VIN + OMI is a dynamic studio rethinking the sustainability agenda in the fashion sector and beyond. From pioneering experiments with eco-textiles to statement pieces that boldly tackle issues around waste, VIN + OMI’s award-winning practice and design projects offer inspiring insights on the power of creatives as outspoken agents of change, from campaigning to reduce the damaging ecological footprint of fashion to championing greater inclusivity in the sector. We are excited to be developing plans to showcase VIN + OMI’s work at the V&A East Museum. I had the opportunity to catch up with the pair on the occasion of Earth Day 2022.
Vin, Omi, can we start with the big picture of your vision as a studio? I’ve been struck by the fact you call yourselves ‘ideologists’, not designers. Can you say what this means to you?
VIN: We realised from the conception of VIN + OMI that we spent only a small portion of our time thinking about design and the majority on blue-sky thinking and trying to turn that into practical change. We would sit down and start to talk about what we were going to design, but this conversation would shift to what textile we would use, then we would get concerned about the origins of the fabric in terms of sustainability. This then led to sustainable textile development ideas, which is how we invested in a latex plantation many years ago as we were very disappointed in the lack of transparency about the latex production in the UK. The same blue-sky thinking came when we would see plastic in the ocean and realised that it could be recycled into textile – and we may have been the first company to do this.
We then wanted to focus on areas that need cleaning up – both the urgent ones of our immediate environment and pockets of the world’s problems via our VIN + OMI foundation based in the USA.
I think the ideology developed very much from the way in which Omi and I converse and work with each other. Omi’s autistic brain pattern and my ADHD means we are pre-programmed to have tangential conversations and thoughts. We also both have an obsessive curiosity for almost everything and are also fiercely competitive with each other.
We need no encouragement to think out of the box, as you can’t put us in one.VIN + OMI
Removing ourselves, very deliberately, from the horrible patterns of running a traditional fashion business where you are expected to kowtow to fashion buyers, journalists and jump into bed with the fashion pack, never appealed. We rejected the traditional way of running a fashion business for many reasons. The sustainable argument for not piling up stock is one of them. We were, and still are, totally opposed to the requirement to have six stockists before you can show on schedule at London Fashion Week. That puts a horrible pressure on young designers. There are so many things that are wrong with the fashion world that doing things the traditional fashion way never appealed. That, and our free-floating creative minds, meant we very quickly formed an ideology and not a fashion business.
For us, an ideology also means that we can focus on what is inspiring us or irritating us politically, this could be on a local or international basis and we naturally developed a brand that could satisfy our need to be fluid and react. When Covid hit we were one of the first fashion companies to start churning out masks for the NHS and raising funds for the NHS via sale of individual high protection masks. We like to problem-solve as part of our creativity. We wake up almost every day with no plans and a fluid agenda and the freedom to do what we want to and not what other business models dictate. We also work this way to keep the stress to a minimum. Omi, in particular, needs to be careful of too much stress with his Autism.
The beauty of being an ideology is that… anything is possible, and every day is different.VIN + OMI
OMI: As a studio we tend to thrive within negative spaces. It’s in such places where debate and innovation can happen. Being an ideology, it also lends our work and research to debate because the very idea of an ideology is subjective and that pushes us as a studio to continue to innovate and look for better approaches to our practice.
For example, with our fashion work. We spend a lot of our time on paper with our ideas, instead of constantly sampling, we calculate everything we do before we execute, to keep things as sustainable as possible. Then we look at what educational, social and environmental impacts that piece would have. For us, these three criteria supersede design.
It is fascinating to hear you unpack this approach. There is such a richness in the range of projects you undertake! Your energetic fashion shows are no exception – each piece on the catwalk feels like a manifesto, with a powerful story of systems change behind it. Can you say what role shows play in your work?
OMI: Each piece/look that we create for our collection is always dictated by our brand’s manifesto. We will never compromise that for the sake of trend or if a magazine/editor will like it or not, or which celebrity will wear it. I suppose that is the punk in us.
