Visually speaking, the work of this fashion house lies at a calculated junction wherein cultural narrative meets immaculate construction. Each colour, an emblem of an anecdote, each fold, the result of mechanical precision. Today, Robert Wun reflects on the ideologies and processes behind his fashion house, certain important contemporary dialogues in the fashion industry and the aesthetics that make his designs so compelling in our modern times.
What would you say was the beginning of your journey to establishing Robert Wun as the brand that it is today? Can you pinpoint a moment when you knew that you wanted to creatively direct a fashion label? Or was the decision more gradual?
I think it was more gradual to be honest. It was at least six months to a year before that point. I graduated in 2012 and then I got a job freelancing for designers. I was also doing editorial direction for a few publications here and there. But then in the year 2013, after I graduated I started to design in my own bedroom, in Brixton back then. I still had my mannequin and my sewing machine in my bedroom and I just started making things. I started designing a collection of six looks and I just missed that feeling of creating a story and making a collection. But I had nowhere to go with it, I just started making it, designing and sewing it together. Then I remember I met my friend, a photographer, who introduced me to an investor that helped me to get started with the business side of the brand. I think at that point it was almost the beginning of 2014, and I saw that as an opportunity because it wasn’t my money you know? And that’s how it started, so it wasn't an exact moment that I decided to start my brand, everything was very gradual. Everything was very uncertain at the beginning as well.
Last time we spoke to you at METAL, you had just launched your collection Burnt, and at the time, you spoke about how a large source of inspiration was the relationship between man and the natural world. Do those same concepts from back then still inspire your vision? Why were those themes of flawed nature so important to you at the time?
It’s going to always be at the core of how I see things, I’m still very inspired by that. I loved nature growing up and had a big passion towards it, an admiration of the beauty, the wonder, the way it works, you know? That’s why my parents used to think I was going to be a biologist, because I’m just very interested in nature and captivated by it. However, the way I work with it is by trying to bring in the human perspective, which somehow always makes things more exciting for me. For example: how we perceive that beauty, how do we use it? How do we selfishly use those natural elements in something that is completely irresponsible in our own culture? These concepts always intrigue me, that maybe somehow deep inside I am like this. We are part of nature yet somehow we are so extremely different from it, the way that we perceive ourselves as the opposite of it but we are actually part of it. The way that we work with it and see it is different. That always intrigues me, and I always feel fashion is an in-between of art and practicality, something fantasy. Everything that is ‘in-between’, a part of these grey areas, I always find has so much magic in it.
Visually speaking, a large motif in your work is your geometric approach and incorporation of sculptured silhouettes. As a designer whose collections are inspired by clear narratives, is it difficult to be consistent in this aesthetic? When your inspirations are drawn from science and the organic, is this style complimentary or does it clash?
The first thing that comes into my mind is the works of Iris Van Herpen, for example. She is deeply inspired by the natural world as well, it could be deep sea creatures and many other elements. But the precision and detail in her work is extremely highly crafted, an almost mechanical precision. Symmetry and balance is always there, and that is just one example of how people work with inspiration from nature. We see nature as something that is so random and organic, nothing as precise as something that is mechanical or from science fiction, but actually nature is full of complicated equations and details to make that beauty look so effortless. You always find the contrast between something that is organic emotion-wise and something that is very precise and calculated in terms of cutting, I suppose that’s how you make a very interesting and well made garment. For me [that is], making something that is inspired by something as soft and light as bird feathers and then joining the idea with armour, which takes a lot of sewing, pattern cutting and time to develop. The bird itself is a complex animal, like the armour itself. It takes time to make, time to design, that’s why it can fly. That’s why it’s beautiful. There’s a balance in the contrast, the precision. Something very organic, that can flow too. Maybe that’s why it works too. It’s not leaning towards an extreme.
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Speaking about the Fall Winter 2021 collection Armour which was a tribute to your late grandmother, you mentioned how the design process was informed by femininity and female empowerment. How have you found the reception to this collection?
