IFS 2019: Talking Sustainable Fashion with Roni Helou

22 February '19

The International Fashion Showcase (IFS) runs until 24 February, inviting 16 of the best emerging designers from across the globe to question, provoke, and explore their worlds through fashion installations at Somerset House.

This year, we’ve been delighted to support the sole entry from the Arab world, Lebanese designer Roni Helou, in partnership with Creative Space Beirut and Starch Foundation. Roni was born in 1992 and is a graduate of Creative Space Beirut, an innovative NGO providing free education in fashion design. During his three years in the institution, he took part in various exhibitions, internships and collaborations. His brand has been featured in prominent regional media outlets such as Vogue Arabia, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia and the National UAE and is sold at various boutiques in the region.

A committed campaigner for environmental and animal rights, Roni’s activism has heavily influenced his brand. This is evident in its championing of sustainability, local action and fair practices. Fittingly, his IFS showcase installation ‘Wasteland, Wonderland’ seeks to explore attitudes and behaviours concerning recycling, waste and the garbage crisis that has plagued Lebanon.

Read below to find out more about Roni Helou the designer and the brand, as we asked him to delve deeper into the rationale behind his installation, and the fashion scene in Lebanon.



Talk us through your International Fashion Showcase (IFS) installation, ‘Wasteland, Wonderland’.

So the starting point was the garbage crisis in Lebanon. That’s the problem we’ve been dealing with since 2014, but actually it’s been recurring every 10 years, so what I was trying to analyze was: why do we keep having this intense garbage crisis; and why does this keep happening on a larger scale in Lebanon, more so than in other countries?

Lebanon is a small country, with a population of roughly four million, but the amount of corruption that we have in our country is insane. When you consider the crisis and think, ‘might it get better in the near future?’, unfortunately it’s a no because it’s very dependent on the powers of Lebanon and the regional politics. And so, with this negativity and separation in mind, I conducted a small survey asking communities and people around me when they felt that the Lebanese people were most united.

Many of the people I asked spoke about times pre-civil war, but I felt I couldn’t relate to that as I wasn’t born then. Others spoke about the period between 1998 and 2004 when our national basketball team was at its peak. I also remember this period really well, and I realized then that it’s not a cliche when you say that sports unite us: if you find one common thing that brings us together you can easily disregard the thousand other things that tear us apart. That’s why I decided to merge some of the activewear and sports uniform details into my aesthetic, which focuses more on androgynous, masculine/feminine play, and the constructed deconstructed overlayered. I wanted to merge that with the activewear details and that’s how the collection came to life.

Regarding the materials for the collection, all the fabrics I’ve used are either dead stocks or old stocks, and only one fabric is new but it’s organic cotton. I got fabrics from warehouses that buy dead stocks from factories around the world, as I wanted to use materials that would have gone to waste otherwise. I really enjoy working with these warehouses because they have a huge diversity of fabrics. I also got some amazing vintage fabrics from some small businesses that have been running for a long time in Lebanon but which the industry has forgotten about. For example, I found one in an area called Furn El Chebbak; I spent my entire childhood there but I’d never noticed this guy! It’s a very small boutique with a very small window, owned by a 70 or 80 year old guy.

After I introduced myself to the owner, I asked him to show me some of the fabrics he had in storage. There was this specific, very nice Italian quality fabric that had been sitting there for the past 30 years, and when I asked to buy the entire thing he was so thrilled because, for him, that was dead stock, simply negative space in his shop for decades. I was happy because I got something unique, that has a story, and it was of a high quality that we just don’t find anymore; plus, by buying from him I was supporting a small business. For me it’s very important that the impact the brand makes on other people and other components of society is a positive one. That’s what sustainability is – it’s not just about the pollution of the air, water, or the earth. It’s about the animals, the humans… every single aspect of the earth.

‘Wasteland, Wonderland’ installation

What is the fashion and textile scene in Lebanon like? Do you think it is growing organically and in a sustainable way?

Unfortunately we don’t have a textile industry – we used to have these things before the war. Nowadays a lot of designers buy their fabrics from suppliers who are outsourcing very cheap fabrics, of terrible quality – very commercial fabrics you know. In response to this, about two years ago, a few designers became more aware about sustainability and started using more vintage fabrics, but I think you can count on one hand the brands that are using actually sustainable materials.


Do you find that there’s quite a sense of unity among designers in Lebanon, particularly those working in sustainable means?

Actually this is something that’s very interesting in Lebanon. Although it’s a small market, and it’s very competitive, the designers are all friends, and a lot of them went to fashion school together. So there is a sense of unity there, and institutions like Creative Space and STARCH Foundation all help build these small communities. That’s something I really admire amongst the Lebanese designers.

IFS Group Portrait (Credit: British Council)

What has the involvement in the IFS meant to you and your brand?

What I learned most from the IFS was how to set my tone of voice. I’ve been an animal rescuer for the last five years and slowly I became more involved in environmental issues, and I became an activist. But when I started my own brand I was afraid to express that because I felt that the Lebanese people were not ready for such things – I was honestly afraid for my business.

I didn’t want people to think ‘oh he’s so obnoxious he keeps talking about these problems and issues’. But I reached a point, right after the second collection, when I realized that I’m very disconnected from my brand and I just can’t relate to it anymore. And this is not what I want to do: I don’t want to create a brand that creates clothes for the sake of creating clothes. I want my brand to have meaning and to have values, and this is when I decided to appropriate the brand to Roni Helou the person, more and more.

When I came here for the residency I met likeminded international designers and realized that here, people talk about these causes loudly and they’re not ashamed of talking about them. It made me realize that the world is not Lebanon, and that there’s isn’t this bubble. As a designer, I aim to grow bigger than Lebanon and the Middle East, so I should talk about my values, and I shouldn’t worry, because it’s not just about Lebanon, it’s about the entire planet, and about the bigger community.This is what the IFS program helped me realize, and I’m now reaching a point where I’m very confident and loud about it. I can really say that I have an activist brand now.


What’s next for you and the Roni Helou brand?

Next month I have the Fashion Trust Arabia competition which awards grants to 5 designers. My proposal was looking at how to outsource environmentally friendly and sustainable fabrics from abroad, as this is something we don’t have access to in Lebanon. I know there’s no such thing as 100 percent sustainable, but I want to push the brand more towards that direction. I want to keep applying for grants hopefully to get the money and the funds to work on that project, and I want to keep doing collections and hopefully growing,, whilst also discovering new markets.


(Hero image, credit Alice Whitby for the British Council)