Bruno Pieters, reinventing the system through honesty
At first glance, Bruno Pieters looks like any young creative – grey skinny jeans and black sneakers, his eyes shaded by an old baseball cap. He talks slowly and moves comfortably, the tips of his mouth perpetually turned upwards. One could almost forget the long and turbulent career that preceded this newfound cool.
The 41-year old designer had just graduated the Royal Academy in Antwerp when he launched his own collection in 2001. It didn’t take long before he was appointed creative director at luxury brand Delvaux and later Hugo Boss. With three different lines under his vision, the young Belgian was well on his way to fulfil his childhood dreams and high ambition.
But something didn’t feel right. “I was so focussed on being important, that I forgot to do things that mattered.” Unhappy with his role, the designer cancelled on his ambition and went on a tour around India. He came back reinvigorated and inspired, with the beginning of Honest By brewing in his head. The idea was unconventional to say the least. Not only does the brand make their collections entirely sustainable, they also offer full transparency on the technical and financial details of production. On the website you can find information on the material, manufacturing and price of every single piece. You learn that it took Peter Ooms in Lille 7 minutes to iron the asymmetrical cotton top, or that the closure in the Harris dress is 100% brass and cost the company €0,18. A radical take on transparency.
Being a pioneer means being an outsider. Honest by has long been considered a fun experiment, and Bruno struggled to be taken seriously. But he learnt the importance of being an influencer, and the slow pace at which change happens. This is why he founded The Future Fashion Designer Scholarship (FFDS) two years ago, which aims to boost fashion students that work sustainably. The scholarship comes with a check for €10.000 and the opportunity to have your collection sold on the website.
Step by step, the modern activist is changing the world.
I wanted to ask you about your time as a student, here in Antwerp. How did you experience your studies?
It is a long time ago. The first year I was intimidated. Coming from Bruges, where I went to art school, Antwerp was a big city. I was a bit intimidated, but I had the drive. I wanted to be good at what I was studying, I had this ambition. But I didn’t know anything, I didn’t know how to sew, didn’t know what a seam was. The teacher would explain about cut, and I was like – what’s cut? And then I grew into it.
I always loved to draw and I think that’s what attracted me to fashion. That and the diversity. Fashion has music, graphic design, photography, so many elements and I like the combination. The only thing I didn’t think about, was the business side. Which is basically the most important part. Fashion is a business, and because you’re taught in an art academy, you forget that. They don’t teach business at all in Antwerp, so that was the part I was not prepared for.
“FASHION IS A BUSINESS, AND BECAUSE YOU’RE TAUGHT IN AN ART ACADEMY, YOU FORGET THAT.”
Should you have been prepared?
If I would have known what I know now, that fashion really is a business and that the design part just exists so you can have better business, I don’t know if I would’ve chosen the same path. In the end, even art is a business. Everything is about the same thing in the end. I can’t tell you what I would’ve chosen, maybe photography. I don’t regret it, but I don’t know if I’d do it again. Because it is something they don’t mention at all in Antwerp.
Were you already critical of the system then? Or was it something you didn’t think about at all?
In the 90s people were critical, but they expressed it through their creativity. It was not about how you made the clothes, or the story behind it, it was visually rebellious. I think the designers at that time, the Japanese and the Belgians, they were visually rebellious. The old mindset of the fashion industry will describe designers as rebellious when they are visually rebellious. The way they work, what they want to achieve, how their business runs, it is as old as the industry itself. There’s nothing new or innovative behind it. Whenever somebody decides to show ready-to-wear during couture, that’s already considered a revolution. What a rebellious move! Or to show menswear and womenswear together. The whole system hasn’t changed in decades, and the idea of rebellion is still about design.
As students, we considered ourselves to be rebellious. We were not interested in big brands, or working for big luxury houses or corporations at all. That wasn’t something we wanted. I saw that change with the generation that came after us. They really wanted to belong, they wanted to be at the parties. That came later on. Also my career, between 2000 and 2010, was the moment it was very much about belonging, and those luxury groups bought or invited these rebellious, young designers to work for them. And they’re still doing that.
