As I enter In-Ku on Warren Street, London, I am immediately struck by the simplicity of the store. No huge signs screaming '50% OFF' in your face, no massive heaps of the same clothes surrounding you. It has the feeling of home. Carin hands me a pair of slippers, as I take a tour around her shop - it's perfectly white, with a couple of designs hanging here and there and folded in baskets. She tells me it's because she wants to discourage people from dry-cleaning her clothes. We sit down, drink some tea, nibble on some cookies and she starts: "So I guess you want to know what slow fashion means to me?"
Interview by Aleksandra Medina
How did you discover slow fashion?
I’ve been doing this brand for about 24 years. At that time, when I started, the environment wasn’t something that people were particularly keen on discussing, people were just starting to become eco-friendly. There was only one Planet Organic shop. I had worked in related industries before with clothing, for example, I was in-between projects working on films as a stylist. When I started making the clothes, it was almost an accident. It wasn’t something I set out to be, a clothing designer. I saw that there was a big interest in vintage clothing at that time, people were really responsive to it. Even in photoshoots and magazines we were using vintage things. People were finally prepared to wear previously loved clothes. I was contemplating, was it because they couldn’t afford much else, or was it because of the atmosphere of the garment? To my surprise, many fashion directors and other designers would come to secondhand markets looking for archive pieces; stuff that had been used and left - the vintage stuff.
How come people used to love it, 'the vintage stuff', so much?
Once a garment has been worn, it becomes much more useable… it’s not stiff – the fabric has broken in. Also, a lot of the old vintage things were made with no corners cut. Not like in the modern fashion industry, where things are very standardised.
How did you reach the next stage, setting up your own shop, In-Ku?
The atmosphere of these garments was something different to what you would buy on the high street. People saw beauty in the shape. People would see stuff that is no longer largely available. So I thought I want to reuse vintage things and make them more modern. Obviously, from a personal perspective, I was becoming more aware of recycling and eating consciously. My whole lifestyle was geared towards very ‘no harm’. Personally, I thought I would just make a couple of things. But then I got pointed into the direction of a shop, which is a really good showcase for handcraft clothing. That’s how it snowballed from there.
Did you obtain any education relevant to the field?
No, I totally learned it on the street. I was a clothing stylist and I also worked in film costume for about 5 years. When I look back, that work really helped [me progress]. When you work in the film industry, you learn to break garments down. Which means, if you buy something new and you want to make it look like the character has worn it for a lot longer, you learn what to do with the clothing to make it look more worn-in.
How is it relevant now?
Everything that you see here goes through a washing process before it reaches the consumer. As a result, people don’t dry-clean, because I’m against dry-cleaning. It’s not good for the textiles, nor the environment. Also, it has done all the shrinking. A lot of people dry-clean, because they are afraid that the textile will change due to washing, which it does. Textiles do change. That’s why you see crumpled stuff and clothing just thrown into baskets, because we come from a point of view, where we like relaxed-looking, crumpled clothing. Ironing is also unnecessary, unless you’re going to a wedding or an important meeting. Utility has a workwear aspect to it. Workwear is something that was meant to be worn by somebody, who’s either a French peasant or someone who works in the fields, or someone who builds a building. There’s a lot of that, the historical aspect, in the clothing here.
"Slow fashion is about non-trend. Something has an equal value now, as it did 20 years ago."
Does this interest in history come from working with historical movies [as a costume designer]?
No, what I mean by history is that the idea started off as a Victorian apron worn by maybe nurses, or women who worked in the kitchen in the Victorian era. But I changed it into a skirt with a bib, so things have stories. Collections have a purpose. There’s a purposeful reason for things.
Do you create the collections with a specific story behind each?
Mostly, there’s a concept behind it. When I was working particularly with Comme Des Garçons – every season there would be a concept behind the collection. I still use the same concepts, unlike other fashion designers. The concept is more about the brand’s concept, rather than the season’s concept.
What are some of the concepts that you worked on with Comme Des Garçons?
Initially, for the first 5 years, they just bought the brand as it was, then I worked much more closely on the Edited Black Project. Both, Rei Kawakubo and Comme Des Garçons, made history with their black collections in the 80s. I was asked to be a part of the Edited Black Project. It’s to do with black monochrome. Those collections were a collaboration. I would come up with the concept, present fabrics and shapes, and then they would pick what they wanted. Looking back at the themes, there was a collection called Blackout, based on wartime. During The Blitz houses were blacked out with black curtains and women were doing men’s work in the factories. The whole thing was like WW1 history.
"I still use the same concepts, unlike other fashion designers – the concept is more about the brand’s concept, rather than the season’s concept."
Did some collections also come with a historical meaning behind them?
