if I was able to play the game better. I don’t know. I’m not saying those things are the only ones that make you successful in fashion… but they are important. I’ve made so many mistakes since I started. Learning who to listen to is one of the hardest things, in work and in life. Me, I get clarity when I surf. Surfing is a great analogy for life actually. You have to pay attention to how the wind is blowing, you have to analyse the sea in order to catch the best wave. When it comes, you need to be prepared to grab it. You need to intuit: this is going to be the good ride. I’m still learning. Atlein is such a personal project. Everything I have goes into the company: all my time and every cent I make. My mom, my brother, my boyfriend – they all work with me. The name reflects what I care about the most. It couldn’t be more intimate, but then again I wouldn’t know how to do it any other way.
We forget that people working in the shadows can have the biggest impact. Do you know the designer Patrick van Ommeslaeghe? He’s not famous, but he is so important. He worked at Jil Sander with Raf Simons and at Loewe too. Maybe his name won’t be in books, but to me he’s one of the most important designers of the last decades. His dresses are on every mood board. You don’t have to make millions or be known to everybody to be important or have a lasting impact, and now that fashion is so intertwined with fame we lose sight of that sometimes. I’m the same. I get consumed by the fact that we have only 10 000 followers on Instagram. I know it’s silly but it can keep me awake at night. I’m not going to lie – it’s the way recognition is shown today. I hate how everything is about ratings, but I also realise that I need to partake in that culture. It’s the way the industry works now. Instagram can give you amazing access too of course; it’s brought us lots of good things. I’ve met amazing clients that way: one invited us to do a trunk show at her home in America and it was fantastic. We made money with that.
People expect clarity of vision from a designer; a lot of people come to fashion for reassurance. Sometimes people just don’t know what they want so the role of the designer is to say, ‘This is what’s good for you.’ But I’m a very intuitive designer, I don’t always know why I do what I do so when people rush up to me after the show to get my references, I don’t always know what to say. I don’t work with grand concepts, I’m interested in cutting, sewing, draping, structure and silhouette. I’m a dressmaker. I’m inspired by gestures and movement. The way a woman zips up the back of her dress, the way she rides a bicycle, or talks, or smokes. It takes time for me to digest and conceptualise what I’ve done. But as a designer you get that one moment – the show – which is over in fifteen minutes, and then you have another ten minutes to explain yourself to journalists afterwards. The idea of success in fashion today doesn’t always allow for someone like me: I doubt a lot, I’m not always sure. It’s normal; I think most people are like that. But the system isn’t set up to integrate it.
Why am I here? That’s such an important question. It helps us clarify why we do what we do. I remember this summer, I was on a bridge in Paris with Extinction Rebellion and the police were gassing us and I was scared. I thought to myself: I’m a fashion designer, why am I here? And sometimes when things are tough at Atlein I think I should’ve stayed working at some big fashion house, become the head of design somewhere, made a lot of money and been able to go on holidays. Why am I here? But no. The choices I’ve made for myself are the right ones. This is what I have to do. I can’t really explain it. But asking myself that question again and again helps me define who I am. Doubt is essential to creativity. It’s the point of creation, when all the possibilities open to you start to vibrate and you actively choose where to go, and what to make.
Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is Vestoj’s publisher and editor-in-chief, as well as a Research Fellow at London College of Fashion.