Alter Era is based in Belgium and production facilities are mostly based in Czech Republic and in Italy. The founders of the label met in 2008 while studying at Polimoda International Institute of Design & Marketing in Italy. They had already collaborated on projects and cultivate a shared philosophy. Upon graduation, they each went their separate paths to extend experience and knowhow in fashion; in 2011 Alicia was granted the Manish Arora Award at the International Arts of Fashion Competition held in San Francisco and worked for labels including Diane Von Furstenberg and Rodarte in the US and Manish Arora in India. Meanwhile Zhanna remained in Italy to work for Antonio Marras and Kenzo. After getting selected by Creative Academy and winning a Richemont Group scholarship, she completed her MFA in Luxury Product Design in Milan and worked for Cartier in Paris thereafter.
We ask them what they do to improve their sustainable lifestyle. “We try to take an overall ethical and eco-friendly approach in our everyday lives as we do in our company. Every bit helps. From little things on a daily base such as using a bicycle for short distances, to bigger initiatives like investing in energy- or water-efficient devices. Some of these examples include: Re-using paper & plastic bags within the studio and at home; re-using boxes for shipments between suppliers; keeping as many files and correspondence digital in order to save paper; banning plastic bottles: we filter our water instead and drink out of a glass or metal bottle; minimising fabric-waist in our production-chain by drawing digital print-placements to optimise the way the fabrics are cut; turning kitchen and garden waste into organic compost; replacing the car with an electrical car, etc” -they say.
Their preferred eco-shopping would be at their local farmers’ market in Antwerp. They love filling up a basket with fresh products without the waist of unnecessary packaging.
When it comes down to inspiring books;“The Handbook of Sustainable Apparel Production by Subramanian Senthilkannan Muthu is a key-item in our personal library. It covers all aspects of sustainable apparel production including the raw materials employed, sustainable manufacturing processes, and environmental as well as social assessments of apparel production”. “Another book that has enlightened us is VALUE2, a more recent book on Entrepreneurship for Society and Profit for Sustainable Well-Being, written by our inspiring neighbour in Belgium: Sabine Denis”.
“We constantly challenge ourselves to think sustainably, not only within the company, but in all aspects of the production-chain and the entire loop of fashion” – they say – “Apart from the operations within our company, we want to make sure that the operations happening outside of our offices happen in a sustainable way as well. This is why we chose to collaborate exclusively with European-based eco-friendly and ethical suppliers that share the same values and vision in obtaining quality and sustainable products”.
We want to know how the label was founded and how they financed their first collections, something that might interest other sustainable designers and entrepreneurs. “Up until now we have been able to keep our company self-funded including our own investments and the support of government organisations, subsidies, fashion incubators and the 3 F’s (friends, family & fools). By re-investing our turn-over Alter Era could grow organically” -they answer.
“When we launched our first collection, we could only afford to present the prototypes and didn’t invest in stock yet. We collected orders with advance-deposits so that we could fund the production. This was a comparable model to crowdfunding. The collection was sold to a high-end multi-brand store and our first end-customers. Now, 5 collections later, we have sold our designs at several high-end multi-brand stores and we can afford to invest in stock to offer the collections directly to our expanded group of end-customers.
Every season, Zhanna and Alicia improve their way of working and optimize their operation systems so that they can dedicate as much time as possible to the creative and innovative processes. At the beginning their idea was to produce everything “under one roof” in one production facility, but over time they soon stepped away from this idea and evolved into a business-model with different specialised suppliers according to the type of garment. For example, the coats are produced in a specialised atelier with the exact know-how and machinery, the silk shirts are produced by a family-company that for generations only have been producing shirts. They are proud to have built up strong relationships with the finest suppliers.
It is still January, but Zhanna and Alicia are already thinking about this Summer, who doesn’t? It is so cold outside! “This SS2018 season we take you through central Africa, a place that has a special significance to both of us individually. Our shared passion for tribal clothing, traditional textiles and rituals combined with a study on men’s suits play a key-role in this collection”.
They meticulously translated Ethnic shapes and cuts into menswear-inspired looks. Tribal dresses and silk tops include pleated scarves and ribbons. The seams and lines are accentuated with bright bias insertion piping, also used to divide the collar and manchette in some designs. Altered pantsuits, funky button-downs and loose silk crêpe de Chine dresses come in exuberant patterns and opulent colors.
The collection is named after the book “Dandy Lion” – “The Black Dandy and Street Style” by American curator, historian and critic Shantrelle P. Lewis. It beautifully defines the style of the new “dandy” and its origin.
To Alicia and Zhanna, the most important problem in the fashion industry is mostly the constant pressure and hurry of this industry forced by consumption: the idea that they need to present “more and more”, that everything “needs to be new” and that “the new replaces the old”. “We would like people to step away from the idea that something is “seasonal” or “temporary”. Because we believe that good design is timeless, as in other industries such as furniture design and jewellery. We want our clients to perceive our collections as a “theme”, “chapter” or “story” rather than a past season that has already devaluated” – they declare.
To them, consumers should become more conscious in general about what and how much they buy: “Avoid buying products with a short life-time; Examine the quality; Take interest in the materials and composition of your garment; Be aware about where it was made”- they advice.
We ask them what other advice they have for sustainable fashion designers: “Apart from investing time & efforts in finding ecological and ethical systems to create your designs, make sure to invest just as much in creating the awareness it needs as well by telling your story. Communication and transparency are key”. Yeessss, we like it.
They have their Super Heroes who inspire them in becoming more sustainable: “The first one that comes to mind with this question is Boyan Slat, the young Dutch inventor and entrepreneur who creates technologies to solve societal problems. This young 22-year old entrepreneur truly inspires us with his persistence, courage and ideals”. He is founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup, a group that develops advanced systems to rid world’s oceans of plastic.