An Interview with Bruno Pieters of Honest By
Luxury, as we’ve come to know it, no longer bears resemblance to what it meant as recently as fifty years ago. The word is carelessly applied to anything falling above a certain price point, a far cry from the work of storied designers who founded the brands we continue to term couture today. Mass production,
shoddily made goods, and deploringly hiked-up retail values have come to define our current conceptions of luxe. Fashion houses rest heavily on the laurels of their good name and smart marketing rather than innovating to adapt to the current needs of their consumer and a world caught in the midst of environmental crisis.
Bruno Pieters’ Honest By is here to change all of that. The brand boasts the highest caliber of construction and limited production, while providing full transparency of origin and pricing. Pieters’ clothing stands shoulder to shoulder with the most established designers and hottest young names in the business, but the work that he’s doing is one of a kind. His pieces are completely vegan, ethically sourced and constructed, and documented down to the last detail. Year by year, Pieters is proving that socially conscious, transparent, and responsible practices are not only a feasible business model, but the only option if corporatized luxury plans to subsist.
Honest By is the first clothing company to offer full transparency on the manufacturing and pricing of its products. What inspired this initiation, and has it been difficult?
Full transparency on the manufacturing and pricing of a product is what I wanted myself, as someone who loves fashion but at the same time wants to make a responsible choice when purchasing something. I wasn’t happy with what was out there. There are a lot of brands that claim to be responsible, but the information they offer is so vague it’s almost offensive. Also, if what you’re doing is really that good why not share it and show it to the world?
Why do you think the rest of the industry is hesitant to make that leap?
Well, if business is good and your customers are happy, or you think they’re happy because you look at your numbers and the numbers are good, why would you change? It’s not a small group of people or a small group of companies that rule the world. No, it’s seven billion customers, consumers that rule the world, and anything that they want will happen immediately. But we have to understand that. And that’s part of the awareness, that’s part of waking up, to understand it’s up to you. It won’t happen if you keep encouraging, if you keep buying, if you keep voting for those unsustainable, unethical products. It will just continue as long as you buy it. I also think, because there isn’t that transparency from these businesses, they don’t feel that sense of accountability, and their consumers aren’t going to be aware of those practices because there isn’t that transparency. It’s kind of a vicious cycle.
Also in fashion, there are these movies like Devil Wears Prada that give you the illusion that there is someone who controls the whole business and is very important, but no! That person is in service of the consumer, of the client. We decide everything. Fashion is a business and a business is about making money and that happens through customers. It’s happened so often that there are magazines or editors that people look up to that are promoting, pushing, helping a certain designer, but it just doesn’t work. The public doesn’t want it, and then that’s the end of the story. So there you see who’s boss. There you see who matters.
What are some simple, yet toxic, practices that the industry participates in that could be changed as soon as today?
I think it comes down to a lot of animal products. Those are so unnecessary today. We’re still wearing those extremely primitive materials while we live in a world where it’s not necessary to do that anymore. We have this incredible moment right now where there is absolutely no reason or need to kill an animal. So few designers see and use that opportunity, even if there are a lot of signals that the public wants that.
And there’s also been such an incredible advance in fabric technology.
I must say, I’m more and more intrigued by 3D printing. We’re going to do it for Honest By. We’re going to have our design online; you will be able to download it, and if you have a 3D printer at home you will be able to print it out, or you can go to a 3D printer shop near you. So all the issues of child labor, animal abuse, they all disappear with 3D printing. They also now have material cartridges that are made out of recycled plastic, and next year they’re going to launch a shredder, so if you don’t like your shoes you printed anymore, you can shred them and reuse the plastic. You’re recycling directly at home. I think it will be amazing. It would be wonderful if the world woke up, but it’s a lot to ask. It’s very threatening. There’s this fear that it won’t happen, and I think technology might give everyone the abillity, the option, or the possibility to wake up when they’re ready to wake up. I think it would be beautiful if we all had the time we need [to wake up]. I hope that technology will give us that opportunity.
What prompted that switch for you? How does the sustainability of your brand feed into your own lifestyle and vice versa?
I think it was just the result of my whole life. It wasn’t one particular thing—so many things came together. When it comes to my diet, what I eat, it was a movie that I saw called Earth Links, and that was like, Okay, I can ignore it in my head and lie to myself, but I don’t want to be a part of this anymore. Enough is enough. I am a vegan. I think it’s been two years now, and I’m very happy and proud of myself for finally making that decision and following my truth. It’s very liberating to listen to yourself.
For years I lied to myself because I was never able to look at those images of animals being slaughtered, but I’d still use their skins. Before I used fur, I used leather, I was working in a way that I wasn’t proud of, but I didn’t see it because I was such a part of it.
