The Masters: Renata Estefan
“It’s not that sustainability is important, it’s fundamental.”
Despite my best intentions, Renata leads the interview. A set of carefully prepared questions fly out the window as she takes the wheel. Her life story is succinctly described within the first ten minutes of meeting. A whirlwind speaker, her voice runs a mile a minute. I can barely catch a breath before she runs off with an answer. I grimace every time she says, “as I told you.”
Growing up in the Brazilian countryside, Renata lived an idyllic farm life amongst family, animals and nature. Her views on sustainability and animal cruelty were instilled from an early age. “I learned from my mum how to respect the animals, on so many levels,” the vegetarian designer explained, “and that’s what I did with my work.”
Renata was inspired by fashion activist Orsola de Castro who tutored the MA students on sustainability. Orsola encouraged Renata to keep going “by teaching me to have this mentality of doing what’s possible right now in order for me not to stop what I’m doing.” Renata explained that “some people will go so deep into it that they end up doing nothing, because to be as sustainable as you can get, you wouldn’t produce anything.”
When probed as to why sustainability is so important, Renata bursts into an urgent tangent, “it’s almost like insane, completely unimaginable for me to carry on ignoring it.” She continues, “it’s not like we don’t have the information anymore, we have the information and it’s catastrophic – the numbers, the graphics are absolutely insane. It’s not that sustainability is important, it’s fundamental.”
Ignorance is no longer blissful, as Renata points out: “we’re going to be forced to change. If not by people who are in charge, if not by the biggest corporations forcing the designers to adapt, the world at some point will force everyone to adapt. It’s not beautiful, it’s getting ugly to ignore it.”
A sense of guilt washes over when talking to Renata about this, “people don’t connect with the cause because they know it’ll cause pain to themselves to actually acknowledge and deal with the situation. We’re causing so much destruction and suffering that therefore it’s easier not to think about it.”
These guiding principles were the foundations for Renata’s MA collection. In the face of the difficulties of sustainable design, Renata had to stick to her beliefs; “I knew it would be a nightmare, I knew it would be challenging but I couldn’t do it differently.”
Her final collection is a combination of her passions: sustainability, horse riding, the royal family, the countryside, heritage and classic tailoring. These elements come together in looks of vegan-silk, sustainable tweed, high collared shirts, elegant skirts, structural tailoring, perfect pleats and geometric shapes.
Amongst a cohort of incredibly loud, youthful designers, Renata designs for an elegant woman with “a quietness that will stand out.” An intergenerational aesthetic preference was passed down from her great-grandmother, for neatness and a classy style. Inspired by photos of her family in the 30s and vintage Vogue catalogues, Renata caters for a more mature audience. “I didn’t want it to be cool, I wanted it to be beautiful.”
Neatness brings Renata a visceral pleasure, the sharpness and “the lines” that she can’t quite describe in words. It’s the feeling of things being done “properly.” From her great grandparents suits and dress in the 30s, lengths to the millimetre, to Oskar Schlemmer’s geometric art, it’s all about profound tidiness.
Her mind is like a mechanical system that, she admits, can get stuck like a record player from time to time. Minute details were obsessively worked over. She exasperatedly tells about a pair of trousers that were remade 22 times before they were perfect – on the finished look less than two inches were visible under an oversized tunic.
“I’m obsessed with lengths” she gleefully confessed. To find the perfect length for the collection, Renata calculated ratios via Photoshop by placing photos side by side. “The whole collection is 84.6cm long because that’s the length that I love” Renata explained. This obsession was inspired by the work of Louise Wilson, “she was obsessed with lengths, absolutely neurotic about it.”
Despite her level-headedness there is some impulsivity to Renata’s process, following instinctive decisions that come from the gut. For example, at the last minute, Renata decided to pleat all of her fabrics, sprinting to the pleaters on Christmas Eve before they closed for the Holidays.
Invigorated with the MA course, Renata teaches tutorials and workshops to fashion students back in Brazil. Whenever she travelled home, she worked with students on their portfolios, their research skills, design thinking etc. “I just wanted to share,” as there is a huge lack in fashion education in Brazil. There are now six Brazilian students on the BA course as a direct result of Renata’s teachings.
Her most important advice for designing sustainably is to focus what you shouldn’t do: “You don’t need to use leather, you don’t need to use PVC, you don’t need to use cashmere or angora, why do you need real fur? You can replace a lot of materials by other materials, bit by bit, and if everybody does that, already it will have a great impact.”
One day she would like to come back and teach, but for now she want to gain as much experience as possible. Lining up interviews at some of her favourite houses such as Stella McCartney, Jill Sander and Roksanda. Renata want’s to take her beliefs wherever she ends up, “I’m going to try and incorporate a bit of what I do and take that to a brand, that can be of more value to someone that is already doing it.”