How To Create Sustainable Couture, One Piece At A Time

Using leftover stock and vintage fabrics, Ronald van der Kemp wants to make clothes with soul.

How To Create Sustainable Couture, One Piece At A Time

Sustainability is the current buzzword in fashion, but for Ronald van der Kemp it is embedded in his brand’s ethos. So much so that the Dutch designer, who has rapidly made a name for himself with glamorous upcycled outfits, recently made the difficult business decision to stop working with retailers, including Net-a-Porter and Bergdorf Goodman.

“We had to cut a big part of our business to keep to our DNA, because we really want to stick to our principles. Instead, we’re going to try to work directly with private clients and reach out to women who want something very exclusive and special, something that no one else has,” he explains.

Van der Kemp readily admits that running a business on a fully sustainable basis is extremely difficult. “As a couture house, sometimes you have to fly somewhere to do a fitting — that’s the nature of the business. Travelling is something I don’t have an answer for. You have to travel to spread the message. Al Gore had to do the same.”

But the Amsterdam-based designer is on a mission to show the world it is possible to create stylish and sexy outfits by repurposing disregarded material, vintage couture fabrics, leftover stock and offcuts, and combining these with creative flair. RVDK, the label he founded in 2014, eschews the fashion system’s wasteful ways by offering garments that are not tied to a particular fashion season and ensuring they have “a soul”, as the designer puts it.

“We work with what we find and we work with what we have,” van der Kemp remarked during Paris Couture Week, where he unveiled his latest “wardrobe”. The designer doesn’t like to use the word “collection” because each garment is created independently of others and is dependent on the fabrics available at the time.

“We are on a mission to reinvent the notion of a couture house for the future; a couture house as a movement,” he says.

Van der Kemp, who was recently awarded the Grand Seigneur, Holland’s highest accolade in fashion, spent more than 25 years in the high-end fashion industry, working as a designer and creative director for the likes of Bill Blass, Barneys (where he started the retailer’s own private label programme), Celine, J. Mendel and Escada, before taking the plunge and starting his own semi-couture label, RVDK.

“Looking at the industry and how we overproduce, I thought, ‘This is out of control’, and I got really worried. I could see things were not going in the right direction; we had more and more waste. Also, as a designer, I started to become aware that I could no longer pay full attention to my collections because things were going so fast. I couldn’t spend the time to make things as beautiful like I used to,” he explains.

Ronald Van Der Kemp at the RVDK Ronald Van Der Kemp show during Paris Haute Couture Fall/Winter 2019/2020 in Paris. (Image: Getty)

“I also felt that if I really wanted to do something, I needed to do it now, otherwise it would be too late. I felt that at 48, I was at an age where I needed to make a change for myself if I wanted to mean something in this world. That’s why I started my company.” He knew exactly the direction he wanted to take when he chanced upon some old couture pieces that once belonged to the famous socialite Nan Kempner in a luxury vintage store in New York.

“I thought these are the kind of clothes I want to make. Not those you see in the stores, because even though they are perfectly made in high-end factories, they don’t have the love and the soul of real fashion,” he recalls. “I wanted to go back to how I did fashion when I started at Bill Blass — making them as perfect as possible for your clients. After all the wastage I’d seen, I wanted to do things differently.”

The designer showed his first “wardrobe” to a select group of fashion editors. The response was very good, he says, and most didn’t even know the clothes had been made with repurposed fabrics.

“At the beginning, I didn’t want to publicise this aspect. I didn’t want to talk about sustainability because I felt I would be pigeon-holed. I simply wanted to seduce them with the clothes. I wanted to prove to the world that sustainability can be glamorous and sexy.”

For his latest “wardrobe”, presented in Paris in July, the designer continued to elevate by-products and discarded materials. Previously, he’d created a floral dress with leftover lampshade gauze and transformed an antique silk bedcover into a cape. This time, 98 percent of the collection was made by reappropriating fabrics and materials. This included a “No-fake-fur-coat”, which featured vintage silk floral tubes stuffed with recycled down, as a statement against using fake fur.

Numerous stars have embraced the designer’s creations on the red carpet, including Emma Watson, Katy Perry, Celine Dion and Yao Chen. Many, though, are unaware of his recycling ethos.

Celebrity stylist Rob Zangardi, who recently dressed Lily Collins for the Tolkien premiere in Los Angeles in a top of upcycled denim from vintage bleached jeans and a patchwork skirt made with leftover material from a couture mill, didn’t know of the recycling nature when he and his business partner Mariel Haenn picked up the pieces.

“But knowing now makes me love him even more. He has such a rock ’n’ roll take on fashion. I love his whole vibe,” Zangardi says.

RVDK sources its luxury fabrics from leftover stocks from other luxury brands and vintage stores.

“We bought the archive of a factory that was going out of business — just small cuts of fabrics,” says van der Kemp.

As for slight defects in rejected fabrics, he’s only too happy to hide them creatively for his designs.

“We want to show how things can be done differently. Ultimately, couture has a purpose to inspire, and I hope every girl out there will look into her closet and believe she can create a new look with vintage pieces or items she already owns.”

This story first appeared in the September 2019 issue of A.

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