Over the last year, every designer I've spoken with who launched their brand directly before or during the COVID-19 pandemic has expressed the same sentiment: It forced me to slow down. Operating any business during this time is an unusual challenge, but marketing a non-essential good — like fashion — is a tougher sell. The loophole, it seems, is to be rooted in timelessness; to offer a collection of responsibly made pieces that promise longevity and versatility. At the end of 2019, Helen de Kluiver debuted her Dutch slow fashion brand CAES with all of these ideas in mind, not knowing that in a few month's time, they'd be the thing that distinguished her label from the rest.
De Kluiver is based in Amsterdam and her country has been in and out of lockdowns over the course of the pandemic. During this turbulent time, she's managed to reimagine communication with her suppliers, cement her brand ethos, nail down a partnership with Net-a-Porter (more on that in a bit), and perhaps most importantly, de Kluiver has still managed to slow down through it all. Much like her belief that the fashion industry must change speeds in order to achieve meaningful sustainability, she herself has tempered her pace to approach her work more purposefully.
Courtesy of CAES
CAES is season-less, meaning each collection (or "edition" as de Kluiver refers to each new installment) is composed of pieces crafted in natural colors and materials that can be worn together throughout the year and for years ahead. "As we launch new editions, you'll see existing styles, sometimes offered in a new colorway and styled with new pieces. It's not my intention to make large collections, but rather build over time a wardrobe of perfect staples that can be updated in a new fabric or color," she explains. "That’s how I came up with the name 'editions' — they will exist alongside each other instead of collections that become obsolete once a new one launches." She currently releases two editions a year.
While the idea of a season-less collection is not a foreign concept, other designers are embracing this approach, de Kluiver reinforces this notion by incorporating vintage pieces in her campaigns — a larger trend that's also been embraced by industry insiders like sustainable stylists. "It helps demonstrate how to combine old and new," she says. "It would be my dream to eventually also sell these pieces through our platform."
"It was definitely a very challenging start," she says in response to how the pandemic affected her business. "But on the other hand, it forced me to slow down even more, and truly focus on quality, not quantity, which has since become a key inflection point in the CAES ethos. In some ways, the pandemic has confirmed for us that we were on the right track." She cites the relationships with her suppliers as the biggest challenge. "I really miss that contact and manner of connecting with people," she says. "But we adapted and found new ways of working together that we will continue to use in the future, so something positive came from that."
Over the last year with nowhere to go and a closet full of unworn clothes, many individuals have come to terms with how wasteful the fashion industry is. "I think women, people in general, have become more aware of what they actually need," de Kluiver says. "Before 2020, we were all moving very fast and maybe not always paying much attention to how our choices impacted the world." Her hope for the outcome of all of this? "A new consciousness and awakening that focuses on buying less but better." That said, de Kluiver also recognizes that once the world fully opens back up, celebrations are in order. "I think everyone (including me) is ready for a party and to have an excuse to dress up a bit after this. So a new extra party outfit is totally acceptable!"
Beyond being season-less, CAES also moves toward sustainability through its fabric selections, business relationships, packaging materials, and production locations (they produce in Portugal with family-owned companies). "It’s hard to do everything right, right away. But we think of every aspect in our company, from the [fabric] qualities we use to the packaging, where we produce, and the delivery of our products," de Kluiver shares. A specific fabric she's currently working with called VEGEA is one example of these efforts. "It actually looks like real leather. It’s a company based in Italy and the name VEGEA comes from the combination of VEG (Vegan) and GEA (Mother Earth)," she shares. "They infect agro-industry biomass and residues as high-value feedstocks and transform them into new materials. In particular, in collaboration with Italian wineries." CAES will be offering a top and skirt in the material for the next Edition release.
She notes that one of the more challenging aspects of business when it comes to sustainability is the distance pieces travel in the production chain. "This is the toughest part, it's something we are currently thinking about — how to reduce unnecessary travel moments," she says. "It’s an ongoing process and we learn every day, so we don’t pretend we do everything 100% right, but we do our very best."
As if season-less, timeless dressing that's rooted in sustainability isn't already enough to justify a closet full of CAES, de Kluiver offers a glimpse of her perspective and the lens with which she views fashion. "I can spend hours in a vintage store to find the right piece. I think timeless style is about how well you know yourself and what suits you," she shares. "Then you can invest in pieces that you can wear forever. There are still pieces in my closet that I bought when I was just 16 years old, the quality is still beautiful. So I keep telling myself, invest and buy less, but buy better."
The next Edition of CAES will be released in March in conjunction with the brand's launch on Net-a-Porter. Until then, stock up on their current pieces below.
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