Swiss-born Rafael Kouto wants to dewesternise fashion

"The next big thing in fashion is open source and engagement of the consumer in the creative process."

In preparations for his latest show and mission to dewesternise fashion, Rafael Kouto went through waste centres in the Netherlands and Switzerland in search of discarded garments. He wanted to use the garments and textiles that he found for his latest collection. While there was no shortage of material, he surprisingly also found quite a lot of brand new clothes.

“The most impressive are definitely the brand new clothes with still the label on it,” says the Swiss-born textile and fashion designer, who also has Togolese and Italian roots.

“I think that especially in this case, it is the corporate social responsibility of a brand that should be questioned. Why are these two worlds still disconnected? Isn’t it the responsibility of the producer to collect the garments that are thrown way?” he asks.

His solution, which came alive in the six-piece collection called, All the Nothing that Will Remain, is androgynous fashion made out of discarded clothes. The clothes feature a mix of muted colours, stripes and the occasional neon yellow to make the garments pop. Think pants used to make a jacket and knee-length shirt dresses with contrasting textures as well as a rope reimagined as a belt.

Many designers are inspired by vintage and second-hand fashion. There is nothing new here. But Kouto wanted those garments as part of his collection. He says he started thinking about it while getting work experience at French fashion house, Maison Margiela, which is under the creative direction of John Galliano.

"Why are the original inspirational second-hand garments not used in the production of new items? The frame of the Sandberg Institute [where he studied, in the Netherlands] gave me the right space and time to develop the idea of a new sustainable and environmental design system in all the different steps of the production of garments: from the sources to the creative process and to the final products".

Kouto adds that the Romuald Hazoumé quote; “I send back to the West that which belongs to them, that is to say, the refuse of consumer society that invades us every day”, was what guided him.

While students in South Africa and across the world (in places like Oxford) are trying to decolonise their tertiary curriculum, Kouto frames his work around what he calls the de-westernisation of fashion. He says the two are related. He did research on work by contemporary artists and curators from the Global South who are using the practice of upcycling with aims of de-colonising the educational and artistic practice.

“By de-westernization I mean the transformation of functionality, construction, aesthetic and production of mass produced garments. A production system that shifts from fast fashion global displaced production to a slow local one. Fashion and textile arts have been part of the process of colonisation undermining the transmission of indigenous skills, including embroidery, sewing and knitting.”

He adds: “Western fashion still represents a hegemony versus the ‘rest’. I think that the richness and cultural heritage of the African culture shouldn’t be oriented towards the West. All the Nothing that will Remain represents a hybrid aesthetic of Western and African influences, mixing prints, embroidery and weaving with upcycled materials.”

For him, the next big movement in fashion is not only towards sustainability but towards an ethical fashion movement that goes beyond t-shirt slogans.

“Ethical fashion for me means to create awareness and consciousness by proposing more sustainable environmental alternatives in each step of the production system in fashion: from the design, production and to the engagement of the consumer. Not merely based on a slogan on a white t-shirt.”

Taken one step further, Kouto feels fashion needs to go open source. This is why he included a publication that gives more insights into his concept and instructions on how to make your own garments from waste.

“The next big thing in fashion is open source and engagement of the consumer in the creative process. There are also academic, social and educational aspects of fashion that are still less known. Through All the Nothing that will Remain, I am aiming to expand the space of the atelier where knowledge is shared as open source couture to illustrate the creative process, technics, methods and tools that are used to create a garment with instructions.”

Kouto feels passionate that fashion can change the world for the better because it remains, as a universal visual language, one of the most influential aspects of our culture.