So maybe, when you were a student, there was less to rebel against?
I was against classic dress codes, evening wear. When I was in school, it was about breaking those rules. I think now they’re all broken, and they’ve been broken many times. Maybe, if you’re young now, you feel like you can still break them, I don’t know.
“WHENEVER SOMEBODY DECIDES TO SHOW READY-TO-WEAR DURING COUTURE, THAT’S ALREADY CONSIDERED A REVOLUTION. WHAT A REBELLIOUS MOVE! THE WHOLE SYSTEM HASN’T CHANGED IN DECADES, AND THE IDEA OF REBELLION IS STILL ABOUT DESIGN.”
Breaking rules. This reminds me of something you said when you came to CSM. “To be successful, follow the rules. To make history, break them.”
Very often you can break the rules and not be successful. We’re in an industry that talks a lot about innovation and avant-garde, but the system itself really isn’t. And the insiders are very much attached to this system, because it’s working well financially. But you’ll notice a consistent rejection or marginalisation of people who want to do things differently. They will be excluded, looked down upon, considered an experiment. That’s always been that way. The industry is set up to be most profitable. And they don’t want anything that might jeopardise that.
Do you feel like an outsider, marginalised?
I know how I was treated before and I notice a difference. I can’t complain about it, because for me it’s a relief. The people I meet today are much more interesting, more honest. People don’t want anything from me anymore [laughs] and that’s the difference. When you’re in a position where people think they can get something from you, or they want to be like you… It’s a bit sad when you think about it. I see it now with a friend of mine, who is getting very successful. I see how it changes things around him. And that attention was always difficult for me, so I don’t miss it.
“VERY OFTEN YOU CAN BREAK THE RULES AND NOT BE SUCCESSFUL. WE’RE IN AN INDUSTRY THAT TALKS A LOT ABOUT INNOVATION AND AVANT-GARDE, BUT THE SYSTEM ITSELF REALLY ISN’T.”
Honest By was born from this personal journey. Was this a graduate switch?
I chased my ambition, I achieved it, and I realised that it didn’t really work. I had these goals as a student, when I arrived in Antwerp. I wanted to be the best and I knew what I wanted to achieve. It was a big dream. I worked hard to get there and when I was on my way, when I had the Hugo Boss contract, it was not as I thought it would be. When I was a student, I thought an interview in Vogue would make me super happy. Then you get it and you realise that it’s just an interview and that the following month there will be another issue. So it is not real happiness. It is like a drug addiction, you move from high to high. You always need other people and attention to get this feeling that you’re up. And if you don’t have those moments, or if somebody else has those moments, you are down. It’s very artificial and never-ending. It’s synthetic happiness.
There I was at this contract, I had achieved all these things that I wanted, the salary and the attention, but it wasn’t making me happy. My first reaction was – it must be because of the brand that I’m working for. Maybe if I work for another brand, I’ll be happy. I had been doing that my whole life, thinking – if I have this I will be happy – so a part of me knew it wasn’t true. It is also what this consumption system is all about. And then it hit me, while I was saying it to myself… I knew other designers, like Kris Van Assche at Dior, and I knew what they did was exactly the same, just with different letters in the brand. How would that change anything? I realised how ridiculous I was that happiness couldn’t be found there. I think many people want to be rich and famous to have this feeling of being loved. But ultimately we all want happiness and I saw that for me it wasn’t the right path.
“EVERYTHING DEPENDS ON EXTERIOR THINGS, SO I WANTED TO LOOK FOR THIS INNER HAPPINESS.”
Fashion can prey on this fundamental need every human has – a sense of belonging.
After a while you can’t let go, because you live from high to high. From award, praise or good review to good review, and when there’s a bad review it’s a drama. Everything depends on exterior things, so I wanted to look for this inner happiness.
