Vin and Omi use their eponymous label to grab attention with their bold clothing design, but it’s the battle to reduce the wasteful behaviour of consumers that drives them. For some 20 years the pair has been examining ways to literally save the planet, from pioneering innovation of fabric, to promoting recycling of materials previously not considered as reusable. Their recently formed partnership with the Kao Salon Division – makers of the KMS haircare brand – now brings them onto our radar.
In brief, Vin+Omi is an ideology focussed on sustainable approaches to business, design and textiles. Creative and science-minded, neither formally studied fashion, (Vin was trained as a sculptor and Omi was one of Singapore’s leading photographers), but what the hell, they use the industry anyway! While overtly raising middle-fingers to the fashion world, these challengers are championed by some of the wealthiest, most old-school establishment names you can think of. Hitting your average fashionista where it hurts – with eye-catching, provocative and lust-have design – the name Vin+Omi featured large in dispatches from fashion’s front line last month. Their ART show on 18 February 2022 was much talked about before and after the fact. Tribu-te editor Nicky Pope dropped in to see the team as they prepared for their show and discover why and how the conversation must continue.
It’s Tuesday 16th February and Vin is worried about the seating plan for the upcoming Vin + Omi show which will be going ahead in just two days time. We are chatting in the prep area of the Dorchester Hotel on London’s Park Lane where he and partner Omi are showing a collection for the second time. They’ve taken up residence for an eight-day stretch, to finalise clothes and hair on-site, casting models and taking press interviews. A stream of questions posed by dressmakers, assistants and models makes my time with them most often a three-way conversation, and frankly it’s intriguing.
“News at 10 want to come and film on the day, which is about as big as you can get,” Vin tells me as he plops down on a smart sofa in the Crystal Room. And he’s thrilled. Media attention is welcomed, however much of a headache it adds to the planning of a big show. The Royal household may also attend (with or without HRH Prince Charles who is a loyal collaborator of Vin and his partner Omi), and now a message is delivered that the new hotel manager of the Dorchester is also coming along. The charming well-groomed assistant says their boss finds the designers cool and interesting. “What! Even when not looking our best?” laughs Vin
So, it’s a question of space that concerns Vin most. The clothes, the hair and the accessories will all be super-size for their show, constructed on the theme of scale and silhouette. And with a clamour for seats, and a cluster of corporate sponsors and collaborators to accommodate, the designers must be careful to give everyone due thought. If they play this right, the ART Show could steal most of the media attention as the opening night of London Fashion week approaches. [Spoiler alert: it does!]
Omi is also worried. It’s imperative to him that their show appeals to a young audience. Famously, he and Vin invite friends and celebrity pop-cult names to walk in their shows – Jo Wood, Debbie Harry, Brix Smith for example – but they fret that many of these models are now over 40 and attract similarly ageing followers. So the label’s press operation has been commissioned to switch the audience policy and ensure a less mature crowd get the majority of tickets. Playful, colourful and brim-full of cartoon characters in the look of ART will have wide appeal.
“Kids are interested in fluff and colours….” says Vin. “We’re attracting people who don’t give a stuff about sustainability through the colours and the styles of our clothes, and the celebrities in our shows.”
We talk about their policy of drip-feeding bite-size messages and having small conversations which eventually filter the message through. Snappy slogans such as ‘don’t fuck the planet’ help. Education on sustainability is vital, says Vin. But ramming it down throats won’t work. The Vin+Omi ideology has been shared in many ways over the past two decades; fashion, film, philanthropic and circular projects from river and ocean cleaning to the development of non-toxic fabrics and processes. The point is to keep moving and exploring.
Talking hair and stuff
Nicky: Vin+Omi has partnerships with names, brands, people who are perhaps strange bedfellows?
Vin: Yes! For example in this show we have taken remnants from production at Johnsons of Elgin wool mill, which we’re turning into garments. The cashmere and wool industry is not something we align to, but we do align to the fact that they need to use their waste a bit better. We are helping them in the way they do things
Nicky: Is that the point?
