Occhii prides itself on individuality and imperfection: both in fabric usage and garment design. The New York-based brand sources fabrics for their collections from Russia, collecting years-old deadstock fabric and recycled yarn from big-production factories to produce unique, hand-sewn, Occhii garments. We talk to Leonid Batekhin and Ilona Davidoff about the research and choice of location behind Occhii’s newest tundra-inspired campaign, the moral importance of individuality as a brand and the fragility of the fashion industry during a pandemic.
I understand that Occhii sources some of their materials in the form of rejected shawls and deadstock fabric from an industrial production factory in Russia, how did you establish the commercial partnership with Pavlov Posad Shawl Manufactory? What was their reaction when you asked to open start buying their rejected materials?
About a year before launching Occhii, we contacted the manufacturers to inquire about their faulty fabric offcuts. At that time it was an exploratory idea – we knew that all fabric ring had by-products, and we were curious to see what they would look like at a manufacturer that has particular cultural significance. Pavlov Posad's shawls are ubiquitous in Russia and recognisable all over the world.
It turned out that the manufacturers did have a lot of fabric offcuts with defects, along with deadstock, some of them being years or decades old. It was a surprise for them when we came to look at the faulty shawls and when we started requesting the most 'damaged' ones from them – in the manufacturer's mind, it was an unusual request.
Following on from this, instead of casting away these ‘rejected’ materials from the factory, you and your team reinterpret these into unique and upcycled pieces for your collections, what inspired you to see past these so-called flaws?
There is something exciting about how unique each faulty piece is, despite many of them being conceived with the same pattern or design. When we saw the shawls and offcuts that were damaged, they naturally felt special and in line with what we wanted to do by creating 'unreplicable pieces.' The fabric defects are in a way a record of each piece’s 'biography,' and no two pieces have an identical record.
To discuss the elephant in the room, how has this year affected Occhii in terms of staffing and production – has this year taught you anything about the fragility of the industry?
The pandemic negatively affected customer orders and our studio operations, but it also gave us an opportunity to analyse more in-depth our own design process, research and allowed us to further our direction towards focusing on making 'one on one' pieces, which is in line with our design principles.
The global pandemic showed clearly the weak points in the global economy, overproduction and the world’s fast economic pace being among them. We believe that there is work to be done in terms of balancing economic output, creativity, and further implementing more sustainable practices in all areas of production and consumption of product.
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Your newest campaign features heavy knit woollen masks, intricately patterned shirts and cosy blankets – all made from recycled, hand-sewn wool and second-hand fabrics – all pieced together and shot in a tundra-like winter wonderland, it is truly beautiful. Where was this campaign shot and can you tell me the process behind choosing the composition to put the clothes in the best environment?
Thank you. The campaign was shot at Neversink River in Catskills New York. At the end of 2019, we went on a research trip to the Siberian Arctic – Russia’s Norilsk and adjacent territories – which influenced our creative process for making unreplicable pieces. This region is unique in terms of its cultural richness (there are five indigenous nomadic peoples in the region, Taymyr, each with a distinct culture and language) and extreme climatic conditions. It was particularly interesting to notice that the traditional dress of some of these cultures not only embeds in itself principles of sustainability (natural materials, careful use of fabric, recycling, the specific purpose of every piece and detail) but also features Pavlov Posad shawls which were introduced into the region over 100 years ago through trade.
This research trip to Siberia influenced our choice in terms of shooting our campaign outdoors in the wintertime. The main materials for our pieces (upcycled wool, hemp, silk, etc.) are natural, treated with labour-intensive hand processes (tie-dye, patchwork, quilting, natural dyeing), and we wanted to highlight that with our choice of the campaign’s setting.
Occhii claims there is no work that is truly ‘perfect’ nor that perfect even exists – priding yourself on producing imperfect, ‘one of one’ piece, who is the Occhii customer?
The idea of 'perfection' varies in different parts of the world and cultures; with Occhii, our focus is handwork techniques along with special and unusual materials, whether they are deadstock, by-product or a newly developed material. We hope that the consumer shares these values and appreciation for handmade work as well as lowering our negative impact on the environment.
The campaign features several garments with an oversized fit, is this collection intentionally unisex? I understand Occhii strives to break boundaries and push social norms, was the gender-neutral aspect of this campaign something that was with you from the start?
For us, clothes are about the fit and the fabric they are executed in, rather than designing with a singular gender in mind. The rejected shawls, the material that Occhii began with, in and of themselves dictated the silhouette and the fit that would allow the material to be the focal point in every piece. It naturally happened so that the overdyed shawls and other materials that we used worked best in voluminous and oversized silhouettes.
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Have sustainability and upcycling always been in the Occhii philosophy? I understand Occhii comes from Russia, but garments are finished in New York, what is the sustainable market like in Russia itself?
Although the first material that we sourced comes from Russia, Occhii is based in New York and sustainability has always been in our philosophy from the beginning, which includes upcycling, use of natural materials, hand techniques and making pieces that are special and unique.
Sustainability is a hot topic this year more than any, with many claiming that customers would shop differently if they knew how fast-fashion garments were produced. How important is it to you that your customer is aware of the Occhii garment production process?
We do find sharing our process very important. The effort that is put into every piece is significant. Most of our pieces are individually laid out and cut in-house and then passed on to one of New York Garment District sample rooms that we have been working with closely over the years. The making of each garment is an exciting process to see and is something we would like to keep sharing.
How big is the Occhii team? I understand that in the most recent collection that many pieces were sewn together from several fabrics and samples – does this take a large team of seamstresses etc or do you keep your team small?
The Occhii team is quite small. There are two founders, our design assistant and collaborators that we normally work with on specific projects, along with sample rooms and small studios in the Garment District with whom we have established close partnerships.
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Occhii has released both summer and winter collections over recent years – upholding the ‘one of one’ philosophy to retain individuality. Is this something you see Occhii maintaining in the future of the brand? What is your vision for Occhii in 5 years?
We are further focusing Occhii on creating pieces from special materials and techniques that we have been collecting. The ‘one of one’ philosophy comes from the fabrics that we source and what we do with them, it is a natural step in our making process and is something that we are planning to build on in the near future, including further exploration of both materials and special techniques.
A slightly more general question I must ask – many claim that exposing working conditions of fast-fashion warehouses is effective at making people shop more sustainably after being shocked by what they see, others claim that community pressure and education is the key to educating consumers who are not in the sustainable sphere. What do you think, from a sustainable brand perspective?
We do think that transparency and showing the “making of” process is a positive contribution to informing the Customer’s buying decisions. It helps to see not only the final product but have an idea of how the piece was made as it creates more appreciation of each Unreplicable Piece.
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