Yes. They were based on working clothes. Whether it was the aprons that the workers wore, or the fabrics have a big part to play in that, too. Those collections were done with a lot of black drill and workwear inspired fabrics. Then there was another collection called Black Sea, which was based on a photograph of Tsar Nicholas II and his family's summer holidays on board the royal yacht, and in particular about their youngest boy, ALEXI who had haemophilia, which is a bleeding disease. He got bruises on his body and he was looked after by a sailor from a Russian yacht. That was about an aristocratic, nautical feeling. Then there was another collection called Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee, which is a famous Mohamed Ali quote. It is based on the first women boxers. In the Victorian era, women used to do boxing as entertainment. That was much more to do with a historical aspect.
Do you still follow these particular themes?
That is always in my head, because that’s obviously a concept I came up with. But for my own store, I now much more work with what I know customers want, the feeling of what’s wanted and a continuation of the same utilitarian ideas.
What does slow fashion mean to you?
Slow. Very slow. Not quick. Built to last. Built-to-last takes a long time when it comes to anything: cars, that are built to last, food, that is meant to be good for you and taste good. The built-to-last aspect is also based on how society was historically: when you wore one pair of shoes out until you needed another pair, or you wore one dress out until you needed another one. Generally speaking, maybe from 1940s backwards. Things were expensive. Aristocratic people saw it vulgar to consume too much in some ways from a clothing point of view, especially in the UK. Then, during war time, people didn’t have money. The aristocrats didn’t buy into too much consumerism, because they thought it was vulgar. The people, who couldn’t afford it, didn’t buy because they simply couldn’t afford it. If things are built to last, then they won’t wear out and they won’t be in a landfill in 6 months’ time. Even though people buy better made stuff, people are always wanting this ‘new, new, new’. So it’s always an anti-new idea.
Why, from your point of view, In-Ku is a slow fashion brand? What do you do to create something that’s not so harmful to the environment?
I’m still making the same shapes that I made 20 years ago, in the very beginning. The reason for putting more effort and spending more money into making a pattern that will last a long time is so that it can be handed over to your children. Or you wear until you no longer are able to wear it.
How do you manage to create something that people continuously want to own?
Non-trend. Not following the fashion predictions. Following what’s elegant and looks good. Also, the techniques I use are too expensive to make in an industrial way. People in the fashion industry want new collections, new looks – trend. All the time the trend is changing, changing, changing. Slow fashion is about non-trend. Something has an equal value now, as it did 20 years ago.
Explain, what are some of the non-trend techniques?
I use French seams. I use a lot of binding and piping. No corners are cut. There are technical things that are not so easily seen to the naked eye, unless you sew yourself. That’s to give it a long-lasting aspect. I didn’t intend to set out the brand per se, 24 years ago the term 'slow fashion' wasn’t on people’s lips. I feel a lot people now are climbing on the bandwagon, and say, ‘this is slow fashion’, because it’s a fashionable term now. Actually, anything that’s made in a factory is not slow fashion, they cannot keep to these kinds of techniques. They also cannot do a garment washing process. There are some Japanese brands that do the garment washing process, but it’s limited to what textiles you can use. Because linen shrinks, wool shrinks – pure fabrics shrink. Cotton shrinks. This is all done in a very much domestic, small way to communicate the 'atmosphere'. Then there are high-street brands that climb on the bandwagon and make the 'atmosphere look'. They go to India, they get stuff done really cheaply and they try to make it look like slow fashion. But it’s all fake. It’s fake.
What defines your success?
To be honest, I’m focused on my product and keeping my product going. I don’t do a lot of wrecking around other things. I know that anything that’s produced in big volumes or made in a factory is definitely not slow fashion. Unless it’s made out of organic fabric, or there are other certificates or social mission, for it to be called slow fashion. Generally, factories are about speed. They actually have a stopwatch with the workers being given a certain amount of time to produce the garment. they have somebody at the front of the factory with a stopwatch timing them. That can’t be called slow fashion.
In your mind, does slow fashion go hand-in-hand with being environmentally conscious?
Yes, 100%, because our lives are too quick. Everything is too sped up. Modern technology is there to speed us all up - look at our breath, look at our life, look at our food, look at what choices we make in terms of cars, bicycles or how we live our lives. I’ve just recently been told that, apart from the motorcars, clothing is the most negatively impactful product on the planet. People do want more, more, more. We want excess. We all have too many things.
You said that you create only 400 pieces a year. If in London there’s around 10 million people, the concept of slow fashion becomes, in fact, quite exclusive. Hasn't it become this crazy expensive thing that no one can afford?
Well, I think that it’s good that slow fashion exists to make the people to be more aware of every single step in the chain of the making process. About the fabric, the textile you use, whether the people who made it are adequately payed. UN goes around and inspects a lot of factories, after the exposure of big brands. With my product, my machinists are my best friends, I’m in daily contact with them, one has been with me since the beginning. We care about each other like family. I have my finger on the maker and how they’re doing, if they’re sick today, how many garments they have made. Whereas, when you’re a chain brand, the consumer doesn’t know about all that. They just consume based on how it looks on the shop floor. Obviously, since there are so many people living in London, as you said, not everybody can be educated about it. It is only possible, I think, as long as each of us is more aware. Awareness is the key.
