The multi-media creative partners VIN + OMI are award-winning in design and consultancy. Their fashion shows are globally acclaimed and focussed solely on eco and sustainable processes and textiles. But VIN + OMI are no darlings of the fashion industry. Rather the opposite. Since setting up their label in 2004, they are viewed by many as a punk brand, being troublesome for the questions they raise. Innovative and pioneering yet challenging, VIN + OMI is an ideology of sustainable approaches to business, design and textiles. And this is where it proves uncomfortable as such a system of ideals shines a light on a fashion industry which is wasteful and destructive.
It follows then that sponsorships and collaborations for VIN + OMI come from outside fashion, including the likes of The Dorchester Hotel (with whom they are working currently on a new sustainable programme), the Kao Salon Division (home for KMS, Goldwell and Oribe haircare brands), and HRH The Prince of Wales.
Future Flowers show 2021
On the eve of the latest VIN + OMI show at Fashion Week – Future Flowers – Tribu-te Magazine publisher Nicky Pope talked with Omi to find out more about the work of these rogue designers:
Nicky: Let’s cut to it, why do you get frowned on by some of the stalwarts in the fashion industry?
Omi: The fashion industry finds us a threat. I’ve got autism and sometimes I speak a little bit louder than I should, and If there there’s a white elephant in the room, I’ll point it out! Vin tells me you can’t say that out loud, but I insist, there really is a white elephant, look everyone. There lies the problem.
Nicky: It’s a difference over points of view?
Omi: The fashion industry sugar-coats sustainability and ethics. Sustainable fashion means looking at the carbon footprint you’re leaving, asking what are your carbon emissions, calculating energy use, working a carbon offset program, and understanding human energy waste. It’s kind of mathematical if you want to put it that way. Sustainability is what can be sustained for the future. Instead, ethics is what the fashion industry talks about, and this gets mixed up with sustainability.
Nicky: Surely ethics and sustainability are linked?
Omi: Ethics will be things like fair pay or using organic silk or organic cotton with no pesticide in the growing process. But from a sustainability perspective, that organic cotton or silk is worse than using ordinary economy cotton or silk because it requires bleaching. To be clear, cotton and silk are benchmarked D and E on the scale of sustainability. Whereas a benchmark A can be a mechanically-produced rPET textile which is from recycled plastic salvaged from oceans and rivers, and made in a way that calculated the carbon impact on the environment. Did you know that using recycled plastic fabric is 80% less energy than using silk?
Nicky: If the fashion industry don’t applaud you, is the media supportive of you?
Omi: Yes, very. One of the newspapers said, even if you don’t like the VIN + OMI collection, you can’t say that because of the environmental work, and social impact work and education work the brand does. It would be like kicking a puppy in the head.
Nicky: Nice! Tell us about the environmental credentials of your clothes?
Omi: “Every single piece that you see in our collection has got an environmental, or social or educational impact that is funded by our Foundation VIN + OMI which actually funds 32 projects around the world. We support working with local small communities to operate more sustainably, as well as larger ones like the Riverkeeper Project to clean up the river Hudson in New York. These are circular projects – we take the waste and turn it back into clothes.
Nicky: Do you think of yourselves as designers first, or environmentalists?
Omi: We’re only using fashion as a medium because fashion touches everyone; it’s more universal than using English. Fashion touches you before you’re born. Your mum’s choosing which romper suit or diaper you’re going to wear… fashion touches you. That’s such a fun creative, non-threatening way to reach out to people about sustainability. Plus, fashion is the worst industry for sustainability, so it makes sense to tackle this.
Nicky: Are you dismayed by the response of the industry?
Omi: It’s hard to find like-minded people in fashion. Our ideas are so accepted by everyone except the fashion industry. Isn’t it weird that you have corporate businesses like our partners the Dorchester Hotel, or Daler Rowney, or Kao Salon Division which are driven by commerce, and have a corporate mentality, perhaps running multi-billion pound companies, and they’re trusting little old us as partners. Yet fashion insiders won’t.
Nicky: How did you come into fashion?
Omi: I was a photographer actually… I worked with the Spice Girls, Robbie Williams, Ricky Martin, but I got bored and I wanted to do something more. I met Vin at a party, he was a sculptor, and we had the idea to do something sustainable and to start with a sustainable fashion collection. We decided to buy a plantation in Malaysia [Omi is from Singapore] and start with latex as it’s a natural material. We just were doing something cool and ended dressing Marilyn Manson and Dita von Teese and Shania Twain…we were on the cover of FHM magazine and people were asking what’s that material? At the time latex was quite an underground and fetish material. We made a skirt for Dior Couture, then John [Galliano] asked us to do ready-to-wear… so made all this really weird stuff, super-fetishy mixing geisha with fetishism. We made coats for Louis Vuitton and worked with Julien Macdonald, Luella Bartley… In 2004 we launched our VIN + OMI brand.
Nicky: Have you learned the craft of couture?