I remember I was pretty holed up for those six months trying to work it out of my own will, with a drive that I never had before. I think it was the first time actually that everything that came out of me came so naturally, for the one time in my life. When the collection was finished and I was writing the press release, it just poured out of me. My friend Pierre always helps me with the press release and text, and he said there was nothing to change. The day that I released the first look, the purple one, I wasn’t expecting the reaction. To me it was the most important look of the collection, because it’s so personal. I wasn’t expecting people to understand it because it’s so personal, that was my own insecurity. I was sobbing for a few minutes when I released it just because of how overwhelming it was for me, but yeah I'm very grateful for how much it connects to people and how the story about my grandmother and my friends is immortalised in this collective universe. That’s how I like to think, you know? People do understand it. Hopefully I can keep that up, that’s the challenge now.
Could you tell us about the design process at Robert Wun? What do the creative direction processes look like?
So for example now, we skipped Spring Summer 2022, and we are going to launch Autumn Winter 2022 around that schedule. It’s kind of a combination of both collections into one, and we’re launching something genderless. As with every collection before, there’s a process of cleaning up my ideas and direction, and then I start experimenting with new shapes and pattern cutting, looking for new resources, fabrics, and materials. Somehow the direction of the idea starts changing through the whole process of figuring out the technical side of the collection, it’s still going to that one direction but what it leads to will be very different. There’s no ABC steps per se because we’re still a very small team, so everyone needs to be on the same page. So I told my team of two assistants what I want to do for the next season, what I have in my mind. And then we tackle it one by one. We figure out new techniques and then somehow organically the whole collection falls into place. We know exactly the colours we want, the direction we want. ‘Is this too much? Shall we get rid of that?’. That’s the process, until the last month when we have to wrap everything up technically and sales wise, and put the story properly together.
Referring back to the importance of narrative in your design process, a choice that stood out to me was the decision to use birds as a visual reference point throughout the collection. How did you approach selecting visual references to represent the meanings and stories behind the garments? What do the strong colours and wing-like folds permeating the collection tell us about the women who have inspired each look?
Referring to the last season, a lot of the reference photos were chosen based on three factors: visuals, combination and feeling. Some of the references worked really well with the story that I was trying to tell about my family. Some of them you just saw and you knew that it would work, it made sense. It’s something very emotional and very visual. Colour needs to connect for me, I’m very colour orientated. Sometimes before the sketches are there I’ll put fabric swatches cut into little shapes, patched together all over my table. Instead of a drawing, there’s just rectangles of colours. That’s how my mind operates sometimes, based on colours. I look at the colours and see if they align, do they go with the story. It’s the way that I work, my team can’t see it but it’s the way that I remember what I’m talking about. That’s how it worked I suppose for the Autumn Winter 2021 collection. The birds, the colour, the form and shape. Some bird pictures are photographic and some are illustrated. The photographic ones from the older days are softer and it reminds me of my sister, and they’re black and white photos and that’s how it connects to the Sicilian wedding look. The red one is illustrated with so much detail, and it’s so much like my friend Naomi, who is very precise, she’s an eye photographer for the NHS at Moorfields Eye hospital.There’s so many little connections in the detail you see? It’s the colour, the detail, the visual, it’s who they are as a person that connects to it. It’s many many things.
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Over the past few decades there has been a significant shift in how gender is perceived in the West, where traditional ideas about gender as a strict binary have begun to be challenged. You've stated before that although inspired by femininity, your designs are not just for women (and we've even seen your garments worn by men on occasion). Have modern interpretations of gender or sexuality informed the way that you design your garments?