Vin: Any big organisation can’t be perfect, but they do their best…well some do.
Nicky: How about your collaboration with Kao Salon Division who are sponsoring this upcoming show with the KMS brand?
Vin: We’re working really well with KMS, and they’re trying really hard. They wouldn’t be here if we weren’t convinced of that! We’re looking at a long-term relationship … and it’s got nothing to do with fashion. It’s to do with transferring our knowledge in different ways, about processes, marketing… the knowhow we’ve gained over 20 years.
Nicky: How important is it that you work in fashion?
Vin: We might move on. We’ve just finished a feature length sci-fi movie Kepler 62f with Debbie Harry, and Siobhan McSweeney plus about 40-50 actresses. It’s a drama set in the year 2500; it’s random and it’s about the earth dying (which Steven Hawkin predicted). There’s humour in it and it doesn’t look like an eco film, but it is. And the kids will watch it and they’ll pick up bits. You have you tackle sustainability in different ways. Take hair salons. Here you can just chat about the subject. It doesn’t have to be a conversation in a big way – just bits filtering through. That’s the way to do it to reach lots of people.
Nicky: How has KMS contributed to the ART show?
V: This season we’ve taken a lot of salon waste and we’ve used it to make hair accessories. People will say all you’re doing is reforming plastic into the hair… but importantly we’re showing that things can be reused. Anything can be reused. You have to keep pushing that recycling message to death so people will get it.
Nicky: And how about working with Simon Webster who is the hair lead?
Vin: Simon’s been great. He accepts all that we’ve thrown at him. He’s met his match with the two of us. Me and Omi like him because he’s got ideas; we want someone to challenge us, not be a pushover.
Nicky: Where has the ‘art’motif come from for this show?
Vin: The hair looks and the make-up looks really form the art. We have enormous wigs and hair pieces. KMS said go as crazy as you want! That’s important some brands we work with try to dictate.
N: How will you feel if people look at the hair more than the clothes?
V: I think they will! We will have a cheat sheet on their seat which talks about the origin of the textiles. There are a lot of kids that want to look at crazy hair. This is a show where we’re going as big as we can and crazy – it’s still our creative direction with Simon. We’ve made probably 1/3 of the wigs for him – sustainably… repurposing wigs. We’ve sculpted things. It’s a joint effort. It feels like us. It doesn’t feel like it’s just people doing hair. It feels like and art package. I don’t think there is that competition with Simon that there could be with other where their egos are as big as ours. They’re never going to win.
(all photography: Kenny McCracken)
Nicky: What’s the headline news for Vin+Omi since we last talked?
Vin: This season we’ve got the world’s first ‘chestnut dress’. It has taken seven years to do – it’s cost about £78,000 to make
Nicky: Where does a project like that even start in your imagination?
Vin: We’ve got a studio in the country and when we walk around, we look at what’s on the floor. There’s an abundance of chestnuts, and they don’t seem to get eaten by squirrels or anything, they ‘re just lying there and rotting. We use the spongy bit in the chestnut casing, and have found a way of preserving it, without putting chemicals in. It’s taken ages to make enough for a dress… but we’ve worked out how to make chestnut leather en masse… if the world wants.
Nicky: What’s the point in a project like this?
V: It’s an ethical message – we’re asking, do we all stop using animal leathers completely? There’s a growing vegetarian and veganism movement and there’s feel that using animals for anything is wrong. But there’s an impact to everything so we must look at what material we’re using; the important thing is that even a plant-based leather, like the mushroom leather, often has silicone and chemicals put in to preserve it so it’s not really that organic. We’re trying to create something that has nothing in it.
Nicky: Is there any draw-back?