Omi: [Laughing] Err… well, we winged it. Vin was a sculptor and I’d done fashion photography, and we thought what if we just made things our way? Who’s to say that’s not right. John Galliano can make a square sleeve and nobody argues. Why can’t we do it differently. It was really hard work however. We really grafted it working multiple jobs to wrap around designing. I remember sleeping on the Holborn studio floor at night if I couldn’t afford the night bus home to north London. We were really roughing it, but we were younger and had the gung-ho attitude.
Nicky: How much are you actually interested in the aesthetic of what you’re creating?
Omi: I think it is very important for each of us, but Vin and I work differently. Vin is organic, I love my straight lines and squares. We work separately to start with, in separate studios, then we come together to share. Aesthetically it’s important to make beautiful things, but science and viability take precedence. We ask ourselves, is it viable, what impact does it have? We change our aesthetics to match; design cannot come before what we can extract for design. The extraction process, ie what we can take to make the design, is more important than what Vin and I want to create. What we create has to take secondary place.
Nicky: If the traditional benefactors in fashion industry don’t support you, who does?
Omi: We are lucky in the people who do recognize our work. Take HRH the Prince of Wales. He’s so informed on sustainability. I was so surprised when we went to Highgrove for the first time about four years ago. You’d be amazed at the implementation he’s done, even changing cars to bio-fuel, creating irrigation systems… he’s so ahead of his time. He’s very liberal and embraces change and understands innovation. We’re a punk brand, as far from being royalists as you can imagine but we share a common concern for the environment and what we can do collectively. Prince Charles has a platform that nobody else has and gives us so much free rein to do what we want. [The Prince of Wales suggested that VIN + OMI collected the waste nettles from Highgrove to create a new textile which was showcased in 2019. An ongoing project looks at how other waste products from the estate can be recycled.]
Nicky: You get on well?
Omi: Our respect for him comes because he is so learned in this field of sustainability, not just in fashion but across the board. His passion is totally on a different scale from us. As a punk, with punk ideology, this common ground of sustainability leads to things like dressing Michelle Obama, or working with the V&A for archives, and it softens the blow of what the fashion industry thinks of us. It’s the mainstream media and the general public who ‘get’ us.
Nicky: How important is this ‘acceptance’?
Omi: “Fashion for us is not exclusive. We regard ourselves as creative directors, not designers, we’re ideologists. Perhaps that’s why we get support from the partners such as Kao Salon Division [KMS is the brand used at the Future Flowers show for Fashion Week]. They support this satellite rogue brand that’s in London Fashion Week because we are accessible to them. We make ourselves accessible. When we heard about KMS from Kao, the conversation was so down to earth and grounded. It was great – we told them we’re not the sort of brand that makes slicked back hair, and they said okay!
Nicky: Tell us about how you create VIN + OMI garments?
Omi: We have fields up in Norfolk where we grow our own fabrics. We experiment, we spend a lot of our lives as farmers. It’s not that glamorous although I do farm in a dress! I would say 75% of our time in a year is growing our own fabrics and experimenting. We have a studio in New York and one in Beijing as well as here in England – and it helps us work with Asia and North America, Europe being in three different time frames. With this Future Flowers collection, the clothes on catwalk are showcasing the new development of bog cotton, a plant proposed by HRH The Prince of Wales using plants grown on several of Prince Charles estates, along with waste nettles from his Highgrove House.
Nicky: And your process of designing?
Omi: We never buy or make anything we don’t need. We don’t manufacture a single ounce or metre of fabric we don’t need. We make the designs first; I call it sewing the garment on paper, working entirely on sketchbook. Then we calculate how to lay out the pattern to maximise the use of fabric, and so that when we sit on a machine we do it once. There’s no toile stage. We make just what we need. It’s more efficient. Our motif is to think before you do, then think again. The team know that they need to present us with 10 ideas at a time, not one. To offer 10 ways of making one thing, then we decide from that. It’s the same in business; there are lots of ways to do business. There doesn’t have to be one way.
Nicky: How do you feel when you present a big show?
Omi: Vin and I have had 21 years together and still, when that last model walks out on that line up I always choke up. There are perhaps 200 people who have given up their time to fulfil the vision of me and Vin. And you look out at 600/1000 people who have given their time to watch the show. You’d be pretty inhuman not to be grateful. … We took over St Pancras station for our show a few years ago and they held Eurostar up for us, and we thought we’d never top that. But the following season we aired a show on the screens in Piccadilly Circus… you never dreamed you’d be giant size in lights! Then you start working with Prince Charles and you think OMG where next?
In 2020, VIN + OMI made more than 8000 eco masks for the NHS and raised a further £16,000 funds for the NHS from sales of the 5-layer recycled protection mask to the general public. In 2021, Studio VIN + OMI has recorded and produced ready for release a full-length feature film drama in collaboration with many artists, models and actors. Entitled Keplar 62f it looks at how the future of our planet is in jeopardy and stars Debbie Harry.
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