Trailblazing eco-designers and ‘ideologists’ VIN + OMI speak to Adam Batchelor and Chris Seekings about their work promoting sustainability across the fashion industry and beyond
“We are not just a fashion label, we are an ideology,” say VIN + OMI, whose showstopping work has attracted a legion of fans, including household names such as Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Michelle Obama and even King Charles.
The double act first met at a party more than 20 years ago and have since gone on to build a reputation for their daring fashion designs and shows, driven by one shared purpose: to promote sustainability and environmental protection.
“It all started for me when I was doing a lot of photography for big fashion houses, and saw these racks and racks of clothes at the back end of the industry. So much waste! It is the second most-polluting industry in the world,” Omi explains. “When we met in 2001, we started this blue-sky thinking about what sustainability should look like, and began to develop our brand.”
With a background directing large companies, Vin was already familiar with ethics, safety and sustainability. However, he remained frustrated by the lack of creativity involved in his work. “Omi suggested fashion, and I said I could get my head around that,” he says. “But we agreed immediately it would have to be done in the right way, and not to follow what everybody else is doing in fashion – we would do it our way.”
The two began researching new business models with tech start-ups in Silicon Valley, and learned important lessons about circular economies and the power of social media. They wrote a manifesto with 15 key principles, including a commitment to ‘always look first for a unique solution to a problem’.
After considering latex for their designs, the duo travelled to Malaysia to investigate how it was sourced from rubber trees. This was a shocking experience, finding “terrible” working conditions on the plantations and lack of education among workers in the villages. “The middlemen were just ripping them off, and it was completely unethical,” Vin says. “So, we thought, right, we’ve got a bit of money, we’ll purchase a part of a plantation and run it the right way. We started looking at the biology of the trees, the ecology of the area, the ethics of the workers, and how the latex sap is transported. We were able to develop our own latex sheet, which we still use today, and ploughed money we made from that back into the community and education programmes.”
This is just one example of how VIN + OMI are guided by their manifesto, which also states that they ‘will always try to develop a social impact or environmental impact project around any of our work’.
“When we were deciding everything from the name of the business to how it would run, we quickly realised that design couldn’t be the primary goal; it would have to be secondary, and our primary goal would be our educational, environmental and social impact,” Omi says. “We derived a very simple simultaneous equation, which works around commerciality viability and sustainability, concurrently. We are still working on that formula because you cannot do sustainability based on just one factor, such as the environment or poverty. It’s like playing Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 with just the brass section – it doesn’t work.”
“You cannot do sustainability based on just one factor… It’s like playing Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 with just the brass section – it doesn’t work”
Indeed, to label VIN + OMI as ‘fashion designers’ is to hugely understate what they do, with the pair instead preferring to describe themselves as ‘ideologists’. They will only undertake retail ventures if there is a direct benefit to a charity or the environment, and will not do so for profit. Their business models are circular, and they will only work with celebrities and high-profile individuals or organisations that support their core values.
Vin says: “We’ve partnered with over 50 businesses on a variety of projects. For example, we do large fashion shows twice a year to showcase our eco textiles that we have developed. We are currently working with our host hotel – One Hundred Shoreditch – in East London and developing social impact projects with them. Our previous host partners were the Savoy and the Dorchester. We only take on those venues for our shows if they develop a reciprocal arrangement where we advise on how they can run their business more sustainably and develop projects. We hope we leave a sustainable legacy in return.”
Daler-Rowney, Jägermeister, and KMS are three companies they are currently working with to help introduce new sustainable projects via “radical thinking”. “We love the challenge of dissecting an industry we know nothing about,” Vin continues. “With Daler-Rowney, for example, we turn a lot of their plastic paint tubes into textile, which we put on our catwalk dressers. With Jägermeister we are working on a range of sustainable projects, and with KMS we are looking at how the hair-product brand interfaces with salons and develops sustainably.“
VIN + OMI fashion shows are shocking and provocative, with the intention of changing perceptions about consumption and fast fashion. In 2016, Debbie Harry and Blondie band member Matt Katz-Bohen joined them on the catwalk to promote their Stop F*****g the Planet collection, with the hard-hitting slogan designed to make people stop and think. “There are people who need a fix by purchasing something every day or every hour online – it’s a psychological problem,” Vin says. “We try to solve that by highlighting in our shows how consumers should buy less and from sellers that care about their products, which might mean spending more – you’ve got to get that into the psyche of the consumer.”
Despite their rebellious nature, VIN + OMI have not gone unnoticed at the highest echelons of society.
In 2019, King Charles invited them to his Highgrove Estate to see if they could use any materials from the gardens in their fabrics, which led to their STING collection made from salvaged nettles. “We share a passion for the environment and a sense of humour – he’s very funny,” Omi says. “He sent us a letter saying we must come down and take whatever we wanted. We saw these nettles that would rot if nothing was done with them, so decided to make a textile from them.”
Ocean plastic waste (VIN + OMI was the first global company to reuse salvaged ocean plastic waste to make new textiles), no-kill alpaca and sheep fleece clippings, and nettles and chestnuts are just a few of the alternative materials used to develop their fabrics, with all their designs taking inspiration from protection of the natural world. VIN + OMI moved operations to the UK countryside 12 years ago, where they grow their materials for projects.
“Ocean plastic waste, no-kill alpaca and sheep fleece clippings, and nettles and chestnuts are just a few of the alternative materials used to develop their fabrics”
Vin explains: “We’re very passionate about the countryside, so it’s all understanding the science of cropping and how we can do things that are better for the environment that underpin our creative work.”
A new hope
The irony of working within an industry that is so polluting is not lost on the duo, who have managed to infiltrate a sector driven by unsustainable consumption and resource extraction. “Fashion, like most industries, is run on greed, and larger fashion houses will not slow down because they’re only interested in profits,” Vin says. “They’ll throw out tokenistic sustainable projects to hoodwink a client base that are actually trying to do the right thing.”
He believes that governments must do more to put an end to unsustainable fast fashion. “If you outlaw the ridiculously cheap clothes that are manufactured at 30p and marked up to a couple of quid, regulate working conditions, and limit imports from countries that aren’t subscribing to the planet’s future, you will start to limit the amount people buy. If Primark still exists, people will still shop there, so we must be more stringent. All those people that are passionate about sustainability should run for government.”
He also believes that the government should be doing more to support innovation. “We need innovation to solve a lot of the problems, but there’s not an easy way to get there. I know the government is getting pumped up about innovation and funding programmes, but it’s hard and tedious to navigate. We have waste programmes for what we throw away, but how about extra money if you find a new way of using that waste?” Fashion houses must also take more responsibility, with Vin suggesting that most “just want to hit their targets” on waste, without going “above and beyond”.
However, there is still hope for the industry, with a new generation of designers taking inspiration from VIN + OMI and manufacturing on a smaller scale while harnessing the power of social media. “To be honest, I think that the old guards have to go – that’s the reality,” Omi says. “There are a lot of great ideas and fresh blood coming through, and you no longer need magazines and newspapers to amplify your work. There are all these innovative people selling on TikTok, Instagram and Facebook, and creating a micro circular economy.”
Another commitment in VIN + OMI’s manifesto is to ensure ‘empathy is at the core of our business model and our practice’. Omi explains: “People say that VIN + OMI really needs to expand, but the problem with that is you lose that flexibility as a sustainable brand. We run the business predominantly on empathy, and when you do that, you take away the greed and realise, we’ve got three meals a day, a roof over our heads, and don’t have a bad lifestyle, and we are fine with that.”
Image credits: VIN + OMI | Alamy