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Julien Esteves Berthier is the Romania-based designer who reimagines knitwear through workwear silhouettes, inspired by their representation of real life’s neutrality. Having been on a bumpy rollercoaster ride during the pandemic as he struggled to launch his fashion label, the French-born creator strives to be as involved in the production process as his workers are.

The brand’s sustainable ethical ethos pushes Berthier to design in parallel to the aesthetic requirements, simultaneously defying the stereotypical ‘look’ of vegan fashion. His recent collection, La Nausée, is inspired by one of his favourite novels, of the same title. It reflects the psychological act of challenging what we know, in this case knitwear and fashion in general. Whilst reflecting on his path which brought him to where he is now, Berthier also acknowledges the infinite amount of things left to be discovered in fashion.

Having studied at multiple fashion universities and been Studio Manager at Liam Hodges, you’ve had the opportunity to experiment with different techniques and textiles. What made you decide to focus on knitwear?
When I moved to Romania, I had been working in a knitwear factory, as an employee. Whilst creating designs and patterns for this factory’s clients, I built my brand. My office was based within the factory, surrounded by knitwear, learning closely every single step of the production of knitwear, from patterns to computerised knit loops, sent to the machines, the quality control, the different types of sewing, the washing processes etc., I felt there were endless possibilities with knitwear which were still to be explored.
Knitwear has only recently started being released from its stereotype — picture an old white woman sitting in her rocking chair. How do you re-examine this way of creating through your design process? Is it done through the juxtaposition between work-wear and knitwear?
In a way it is. I want the feeling of knitwear to be no different from that of the woven and workwear. When designing, I usually draw full-on outfits, with aesthetics and moods that answer the research I gathered previously. I decide later whether a piece will be made of woven fabric or knitted and develop the material after that.
The general consensus of society is that knitwear is deemed ‘conservative’. Is your aim to work in parallel with this notion or do you work to defy it?
I don’t intend to work with this notion nor defying it. However, I don’t believe the knitwear I produce can be labelled conservative, as I try to make usually non-knitted pieces knitted. I believe it’s no big deal working with knitwear, it just so happens it is made of yarn and has other beautiful properties but it should not mean anything.
You only use natural and plant based yarns to make your pieces. Can you tell us more about the production side of the brand and where you get your material from?
It is indeed one of the most important messages I want my brand to share: plant based materials and ethical manufacturing. When sampling the collections, through every prototype, every try, every sample until I reach the final one, I use only dead stock yarns, leftovers that are in the factory. After that, if there is enough stock for production I would then prioritise it. If not, I would order plant based yarns from Italy.

