Ethics, Environment and Fashion with Rawan Maki

Rawan Maki is an environmental engineer turned fashion designer. Her recently launched eponymous line blends science with fashion, couture with ready-to-wear, tailoring with elegance. She is at the forefront of a revolution of sustainability in the fashion industry which, in her words, is ‘in full swing’.

You’ve had a fascinating career trajectory from environmental engineer to fashion designer. How did the transition come about?

My academic background is in Economics and Environmental Engineering (BA from Yale University and then Msc from Imperial College London). During my Msc, I was very focused on water, air pollution, and waste management. For three years following my Msc, I worked in strategy management, and then went back to studying, reading Fashion Design at the London College of Fashion - with the aim of transforming the industry. Whilst studying, I launched my line: Rawan Maki Design House. I am currently managing the brand with a small team based in London, whilst also doing my PhD on fashion sustainability in the Arab world.

Has your scientific background affected the way you design or produce your pieces?

In terms of environmental engineering and fashion- the two disciplines, to me, are very much intertwined. Both fields derive from space, functionality, and result in a structural beauty. This also makes my pieces very structural and I experiment a lot with various techniques such as horizontal pleats, elongated panels, and less conventional silhouettes. The aesthetic core of a Rawan Maki piece is a tailored elegance.

 ‘Light Vanity’ from the Rawan Maki Resort 2018 Collection   Image Credit

‘Light Vanity’ from the Rawan Maki Resort 2018 Collection

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What would be your advice to someone with interdisciplinary interests or ambitions?

Find the similarities—and differences—in the disciplines that fascinate you. Both are useful to you and a part of the nuanced individuality you can bring into your work. On a pragmatic level, take the time to develop your skills in each discipline individually. Good things are built with time, and meticulousness is key. Also, remember that there is a difference in having interdisciplinary interests and simply starting a lot of projects without completion; in our fast-paced world, it is important to know the difference, and it will serve you well. Commit to what you do, follow your instincts, and remember that you owe it to yourself to do things well and to their completion.

How does sustainability come into your work?

There are two elements to our sustainability process: who we work with and what we do. The former means we only source and use sustainably and ethically produced materials. What we do includes: making sure our designs and patterns are zero-waste (most brands dispose of 20% of their fabric as off-cuts) as well as designing pieces that invoke an emotional connection with the wearer. Well-fitted, high-quality items are a recipe for a long-term relationship.

Do you think sustainability is part of a wider evolution across the fashion industry?

Yes, and I think it is in full swing. The fashion world has become vastly divided between couture (expensive for the average consumer) and mass market (low prices and low quality), with the gulf between the two categories widening. Of course, this has mirrored the economic conditions of the world, so that the prevalence of high-end, well-made, iconic and enduring clothing has diminished.

This is what the Rawan Maki label represents. We are a Ready To Wear line, but we consider our craftsmanship and silhouettes to be at a couture level. These are statement pieces you will love forever, and that’s what the world needs more of.

 ‘Antimatter Bamboo Silk Top’ from the SS18 ‘Flourish’ Collection   Image Credit

‘Antimatter Bamboo Silk Top’ from the SS18 ‘Flourish’ Collection

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How can we achieve such aims?

In terms of consumers: sustainability is an approach, rather than a list of finite actions. It is a change in mindset. But it is important to remember that the burden of the environment and ethics in fashion should not fall only the consumer; that is regressive. Companies and governments have the responsibility to protect the environment. For instance, instead of campaigning for an end to buying straws, we should campaign for policy change. Of course, both can happen in tandem, and the consumer is powerful – but policy is more so. With the existing evidence of the global fashion industry’s environmental and social impact, at this point, governments should be unanimous in implementing policies.

We can create productive green industries. Sustainability is not an enemy of profit - it is just easier for corporations that have built their fortunes on non-sustainable and non-ethical practices to maintain the status quo. Remember that 1 in 6 people in the world work in the fashion industry in one way or another—including farmers, weavers, traders, tailors, manufacturers, dry cleaners, etc—and sustainability is about both protecting the environment as well as the health, safety, and dignity of those that work within the industry.

This is what the Rawan Maki label represents. We are a Ready To Wear line, but we consider our craftsmanship and silhouettes to be at a couture level.

In an interview with Vogue Arabia, you said you design with an Arab woman in mind. How does the Arab womenswear market differs from the Western one?

I am Bahraini and grew up in Bahrain, so naturally, I am influenced by the island. Growing up, Bahrain was “old” and “new”. It was land reclamation and sleepy palm tree fields. It was paved roads and stretches of sand. To me, the Arab woman occupies that space, and so, she too is full of comfortable contradictions. She knows both modernity and a pre-oil era (Bahrain discovered its oil supply in the 1930s) because it is our cultural heritage to remember “before and after oil”. Pre-and-post oil thinking is a very tangible part of the culture in Bahrain. Understanding this is very important – people are very aware of their environment and the changes it goes through. Also, with Bahrain being an island, you see water everywhere. You could never forget this environment. As an environmental engineer and sustainable fashion designer, you can imagine how much this fascinates me. So by the Arab woman I mean—a woman that is comfortable with an ever-changing world around her. Comfortable with contradictions. She is comfortable being both nostalgic and future-looking. Conceptually, the ability to be both nostalgic and future-looking is also the embodiment of sustainability.

 ‘Orchis Skirt and and Top’ from the SS18 ‘Flourish’ Collection   Image Credit

‘Orchis Skirt and and Top’ from the SS18 ‘Flourish’ Collection

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Could you tell us about your latest collection?

AW18/19 STILLNESS is inspired by transience and being on the ‘edge’ of completion. While I earlier mentioned that meticulousness and completion are important, so is the process; the process is your life. The pieces in AW18/19 STILLNESS can be styled in different ways - giving the wearer the power to create temporality, or to “play with time”, and “play with the practice of dressing”. In terms of components, the buttons in the collection are made from flattened bottle caps, finely enamelled for a “button” finish. The fabrics include satin made from recycled plastic bottles, organic cotton, organic linens, and peace silk.

 Trench Coat from the AW18/19 collection ‘Stillness’   Image Credit

Trench Coat from the AW18/19 collection ‘Stillness’

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What is the importance of having a Storybook to accompany your collections?

In recent years, “fashion” has morphed into “mass consumption”, for women and men alike globally. Now, there has slowly been a shift back to good craftsmanship, quality, and one-of-a-kind pieces. Our Storybooks accompany our pieces, telling you their “story” as well as a list of “components” that make up the garment. The idea is to help the consumer cherish the piece they own.

Your collections all have really interesting concepts behind them. How do you conceive them?

I am fascinated by art, psychology, architecture, and meticulous design. I find inspiration in geometric shapes, mathematics, sculpture, and the way things are built. I like the avant-garde married with good tailoring and silhouettes.

Who are your inspirations?

In terms of designers, couturiers specifically because of the quality of their craftsmanship and their attention to details even in the simplest of garments. Balenciaga, Madama Gres, Elsa Schiaparelli, Yohji Yamamoto, and Issey Miyake are some that come to mind. I also draw a lot of my inspiration from the canvas paintings of the likes of Monet, Pissaro, Füreya Koral, Yves Tanguy, Gustav Klimt, Dali, Meret Oppenheim, and Frida Kahlo.

What’s next for you?

2019 will bring exciting things. We are working on launching new pieces by March. We are also launching “TIMELESS”, which will re-release some of our best-selling pieces, capturing the idea that a well-made piece is season-less.

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StyleQifei Zou