Even if you aren’t hardwired to the news cycle, there are enough memes about 2020 as the year that everything went sideways to know that the world has 99 problems and more. In fashion, its detrimental impact on the environment is one that’s only getting more urgent, and an increasing number of brands, both big and small, have made their moves — whether it’s to relook existing processes, or to build businesses sustainably from ground zero.
Lebanese and Beirut-based founders and designers Tatiana Fayad and Joanne Hayek of Vanina don’t fall into either category per se, although their irreverent accessories and ready-to-wear pieces are achieved through upcycling and artisanal craftsmanship. They started out by repurposing old, devalued Lebanese Lira into jewellery with a team of five artisans in 2007, with both the design concept and production technique something Fayad and Hayek took to organically.
Over a decade later, they’ve since cultivated a label signature of cocktail bags crafted from discarded and unlikely materials that put the fun in after-dark, and have made environmental and social change their conscious mission. This sees product traceability, local employment (they now have a team of over 70 craftsmen and women), and of course upcycling, at the forefront of Vanina.
In conversation, Fayad and Hayek tell ELLE Singapore about the spontaneity of their design process, how non-recyclable food packaging became their medium for an exclusive collection for Net-A-Porter, and why they think artisans shouldn’t remain behind the scenes.
“Our first collection was based on a concept of zero-waste through upcycling, and was fully handcrafted locally, yet it wasn’t a deliberate decision at the time. It came naturally to us.”
It started with…
ELLE Singapore: We understand that you’re childhood friends, and that the brand began as a hobby in your bedrooms.
Tatiana Fayad and Joanne Hayek: Indeed we were childhood friends and always felt a strong creative bond. In the summer of 2006, Lebanon was going through a war and we both felt the need to escape the heavy reality through creativity. We started meeting up regularly to create accessories, jewelry, clothes… Different spontaneous pieces through which we expressed a feeling of positivity and fun. In spring 2007, we decided to take this forward and co-designed a jewellery line launched under the label Vanina. The line upcycled old, devalued Lebanese Lira into unique pieces of jewellery by marrying them with magazine cutouts, vintage charms, and an eclectic mix of found elements. We started with an investment of $150.
Why did you first start with jewellery, and how and when did you progress to bags?
Our first collection was quite spontaneous. Although we were personally drawn towards the creation of a jewellery line at the time, we never thought of Vanina as a mono-product brand. We always imagined it as a lifestyle label unlimited in terms of material explorations and product categories. The transition from jewellery to bags, accessories and clothes was quite smooth, and allowed us to explore a wide range of materials and techniques on different scales and purposes.
Traditionally, jewellery is priced based on the weight of the precious materials that it has consumed. Vanina’s early lines did the very opposite: The raw materials were in fact devalued — obsolete, wasted, unused. It is through the intricate craftsmanship and material compositions that we were able to elevate them into a new form of conscious preciousness. These lessons stayed with us, and is something we explore across seasons and product lines, through different design concepts and upcycling techniques.
What sustainability means at Vanina
What was your learning curve like in terms of sustainability and caring for the environment?
Our first collection was based on a concept of zero-waste through upcycling, and was fully handcrafted locally, yet it wasn’t a deliberate decision at the time. It came naturally to us. It was only a few years later, while writing down our brand strategy and mission that we realised that in fact sustainability was at the core of our brand’s DNA. Beneath their playful glamour, our products hid a passionately engaged activism promoting conscious consumption and positive impact. We understood that in fact fashion could be a tool to engage in social and environmental change, and we composed various concepts raising awareness about the latent issues of our contemporary society.
What comes first: Sourcing for materials that can be upcycled, or the design of a piece?
The process of creation of a collection is a long and beautiful ride, through which we dive into the contemplation of the world that surrounds us, seen with the lenses of a progressively developing theme. The creation of a bag usually stems from a mix of material exploration, handcraft experimentation, aesthetic aspiration, and conceptual framework. It’s usually not a linear process. Many times we start with an idea or a sketch, and end up with something very different. We try to keep spontaneity and playfulness in our approach. When it comes to upcycling, the material dictates the way in many cases. It has inherent qualities and behaviors that we progressively learn to observe and design with, through a mix of meticulous handcraft and digital technology.
Tell us more about your latest collections, and the materials they upcycle.
