The last time we spoke with MA Womenswear graduate, Olivia Rubens, back in April 2020, she was working tirelessly during lockdown to provide relief to those who needed it most. Since then, Olivia has won 2 awards with the International Talent Support 2020 in addition to several great press features. We caught up with her to find out more about life since lockdown and what this year's MA Womenswear cohort can expect from the course.
"I think that everyone has to find a way through on their own, but I can say that all my classmates have been doing incredibly well in their home countries despite this year’s challenges, and I am so happy for everyone. I think things might be terrifying, but I’m confident in saying the skills that MA Womenswear students come out of the course with can definitely give them some surprising security and gratification upon graduating!" Olivia Rubens
Tell us about the amazing awards you have received – what are they? What do they represent?
The second award I was given, and the final one in the ceremony, is the Responsible Fashion Award powered by Allianz, with Fashion Revolution. This was awarded to the designer that integrated sustainability, transparency, and responsible design at their core values of their design process and personality, so this was really the award I was hopeful in receiving since this is the base upon which I build everything and through which I make every decision. It means the world to me to have been recognized at such a high level for my passion and work in the field of positive fashion. With the €10,000 euro prize, as well as the mentorship from Fashion Revolution through Fashion Open Studio, this will allow me to really take my plans forward in investing in innovation and disruption in this field, and it means so much that the jury, Fashion Revolution, and the CNMI believe so strongly in my vision.
I have been part of the International Talent Support 2020 competition since Spring this year as a finalist, which was a saving grace after graduating my MA and landing right into COVID and having to move back home to Canada for the time being. This finally culminated on the 23rd of October; later than usual due to COVID, normally taking place physically in Trieste, Italy in July, and this year moving forward physically. I was firstly awarded the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana award, along with a cash prize of €5,000.
How was the process?
Although there are a number of pieces from the collection that are more easily reproducible, re-making a look in its entirety from this collection was already a challenge, made complicated logistically working with my regular collaborators, artisans and manufacturers from a distance this time from Canada, with all my belongings and collection stuck in my storage unit in London. Thanks to friends and colleagues going the extra mile with both this replica, as well as the new look made for Diesel, it all came together.
The Diesel process was fun; specifically designing for another house, with their key brand identity facets as the core of my inspiration, but tailored to suit my aesthetic and vision. Taking their staple identity traits: clubbing, sports and utility, the inspiration for this look became deeply personal for me. It told an intimate story relating to my past and present lifestyle, growing up a snowboarder and skateboarder in Canada, and being immersed in the après ski and skateboard party life, as well as the inspiration I still draw from empowering women like Vanessa Torres, Lacey Baker, Nora Vasconcellos, and Lizzie Armanto.
I was given a few pairs of deadstock Diesel jeans, as well as a roll of deadstock denim from the Diesel studio to repurpose. Along with this, I worked with linen, indigo dyed UK mohair, and recycled denim yarn to achieve my knitwear, made in London. I had also experimented with tearing apart the fibres of denim and re-making new textiles in my MA, only having used this technique a bit in my first project brief, so it was great to be able to refine this textile to take it farther in my Diesel look. The great thing about it is that, although painstakingly tedious, pulling apart the denim panels into the fibres allows you the flexibility of not having to be limited by the garment panel sizes, but rather to be able to create new pieces in larger shapes, therefore preventing waste.
Aside from this, being able to connect with and meet alongside the finalist in this competition, as well as the ITS family, of which we are all now a part), has been so inspiring, especially seeing how differently and uniquely each designer approaches their methodology, their outcomes and values. I am so grateful to be a part of this for life now! Being a finalist this year has been both incredibly inspiring and exciting, as well as challenging. Once I found out I was a finalist, I was immediately launched into the Diesel special project, as well as re-making one of my looks from my MA collection for their newly-launching archive in Trieste, called the Arcademy, available to students and professors, researchers, and curators from global institutes such as the MoMA and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
What are your plans with your winnings?
I haven't really planned this out yet, to be honest! I am so fortunate to have backing from the Suzanne Rogers Fashion Institute already, so I want to take the time to think about where these funds will go exactly and to plan it out very well. One thing is for sure: I am buying a hand knitting machine so I can work more self-sufficiently here at home in Canada and hone in on my skills! I’d love to work more on creating special one-off pieces as I’ve broken on the traditional fashion schedule.