For sure, especially now that we’re aiming for genderless with our new collection, including all sorts of body forms. One of the reasons that people perceive our work as genderless is because I don’t think of gender in the way that many fashion designers often do I think. As a child I ran into the vintage shop and would definitely look in the womenswear section because I’m skinny, I could fit into more clothes there and they looked so much more colourful and exciting. I see clothing as clothing, design as design, I don’t connect gender with it. When I decided to do womenswear it was because the femininity and the feminism that I’m passionate about can translate so much stronger in that perspective. And when I went to study there was a divide between menswear and womenswear, so I went with womenswear because I could do more with my imagination. Now, it’s been 7 years, I realised that when I design clothes, I don’t think does this bitch look sexy’ I think look at the way we use this fabric, look at the way it moves on her. We don’t think about the male gaze or even the female gaze perspective, when I do menswear. It’s more technical, we make sure the body proportions are made that way so that the garment can flow like this. I don’t use a lot of gender normative terms to describe my designs, which might explain why some people see my work as genderless. It’s more about the clothing itself than the gender behind it. I hope that makes sense, it’s something I learned not that long ago. It’s always been inside me but it’s something I've never been able to articulate. I enjoy clothing design regardless of gender and I feel that people in the industry are very used to the idea of thinking about sex in relation to the clothing, which I think is a bit dated now.
You've recently worked with many high-profile individuals and publications. Singers, actors and dancers alike have worn your pieces at high profile events and for big name publications. From ballet stages to the big screen, your reach as a brand has been extensive. Have there been any standout collaborations? Is there anything you haven't done yet that you're keen to try?
I haven’t done a movie in a while now, and yesterday I rewatched Alien: Covenant which Ridley Scott did with Craig Green, and I’m not going to lie, I rarely get jealous, but I love Ridley Scott. So I wish the next one would be me you know what I mean? I love creative collaborations like that, and it’s been like 5 or 6 years since I did the thing for the Hunger Games. So it would be nice to work on an incredible movie and contribute on the costume design side, because I love movies that are in a world of their own; to soak yourself into that element and to design for that world. That always fascinates me, it’s something that I truly admire in the movie industry.
I’m very open minded. I thrive when being challenged with a collaboration or a project, I force myself to jump out of my comfort zone. We’re working with artists constantly at the moment, and it’s something I'm very excited about. Somehow the word got out and now we have a lot of male celebrities or athletes ordering and collaborating on future shoots, and it’s great to have that perspective, we’re getting more and more used to it. At the end of the day, the way we develop patterns is different to how we used to, you know, we’re getting used to new body shapes. I would love to continue to work in music, especially new and young artists that I truly love and admire. This is something that I’ll always keep on doing. But, definitely a movie would be my challenge now. I hope it’s Ridley Scott, it doesn’t need to be Ridley Scott, but I hope it is.
As a brand, Robert Wun is very careful and informed about its approach to its social media presentation, opting to launch its collections via online platforms as opposed to staging traditional runway shows. Is this a choice based around practicality, or is there a stylistic benefit to introducing the world to your work via this medium?
Both! I’m broke! I’m not going to spend money on a runway when I know people are not going to show up! Social media is my platform, people know me because of social media: it’s my CV. It makes a lot of sense to a lot of people in this generation, because in the old days you needed to be approved by certain people that are in control of the whole narrative in the industry. If you’re not a part of that clique, people wouldn’t know what you do. Those people control the media, the publication, journalism and exposure. What social media has changed is that everyone can have a platform now. That’s the game changer, you don’t need to showcase your work through these people for their approval or force yourself to fit into their idea of how you should be. Be very good at what you do and what you’re passionate about. Let that speak for itself. I’m a believer in that. Take a leap of faith in your work, not for others, not for opportunity, not for people that wouldn’t light a candle for you ever in your life. Light a candle for yourself, believe in your work. The right people will see your work, people that will celebrate you will be there, but you have to be good first, spend time on that. So at the moment it’s low budget, but I’m getting very good at that. I’m not saying no to a show, I would definitely love to, but it’s about money and it’s about funding. When it comes, it comes. I'm not in a rush.
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When asked about the future of fashion, you mentioned how you hoped that there would be an effort to end tokenistic diversity in the industry. What do you think that big brands could be doing to get a more diverse group of creatives involved with their work outside of a performative lens?