Are you happy now?
Compared to then, yes. I am. And I’m proud of what I’m doing. Sometimes I think it’s time to move on, but this will happen when it happens.
I imagine you also have those steps with Honest By as well. Thinking it can always be better, or bigger.
I don’t have the ambition to turn it into a big business. At one point I thought I should, because if you turn it into a very successful business, then people will look up to you and follow what you’re doing. But I think that’s a bad motivation. [laughs] I was in Sweden last week, for a sustainability conference with H&M. We talked about transparency and big corporations always mention how transparency is part of their philosophy or their goal, even if it’s not a demand from their public. Now I discovered that they do it mostly for their shareholders, because everybody who buys into their shares wants security, they want safety. They don’t want another Rana Plaza or child labour scandal like there was in the 90s with Nike, where the shares crashed. That’s an interesting motivation. You don’t always have to ‘wake up’ and become aware, even money can get you there.
That’s what I learned from an interview with the head of sustainability at Kering as well. He explained that a sustainable system is a smart business strategy. Less waste means less waste of money.
I like that. No matter what your motivation – whether you do it because you believe in it or because of financial motivations – that it’s the right choice.
But then I wonder, why is change coming so slowly?
But I think there need to be individuals who plant seeds, and then it starts to grow.
Transparency is the core message of your company. Is that something any designer interested in sustainability should work on?
I think you need to show what you’re doing if you’re working with sustainability. For us it’s the core, my whole reason for launching Honest By was to show that it’s possible, because I wasn’t planning on restarting something in fashion.
People called you mad for trying.
That’s also a good evolution I noticed at the H&M conference, the idea of transparency is finally taken seriously. When I launched in 2012 it was considered an experiment, a nice project on the side. It was belittled or seen as something explosive. And now we went from “nice but never gonna happen”, to “nice, how can we make it happen?” The new conscious collection gives a lot of information including the name of the supplier, the name of the owner, the number of employees etc. And their plan is to do it in the future for all products. So that’s the big change.
They were asking me – what is the reward of transparency? That was the whole idea of the panel that day. I couldn’t answer, for me it’s been five years of struggle, being considered an experiment. It wasn’t easy. So to talk about the reward of transparency… I couldn’t give an answer. But afterwards I realised that there has been an evolution, people aren’t looking at me like a naïve dreamer anymore. Politicians and CEO’s all agree transparency will happen. That was – wow!
You seem very optimistic. I am always very sceptical of big companies simply because they are built on a system of profit, and they’ll always try to cut somewhere.
You should be sceptical! It’s not perfect at all. It’s just that it comes from a horrible place, but it’s getting better. They’re not doing it out of love, but because it’s good for business.
I think hope and discouragement always come together, very often on the same day, at the same moment. But discouragement doesn’t get you anywhere, it’s not productive, it’s not helpful, it’s not going to do any good. So I have to stay hopeful, and I have to stay focussed on those moments of light and those moments where I can see change, even if they’re small. But they exist and it’s important to focus on that.
“IT WILL BE ABOUT WORKING TOGETHER, IT’S NOT ABOUT ONE PERSON CHANGING EVERYTHING. IT’S PEOPLE ASKING QUESTIONS IN THE STORE, IT’S BUYERS ASKING QUESTIONS TO THE DESIGNER, IT’S THE MEDIA.”
You were always very focussed on the consumer as the element of change. Now you seem convinced that change can come from a corporate level.
I think it will be about working together, it’s not about one person changing everything. It’s people asking questions in the store, it’s buyers asking questions to the designer, it’s the media. It would be wonderful if one of the standard questions backstage at a fashion show is not just colour, inspiration, skirt length, but that there’s also a question about the sustainability of the collection, and where it was made and so on. But the consumer is a trigger.
Have you ever thought of taking it to a political or legal level?
