World Oceans Day: Livia Firth in Conversation With Oskar Metsavaht

On World Oceans Day, Livia Firth interviews Oskar Metsavaht, UNESCO Ambassador, artist, sustainable fashion pioneer and founder of iconic Brazilian brand Osklen, about his ‘New Luxury’ concept, what sustainability means to him, why he is optimistic about the future of the planet, his relationship with the ocean and why ultimately sustainability is a spiritual revolution.
LF: What does sustainability mean to you, because it’s such an overused word, particularly today?

OM: For me, sustainability is about the compromise our generation has to make for using natural resources in a way that still makes sense for the economy, while knowing that we have to leave the planet better for the next generations.

LF: And is this why you created Instituto-E years ago, for this compromise?

OM: Yes, everything began because of the ideology of preservation, the ideology of sharing, of better quality of life for everyone.  We can’t talk about sustainability if we don’t think primarily of the human beings. Maybe this comes from my experiences being a physician – understanding people not as biological beings but as human beings. I was invited by UNESCO to be a Goodwill Ambassador because they consider me a humanist, and that’s why I’m an ambassador for sustainability and culture of peace. 

So Instituto-E is not only about the environmental issues of the fashion chain for Osklen, but also the social impact. Of course, that’s important in every place in the world, but particularly in Brazil that is a very important issue.

I founded Instituto-E because I felt I could bring this ideology I have of sustainability, but also because of the difficulties I had by the end of the 90s, beginning of 2000s to develop sustainable projects. I had to get into the process of developing new materials because I wanted to have those materials to use in my collections. So in this process of developing I had the experience of going deeper and deeper into the supply chain and understanding each process, understanding how the industry was trying to get into this innovation transition moment on sustainability. 

LF: In a way then, if we have to define sustainability by what you’re saying it’s more the concept of harmony isn’t it? It’s how as humans we live in harmony with our environment, with the planet, which also includes animals and resources. So harmony is at the very centre of your humanistic approach…

OM: Yes exactly, with the human being in the centre and everything else around. It’s so interesting to understand from the indigenous tribes that everything comes from the forest, from nature – their prints, their design, their clothing, their spirituality, their crafts. We have always taken everything from nature – wood, clothing, food, houses, everything – and now in the 21st Century, we understand that it’s time for humankind to give back to nature, it’s time for us to give back to the forest, to take care of the forest, the oceans, everything. 

I know I’m being romantic spirituality talking about that, but that’s what moves me – this circularity.

LF: But it’s not romanticism, it’s about reality isn’t it? If we want to sustain as a species we have to embrace this philosophy otherwise we won’t survive.  You’re actually touching the very core of what sustainability means. It’s almost a spiritual belief that if we’re not in harmony with everything we can’t go forward.

OM: Yes, I agree totally. Because it must come from inside to make those changes. We come from 200 years of industrialisation – of course we’re not going to change overnight just because society and institutions now say we have to be sustainable.  And so this practice must come from inside.

LF: Are you optimistic? Because I alternate from moments of huge optimism, and then others I see the rise of populism, like your government in Brazil, or Trump, or the fascists in Italy, and I think, oh my god.

OM: Yes I’m optimistic, why? Because if you see the line of Earth’s civilisation on this planet, the planet almost died from the glacial era, meteors, disease, the World Wars, the atomic bomb situation, and we passed through them. And now after 200 years of industrialisation, we have a dying planet.  But at the same time, we have developed a lot of new technologies. And now I’m learning to believe in this generation, our generation of the past 50 years – because we’re living in a great transition moment of civilisation; we understand that we are killing a dying planet, but our mindset has changed.

I think that our generation is going to save the planet and ourselves, and it’s so nice that our generation can be one of the protagonists of this change.  I believe in this wave that is coming, and I really think this wave is so big – it’s coming spiritually, intellectually, in practices.  These fascists and Brexit, Trump, and here Bolsonaro are just a manner to try to stop it but I don’t think so – it came in a wave so strong, and if it’s coming strong it’s because our wave is so much stronger.

LF: I love the fact that you can analyse society in this way and the political temperature, and then you can spend time living with a tribe in the Amazon. What is the most important lesson that the Amazonian tribes people have taught you?

OM: When you see the indigenous children and the relationship they have with nature,with the animals and with the trees, the rivers, the water – it’s so pure. The way they use nature to nurture themselves and their desires. There’s no excess. They use from nature only what they need.  We take more because we are thinking of profits – but they take only what they really need to keep spiritually alive. Because to them nature is not only the materials, the ecosystem also brings balance spiritually.  It’s about the cosmos, the cosmos talk to them. They understand sunrise.  

LF: Did you see the other day that Jacinda Ardern has become the first prime minister to work on a wellbeing budget, and she said from now on it’s not about growth anymore for the country, it’s about wellbeing. That’s a beautiful example of a politician that got inspired by and enlightened by that idea that actually we have enough, we don’t need to grow anymore, we don’t need to accumulate any more. It’s about wellbeing now and it’s about harmony. It gave me a lot of hope.

