All photos credit: Marijke Aerden
Since launching his eponymous demi couture label in 2014, Ronald Van Der Kemp has shunned the fashion industry’s wasteful ways, focusing on creating seasonless and timeless statement pieces crafted by artisans and small ateliers using high-end existing materials and leftovers. Here, he shares the story behind RVDK Ronald van der Kemp.
What inspired you to launch your business?
After working for 25 years in luxury fashion, I had seen it all and felt fashion had gone in the wrong direction. I felt that there was too much uninspired product that often ended up as waste. I felt I had something else to say. I realised that the only thing that triggered me when I was looking through all the collections in the stores were the vintage couture pieces in a high end vintage store; clothes with a soul; clothes that lasted.
Over the years I had collected all kind of fabrics and materials that became the inspiration for my project; I decided there was enough to work with, so I worked with what I had on hand creating my first sustainable demi couture wardrobe.
What are your sustainable priorities for it?
Working with all the leftovers appropriating fabrics that come from overstock, vintage collections and factory waste.
How has your eco strategy developed as you have grown?
I looked into the developments of eco fabrics, but they either didn’t excite me or I realised that they often weren’t as harmless to the environment as they seemed. I realised there are many unresolved issues with ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco’ fabrics. Supposedly ‘kosher’ alternatives like the very popular ‘fake fur’ are not exactly the most environmentally friendly (probably more damaging in the long run than the original fur …). For us the only real sustainable way was to work with materials that already exist.
In addition I am currently working with an Indian fabric company to create exciting weaves with recycled and leftover yarns.
How challenging has it been to maintain your eco principles?
Sustainability is hard to sustain. Clothes in general are a difficult sell for most luxury brands. Our focus is to keep our product offering exclusive and focused. We work with what we can find to create one of a kind or limited edition pieces.
It is hard to fit in the current fashion system that requires constant newness and multiple collections a year. The overhead for producing small quantities is huge, so it is challenging to make a profit wholesaling to retailers and remaining sustainable.
We see potential in cooperating on creating products with all kinds of brands that have issues with leftover stock and materials; trying to find creative solutions for their leftovers, while at the same time reaching out to new target groups.
Do you feel pressure from your customers to be more eco?
Our clothes don’t look ‘eco’; they do not look like ‘typical sustainable’ clothes. People get excited about our clothes and when they hear about our ethics it is a real plus. But to be honest we find that there are not many customers that are truly concerned with the eco aspects in our collections. It is our DNA, but we don’t feel pressure that way.
What advice would you give to anyone hoping to launch a sustainable business?
Stick to what you really believe in; it has to come from your gut. It is the only way to stay true to your beliefs when things get tough.
Which other sustainable businesses have inspired you?
My friend Roebyem Anders, founder of Sungevity, a company that installs solar panels; Khaloom, an Indian company that I am working with on fabrics made with recycled yarns; Fashion Revolution’s Lauren Fay, who has been a great advocate for our cause.
What have been the main prohibitors to your progress in building a sustainable business?
Our demi couture approach is hard to fit in the current fashion system – it falls in between ready to wear and couture; something we believe in for the future, but we sometimes feel we are ahead of time. The current fashion system often does not seem ready for a brand like ours. Our way of selling takes more effort from the buyers and the stores.
We can offer personalized exclusive tailor-made selections for buyers, exclusives and limited editions based on fabric availability. This takes a lot of time and concentration from their part. For most people their hectic schedules and workload don’t seem to allow for this.
What have been your biggest milestones and triumphs until now?
Being invited by the federation de la couture as a guest member during couture week in Paris and being acknowledged by people like BOF’s Tim Blanks and Vogue’s Sarah Mower as the pioneers in ethical couture.