Pertaining to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, finding beauty in imperfections, Peeraer creates against the current: steering the brand into a more sustainable fashion cycle, away from consumption driven creation. Playing with the malleability of contrasts, Niels Peeraer also works to reframe and refigure the ideology that cuteness is something inherently childish, constructing their delicate accessories with a more functional craftsmanship. Converging this cuteness with quality and expertise, the brand now embarks on Chapter 2, a shift from ornamentation to a focus on styling versatility. We catch up with the creative - 10 years on.
Hey, welcome back to METAL! We last spoke with you 10 years ago, back in 2012. In terms of your career, what's changed since we last spoke?
At that time, I hadn’t properly started my career yet. I meanwhile have had my own label for 11 years, retailed with hundreds of retailers and sold thousands of our cute bags. So, it’s been quite a ride. We’re however slowing down to a more sustainable slow fashion cycle, focus on made to order, custom pieces and limited editions. To put in question this over-consumption-based fashion industry.
In 2011 you had freshly graduated from the Prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts. In the years that followed, how did you find navigating the industry as a newly emerging designer?
I’ve been very blessed since the beginning of my career to be sought after by retailers, magazines, etc. I grew my company and collections very organically, always staying independent without relying on any investors or sponsors. Something that allowed me to really follow the exact vision and twists we felt were right at that moment. Evolving from wholesale, selling to retailers globally, to a more direct approach of opening my own store in Paris.
With a motto “no limit to cuteness,” your brand works to reframe and refigure this ideology that cuteness is something inherently childish. How do you go about achieving this?
From the beginning we tackled this by combining this cute vision with high quality materials - vegetable tanned cows leather, custom made gold and nickel hardware - and a focus on cleanly constructed, well made leather goods. It’s the contrast between these two sides of the spectrum that make our pieces so unique.
In 2019 you embarked on Chapter 2 of the Niels Peeraer story, with a shift from ornamentation to a focus on form study and styling versatility. In relation to creative processes, what did this change look like?
It was something that, rather than being solely business driven, was coming from an urge from the heart to have a sudden shake up and wake up in our approach. I changed a lot as a person since I started aged 22 vs now as a 30 year old. I wanted to stay true to designing from the heart. It’s something I believe is very critical for a designer. I however am working on a marriage between both chapters. The things we are so known for and the clean re-workings.
Your campaigns have previously been championed for the way they challenge and subvert traditional gender roles. Is this something you purposefully aim to achieve within your work or rather, a by-product of following your vision?
Having struggled myself since an early age to shop in the girls section to achieve the vision I had for myself as a person. For me, starting as a creator, I wanted to make sure I first address this side of fashion. In particular accessories and bags, things that are not inherently limited by the physical differences between a masculine or female physique, I wanted to make sure were not gender-labelled in any way. I put creations into the world that are open for the audience or customer to identify with personally, regardless of gender identity.
Your recent Re/Upcycle collection featured one-off pieces and reworkings of classics from your collections from leftover pieces of leather. What was the drive behind this collection?
It came from a resentment towards over-consumption, the ever so fast fashion world creating more more more, regardless of quality. I’m working very hard on creating pieces that are even more unique and niche. Rather than a collection, it’s a mindset and change I want to bring to my brand. Rather than thinking in collections and trends (something I have never paid attention to in my work), [I will] move towards a system of adding pieces that tell a story.
Given the imminent concern of the climate crisis, do you think there is an onus on designers to integrate sustainable design philosophy into their work?
Indeed it’s very important, as pointed out in my previous answer. It’s very frustrating for me also as a leather goods designer is also that now vegan is used as a marketing trick to distract people from the fact that the materials are often pvc, basically plastics. As customers connect vegan with environmental friendly, things that aren’t actually related. So me using leathers that are coming from a by-product of meat consumption, that are vegetable tanned, using only natural materials to dye and process the leather. VS pieces that are labelled as vegan but are actually plastic pieces that are both in sourcing, processing and eventually recycling, extremely harmful for the environment.
The Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, finding beauty in imperfections is something that you credit as an influence within your work. How does this school of thought shape the collections you create?
It’s another part of sustainability and appreciation for natural materials, we use leather that’s left as a by-product of meat-consumption. We try to use the entirety of the leather, not only the perfect parts. And celebrate the unique beauty that comes with it. Next to our vision of no limit to cuteness it’s been part of our philosophy since the very start.
Can you tell us about any upcoming or recent collections you are working on?
We’re working towards a marriage between the ornamentation and cuteness we’re so known for, and a more modern look, as well as sustainable made to order and limited edition pieces. As we focus on a more direct designer to customer approach (on our website and our store in The Marais, Paris) we try not to think in collections or designing in an old-fashioned system. But in a more direct way, and come out with designs that are organically created from the heart, rather than I had to come out with a new collection again.
Niels Peeraer bags have no stitching, and are entirely assembled through screws and custom-made gold or nickel hardware. Is there a reason behind this juxtaposition of creating such delicate products with functional hardware?
It’s part of the beauty, the endless play between rigid and soft, masculine and feminine, ornamentation vs very functional practical volumes.
Despite the meticulous assembly processes, do you think the skills and effort of composition to create your pieces is ever overlooked due to their delicate and cute design?
I have long let go of the hard work vs appreciation, in creating precisely fitted patterns or using for example custom gold-plated hardware (while many big fashion brands use metal coated plastic). While most customers don’t see the difference. It’s the small details that add up and are hopefully appreciated by some with a fine eye. I refuse to sacrifice my vision for cuts in quality to make a bigger profit margin.
With your current collections receiving such praise and popularity. Would you ever consider creating beyond the scope of accessories?
I have been creating my own ceramics for 2 years, I’m a die-hard cook that makes home-cooked Asian meals daily. My vision for the future is not only narrowed to accessories nor fashion actually. To be honest, fashion is a very limited industry that does not always appeal to me due to tik-tok or marketing driven approaches nowadays. So I’m more interested to for example approach something like ceramics or even food, another way of becoming part of and bringing joy in people’s everyday life other than bags. I personally feel it’s important to look at life as a whole, enjoy small things in life, and not just get consumed by fashion.