Local Love: How winning a competition got Olivia Rubens designing eco-friendly — in neon

When eyeballing her vibrant garments, one might never guess that Olivia Rubens is an eco-friendly designer. For those who haven’t already cast certain notions aside about the label, any visions of frumpy, dirt-hued garb worn by hippies in Oaxaca can be tucked deep into bed.

Thanks to a neon colour pallette and the inclusion of metallics, Rubens is all about shattering worn out stereotypes, showcasing just how modern clothing that puts the environment first can be. After checking out her punchy pieces at the recent Re/Set fashion showcase in tandem with Toronto Fashion Week, we wanted to learn more about Rubens’ processes — and how she got so hooked on the environment.

When did it first dawn on you that you needed to create an eco-friendly label? I participated in a competition at the Aveda Catwalk for Water with Mont Pellier Fashion. The competitors’ goal was to repurpose upcycled denim into a new ‘couture’ look. I used extremely lengthy and detailed processes to make my garments, removing the colour from the denim, fraying it, ripping it into strands, making yarn, and knitting it into a sweater. I also used patchwork I had screen-printed to create pants. There were six jury members, each of whom were to pick one winner. Although Kirk and Stephen of Greta Constantine wanted to pick me as their winner, Lisa Corbo was already familiar with my name and my work, and had snagged me first. I was so flattered by the great reception!

There was an immense feeling of satisfaction in repurposing something and making it into a completely new thing. Mont Pellier Fashion provided me with a contract and sponsorship to create a S/S 2018 line, and to put it into production locally. The contract stated that I had to produce eco-friendly clothing. Initially I was pretty frustrated with the challenges and limits this imposed. Since then, I have become extremely passionate about eco-friendliness and have stuck with this as a core value by which I abide firmly for my brand. I’ve turned these challenges into ways through which I can dye and customize my fabric to make it more interesting that perhaps I would not have even done as a textile designer if I was not eco.

Your line is sustainably produced and yet you use neon fabrics and metallic overlays. How much time do you spend in research and development? I have spent almost the same number of hours doing research as I have actually creating the garments. It’s always a learning process, and sometimes in dyeing and working with these fabrics, you have to work around the materials and colours rather than making them adhere to your designs. I dye all my samples myself, then figure out how to put them through production and get the fabrics dyed on a larger scale. All of this takes a lot of math, down to the grams and ounces. I’d relate it to baking. You have to be really precise, and you can’t skip any steps or else you won’t yield the right result. For my new Fall/Winter 2018/19 collection, I am using all natural dyes for my natural fabrics: madder, kamala, cochineal and weld. It’s been a huge challenge, but I’ve been so in love with the beautiful colours they create. Natural dyes and fabrics have a stereotype of being so boring and bland, but as I’ve shown, they really don’t have to be! You just have to put the time (money, haha) and research in.

Tell us about the inspiration behind your current SS/18 collection? The title of this collection is ‘Airwaves.’ The inspiration behind it is heat waves and how these play with our eyes. I’ve mirrored effects and silhouettes top to bottom in garments, deceptive details and used textile design to mimic the effect this creates. I’ve used Fata Morgana, a type of mirage, as an inspiration behind certain details and ideas as well.

What goes into the Dee Dress — how do you create the dyes? I used MX Reactive Dyes through G&S dyes. I am using all natural dyes for my natural fabrics now, but when I started out, I was unaware of the options for natural dyes, and unaware reactive dyes were not truly eco-friendly. In any case, the fabric itself is. This dress contains mostly a tencel twill, and a bit of sheer silk/hemp. For those who don’t know, tencel is made from wood cellulose (plant-based fibre). I dyed the tencel twill for the sample of the Dee Dress in bins of warm water, kosher salt, and the dye on my porch at home. The yellow was very straightforward as I didn’t have to alter the colour at all. The pink was very challenging though. I had to mix a couple of different colours to get the right pink and it is very difficult to dunk fabric and achieve a light colour but to get an even colour all around. The whole process of dyeing probably took me about 5 hours, from mixing and dyeing, to washing and drying. I have since sent my fabrics to get dyed at Gentex in LA for the production of this Spring collection.

How important is it to you that your collection be produced locally? It’s extremely important. Firstly, I can really oversee the process of the production as I can visit them whenever need be. Secondly, I know firsthand that it’s totally ethical, because I can oversee everything. Finally, we don’t have much in way of options in Canada for supplies and contractors, and that will never change if people move elsewhere to source and produce. If more of us stick closer to home, supply will hopefully meet demand. We have to support our local companies. We have the talent; we just need more people to be aware, and I’m glad this is slowly but surely on the rise.

Who is your eco design hero? Definitely Faustine Steinmetz. The ways in which she has repurposed denim, uses her ingenious textile design techniques, deploys shibori dyeing and supports artisans is so beyond inspiring. She produces everything ethically and sustainably, which is something that should be more common. I would love for the opportunity to learn from her someday.

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