From leather made of recycled fish skin to quilting fashioned from recycled plastic, Brazilian fashion label Osklen has consistently placed itself at the leading edge of ethical and environmentally friendly fashion.
Founder Oskar Metsavaht trod a less-than-conventional path to the door of international sartorial stardom by training as an orthopaedic doctor. But in 1997 he established Osklen, and along with his team has been promoting a philosophy of fashion borne out of a harmonious relationship with the environment ever since.
Metsavaht is the founder of Instituto-E, a Rio-based non-profit organisation which gives fabrics made using sustainable methods an environmental seal of approval. Metsavaht has been nominated as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for his work, and this year received a London-based Luxury Briefing Award, taking his place among the best and the brightest of the luxury fashion industry.
Sublime: When and how did you decide that fashion was your calling?
Oskar Metsavaht: Clothes and fashion were simply an expression of my lifestyle; they were my way of communicating myself to the world. It started with a high-tech anorak, when I was a member of the first Brazilian team to climb the Aconcagua in the Andes. I used my medical knowledge, allied with a sense of aesthetics, to create a coat that was ergonomically perfect for climbing and suitable for very low temperatures, but which was also visually appealing. After the expedition, it became an object of desire.
My sound knowledge of sports medicine, along with a background in art and philosophy, has been present in all my work since I made that first piece, and I use all these in the creation of my collections.
S: Do you have other passions aside from fashion that help you to create?
OM: I love art, architecture, design, photography, movies, sport and travel. All these things help me to create because they are each a part of my lifestyle. Osklen is where I show my lifestyle to the world. My collections are a reflection of what I think is beautiful and comfortable, combined with elements of art, fashion and design.
S: Where does the sportswear aspect of your design come from?
OM: I’m an eclectic person, who admires movement in dance and sport as well as the design of the clothing or equipment which forms part of the performance. The design of a surfboard and its fins, and the look of a dancer’s costume, for example. I enjoy sports – surfing, snowboarding and skateboarding – and I appreciate classical dance such as ballet, and at the same time, capoeira.
At the beginning, all Osklen clothes were inspired by sportswear, and today the technical ergonomics of comfort and performance are still a foundation of our collections.
S: What’s the story behind the birth of the brand Osklen?
OM: For the first ten years, the influence of sports in the brand was very visible. From 2000 onwards, we began to focus more on fashion design and luxury, but the issues of environmental conservation and socio-environmental education have been present throughout.
Osklen has always been about communicating something. It was never a brand that just makes clothes to wear; they are clothes with meaning, made for people who identify with the lifestyle we offer.
S: There always seems to be a thoughtful intelligence to the Osklen collections. how do you achieve this?
OM: We don’t make clothes just to be worn, but clothes that express something, whether it’s a state of mind, a belief or an interesting shape. Perhaps it is this way of looking at my creations that makes the collections consistent and – why not? – intelligent. Whenever we are creating a collection, we are also learning about a theme.
In the Royal Black AW 2012 collection, we pay tribute to Afro-Brazilians. My team and I attended classes by experts in black culture in Brazil. We seek knowledge beyond the clothes in all our collections, because that’s how we communicate with the world.
S: What first prompted you towards sustainability, and what has it enabled you to create?
OM: As a child, my family taught me the importance of preserving the environment, and today it is still for me one of the most important values. My last name, Metsavaht, means ‘guardian of the forest’ in Estonian and Finnish. My family comes from Estonia, and I am an honorary consul of that country. I always thought of using fashion as a means of communication, and the environmental preoccupation has been there even from the first t-shirts I ever did.
S: What do you think is the secret behind Osklen’s success and popularity?
OM: We do not have a secret, but I would say that success comes from being consistent in research and design. All the projects within Osklen are completely interconnected: the clothes, the fashion show, the campaign, the stores, all are part of a larger whole that is harmonious and true to its ideals. Anyone in the world who has had contact with the brand will recognise its design, its shops, its publicity. We are a brand that can work on every aspect of a piece with complete consistency of integrity and authority. Perhaps this is our secret.
S: What does Osklen want to say to the world as a brand?
OM: We represent the kind of lifestyle of people who know that drinking coconut water with your feet in the sand is as luxurious as drinking champagne from a crystal glass. Or that being at a rave in a tropical forest is as chic as being at a gala ball in London. Or that using helicopters for snowboarding in Alaska is as soulful as searching for waves to surf from a fishing boat in the Fiji Islands.
The new luxury is to understand that sophistication comes from simple things and noble values. Then to bring all these to expression in an original design, with universal aesthetics, at a high level of quality and using as socially and environmentally sustainable practices and materials as you can get.
S: What can we expect from Osklen, and from yourself, in the future?
OM: Today I can understand why people used to call me a visionary because of the things I said and expressed 20 years ago. In the early 1990s, Brazil used to copy European and North American products as they were considered the best. Brazilian products and brands were poor-quality copies of well-known luxury brands. With Osklen, I did exactly the opposite. We found that original design inspired a new way of life – ‘Brazilian soul’. It’s an expression I created to communicate what we are and what we have, which is different from other cultures.
I was the opposite of the mainstream in Brazil at that time. I was a physician who became a designer inspired by Brazilian culture instead of the American Dream or the European idea of luxury. The Brazil we know today is, as I always said we would be, a new economy based on creativity. Brazil must develop economically to bring a better quality of life to its still poor population. But this development must be socially and environmentally sustainable.
For me, buying sustainable products from Brazil means you are helping to promote a better quality of life for Brazilians. In past decades, it has been cool to buy products with American iconography, or which had a European luxury design, or affordable products from China. But now it is much cooler and more chic to buy products from Brazil because the American Dream has grown old, European luxury has become snobbish and Chinese manufacturing is not socially fair.
The future I see for Osklen is a mix of European luxury, American technological advances and Chinese fair prices, infused with Brazilian soul’s creativity and a sustainable ethos.