The Ethical Imperative Of High Quality: Q+A with R.EH
At Lissome, we strongly believe in the importance of high quality, both in terms of the design and the making of garments or any other products. For a long time now, humans have treated the natural world as an inferior that could be mastered and exploited. But the dawning climate crisis of our times shows us clearly that it is about time to rethink our place in the world. Far from being separate from nature, we humans are deeply embedded in the living world and must act with the wellbeing of the entire ecosystem in mind. So when we use resources, we should do so with consideration and care.
It is in this train of thought that designer Eliza Helmerich of Berlin-based clothing label R.EH set up her own brand. The former fashion graduate of the prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London deliberately decided to swim against the current stream of trend-based design and planned obsolescence, and to work in a conscious and holistic way. Her garments are beautifully timeless basics, ethically made, and fairly priced for the high quality and longevity that they offer and we are delighted that they are now available via the LISSOME/Store. But before you take a look, let’s dive deeper into Eliza’s world and the photographs of Milena Villalon and Rachel Spink.
Eliza, what motivated you decide to start your own fashion brand, R.EH, and what is it that you offer to your customers?
My motivation grew after years of qualitative research, exploring what people buy and why, what products can be improved and how – and basically trying to find a simple solution through my designs. I also had a desire for certain basic quality products that I couldn’t find on the market, so I naturally began designing and producing them myself.
Designing sustainable products for R.EH transmutes my frustrations about bad quality products and bad working conditions of commercial and even designer fashion. My design approach, with its focus on ecological and human-centered solutions, isn’t dictated by seasonal deadlines and the pressure to invent ephemeral fashion trends. This is why I prefer R.EH to be defined as a sustainable designer label opposed to a fashion brand.
R.EH offers customers a compromise between low priced commercial products and expensive designer products. All well-engineered and ethically made design editions are permanently available throughout the year and over time will grow into a wider range of different products. Pleased customers are my greatest motivation.
Why did you deliberately choose to operate outside the concept of seasonal collections and trend-based designs?
I follow this approach because of sustainable and economical reasons and naturally out of a personal interest. Products which are made ethically and feature high durability, exceptional haptic qualities, ideally functional details and an overall good price-performance ratio – are the items that I personally cherish and desire the most and that’s why I enjoy designing them.
Today, the short-lived usage of most products on the market is pre-programmed and most consumers are used to bad quality and low prices without being aware that their constant consumption is more cost-intensive in the long run and over time more harmful to the environment. So to keep on reinventing and shopping seasonal fashion trends is neither creative nor sustainable. In my mind, it’s an unsustainable pattern in itself that has become unsatisfying to me as a designer. Using less and cherishing more is a sensible way out of the increasingly complicated fashion industry.
This less profit- and growth-orientated approach is obviously a challenge for every business, but relatively manageable for smaller businesses with sustainability as their core concept. Thus, I decided to create value through my designs – by designing products that consumers don’t want to dispose and replace as quickly and easily. I want my designs to enhance and simplify peoples’ lives and ideally create an emotional attachment to an R.EH product and the consumer.
You take inspiration from the Bauhaus movement – what do you think we can learn from it and how can it help us to create a healthy and sustainable future?
I appreciate various aspects of the Bauhaus movement. First of all their interdisciplinary approach to architecture, fine arts, design, textiles, graphic design, ceramics to theater –, I miss that openness to cooperate and collaborate between creative disciplines today. I also think it’s fascinating how the Bauhaus developed a sort of “sustainable aesthetic” – a modernist form language that still influences our culture today. And finally, I particularly appreciate their attempt to design democratically – making high-quality design accessible to a wider spectrum of people. Higher quality goods can be mass-produced, they’re just not as profitable due to their sustainable nature. Bauhaus products were too expensive in their days and sadly failed at this point.
I agree with the quote by the German economist E.F. Schumacher, that “any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” Thus, the disappearance of the Bauhaus concept inspires me to walk in their footprints.
At some point Bauhaus adopted the slogan “Art into Industry” – I think it gives a good incentive for implementation, focusing on products that respond to emotional, functional and aesthetic needs of consumers.
How, as a small brand, did you build your supply chain?
It really takes a lot of time to research suitable and preferably local manufacturers and materials, as the supply chain depends on so many things – the right machines, order quantities of materials, production volumes, the quality of finishing, the results of sampling and so on. A low volume production and the purchase of a small quantity of material are really hard to find these days. A small batch production is more time-consuming and fewer sales are less profitable.