In politics, things happen slowly. I think you can achieve more as an individual. For me, politicians are there to make a law of something that is already established. They rarely innovate or go against their voters. But if they feel that the voters want this, they will do it. And it can seem like they are the ones that did it. We should make transparency mandatory. Otherwise, companies like H&M, they can’t go further than a certain point, because the competition isn’t following them. Consumer pressure is very important. Something like the Higg index would help them do that. It’s a standard for transparency. If each garment was rated on it, consumers could choose more easily. It will be difficult to get there, but it’s a good idea.
“WE SHOULD MAKE TRANSPARENCY MANDATORY. OTHERWISE, COMPANIES LIKE H&M CAN’T GO FURTHER THAN A CERTAIN POINT, BECAUSE THE COMPETITION ISN’T FOLLOWING THEM.”
You also aim to support young students with the FFDS. Can you tell us more about that?
I created the FFDS because I wanted people who are being rebellious or thinking about creating in a more responsible way – who want to change things – to feel encouraged. They need to know that their work is appreciated and supported. In Antwerp for instance, they are not encouraged to do that, you are almost at a disadvantage when you want to work in a responsible way. If you work with fur you’ll get a beautiful sponsorship, which you don’t get if you don’t work with fur. A lot of suppliers are offering sponsorships that aren’t sustainable. I think that those students should know that the older generation is encouraging them. It must be frustrating not to feel the support of the older generation. When I go to events or summits about sustainable fashion, people often say that the next generation will be sustainable, as if it’s their task. But I think that’s an unfair opinion. Young people are in a phase in their life of education, of learning, and you need examples to learn from, or role models. That is still lacking. It’s our task to guide them, and educate. My generation of designers, and the older generation, we’re completely failing the younger generation, in a big way. Whenever I give a speech, I almost want to start by apologising – we are failing you, we are not showing you the right way, you are not being surrounded by positive role models, so hats off to anybody who is here tonight, who wants to do this. It takes a lot of courage, and an independent mind to want to design sustainably.
“MY GENERATION OF DESIGNERS, AND THE OLDER GENERATION, WE’RE COMPLETELY FAILING THE YOUNGER GENERATION, IN A BIG WAY. WHENEVER I GIVE A SPEECH, I ALMOST WANT TO START BY APOLOGISING – WE ARE FAILING YOU, WE ARE NOT SHOWING YOU THE RIGHT WAY, YOU ARE NOT BEING SURROUNDED BY POSITIVE ROLE MODELS, SO HATS OFF TO ANYBODY WHO IS HERE TONIGHT, WHO WANTS TO DO THIS.”
And how was the collaboration for you personally, working with young students and being confronted with the way they perceive sustainability. Have you noticed any changes?
They have to apply, so they’re usually interested already, more than the other students in their class. It’s a minority who is interested, we have very few applications, about 2-3 a month. Anyone can apply, but the rules for the collection are strict, it has to be all vegan. It’s all possible but I think people are scared of it.
I remember Marie-Sophie Beinke saying that it was easier than she expected.
Yes, but she was still working within the old rules, where it had to be all vegetarian. After her we thought – that went well, let’s make it a bit stricter. If we should eat less meat, wool production should go down as well. No fur, no leather wasn’t really a problem, but no wool, no silk is harder.
You’re very open about the way you approach sustainability, you often say that no one can ever do 100%. Why did you decide to be so strict for young students?
Because I want to push them. The school really is the place to experiment. But not a lot of the students have the time or the confidence to experiment.
We have a scholarship of 10.000 euros. You can apply for the full amount, or just a bit. And you can do it any time of the year. But it’s not because they apply, that they are good. And I can’t give it to someone who I don’t think is great. Marie-Sophie I really thought – that’s different, all that colour, very unusual. Because you get a lot of cliché eco-looks. And that’s not new, it doesn’t surprise me. And I don’t want to reinforce those clichés.
“IN THE PAST IT WASN’T POSSIBLE TO DO SOMETHING ELSE THAN BEIGE. NOW, SUSTAINABLE FABRICS CAN BE MADE IN ANY COLOUR.”