The latest releases in this series are the Delicatesse and the Inflorescence lines. Delicatesse uses non-recyclable food packaging; plasticised aluminium food packets that are usually used to contain chips, chocolate, and other processed food. We were surprised to find out that this element of mass-consumption was in fact non-recyclable — the mix of the two layers of aluminium and plastic makes it so hard to separate that they usually end up in landfills or incinerators and turn into pollution.
At the same time, this mix of textures and layers makes it an uniquely interesting material to explore in fashion. Its silver interior is matched with a never-ending palette of colours and patterns on the other side. It is at once flexible and rigid, if manipulated properly. It was very inspiring to us and we decided to explore its transformation into a series of handbags and jewellery pieces, through a mix of parametric laser-cutting and patient hand-pleating. ‘Delicatesse’, French for ‘delicacy’, is a call for a reconsideration of our food consumption, inviting us to move away from processed food in favour of seasonal and local products.
A Local Enterprise
What are some methods of craft that are unique to where you’re from?
Our region is rich in traditional handcraft techniques, some of which are on the verge of disappearing due to mass production and globalisation. We try as much as possible to meet local artisans and to explore or revive their craft through our products. A large aspect of our work today focuses on the exploration of new handcraft techniques. By mixing traditional methods with innovative digital fabrication techniques, we are able to compose new material works and methods, but also to train women and men with no particular previous handcraft experience with the skills of craftsmanship and fashion creation. We collaborate with local NGOs for the recruitment and training of the artisans. This allows us to realise our mission as a social enterprise, placing community development at the core of our work.
Is there a sense of mutual support, creative discourse and collaboration — both in and outside of fashion — in Beirut?
Beirut is going through one of its hardest times, economically, politically, and environmentally, yet its population is extremely resilient. Through solidarity, generosity and compassion, it has overcome immense obstacles in the past. We are a small community, very rich in diversity yet quite collaborative and supportive. It feels like an extended family. At the same time, the level of creativity we are surrounded with is an endless source of inspiration and positive energy — [and is] very precious to our work. Despite all the hardship that the country is facing, we couldn’t imagine Vanina being based anywhere else.
Why is it important to you to have the faces and voices of the artisans behind Vanina’s bags made known?
We believe in the power of fashion to carry on a message. Beneath the surface of a product lies a long beautiful journey. We live in a fast-paced, image-based society, which in many cases makes it hard to look deep into the essence of things. We try as much as possible through our work to provide enough slowness, traceability and transparency to appreciate the immaterial social layers lying beneath our products.
Sustainability In Fashion-At-Large
How has being a part of Net-a-Porter’s Net Sustain initiative positively impacted Vanina, and have you observed any trickle-down effects to do with the example that it’s setting as a retailer?
Since the very beginning of our partnership with Net-A-Porter, their team has shown close attention to our brand, mission, and methods. We were very appreciative of their approach, and they are more than a reseller — they’re a partner. We felt that quite strongly through the platform Net Sustain, which aims to give exposure and scale to projects that prioritise sustainable development. It is definitely a game changer. The definition of luxury is being redefined nowadays and Net-A-Porter’s interest in promoting conscious fashion will definitely positively impact the industry at large.
“We believe in the power of fashion to carry on a message. Beneath the surface of a product lies a long beautiful journey. We live in a fast-paced, image-based society, which in many cases makes it hard to look deep into the essence of things.”
How do you think the fashion industry can build a future that is more environmentally responsible?
The industry has come a long way over the last few years. We have witnessed it progressing from one fashion week to the next, seeing more interest given to the story beneath the products and their impact on communities and the planet. Advances in technology, increasing customer awareness, and transparency policies are helping that day by day. We are shifting to a slower, more conscious cycle in which reuse, renewability and craftsmanship are promoted.
From our perspective, we still find it challenging to implement sustainable practices across all the supply chain. Globally and locally, we are lacking regulation and accessible certification systems that would encourage conscious practices and enforce accountability in terms of manufacturing methods and raw material traceability. Sustainable innovation involves a lot of research and development that
in many cases, are difficult to cover financially for small brands. Thankfully, the consumers and distributors are becoming more and more demanding in that regard, and we foresee a more sustainable future to the industry.
Vanina is available on Net-A-Porter.