Over the years, I dealt with various manufacturers and realised that the quality of the product and the implementation of my designs really depend on the companies’ ethics and size. After two years of research and sampling, I finally found some of my manufacturers through friends who are manufacturers themselves, and others through the internet, through small local trade shows and showrooms. And there are some processes that I still finish by myself.
Where does your production take place now?
All current R.EH designs are produced in Germany except the alpaca knitwear. There’s still no spinning mill in Europe that produces industrial yarn made of 100% baby alpaca. When I traveled through Peru and Bolivia for a couple of months, I fell in love with their widespread passion for craftsmanship and alpacas, and I simply felt this was the right place to cooperate.
Today, Peruvians are the specialist in high-end alpaca spinning and processing and similar to Germany, many Peruvian companies have high volumes starting at 1000 pieces per colour and size. After many disappointments, I was glad that my final manufacturer, a family business located in Arequipa, came about through the Peruvian wife of an old friend of mine. Both are the founders of the non-profit association La Escuelita e.V., who now receive a 5 € donation for each sold sweater.
This year I’ve also been working on a new clothing edition that is entirely made in one village in the South of Germany and will launch very soon.
And where are your garments available?
Only until recently our customers were solely provided through our own online store. From now on we’ll also be available through other selected online platforms such as the LISSOME/Store. Ideally we’d liked to be stocked offline, but store margins are too high and we prefer to keep our prices affordable.
Which materials do you use for your clothing and accessories? And could you explain to us what makes them eco-friendly and give some insights into where you source them?
Alpaca wool is classified as a very durable and therefore a highly sustainable fiber. With proper care, alpaca is virtually indestructible and can be worn for years, reducing the unhealthy demand for new products. The alpaca fleece is shorn once a year, baby alpaca quality, in particular, describes the young alpaca’s first shorn fleece, which naturally regrows by the time cold weather returns. Because alpaca is naturally free of lanolin and other oils found in sheep wool, no harsh chemicals are needed to process alpaca fiber, making alpaca ranching 100% natural and safe for the environment and even for allergy sufferers.
The alpaca’s adaptation for living in harsh environments, such as the Andes mountains, grants them a light eco-footprint. When compared to other grazing animals, the alpaca’s soft feet leave terrain undamaged and their low-nutrition eating habits result in minimal water and acreage consumption. The antibacterial quality of alpaca makes the fiber resistant to absorbing odors and perspiration. Thus, alpaca knitwear is also sustainable due to its water-saving care, as washing is replaced by the airing by the window. Alpaca knitwear is more resistant to pilling, felting and shrinking than other natural fibers and can be worn in summer, winter, due to its thermoregulating function that adjusts to any body temperature.
Our high-quality alpaca fiber stems from Michell, a spinning mill founded in 1931 in Arequipa, Peru. It is known for its highly refined fiber finishing processes and the sustainable production of one of the finest Peruvian alpaca yarns. Michell sources the raw alpaca fiber from small communities in Peru, that sustain traditional alpaca herding.
And apart from alpaca ...?
In order to provide more durable and functional merino and cashmere knitwear, I went through a tedious design development of felting seamlessly knitted pullovers, hats, and scarves. The felted knitwear is particularly sustainable because it is knitted on Japanese Shima Seiki Wholegarment® machines, whose 3D seamless knitting technology minimises waste by knitting the entire garment in one process and without seams in a three-dimensional construction. Wholegarment® machines are suitable for an industrial production and reduce the manual labour and the material loss associated with cutting and sewing processes.
The felting process of the merino-cashmere blend leads to its windproof and water-repellent quality. Felting requires much more yarn, but it increases the durability, the weight, the price, the lifespan and thus the value of the knitwear. The deadstock yarn is sourced from the renowned Italian spinning mill Zegna Baruffa Lane Borgosesia.
You donate a part of your profits to the non-profit association, La Escuelita e.V. – what inspired you to support their work?
As mentioned previously, the non-profit association La Escuelita e.V. ("the small school") was founded by my friend Christoph Jahn and his Peruvian wife Gabriela Andrade. Both had the vision to create a space and meeting point, that offers free basic education for children and a socio-environment for families suffering under financial hardship.
Long working hours and low wages leave a negative imprint on too many families’ well-being in Peru. A cycle that results in the neglect of childcare forcing children to work with their parents in order to sustain their family. La Escuelita e.V. does not aim to relieve the pain of one particular social problem, it rather attempts to address the root cause of the problem by offering new perspectives, trust, and free education. Inspired by La Escuelita e.V.’s willingness to help, I decided to donate 5 € of every sold product (worth more than 140 €) to their non-profit association.