I wonder where that cliché comes from. At CSM the BA students did a sustainability project, and the students all mentioned – we don’t want it to look sustainable. Sustainability really struggles with this image. Where does that come from?
In the past, it wasn’t possible to do something else than beige. Now, sustainable fabrics can be made in any colour.
Sustainability is often seen as a limitation.
I don’t believe it limits you today, so much is possible. Especially if you order more than a few meters. They can produce it for you, any colour, any design. You might encounter frictions, but if you do, I believe that doing your best is already enough, and you cannot invent things that aren’t created yet. I always work with the options available and I pick the best ones. If there’s something I want in the collection and it doesn’t exist yet in a sustainable version, I’ll work with what’s available. I will not limit my creativity, but it practically never happens. If it did, we communicate everything on the website, and it’s up to the customer to decide if they want it or not. It’s more important to be honest than to be perfect. Every little thing helps.
Some designers say: “I don’t want to start thinking about working in a different way because I can’t do it all the way.” That’s a very black and white way to look at it. Anything you do is helpful at this point. When you work for a big brand or a successful designer and order hundreds of meters of a white cotton that exists exactly the same in an organic version, that’s silly. That’s a missed opportunity for me.
I don’t know why people still think it’s limiting. I think people just use that argument to brush it off. If you don’t know anything about it, it can seem like an impossible task. But even today your regular supplier is able to make a sustainable version of any fabric you want.
At the beginning, Honest By was also very neutral.
I think it might have been a mistake. I did it because I personally like those classic colours, it felt like the beginning of a wardrobe. But because it was a sustainable brand, people thought: “Oh, that’s all they can do.” Maybe we should’ve launched with colour.
Is there anything that isn’t possible? Something you’d like to do, but the technology isn’t there yet?
Metallics are difficult. Silk is possible, but very rare.
The research seems overwhelming sometimes. Is it hard to keep up with that?
Not at all. I don’t think it is. And the people who work for me don’t think so either, it’s a habit.
“WHEN YOU WORK FOR A BIG BRAND OR A SUCCESSFUL DESIGNER AND ORDER HUNDREDS OF METERS OF A WHITE COTTON THAT EXISTS EXACTLY THE SAME IN AN ORGANIC VERSION, THAT’S SILLY. THAT’S A MISSED OPPORTUNITY FOR ME.”
How do you do your research?
Before we launched, we spent a year doing research, looking into the different certificates, and finding suppliers who had it. Now it’s easier, there’s more choice. Once you have your suppliers, you just have to check each six months whether they haven’t lost their certificates (which happens sometimes), it’s a habit. Each season we ask suppliers to send us their certified samples, and we choose from that. Sometimes, something I want isn’t there, and I ask my team to find it. It’s always possible, but sometimes it’s expensive. Especially since we’re a small company. If you’re a little bit bigger there’s no problem. The moment you can produce a hundred metres, you’re fine. Anything you want, any colour, any fabric. And it’s not more expensive, so I always wonder why people don’t do it. It’s really not complicated. But I understand, thinking back of when I was in the system. Everything goes so fast, you have your same suppliers, you know what to expect and you have a good contact with them. It’s a routine, and routine is pleasant when everything goes fast, because it’s safe. So to change that around into 100% new suppliers is a big risk. It’s a risk some people don’t want to take.
“IMAGINE ANYONE, WHETHER IT’S LOUIS VUITTON OR ZARA, CLAIMING THAT THEY’LL SPEND THEIR ANNUAL ADVERTISING BUDGET ON SALARY FOR THEIR WORKERS, I THINK THAT WOULD BE PHENOMENAL, AND I THINK THERE WILL BE BUSINESS PEOPLE WHO WILL COME UP WITH THAT. THAT WOULD BE SO APPRECIATED, AND MORE SUCCESSFUL THAN A CELEBRITY CAMPAIGN.”
