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Fashion activism Alexander van Heerden tells all

Instagram: @vanklan_
Instagram: @vanklan_

Can the fashion industry make a positive difference to society and the environment?

It’s easy to lose hope in a world with so many issues, but when we observe the youth – today’s designers and emerging brands – we remember all is not lost. We turn our gaze now to KwaZulu-Natal, where we spoke to Alexandra van Heerden of VANKLAN, a fashion brand that champions sustainability and social transformation by developing exquisite and immaculately crafted one-off designs that all have a crucial story to tell.

Glamour: Your work is unconventional and exceptionally creative. When you observed the landscape of South Africa, what motivated you to produce this kind of work?

Alexandra van Heerden: I’ve always wanted my designs to represent what I stand for as an individual. I present my designs as an appreciation of the melting pot of cultures in South Africa. For example, my first collection in 2019 was inspired by the eccentricities and playfulness of the iconic Durban busker (men and women who paint themselves white and stand at robots entertaining local people). I enjoy using bold and eccentric colours as I believe they reflect our Rainbow Nation, our South Africa. I believe in telling stories. My most recent collection implements an unconventional form of fashion sustainability through collaboration with two local charities: the Kloof and Highway SPCA and the Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust.

Drawing inspiration from and collaborating with these influential South African non-profit organisations means my work becomes a visual representation of the work they do, which is really close to my heart, and that of many South Africans. It also highlights crucial issues of wastage associated with landfills. South Africa has so many avenues from which one can draw inspiration, and I believe I’ve only explored a small portion of its potential, but I’m eager to journey onward, to learn, explore and keep telling these stories.

G: The materials you work with are unconventional too. Why is that?

AVH: Gideon, our creative director and mentor at the Durban University of Technology (who also happens to be an iconic South African designer), told me that to set yourself apart and make your designs different, you must create textiles yourself. This notion of textile development always resonated with me but took on a new meaning when I started thinking about it in the context of sustainable fashion: Is there a way to create textiles without actually doing it?

So, I took it to the extreme, creating as many of my textiles by repurposing the most absurd, unlikely and symbolic materials I could get my hands on. From a jacket made from donated fabric scraps and comprised of 38 BunnyKats (made by women at the Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust) to a patchwork jersey made from thrifted dog jerseys, and to a cotton set graffitied by the iconic Durban graffiti artist, Giffy Duminy, it all worked and became the most incredible way to talk about sustainability, both in terms of the impact of fashion on the environment and creating sustainable and meaningful change in society. Ultimately, the more unusual, unexpected or wacky it ends up being, the more I love it, and the more it challenges what we, as observers, consider sustainable fashion.

G: Would you say there’s a particular gap in the industry that this type of work seeks to fill?

AVH: I’d like to think so. I hope my work challenges the idea of what sustainable fashion currently is and what it could be. I believe we’re too focused on the idea that sustainable fashion is all about organic cotton or recycled materials. I think it’s far more complex, and I believe my work explores a different angle of sustainability in the fashion industry.

G: Do you think we need to redefine what sustainability means in fashion?

AVH: Absolutely. As the fashion industry is said to produce millions of tons of waste each year, it’s imperative that we, as designers, industry stakeholders and consumers, make a change and employ methods that promote sustainability on all levels: environment, community, culture and labour practice. As sustainable fashion is such a broad and multifaceted term, used rather loosely in the fashion industry, I firmly believe we’ve lost its true meaning and the importance of the role of fashion in addressing environmental and societal concerns in more meaningful ways.

Sustainability is a rebellion, so sustainable fashion should break all the rules and be disruptive on all levels. Even the concept needs to be rebelled against, perpetually challenged, tested, reworked and redefined to ensure we’re always conscious of the issues and how to do and be better.

That’s my mission as a young fashion designer. I hope to help re-establish the role of the fashion industry in addressing environmental and societal issues.

G: How do we as consumers of fashion help?

AVH: As fashion consumers, designers and stakeholders, we need to educate ourselves and expand our mindsets on what we view and accept as sustainable; buying a supposedly recycled tee from a fast-fashion retailer is slightly counterintuitive, don’t you think? But because the label says ‘made from 100% recycled or organic cotton’, we assume it must be good for the environment. But we fail to ask ourselves the age-old questions, who made this t-shirt, and how far did it travel to get here? Why am I supporting this? Perhaps, instead, consider the excessive amounts of harmful pesticides and extravagant volumes of water that went into growing the cotton. The list goes on, but I believe asking questions, being inquisitive and reading more about it will open our eyes to faults of the fashion industry while at the same time illuminating the alternatives, and how good or necessary they are.

G: I suppose fashion’s a form of activism for you. Tell us more about that.

AVH: Sustainable fashion, and fashion in general, that has a voice is very important to me.

My BunnyKat jacket is iconic and probably one of my most treasured pieces from my Busker Boy 2019 Collection. It wouldn’t have meant as much to me if those bunnies didn’t tell the stories they did, of the NPO and the work they do and that of the ladies who crafted them for the organisation and their noble cause.

G: We love the idea that your pieces are one-offs. What value does that add to your work, and what does it offer your clientele?

AVH: If a garment is a one-off, it has a sense of extra worth; you can’t replace it or easily replicate it, and you won’t see it on the person sitting next to you in a restaurant. A one-off piece holds sentimental value and worth and will one day become a collector’s item. People hold onto items they consider to be more valuable than that which they bought from a chain store for longer, which reduces the amount of waste produced by the fashion industry. My garments have a unique design, silhouette and colour because I believe those who wear them should be unique and the only ones to own a specific piece.

G: What’s next for VANKLAN?

AVH: Expansion, growth, innovation, collaborations and a new collection!

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