All of our fabrics are made using waste from a social and environmental project scheme funded by our VIN + OMI Foundation, such as the 3 River Clean-up in China or the Hudson River in New York City. And all the prints you see are via an education and environmental partnership with Daler-Rowney, where we recycle used paint tubes into our print fabrics.
Our shows then play the finishing stage to our creations, and it is never just about showcasing – every element of the show is considered, from the host venue to the set design. For example, at The Dorchester, we looked at what and how can we influence with a more sustainable approach, with interventions and projects outside the show. But most of all, our shows are like a family affair. We are an inclusive brand, so age, size, race, sexuality, disability or nationality is never even a topic of contention. And most of all having fun is the magic ingredient.
VIN: For me, the shows focus our six months of studio work and bring to life all of the random thoughts and projects. As Omi said, it has nothing to do with trends or buyers or … anyone else’s opinions of what we should create. We’ve made sure we have the creative freedom to create exactly what we want to do.
So many sustainable projects around the world are very worthy. We know from our own experience that developing a sustainable textile is incredibly time-consuming and some projects are ground-breaking and important in the grand scheme of things, BUT those projects can be visually very dull from an outsider’s perspective. We aim to present our sustainable innovation in a visually arresting way, often contrary to the process.VIN + OMI
Shows serve many other purposes. They form a link with the host venue and our agreement with the venue is that we inject a sustainable change into the host. For example, with The Dorchester, our most recent partner for our last two large fashion shows, we have been working as their ‘Sustainable Designers in Residence’ on a series of projects to help create a sustainable change. Without being allowed to influence the host venue it wouldn’t make sense showing in a 5-star hotel.
Another element of the shows that is very important to VIN + OMI is the chance to educate students. We have around 200 students involved in each show, supporting research, textile and garment preparation, set building and show operations. We make sure we are there for them afterwards to provide references and career advice and support.
Of course, doing shows is a chance to raise awareness of new sustainable practices and innovations and hopefully inspire and educate the fashion and textile industry. We also use the shows to showcase the outcomes of some of our collaborative sustainable projects. We have a long history of collaboration. For example, the last show featured our recent projects with HRH The Prince of Wales and Highgrove Estate, the Scottish wool mill Johnstons of Elgin, drinks brand Jägermeister and art materials supplier Daler-Rowney.
Also, shows provide a good opportunity for Omi and me to focus our fun, creative side that often gets suppressed during more serious projects.
Yes, that sense of fun really comes through! And you are right – it is so important that sustainability doesn’t become a dull subject. Your work is so engaging, balancing research rigour with playful and memorable looks! I’d like to pick up on the creative collaborations behind your projects, specifically those with the Highgrove Estate. We are so excited that you have donated a pair of unique outfits from your pioneering Sting collection to the V&A. Can you say more about how this project came about and your ideas behind it?
VIN: We have collaborated with a large number of organisations and individuals over the years. In every case we hope we make a step change to the other party. Around 2017 we started a UK-wide programme to look at plant waste from UK country estates. We mentioned this programme to HRH The Prince of Wales, and specifically our new focus on nettles, the first time we met him. He wrote to us a few weeks after that to invite us to harvest nettles from Highgrove. We developed a great rapport with the then Head Gardener at Highgrove, Debs Goodenough and all the gardening team.
Our first self-imposed challenge was to see what we could make from the nettles that Highgrove strim and discard every year. Incorporating Art Foundation students from Oxford Brookes University into the programme, we harvested and processed the nettles into fibre. This included separating the leaves (which were used to make nettle tea), dew retting the stems, stripping the fibre from the stem, removing the chlorophyll via an eco process and rebounding the fibres with new techniques to make a unique creamy fluffy textile.
The new nettle textile was made into garments in a variety of ways for our Spring/Summer 2020 STING collection.