The slogan of your brand is ‘la taille, la maille, le bleu de travail’ — 'the size, the link, the uniform of the worker’. Why does the ‘worker’ aesthetic call out to you so much?
I have always been fascinated by uniforms of all kind. The power they have, the message they transmit. Workwear has no political end, no aspect of violence nor heroism. I believe workwear is reality, it is life as it is.
When launching my brand whilst working in the factory, I spent my days in close contact with all workers, and was one myself. This atmosphere inspires me everyday: practical, strong, long-lasting clothes made for real people. The shapes are straight-forward, and they are actually worn.
Your AW 20/21 collection, entitled La Nausée, is inspired by the novel from the famous philosopher and writer Jean Paul Sartre, about a character feeling disconnected and alienated from the world around him. What key concepts did you decide to extract from this piece of literature and how do you play around with them?
Jean-Paul Sartre is one of my favourite writers. I read La Nausée twice in a summer because it captivated me completely and resonated within me. The image that remained the most in me was the following: at some point, the character walks at night alongside the river Seine. He looks at the water, this black moving mass and thinks “nothing actually guarantees me this is water apart from the knowledge I already have. For what I see, it could be a layer of solid black material. Or there could be nothing underneath, it could be something else”.
I make knitted jeans, from a picture they look like denim jeans. Knitted hoodies made of cotton yarn, knitted tee-shirts, polos, kimonos, work jackets and trousers. Also, all knit is made of cotton or linen yarns, some pieces look like classic knit but there’s no wool, the tension is as high as possible and the stability of the garment is dense. Challenging what we expect of knit, of fashion in general.
In the collection, you also feature ski masks made from 100% cotton. Does this accessory piece reflect the name of the collection and the past year during Covid where wearing a mask was necessary?
It actually had nothing to do with Covid, as it was designed before the virus happened to us. It has, however, to do with La Nausée. It features a play of 3 different knitting structures, and the fact it is very thin makes it marry the shape of the head, which gives a weird aesthetic, somehow uncomfortable for those who see it.
You’ve studied in London, a fashion hotspot. What made you decide to base your brand in Romania?
My time in London was amazing. After graduating, I worked for Liam Hodges for a time before deciding I needed something else. I had the occasion to move to Romania, in a small city in the North, which is everything but a fashion hotspot. But the culture was new to me, the atmosphere, the way buildings, nature and people looked. I think when you create, it’s good sometimes not to be surrounded by the same visuals and feelings your peers see everyday. Inspiration doesn’t come from fashion hotspots, it comes from within and I was eager to discover something else.
One of the reasons I stayed in Romania was because of my job at the knitwear factory (Augsburg SRL). I wanted to live for myself the experience of being on the other side of design: the production part, which is significant and often forgotten when thinking about fashion. I also wanted to be sure of what I was getting into (the fashion industry in general, and the lack of sustainability and workers rights we often read about). I could learn alongside experienced workers, see for myself how ethical this particular factory was, how hard working and involved everyone is and I felt it was the perfect place for me to launch my brand, whilst learning and participating in the production of my own clothes. I was the client and the employee at the same time!

You were part of Vegan Fashion Week’s first fully vegan showroom. How did it feel being included in such a good cause for the future of sustainable fashion? Do you resonate with this as a step in something bigger?
Definitely. Vegan Fashion Week is formed by amazing people, with a good cause and values that resonate with mine. We share a similar vision, that “vegan fashion” doesn’t have to “look vegan”, it doesn’t have to show a new aesthetic that would only include a closed circle of stereotyped vegans. In fashion, sometimes, it just so happens that garments are vegan. Just like when you eat a salad, it is vegan by nature, you don’t order vegan lettuce.
I believe the same happens in this case, the Vegan Fashion Week is deeply involved in the good cause of animal welfare, but they promote vegan products from very different designers, including me. I am very proud to be a part of this.
Having officially launched the brand in 2019, Covid must have put you in a difficult place as you were emerging. How much have you had to change your plans and has experiencing a global pandemic affected your mindset sustainability-wise?
Covid has put us in a very difficult place, yes. The situation being different in every country made me have to change a lot of the plans I had, as stockists from around the world were closing down and weren’t allowed to re-open. After that, it was too late and I’ve had to face cancellations of orders, had to find new stockists, new ways of producing, of promoting, of showcasing the collection as catwalks were no longer out there.
Experiencing a global pandemic has however helped me decide to produce one collection per year only, with different drops, rather than presenting two to four collections per year. It is far more sustainable, and because my products don’t follow trends and because the knit is made of summery yarns, it can be worn all year long. I’ve had a collection ready to be launched for quite some time now, but am waiting for the right moment to do so, which gives me some air to think and some time to make it right.
My vision about sustainability hasn’t changed, I did not wait for the pandemic to become sustainable, and I didn’t wait for it to be trendy either. It has always been a base for my brand: sustainable, ethical and vegan are the mandatory aspects behind the production.
You were born in France, lived in Spain, studied in London and now you work in Romania. Are you planning on moving anywhere else to explore fashion?
Yes! I don’t know where exactly but I definitely want to keep exploring. All these places add up to the vision I have of the world and it needs to keep happening. I want to be based in Spain and travel to other places frequently, there is still so much to be discovered!

India Gustin

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