How has your journey been since graduating? Last time we spoke you were creating amazing hospital gowns and templates to share.
Since we last spoke, I had been running at full speed for a while after making masks and gowns, catching up with designing my look for Diesel, making my archive look for ITS, and then also having been invited to take part in Helsinki Fashion Week for my SS21 body of work. I showed one new look with them in their digital showroom, HFW taking place digitally this summer for the first ever digital fashion week, and hopefully soon physically in Paris (but still online, likely filmed live in a physical venue). I showcased my new collaboration through this platform with Post Carbon Lab, which has been over a year and a half in the making, through which we created a photosynthesizing, climate positive knit garment (yes, it breathes like a tree!). It’s very low maintenance, for the laziest green thumb, and I was lucky enough to chat about it with Clare Press for her Wardrobe Crisis Live podcast this summer, as well as connect with more researchers such as Marco Casteleijn through HFW, to talk about future collaborations in bio design and end-of-life possibilities. I’m now working on releasing “SS21” looks one-by-one, off schedule, from now until the New Year, which will be available for pre-order, working with my knitwear manufacturer in London, Manusa in Italy, and in my studio here in Canada.
I did take a long break at the end of the summer, which I don’t think I’ve ever done, in order to really experience the Canadian outdoors, something which has come back into my life, and in order to re-introduce a good life balance and being active, becoming an even more avid cyclist, and hiking and camping as much as I could. I thought, what better time to step back and analyse my values, and why I do what I do. After a big breath of fresh air, I also decided to start a knit cycling brand with my knitwear facility in London, which will be completely traceable, ethical and highly geared towards performance and attention to detail, and will document our carbon footprint the whole way, with an aim to reach a negative footprint. This is in the works through new, exciting collaborations! All in all, this year has definitely been a roller coaster, and in all honesty, a lot of the time, it’s been hard to keep my head up, but I’m trying to stay persistent in doing what I love and what I believe in.
How would you describe your work ethos? What do you think sets you apart from others and why do you feel this is important?
The thing that sets me apart so much, I think, is how truly stubborn I am with regards to my standards in sustainability, sourcing and collaboration, and also perhaps that I retain my vision as being beyond the point of just “being sustainable” (which is not entirely possible yet and is a word much over-used), but rather as there being a reason and hopefully a positive impact through everything I do. The time off really allowed me to fortify my values and decision-making as being entrenched in purpose, and without that, there is no point, since the industry is so oversaturated already. I think it’s important that designers and creators:
- Don’t relegate themselves to just those titles, but work to become more multi-disciplinary and open-minded, which is a goal I have for myself as well, and this can open up so many more doors and perspectives in sustainability and disruption;
- Ask why they are doing what they are doing? Make sure there is a purpose beyond creating beauty. Ask how you can make positive changes through what you do.
- Situate themselves on the spectrum of sustainability. Discover their own values in environmental sustainability, ethics, and activism. Ask yourself, how can I do better than last time.
I try to keep these in mind each time I make a decision, in the hopes that I can earn the title of ‘activist’ in the field of fashion, through disrupting the current system.
What can this year’s cohort expect from MA Womenswear at LCF? Any advice for them?
I have spoken to a number of students from this year’s cohort this year. I honestly can’t say what to expect because their situation is so much different than mine. It seems to be such a turbulent year to be trying to pump out an MA collection, and I can’t imagine how difficult that must be with limited studio time and restrictions. I was also obliviously unaware of COVID approaching when I was finishing my Master’s, and it would take a lot of strength to persevere through the course, knowing the limited job prospects and economy now upon graduation.
I think the most key takeaways after graduating though for me have been: adaptability (developing different plans for your life, working on them, and having no preconception of where it will go and what will or won’t work, but being flexible, consistent, and cool about it), and balance. I found that re-introducing more balance into my life with work has been necessary through all the spectrum of emotions I’ve experienced this year, just in order to keep my head and mental state above water.
Don’t stop making. Just getting your hands moving, cutting, and manipulating can remind you why you do what you do. Stopping for too long, I’ve found I can get into a pretty nihilistic mindset about my career.
I think that everyone has to find a way through on their own, but I can say that all my classmates have been doing incredibly well in their home countries despite this year’s challenges, and I am so happy for everyone. I think things might be terrifying, but I’m confident in saying the skills that MA Womenswear students come out of the course with can definitely give them some surprising security and gratification upon graduating!