V: The chestnut leather won’t last forever; it will biodegrade over time. so you’re paying a lot – if we were to retail it – for something that won’t last forever. People have to understand this; like they do with latex, you know that perishes. We’re also using willow – from Prince Charles estate at Highgrove. We’re using willow that was amassed from coppicing [the process of thinning out woods] and turned that into a cellulose fabric. Tencel and some viscose is made from wood fibres so we’re following a similar idea but not putting chemicals in. We’ve made two dresses – one with a yarn which we’ve knitted into a dress. And one made from a flat fabric and that’s just showing that cellulose doesn’t have to have chemicals in. Again, they won’t last forever.
Nicky: Do you then share the knowhow, do you push that out?
V: It’s tricky. A well-known brand wanted the chestnut leather but they’re not having it. We know that 90% of their operation is not sustainable and we’re not putting money into that non-sustainable operation. Our knowledge has to go into a company that we think is ethically sustainable, so we haven’t licenced it yet. It’s the same with the nettle fabric we invented; nettle had been woven before to create a fabric, but we took months and months to use nettle in a different way. We own that knowledge but will sit on it until the right time. We’re not interested in getting cash rich…
The future for Vin+Omi
Nicky: Increasingly do you find it’s hard to keep your projects purist?
Vin: We’re in a 5 star hotel, dealing with royalty and sponsors and we’re compromised. After dealing with royal press officers, ITN news, and hotel politics and so on, there’s an element of me that says I want to do the next show in a car park with no sponsors. So yes, I question it almost every single day is this right?
Nicky: How do you stave off depression about the issues you’re dealing with.
Vin: A lot of our peers in many businesses, not just fashion, are governed by income, by retail sales. We don’t have any of that. Our biggest worries are logistical, about interfacing with institutions like the Dorchester hotel or the royal family. But they are circumnavigable, we can tackle them. Omi has Asperger’s, which means he periodically gets down. But it means that every day is exciting because he’s completely unpredictable.
Nicky: And the bigger picture, as regards the outlook for the planet?
Vin: Admittedly, I found scripting this film Kepler 62f was tricky because the outlook is very bleak. I did my research and I thought no, we are going to lose the planet and I can’t see how we’re not.
Nicky: Do you enjoy finding new media?
Vin: This foray into film is interesting; it’s a different science, managing film, and scripts and egos – the clothes were incidental. It’s more about the message. We are moving into how to convey the message. We do interior design, too. Fashion is our fluff. It’s stressful but kind of fun. If we make a chestnut dress for several years, then licence it and sell it… who are we? We’re scientists…we’re research and developers, not designers.
Nicky: where’s the joy of it all?
Vin: If you unpick it, it’s the creativity but it’s also interfacing with a completely different industry and a different group of people – picking who comes to the show, who walks for us. it’s different from the scientist and the gardeners, it works for us and it’s a fun element. So we spread ourselves around lots of areas. We are an ideology that is very fluid. We like to keep it fluid…
Nicky: You don’t have a 5 or 10 year plan?
V: We don’t have a 5-minute plan! We really haven’t. It’s our release from a scientific background, this show is the opposite!
Back to the hair
Nicky: What would you have thought about hair before your relationship with KMS?
Vin: In a planet saving way hair is totally unnecessary, so is the fashion industry. Art and beauty and things that are seemingly non-essential are really good for peace of mind and well-being. If someone comes out of the salon feeling really good, then why not? But balance that out with thinking about what they’ve just contributed to killing the planet …let’s try and make that less of a thing but keep the wonderful things that the industry does to uplift people. That person in the salon, we don’t know about their life, or how that time in the salon keeps them going. Who am I to say no to things that make them feel better because you’re contributing to the planet’s demise?
Nicky: So keep creativity even if it’s damaging?
Vin: We have to do things in a better way but you can’t take away art, or individuality or beauty. Where would we be if everyone was walking around in hessian sacks with the same hair. With the low mood of the people we might kill the planet anyway because we’re all so damn miserable. In my book you can’t take away your art. I can’t imagine life without art or beauty or individual hair styles. I think the products just have to be refined to do less damage to the planet. Non-essential industries are essential to me.
THANK YOU VIN, for sharing time so generously.
To find out more about Vin+Omi, visit:
Vin + Omi Future Flowers show
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