I actually have no idea! They are the ones that run their business, they run the technical side and financial side. Every design house is different. Who runs the workshop? Who runs the pattern cutting studio? Are these problematic people? Are they subject to not hiring people of colour for example? If so, those people need to be replaced. You can’t blame their narrative on the people leading the whole house, because big houses can’t oversee every single person. The systems are so big, each house has to look at the problem themselves individually. These dialogues are finally being brought to the mainstream, everyone is having these conversations, you can’t run away from it anymore. It’s been so obnoxious that you almost feel like it’s a new thing, but these conversations have been going on for decades, centuries even, we were supposed to be talking about them all these years. What fashion houses contribute the most to society is the beauty standard and the idea of identity. What we do most as creatives is to broaden this narrative. We challenge the idea of white beauty and western beauty standards.
We have to keep making powerful and beautiful things that speak for more than just you, but also your community. Fashion is no longer a celebration of one person: when we celebrate one person we celebrate their story and community, the ethics that they stand for. Before, we celebrated someone in fashion for being very good looking or talented, but nowadays the celebration is different. It’s about what they stand for, it’s a much bigger social perspective nowadays and I like that. Things are more meaningful and more responsible. It gives more hope too to people who don’t fit into a certain class or ethnicity. It’s a lot to look at but I think that people like us are doing well and are thriving. We’re hardworking and we’re going to make it. We can’t rely on big houses to change, we have to make them change. We’ll become the force that they can't ignore, so they have to change or they will be left behind. That’s how I see it, because I have no idea what the fuck they could do. It’s such a big issue, I'd rather focus on myself and my community, work with them and celebrate that work. That changes what the meaning of fashion is, with the new generation. Big fashion houses, they have the money, but they don’t have that mindset, so they have to follow.
Although the brunt of systematic change shouldn't lie with marginalised groups – and big fashion houses should absolutely be making the effort to uplift subjugated voices – is there any advice you'd want to give to creatives who might find themselves prone to being taken advantage of in this light?
Me and one of my friends were just talking about this. Don’t be the evil that you hate! It’s a very cultural industry, it makes people feel very agitated, like they should put on a performance or a persona to feel like they’re being included or accepted, which is very sad when you look at it. A lot of these people are marginalised, they could be editors, designers, stylists, etc. They took the idea of having the grace of powerful people in the industry too seriously. They use young people as a token to refresh their relevance in the industry. When the next younger and hotter person comes up, you aren’t even at the back of their mind anymore, they don’t give two fucks. So when you let them persuade you to change who you are as a person and you become the toxic part of the industry that you were trying to challenge, it’s quite sad and unfortunate. People who are marginalised, just remember to be the person that you want to be, in a way that isn’t seeing you become the worst part of the industry that you originally wanted to change, just because of how difficult and cutthroat it is. A lot of people in the industry are down to earth and don't play those games. Focus on the good people, don’t focus on the bad. A lot of people that I look up to turned out to be quite lost on that spectrum, which is a shame.
To wrap up, I wanted to ask you to reflect on the journey that's taken you to where you are now. When you first started the brand, did you expect that you'd be on this trajectory? What do you think the future holds now?
I never thought about the way that things would go. I used to, I think everyone did when they first started, but what I've learned to do is to take one collection at a time, one day at a time. Do something that you’re proud of, and by the next collection look back, and think about what you could have done better. That’s a sign that you’re improving. I operate like this now, I never put too much expectation into what I should be. My sole responsibility is to become a better designer and better boss, to not betray my team’s faith in me. To make sure everyone can pay their bills, to be able to connect with new people and make beautiful things. That’s what I think about now. I had those five ten year plans back when I started, but what does it mean at the end of the day? Some of those plans I’m doing better than, others I've not. I’m very happy with where I am right now. Looking back, I’m grateful that I can say I’ve come so far, when sometimes I never thought I would. Hopefully I'll always have this gratitude when I look back, and hopefully I can keep doing better, until I can’t.
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