Your business model is really a return to the tradition of the great couturiers and the true origins of luxury. Why do you think fashion, even modern luxury labels, have shifted away from these methods of construction and transparency? What is your personal definition of the word luxury?
I think it’s something you don’t think about when you’re in that rhythm and doing season after season of collections and trying to be competitive. For ready-to-wear, it’s just something that happens. That’s the thing when I was always working, I was working in an unconscious way. But I didn’t enjoy it, and that’s one of the things that I really love about Honest By. How we work today is by being more thoughtful about how we’re making it and how much we’re making and what we’re offering and when we’re offering it. Life is a luxury. It is something I don’t take for granted. It’s something we have been given for no reason at all. Fashion is a beautiful thing that I enjoy when the story behind the design is as beautiful as the design itself. I love this quote from Gandhi: “There is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness.” I think that pretty much sums it all up.
Do you think you are the beginning of a new movement in fashion? Are you confident that people will soon follow suit, or do you think sustainable designers will remain a minority in the industry?
What I do is the result of me waking up as an individual and realizing that my fashion dream had been a nightmare for many other beings, and I wanted to do something about that. I’m not the first person to wake up and not the last one. This is happening all over the world. Our friends, family members, colleagues, and so on, I think everyone is becoming more aware. We are human beings. We are by definition kind and compassionate entities. This is something that cannot be stopped. And in my opinion the change is happening very smoothly.
What has been the response to your label, both from consumers and the industry at large?
From the consumers, very positive. We’ve attracted people who have the same opinion as I do, and Honest By is a brand that I launched because it’s something I wanted as a consumer. Before I launched, I spoke to a lot of designers because I wanted to work with them to do collaborations. Most people were very positive and surprised about the concept, or they thought it was very innovative and strong, but they didn’t necessarily see it as part of their story.
I could see how, for a brand that doesn’t want that transparency, that could be a threatening business model.
It definitely is. Some people see it as an attack on the current industry, which it isn’t. I try not to focus on other people and what’s going on. I just focus on what I believe is right and what makes me feel good. I think that’s one of the things in my personal life that I try to work on, not to think too much about what other people are thinking. Opinions of other people are just standing in the way of your own truth.
I think that’s a lesson, whether running a business or just living your life.
Yes, because it can be paralyzing. I’ve had moments where I was very concerned about reactions. It’s always a surprise when someone tells you something, and you’re not prepared for it. But you can’t dwell on it. You just have to remember what you’re doing and remember that just like you have your journey, everybody has their journey. Voila.
Creatively, what are the limitations to giving up ecologically harmful materials? And on the other hand, how has it enhanced and enlightened your creative process?
There are no limitations. That is an old myth. What has enlightened my creative process is the fact that my attitude has changed. I used to be ambitious, and now I would describe myself as passionate. I think an ambitious person wants external approval, like a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award.’ A passionate person does it for internal satisfaction. You do it because it makes your heart glow.
There are many companies in fashion, in particular the British Fur Trade Association, that are trying to advertise the use of fur as “sustainable”—a natural product that creates jobs and decomposes easily (unlike artificial faux fur). They’re also supporters of “Origin Assured,” a label that marks fur that’s supposedly been sourced from ethical farms. What is your response to these programs and the general idea of marketing fur as a green product?
Fur is not a sustainable product. We have made such incredible progress in the world—we are so advanced that we don’t need to kill anymore to stay warm or feed ourselves. The fur industry has been lobbying for the past 15 years in a very aggressive and effective way. They have managed to put fur on all the catwalks, and they started by helping young students, giving them all the fur they want for free. As a student, it is very hard to resist that offer. Especially when no one else in the industry seems to care about you. You feel a sense of gratitude towards the fur associations your whole life when you get that kind of support as a student. That is why I have just launched the FFDS, the Future Fashion Designer Scholarship. It is a 10,000 euro scholarship that we will give to a very talented student who wants to work with sustainable materials and find innovative alternatives for animal- based materials. All we need to do is show young talents some appreciation. I hope more brands and designers will help the FFDS, so we can give out more scholarships and help fashion students to work according to their own values.
This year, Honest By was the only sustainable label to be shortlisted for the LVMH Prize. Can you talk about this honor and discuss what it might mean for the future of responsible and transparent design?
It was an honor and a disappointment at the same time to be there with the 30 hottest designers, young people that are supposed to represent the future of fashion, and only one brand is working in a sustainable and transparent way. But you can also see it as an achievement because a few years ago there wouldn’t have been any. To be honest, that is another reason why we launched the FFDS. Responsible and progressive designers just need to be shown some appreciation. We need to focus on the people who want to make a difference and ignore the ones who don’t. That is how we can stimulate positive change.
What is your WILD Wish?
I’m living it. This might not be an exciting answer, but I really believe everything is always as it needs to be. I don’t wish, I know. I’m grateful, and I trust blindly.