I’m also wondering about the certainty you have that you’re approaching sustainability in the right way. The technical details can get so confusing.
It’s always changing, always evolving. But it just has to come to a point where you don’t have to choose, where you can have it all. And I think it’s possible in all price ranges. What needs to change are the extreme salary differences. To have these really cheap clothes, and have the people who actually make it actually earn nothing while models and photographers receive millions… That contrast and huge profit, will have to change. Logically it will be more balanced. Not equal, but more balanced. Imagine anyone, whether it’s Louis Vuitton or Zara, claiming that they’ll spend their annual advertising budget on salary for their workers, I think that would be phenomenal, and I think there will be business people who will come up with that. That would be so appreciated, and more successful than a celebrity campaign.
You mentioned it was a difficult five years. What is your biggest struggle today?
Making it more democratic. You can offer better prices if you have more quantities, but first you need to get there. If you have a high price, it’s difficult to grow. We’ve tried it now with the sport collection and it’s working quite well. So we might be onto something with that.
Can recycled materials lower the prices?
No, not really. It should be cheaper, but it’s not.
We spoke about the negative image sustainability has. In your communication, what do you want the core message to be?
I try to avoid everything but the product. Except in interviews, my days of preaching are over. That’s why the shop is ‘just’ a shop. There’s no information, or huge labels with lots of information. You have to look for it online. I think that in our communication, I want to be dry and product focussed. In the beginning, I was really into messages, and tried to have a spiritual side to it, but then I thought, no. That’s everyone’s personal journey, it’s not my task as a fashion designer.
And do the salespeople in the shop follow that as well?
Yes, they know a lot about the product, but not everything, sometimes they’ll have to look online. However, we don’t get a lot of questions from customers anyway. Usually, they heard about Honest By, so when they step in they already trust us.
I want to make it more democratic. With great wealth does not come great wisdom. It’s not because you’re rich, that you’re smarter or make better choices, even if they have the option to do so. In the end, my clothes are really high priced, so it’s a small segment of the population that can buy it. The change needs to happen at the top, high fashion, because that’s the most influential part. So our new collaboration will be with Y-Project, which I think is an influential brand at the moment.
“JOURNALISTS ALWAYS ASK ME QUESTIONS ABOUT SUSTAINABILITY, BUT THEN THEY INTERVIEW RAF SIMONS AND DON’T ASK THOSE QUESTIONS.”
What can journalists and writers do if they’re interested in sustainability?
Asking questions is, at this point, extremely important. Journalists always ask me questions about sustainability, but then they interview Raf Simons and don’t ask those questions. I’m already working in a sustainable way, yet I’m the one they’re continuously asking these questions. I think it’s important somebody breaks that pattern, of never even asking other designers. That way the designers know that there is demand, they should know that there’s interest. Designers are so focussed on the look, and on the quantity and selling… they will not change their habits if nobody asks them to.
Glenn worked for Honest By as an in-house designer, and he could get discouraged by the amount of choice. He never wanted to compromise on his design. For me, if the sustainable version looks like what I had in mind, it’s good enough, even if it’s not exactly the same. That’s why I always say, try to be as good as you can, be sustainable when you can. I admit, being sustainable is still an effort today. All aspects of it.
I wanted to ask you about trends. Fashion is built on this cyclic rhythm, and I wonder if sustainability becomes a trend, can it go out of fashion?
Magazines can turn everything into a trend. For me it’s about a way of working, and a way of living, and that’s not a trend, that’s your life. The way you think and breathe. When I think of sustainable fashion, I think of a sustainable working method. A production system that will allow us to continue this whole society in the future. That we can sustain not only our industry, but our being here. It’s funny how they turned that into a trend.
Hot summer trend: longevity.
Haha, it’s the opposite of a trend, sustainability. But you can make trendy clothes that last and outlive the trend. For me it’s a working method that will allow us to continue. The only thing we’re jeopardising is ourselves.