Do you think this is more of a social statement, rather than an actual business?
You don’t make a lot of money with small amounts of beautifully produced, expensively produced things. You have to really believe in the product, because there’s not a lot of money to be made. If the initial intention is to make lots of money, your ethics are definitely going to be put to one side, whatever you are making.
Is your overarching goal to contribute to a social movement?
I want to create something that people will enjoy and wear until it has holes in it. That should also make them feel better about themselves. In the end, clothing has a lot to do with identity and how one feels about oneself. I’ve learned a lot about it since I’ve had the shop. People come in for different reasons. In most shops you can't bring things back to be repaired. People do bring things back to be repaired here. Yet most clothes don’t have that soul to them, because they have moved on to another season.
Does it affect you in a restrictive way that you're doing things only small-scale?
I think it’s good to have people that can go the full way. I can go the full way, because I’m a small brand. I think GAP is a good example, where bigger companies use a [sustainable] model to change things on a much grander scale. For example, GAP uses organic fabric, because they need to keep the organic farmer going. On the other hand, when I used organic textile, it didn’t work for me that much, because I produce a very small amount and the organic textile factory was in Japan. There’s like 4 airmails in that process. Now, if possible, I buy fabric, which is either produced in UK, or I buy fabric from India, where I know the middle man for 30 years. He works with the smallest artisanal workshops in India. It’s not practical for me to fly back-and-forth to India all the time. Also it’s harmful to the environment to do that, so I buy it from him. If I was a big company, I would probably make a point to follow the chain backwards to see where it actually comes from.
"If the initial intention is to make lots of money, your ethics are definitely going to be put to one side, whatever you are making."
What’s the story behind the name, In-Ku?
The brand is called Universal Utility. When I set up the actual shop, I thought it would be nice to have a name whereby, if I wanted to sell other brands in my shop, I could, so it was to carry an umbrella name, not the name of the product. Also, you asked about the use of lots of blue and white, and you could say I specialise in monochrome, which is black and white, or blue and white. Especially since I worked with Comme Des Garçons on that project, I learned a lot about monochrome style. I’m a lover of indigo and blue, so there’s always a lot of that.
The word – the way it’s said, ‘INKu’, it’s kind of ink sounding, so in there, there’s obviously the idea of ink. Then, we’re going through an age, where there is not a lot of pen writing, it’s all technology – so there was that. Because I worked with Japan for a long time, the 'In' and 'Ku' are Japanese characters.
"People do want more, more, more. We want excess. We all have too many things."
Is there a meaning behind them?
In-Ku is a broad term for dye in Japanese. 'In' is stillness or shadow and 'Ku' is emptiness or sky. So they’re kind of opposites. We also have 'Invisible Permanent Clothing' written on the wall outside, so that’s also about the long-lasting, permanent thing… it’s a bit of an invisible phenomenon now. Because everything now is cheap and meant to disintegrate in 6 months’ time, so that you buy more.
Following that idea, do you think people are ready to give up on constant consumerism and fall back on the slower way of dressing?
It’s all about education and awareness – it’s everything. If people are aware of the impact on the environment, or aware of how things are better for them health-wise, then they stop and think.
Why do you think people are starting to talk more about it?
Let’s hope there’s a positive aspect and more people can see that it’s all too fast and quick. Now, in this month of July, the shops are already putting winter clothes out to sell, when we’re still in the middle of summer. People can see that it is all happening unreasonably too fast. Also, maybe it’s because designers can see the other side of it. Alexander McQueen was doing 30 collections a year – that’s clearly too much. I think it’s also the whole thing about how much time you want to spend on shopping and consuming. If people don’t have enough time to do that, or the inclination to, then they would want to buy something of quality less frequently. Generally, I find that men are more like that than women.
Maybe it’s people’s busy lifestyle that makes them think ahead of what’s going to last for them. I’m also thinking, if you’re doing a corporate job, you probably want to have this one really good suit...
I think that it’s men that wear a suit to work that don’t want to own too many clothes. They’re used to having just that one suit and changing the shirt and their underwear, so they’re into that mindset of having that one perfect uniform.
Maybe it’s also that there are some expectations for women to look different every single day.
Yes, there’s a whole sexuality thing around that. And conformity. We see images everywhere around us about how we’re supposed to look. There’s a lot of approval going on. There are very few people who come in and buy something, because it’s what they want; they’re often seeking approval from friends, families, partners. There are interesting dynamics going on. It goes also for homosexual couples, it’s not just a male-female thing. It’s always about what you don’t have as well.
Maybe slow fashion is to do with finding your own uniform in a way…. That will suit you for a long time.
There can’t be enough emphasis as well on how long something takes to make. So that’s really what slow fashion should be about.