OM: Me too, yes we need more women in power. We need feminine energy. Because the Earth is feminine because it nurtures, it hosts you, it nests us.

LF: Is this what your parents taught you?

OM: My name Metsavaht comes from Estonia, where my grandparents came from, and in Estonian and Finnish it means forest guardians. Estonia has the largest proportion of forests preserved in Europe.  It’s interesting because Estonia was the last region in Europe to accept the religions, because they were people for whom spirituality came from the forests – like the indigenous now.

Of course, my grandparents educated me into sustainability, we didn’t even have this word, but understanding the approach to nature. My mother was the second generation in Brazil from Milan, her parents were opera singers and painters who came to Argentina to paint churches. My father founded a faculty of medicine, and my mother founded a faculty of philosophy and art history. 

I was into arts when I was younger but I did study medicine. Sometimes I think it was great because it really helped me to really understand human beings, it was a great experience. Osklen was a coincidence. I was participating in an expedition to the Andes as a physician and scientific study with the university, and I was responsible for our clothing. I designed it using my knowledge of anatomy and biophysics, and I built something around the human body to protect us from the environment, so it was a physical layer around the human body. 

People think how a physician become a fashion designer? It’s so obvious! Who is better to understand a human body than a physician?

LF: When you tell me about the layers for the body and the fibres that are technical, I am reminded of the image of this beautiful tribe of surfers in Osklen gear. Do you surf? 

OM: Yes, I live on the beach in Rio de Janeiro.  It’s a surfing point and also diving and spearfishing place. My father was one of the first surfers in the 60s here, with the big wooden boards.  

As surfers, we take our body for hours into the ocean.  We read the weather like the indigenous read the weather in the forests.  Like sailors, and fisherman, surfers have to understand the wind, the clouds, the currents, the underwater reefs.  And of course we are related to the health of the water.

With surfing, you’re not in a motor boat, it’s you inside this colloid. The ocean is a colloid of life – it’s an organism. The waves are something that we have to appreciate as spiritual, just as we appreciate the sun rising, or the sun setting, or the moon moments or the stars. 

I don’t see surfing as a sport – I see it as the closest thing to the spirit of the eagles, to flying, gliding.  It’s a balance that showcases the human capacities of design.  Man created a board – a board that is the interface between the human body in balance with the ocean. That’s the capacity of human beings, to design something with the spirit of eagles and balance.

LF: And in fact if you want to marry this philosophy with business, I’m sure you’ve read the book ‘Let My People Go Surfing’ by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard?

OM: Of course! He’s our benchmark, no?

LF: It’s exactly what you are saying, because none of us are advocating not doing business, not doing profit, but once again, how are you in harmony with the environment and people by creating a society that sustains itself while putting back into the communities and the planet as well?

OM:    I like to take the simplicities of our pirarucu fish skin bag, because I really think that it can be one of the icons of fashion history of this new luxury – the luxury of the 21st Century. I believe Osklen is going to be part of fashion history in some decades as one of the protagonists of this change. 

A handbag is one of the most sophisticated symbols of luxury fashion, and to bring a bag that has a contemporary original design, which has the European luxury standards of quality and sophistication, and that is sustainable through a project that you can watch from the beginning, which understands those people who live in the middle of the Amazon forest, and helps them to understand this new economic opportunity for them, that it’s empowering them.

It took years to understand how to work this fish skin through the tannery in a natural way, and then evolve the design to get more sophisticated. It takes dedication from my side, from my team, from the people in the tannery, and then the people working in the forest. All this process, along with the cultivation of the fish, it’s a huge work of dedication and trying to be best at each moment of the process in terms of sustainability and aesthetic quality.  

So for me it is a luxury. For some, luxury means exclusivity, price points, stature. I disagree. People forget that the word luxury comes from the word lux – light, enlightenment.  I really think that we are living in a renaissance moment now. We are being humanists understanding nature around us. We are being the luminists of this movement. I’m loving surfing this moment of civilisation in this moment, and I know I’m involving more people that work with me on this trip. 

As a society, the fashion industry and designers, we didn’t do anything to change.  But the industry is much more ahead than us designers. They are providing us with many solutions, but as designers we are not using them because we are inspired by other things, more superficial things. It’s much easier to use the standard materials we have been using for decades. 

As society we also didn’t change in our consumer ways. Of course, when it comes to food and cosmetics we have changed.  If you have an organic apple and another one that’s not, we pay more for the organic – but not because we are thinking about the planet and the workers, but because we have an advantage. It’s an egoist motive. 

But when we choose a piece of clothing – if a cotton shirt is organic or not, you have zero advantage. If we are paying more for the sustainable one, we are being not egoist, we are being altruist – we are paying more for it because we understand that we are going to help the next generations – so it’s a very noble.  That’s why it’s the new luxury.

People have to understand that the luxury of the piece is not the object, but the process behind it – this is the value.  

LF: It’s true, that is a very good way of putting it.

OM: Altruism is the new luxury. Any luxury product for me now requires those three elements – originality and contemporary, great design; luxury, sophisticated quality; and social impact and sustainability.  That’s where I see the new luxury.