Blink guest blogs for the CSF: ‘Empathy’ with The Inoue Brothers

This is the post that I created for the Centre for Sustainable Fashion’s blog. My first ever effort at being ‘Guest Blogger’ and I was feeling the pressure! I think it was a pretty successful attempt, thanks to the very kind co-operation of The Inoue Brothers

The CSF team asked me to consider the word ‘Empathy’ for this month’s subject matter. So I put my thinking cap on and got my trusty Collins English dictionary out. After first thinking that it was a bit of an abstract concept to apply to fashion, I totally reconsidered my view point when I realised that if you don’t have empathy for your manufacturers, your collaborators, partners and customers then you would pretty much fall at the first fashion hurdle.

Collaborations are super hot topic right now, especially with Lanvin planning to add luxury to H&M with a collection landing instore in November, as well as Gap working with Valentino’s designers for a collection that will be featured in Colette. When I interview creatives for the “Blink” blog, I often ask whether they work best alone or in collaboration with others. The answer is generally that collaborations are not the easiest things to do, but are often the most creatively rewarding. You absolutely must have empathy for the other creative party for a successful collaboration. So, I started looking at partnerships and collaborations that I think are incredibly creatively successful. This lead me to The Inoue Brothers

Not only does this brand work in a brilliantly collaborative way both internally and externally, they are also working in a wonderfully sustainable and conscious way too. I felt this made them the perfect subject matter for the CSF’s blog- as well as reflecting the meaning of ‘Empathy’.

Born and raised in Copenhagen, Denmark, Japanese brothers Satoru and Kiyoshi Inoue combine Japanese sensibility and Scandinavian simplicity to create a really rather unique creative aesthetic that they term ‘Skandinasian’. In 2005, The Inoue Brothers launched a unique collaboration with the people of Bolivia to create hand-knitted Alpaca garments with sustainability, ethics and social responsibility at the heart of the collection. The Inoue Brothers are also working on a collection produced in South Africa, incorporating the traditional, indigenous craft of beadwork.

We were delighted when the team agreed to this interview. Thanks so much, particularly to Daniel, for your help and such a fantastic insight into what the Inoue Brothers is all about.

How do you go about deciding where to work and who to work with on your collections?

We started designing for clients in the UK and Denmark but mostly graphic and conceptual design. Since we were teenagers, we’ve always been fascinated by fashion but more as an artistic expression and not the industry. The vanity, greed and exploitation often seen in some areas of fashion had kept us away from it. However when we, through a common friend, were introduced to the alpaca fibre and craftsmanship of the indigenous people of Bolivia, we knew immediately this was something of interest. Finally, we saw a way of working with fashion whilst contributing socially, approaching the business and industry with content.

Our work ethics has now been established with this spirit, seeking out communities where craftsmanship and cultural heritages are rich. The communities we chose to collaborate with for our projects are therefore purposely chosen for their less enriched history of financial stability and opportunity.

How does the idea of sustainability impact on your collection?

Sustainability can mean a lot of things in regard to what context the term is used. In one sense the way sustainability impacts our collection is the way we chose to treat our production workers – with the utmost respect and decency. We demand a lot from them, but we are always sure to meet their demands – financially and work ethics wise. In another sense of sustainability we want to show the world what cultural crafts can be communicated in a new light. For example the Alpaca and the knitting that comes from its wool is a cultural heritage of the indigenous people of the Andes. In the same sense the beading crafts of the indigenous women of South Africa is a big part of their cultural heritage – and we aim to make these the focal point of our collections.

What are you currently working on and how is it shaping up?

At the moment we are preparing our Spring Summer 2011 collections in collaboration with the same community – Khayelitsha. We are also working on our Autumn/Winter collection continually with the people of the Bolivian Andes. This collection will be our biggest to date. We also have very exciting ideas developing, which will be released in the near future.

What does the word ’empathy’ mean to you and your business?

The very simple meaning of the word is ‘to share’. To share ideas, emotions and opportunities to better any circumstances with the outset of beginning with oneself.

How important do you think it is to respect the traditional cultural heritage and skills of the area you are manufacturing in?

It is of utmost importance! We work from a basis of empowerment. We want the people who we commission to feel proud that their cultural heritages as crafts are spread and sold in the Western world. We hope it empowers their everyday to strengthen and develop their culture and identity as a community.

What or who are your longest standing design influences?

Our main design influences are the people we work with. On the other hand we are very influenced by Comme des Garcon’s spirit in their boldness of style. As kids our dream was to work with them in some way and in 2008 this dream came true when we were approached to work on a collaboration. With their words, the reason they found us interesting was because they could sense a passion in the way we choose to work.

Has your business developed in the way that you anticipated?

We can safely say no. When we start a new project we have some initial ideas, but we always end up somewhere completely unexpected. When we go on research trips we take a long time before, preparing ourselves as not to have any preconceived ideas about the places we are going. We strive to keep an open heart and mind everywhere we go and embrace any culture we are so fortunate to have the opportunity to encounter. Therefore, we don’t know what our future holds, however as long as we uncompromisingly strive to uphold our beliefs we are sure for it to be with headwind but guaranteed excitement.

Many of your collections have been knitwear focused. Is this due to your own passion for knit or more due to the traditions and local skill set of place you were manufacturing?

Good question. Initially we started with knit due to the previously explained opportunity we had to engage in the fashion industry. But now, four years later, knitting has become something of passion for sure. It’s very hard not to get super excited about the end product when so much work, effort and love has been put into it!

How would you describe your design aesthetic?

Scandinasian! It is a mix of Scandinavian simplicity and Japanese sensibility.

What’s the best thing about your job?

One of the best things about our job is overcoming obstacles that initially seem impossible and in retrospect seeing how all the little details and would be coincidences actually makes perfect sense. This always makes us smile. Another is when we see the positive impact in every aspect of the realms we work in, especially the privilege we have to work so closely with our manufacturing collaborators and clients and the positive vibrations they give us. This is something we are truly grateful for.

Any final words of advise?

Our way of working is all about the people we are privileged enough to be able to work with. The most valued part of our business is the relations we make and the new ones to come. These are only upheld when respect and human decency is the basis. And for us these things only appear when we feel we are able to empathize with our relations.

No man is an island entire of it self

Every man is a part of the main.

John Donne (1624)

The Inoue Brothers

Bolivian alpaca products

AW '10 collection

'Ubuntu' collection shoot