We have continued to develop our collaboration with HRH The Prince of Wales recently, when he suggested that we experiment with bog cotton – a flowering grass plant – from the Castle of Mey estate in Scotland. We developed fluffy seed heads into garments. We’ve also developed textiles and garments from other Highgrove waste plant material including willow saplings and hydrangea. Throughout these projects we have educated thousands of students on new ways of working with sustainable textiles.
OMI: Working on the country estates programme it is important for us that we only take what the environment can offer us and not an ounce more. For us, the idea of extracting from the environment for fashion had to be well considered. For example, with the collaboration with HRH The Prince of Wales, we studied the biodiversity impact for over a year on each species of plants and its environments before extraction.
This year we have started six new collaborations including with the Royal Parks in London.
I’m interested in the way of working you describe, and all the biodiversity research that underpins your eco-textile projects. You signal an important way of working with natural resources, taking only what is in abundance, what a local environment can offer. Can you say more on what this means to you and your agenda for rethinking systems that are harmful to our planet?
OMI: 21 years ago, when we received our science scholarship for sustainable innovations, we were researching how and what a sustainable brand would look like. Our research led us to think that larger brands will struggle to be sustainable because the business of fashion has not changed since its inception. A new system of sustaining business was needed. We started to look at Silicon Valley and the development of tech start-ups and the innovations around social media, as it was pre-Twitter and Instagram. We looked at how the rise of social media and its resultant increase in awareness would affect a brand’s sustainability and authenticity. And we derived that, with the rise of social platforms, micro brands would start to excel in the sustainable arena as they would have less infrastructure and a similar amount of exposure (through social media) to be able to shift gears and adapt quicker to change.
We wanted to know where our materials come from, how they are made, who makes them, what sort of energy they use, their carbon footprint, and whether there was a more efficient way of producing the textile. We also started to see a huge misunderstanding of what materials were and how they were extracted from the environment. For us, rethinking the system meant working on a simultaneous equation, looking at sustainability, commerciality and viability concurrently.
Rethinking how we extract from the environment for fashion was very important for us as that underpins how the business runs and how it affects every single piece of work we do and in turn it powers thought, innovation, social engagement, educational research and sustainability not just from a development point of view, but commercially as a business too.
Our system, and the resulting consideration, also changes the pace of how, what and when we produce – that’s why we as a brand do not produce collections that we can sell to stores. It would be going against the very idea of being a sustainable brand. Just using organic cotton or recycled fabrics does not make a sustainable business or brand. It’s like trying to play Mozart’s Symphony No.40 with only the brass section of a band.
VIN: In terms of looking at what the environment can offer, we look at how nature produces waste and what impact there will be on the local eco system by taking that waste material. We look at the argument for cropping something like nettles or cow parsley organically and sustainably as opposed to collecting the plants as strimmed waste cuttings from estates. We have been working on cropping mushroom and mycelium, nettles, cow parsley and flax. We have worked out ways to collect waste chestnut casings for our chestnut leather without leaving a negative effect on the environment.
We are constantly looking at how we can utilise natural waste and of course…any waste.
Politically, we look at the waste cycles of industry, governments, and people. That’s what switched us on to ocean plastic so early in the game. I say ‘politically’ as it is a minefield when we look at, say, a corporation’s waste and effect on the environment and how by intervening we can offset some of the damage they are doing. Of course, all companies want to keep anything negative quiet. But dealing with the negative is very important to our work. We have had many a tussle with recycling plants and companies that want to bury the fact that their waste does not actually get recycled.
We look at ways in which our impact can leave a positive sustainable legacy.
Your approach is so inspiring – thank you for these insights into your practice, and such an interesting conversation. We look forward to following your next projects!
I’d like to wrap up by asking you for a closing message on the occasion of Earth Day 2022.
VIN: We have been making a film drama, Kepler 62F, set 500 years in the future, which echoes Stephen Hawking’s words that we will need to find another planet to live on. It focuses on the ending of our world and the problems of moving to another one. The more we researched the film, the more it seems like we will make Earth uninhabitable…
OMI: Stop Fu@king The Planet