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In Conversation with Kine Homelien at Kontrast Project

Oslo Runway Fashion Talks by Anna Skavlan

In 2013, Kine Homelien went to Nepal to volunteer for the NGO Mountain People. Then, in 2015, came the earthquake. This is where the story of Kontrast Project begins, and Homelien’s ode to sustainable, honest and timeless production. Now she is bringing the spirit of Kathmandu and Zen Buddhism to Oslo Runway. I spoke to Homelien about Nepal, Norway and how to successfully bring something from the one place to the other.

You express a clear scepticism to the way the modern fashion industry operates. On your website, you write that the “status quo of fashion is constant destruction through flimsy materials and designs with a short-lasting appeal, creating a constant rush to keep up.” What are you doing at Kontrast to fight this process?
We think about sustainability both in terms of production and design. When it comes to manufacturing, we try to manage the supply chain as locally as possible. This way, it is easier to control information and what resources are being used. We collaborate with one small factory that puts together the collection and one workshop that dyes the fabric with natural colours. Both are located in Kathmandu. We work very closely with our producers and often visit them. That is how we make sure the working conditions are good, and the workers are getting a decent salary. Our collection is made of hemp, a natural fibre grown and weaved in China. The best option would have been to use hemp from Nepal, but this is not possible due to legal restrictions. Their neighbouring country, China, is the nearest supplier. This is a classic example showing how difficult it is to organize a supply chain entirely locally.

You don’t do seasonal collections and focus rather on one permanent collection of everyday wear, so sustainability is a big part of the way you design clothing as well. How do you incorporate this philosophy of timelessness into your design?

As an aesthetic term, timelessness tells us something about how we sense, feel, and connect to particular objects over time. For us, timeless design is not just related to what is simple and minimalistic - as it often is portrayed in Scandinavia. Timelessness can be interpreted in a variety of ways, depending on taste and preferences. What opened up our imagination for how timelessness can be expressed, was the Japanese aesthetic philosophy Wabi-Sabi.

What’s Wabi-Sabi? How has it influenced Kontrast?

It’s rooted in Zen Buddhism and emphasizes how beauty is to be found in the imperfect and incomplete. The imperfect is a contrast to western perfection and our unachievable beauty ideals. It is only in the imperfect you find true beauty. Perfection is commonly attributed to what is new, sterile, and flawless. On the other hand, Wabi-Sabi is about accepting and valuing change, flaws, and the natural process of ageing. And ageing becomes timeless because the ageing process is valued and appreciated all the way. Time is the most important aspect of creating a long-lasting emotional relationship between the person and the design object. In the spirit of Wabi-Sabi, we design by choosing natural materials, such as hemp and natural dye, which will, over time, change their character to more irregular expressions.  

Do you believe the global fashion and retail industry can reach a point where sustainability is a core value?

There is no problem for the global retail industry to have sustainability as its core value. Still, the question is whether it will maintain that value. For example, over recent years fast-fashion brands have introduced so-called consciousness collections. The way these collections are being portrayed is deceiving the customer to believe that a piece of clothing is the solution to the problem. Conscious clothing may be a better alternative to clothing made from dirty methods, but the production still demands a large amount of water, chemicals and brown energy. With the company's desire for profit, it is questionable if these collections should be called sustainable when the industry tries to expand every year, producing and selling more clothing. Though, we do see many new initiatives and innovative solutions from small scale producers and designers challenging the status-quo of the global production paradigm. That gives me hope!  

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In light of the ongoing pandemic, you also launched the “Buy A Bag of Rice” initiative, where 100% of the proceeds go directly to Steps Foundation Nepal. And humanitarian work is not a new initiative for you. Could you tell me more about the beginning of Kontrast and your relationship to Nepal?

My relationship to Nepal began in 2013 when I did an internship for the NGO Mountain People. Since then, I have gone back to catch up with friends, going on hikes, and following up on production. Kontrast Project was pushed into action in April 2015 due to an earthquake. Thousands of people died, and there was a severe need for resources like food, water, tents, medicines, sleeping bags, and so on. In a crisis like this, we could collect money to help. We got the idea to design jewellery. Within a few days, we had made a jewellery collection made out of re-melted silver and recycled inner tubes from trucks and bikes. Friends, family and even strangers were buying the jewellery, and we gathered around 15.000 kroner within two weeks, which was forwarded to Mountain People. We got such a good response to the design, and that gave me the motivation to continue similar projects.

How has the pandemic influenced you personally? Have you been stressed, or found a creative outlet?
I would say a mixture of everything. It is devastating to see how governments in low-income countries, such as Nepal, have used the corona situation as an excuse to control the people in a non-democratic way. The lock-down model used in the West and other rich countries may not necessarily be the best model for lower-income countries. In Nepal, people fear starvation rather than the virus itself. Families have been financially devastated due to the lock-down. People don't have a social safety-net like we do here. This situation creates stress and a feeling of helplessness, which ironically boosts my creativity and activity. Our production had a complete stop from February until late June, which gave me space to develop new collaborative projects that will soon be launched.

Why the name “Kontrast”?
It’s based on my philosophy of life, on the idea that contrasts are what makes life exciting and worth striving for. By that, I mean moving between cultures, new environments, and to learn about different philosophical and spiritual ideas that eventually reconstructed my understanding of myself and the world. Another aspect of the word Kontrast is to move away from the standard way of doing things.    

Let's talk a bit about Norway. Your design does not only carry influence by Norwegian nature, in the earthly tones and organic patters, but also Norwegian architecture and design, with Villa Stenersen as a prominent motive. What is it about Norway that inspires you?
I guess it’s as simple as me being Norwegian and loving design and nature. After living 12 years abroad it is nice to have some contact with my Norwegian roots.    

What does it mean to you to be a part of Oslo Runway?
It is an opportunity to share my philosophy and design with the Norwegian market while also being able to support and develop the Norwegian fashion scene.  

Where do you see the Norwegian fashion industry in five years?

I hope the industry will develop new solutions that enable us to move away from the mass-production paradigm and increase our competitiveness by intergrading sustainability into every aspect of production. I think people are fed up with buying just to buy and would rather use their money on clothing that tells a story. We are already heading in that direction, and I’m looking forward to seeing future projects and innovations! Today, many assume that as a brand you have to go global to be successful. It would be interesting to see if the industry could instead manage to grow within Scandinavia, and focus on the opportunities that are close by, before thinking global.  

What is your best advice to young designers reading this?

In general, design what feels good.  When you make your clothing, think about the journey of the material you want to use and evaluate if that journey could have been shortened using fewer resources. If not possible, maybe change your choice of material. When it comes to design – create an aesthetic expression that you think will last for a longer than just one season.