You studied fashion design at the prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London and you’ve been working in the fashion industry since. What is your personal take on the industry?
Initially, like most young teenage girls I was really excited about fashion, trends, designing artistic garments and I felt almost addicted to the pulsating energy involved in this industry. Thus, I became a quite ambitious CSM Fashion Design Womenswear student graduating in 2012. Sadly CSM wasn’t the place to learn in-depth fashion and textile theory nor practical skills. So while studying, I ended up doing six internships to get more practical experience in tailoring, pattern cutting etc. and had the most remarkable time with the master tailor Rocco Ciccarelli in NYC. Working at his custom tailoring manufacturing company felt like working in the 1940s – this truly awe-inspiring experience of work ethics, as well as meaningful conversations with his employees, are still guiding me today.
However, the more I confronted myself with the fashion industry as an intern, dresser, and sales assistant during my studies and later as a stylist, editor, and designer, the less I could identify myself with the people sustaining the engine of the current fashion industry.
How do you experience the status quo today?
To me fashion is no longer fashion, it expired when it started to lack in benefiting society with its Sisyphus-like efforts. In the long-term, I think real economic success is only possible if it is not achieved at the expense of ecological and social matters.
What are your hopes for the future?
Since the age of 15, I had a strong vision of having my own “fashion label” in the future and more than a decade later it was clear to me, that I had to design and produce in a more conscious way. So in 2015, I decided to create my own footprint with holistic values and an unconventional work dynamic that currently makes me feel like a salmon swimming upstream – counter the “status quo”.
Intuitively, I feel it’s the right direction because I believe in the sanity of consumers and their desire for more purity, authenticity, and simplicity in this complex world. My hopes for the future are that more and more people will get fed up with consuming disposable fashion items and will become tired of common designer brands. Instead, they will want to distinguish themselves by talking about the DNA of their garment, what it’s made of, where it’s made and who it’s made by and what they support with their money and why.
In terms of fashion, we’re definitely in a state of flux when looking at the fast-growing number of small sustainable businesses, green fashion movements or slow fashion bloggers worldwide.
What do you think would it take for conscious fashion to reach the mainstream?
I think the best price-performance ratio, the aesthetic of a brand and its products as well as press and marketing are important factors for reaching the mainstream.
What do you think is currently preventing it?
If the production cost of conscious fashion wasn’t that high, it would be much easier to reach the mainstream with sustainable and affordable products. If more consumers would be willing to pay more for more durable, sustainable and ethical products, there’s a possible chance to decrease production costs and sales prices.
But to get to that point, I think consumers need to be better informed about the consequences of their behavior and inspired by more sustainable and affordable products. There are so many people looking for sustainable and affordable products and there are so many designers working in that field – but the main problem in reaching out to the mainstream is the lack of exposure – online on Google and offline in stores.
What would need to change to make it happen?
Universities, designers, and brands can educate customers about products. But also the governments could take more initiative in supporting sustainable designers, start-ups, magazines, events, and trade shows that inform about sustainable and local products.
Giving more attention to small businesses would lead to a higher variety and sales of sustainable and ethical products. In my opinion, this approach could be equally profitable for the economy. Instead, the focus is still on large companies promoting their “fake” sustainable strategies, when it is their business model itself that is causing the root problem of unsustainability.
Where do you see R.EH in the future? What are your plans and your dreams?
I want to be able to continue designing simple, basic clothing, accessories and interior objects – it hardly seems credible but it is actually harder than offering ‘fashion’ – it requires a lot of time in reflection, high levels of expertise, experience, and compressed inspiration. Next year the plan is to be available in a unique showroom in Berlin and at various events, that I’m already very excited about. In the future, I would also like to cooperate with other designers on a common online and offline store and I like the idea of being stocked in one store in each country, especially in Japan.
My dream is to see more people purchasing sustainable design and wearing R.EH – every customer’s feedback and product feature is incredibly motivating. I also dream of more pre-orders, pleasing my manufacturers with slightly higher orders to make their work process more worthwhile.
What does success mean to you personally?
To me, success is not growing a huge business and becoming rich at the expense of others. I’m more than happy to be able to live from my designs, to have the freedom to design more sustainable products and to be able to employ a few more people. I like things to be manageable, truthful and well-functioning for a long time.
What are your favourite places in Berlin to nourish your soul?
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, Eliza!