Karin, can you please briefly introduce yourself, what led you to become a fashion designer? I was born in the Netherlands and grew up in Germany. As long as I can remember I always made things out of the materials at hand, cardboard lamps, wooden chandeliers, textile covers for books. I always had to comment on things that didn’t work properly, and ideas how they could be better. This early passion for creating and inventing led me to the Utrecht School of the Arts (HKU), where I studied Industrial Design. Currently I live and design in Amsterdam.
Tell us a bit more about your handbag label Pekelharing. Please share your business mantra with us. I like to make things from what I have at hand – it’s a shame that things go to waste. What you see is what you get. I like straightforward shapes, but I seem to bring out a touchable quality. But the products must be practical and fun to use.
Why is sustainability important to you? We simply need to be sustainable now – I can’t see things any other way. I don’t like throwing things and materials away, which could be used for something. The Netherlands has always had a culture of thrift and reuse. But I’m part of a moment taking that to a higher fashion level. It’s a natural step.
What is your favorite moment in your design process? That’s easy: when a bag just turns out how I imagined it, in matter of design, combination of colours, usability and the way it is crafted.
Most shoppers say that ecological and sustainable fashion is too expensive. How do you usually respond to that? Do you want to be paid fairly for your work? Yes? I think everybody in the production line of a $3 or €-shirt wants that, too. I wonder if that is possible with such cheap fashion. Someone somewhere is paying the price for the unethical and unsustainable cheap fashion. I rather buy less, and I’m happy to pay more to know it is fair and sustainably made.
Where do you see the sustainable fashion industry going in the future? I hope it will take the lead in transparency, set a new standard in this gigantic industry. If customers can see how, who and out of what the products they buy are made, they can understand what they spend their money on, and where the real value is.
Your handbags are produced through upcycling… but where do find the materials to reclaim? I buy the used seat belts from a Dutch car salvage company. ‘New’ seat belts I buy direct from a German manufacturer. These are rejected by the automotive industry, due to production faults and are a waste product.
How durable are your handbags and do you offer a repair service to your customer? They are as durable as you treat them – some customers have bags for almost 9 years, still looking as new. You can machine wash them at low 30° temperature. To be honest, the only repairs I made were on bags which were samples in try-out mode – quality of thread which wasn’t good enough and a design flaw I would fix. But if a bag is in need of a repair, I hope the customer will contact me to find a resolution.
Your designs are absolutely beautiful and speak for themselves, but handmade business can be complicated. What do you do to grow your business? What is your biggest challenge as a handmade shop owner? Thank you for the compliment. I think the challenge is how to get the product in front of and into the hands of people who want to buy them, without spending huge money on marketing. I know many incredible design talents but we all face individual marketing hell. We really need a form of sustainable department story. Whole Foods and Dutch chain Marqt revolutionised organic food, but it needs to happen without one umbrella corporate dominating the show.
Eco-friendly and sustainable fashion seems to grow more popular every day. What are some of the characteristics of your line that make it stand out from the pack? I upcycle or reuse waste material, I never know what I get when I go to the car salvagers to pick up the seat belts. So I can only make bags out of what I have. Differences in age, usage and exposure give each seat belt its own character. They’re truly unique as no belt is the same.
What is the timeline from having an idea to actually creating the product? How long does it usually take to make a handbag? Shortly describe your design process please. Through my years of experience with car seat belts, I know what works and what doesn’t. Often a customer gives me inspiration, I make 1-2 simple sketches on paper with measurements. In my head I ‘make’ the bag step by step, which pieces to stitch first, which at last. Then I cut all the pieces and assemble the bag. I make some try-outs and molds. Depending on the size of the bag it takes half a day up to a couple of days to make a new design shop-worthy.
What are the main sources of inspiration for your designs? What do you usually do to recharge your artistic side? Customers are the biggest inspiration. I love to make custom bags, to make the perfect bag for a customer. A lot of designs in my collection are based on custom requests.
What are the biggest challenges you face as a sustainable designer? Getting the seat belts in the right volumes – sometimes the minimum orders can be very high. Also some of the best colours are becoming very rare.
What would be your tips for craftspeople wanting to launch their own sustainable fashion brand? Stay true to your core philosophy.
Karin, have you seen the sustainable fashion industry change or develop in the past five years? Well, there is some change going on. Some big names like Stella McCartney are promoting its importance. My bags are featured in new kinds of sustainability showcase projects, such as ABN AMRO’s Circl building, in Amsterdam’s Zuid business district and Amsterdam’s Museum of Bags and Purses has now included my designs in a sustainable showcase. In October, the Fashion For Good store and showcase opened here in Amsterdam – a really beautiful and inspiring place with a really clear mission to educate on sustainable fashion.
In your experience, does the fact that you make sustainable products make it harder to stay on trend? What should a customer expect when buying from your website? It seems every style from the last 100 years is on trend – better to find your style and stick to that. They can expect a neatly wrapped bag which is designed in a classic shape, in a distinct colour combination. Crafted with great care, to take care of your things.
What kind of feedback do you usually get on your handcrafted handbags and purses? Positive – they are happy with how practical the bag is. And that the bags look even better in reality than on the website.
Is there anything you would like to do in the future? Someone you would like to work with or something you would like to accomplish? It would be fun to work with an auto manufacturer, to do something bold and new.
If you could have any person as your mentor for a day, who would it be? Vivienne Westwood.
How should we educate people about the terrible impact of fast fashion? Make it visible.
When you are having a bad day, what do you do to make yourself feel better? Following the energy, what do I want to do, just do that.
How does your perfect working day look like? It doesn’t look, it feels. A productive day decorated with good music, vibes and laughter.
One thing that bugs you about humans is that…? People are people, I won’t let them bug me.
Please tell us a surprising fact about yourself. At my design course I was asked what I wanted to design. And I said “everything apart from bags and chairs”. And I ended up doing exactly that. Never say never, huh?