Feature

Honest threads

Green Lifestyle online

The clothing Buno Pieters creates under his Honest By label is totally transparent - that is, material sources, production costs and even retail mark-up are there for all to see. He says, it's the future of fashion.

Honest Threads

Honest Threads' Bruno Pieters

Credit: Telegraph Fashion Magazine / The Interview People

Honest Threads

Honest Threads' designs

Credit: Telegraph Fashion Magazine / The Interview People

Honest Threads designs

Honest Threads' designs

Credit: Telegraph Fashion Magazine / The Interview People

Honest Threads designs

Honest Threads' designs

Credit: Telegraph Fashion Magazine / The Interview People

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It is grey and snowy the morning I visit Bruno Pieters at his studio in an industrial-looking building in Antwerp, where he also lives since moving from Paris. A goods lift delivers me to an airy, open space filled with rails of stock and shelves of boxes ready to be sent to customers. Pieters’ assistant Kate brings us some green tea while his cat preens herself in a corner.

Pieters is on a mission. This Belgian designer, who graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp in 1999, last year launched clothing brand Honest By online, selling 58 limited-edition, mostly organic, sustainably sourced and fairly traded pieces for men and women. Unusually, he tells buyers how much each garment cost to make, from buttons to manufacturing.

To shop on the Honest By website is to go on a journey. It’s easy to get caught up in the minute detail about the jumper that doesn’t look like it’s made from recycled wool (spun from waste), or the difference between the cost of raw materials and finished garment. Pieters makes no excuses for his prices – the jumper is precisely €368.01 (A$464.41). He simply breaks down the costs so you can see how he came to that total.

High street companies such as Marks & Spencer (M&S) are making efforts to improve sustainability but few are brave enough to reveal production costs and profits. Pieters, who recently became vegan and says he’s stopped buying clothes as he has more than enough to keep him going, has created a blueprint for the future fashion industry.

Take the black-and-white shirt-dress in his stockroom. The total cost of materials is €56.56 (A$71.37), including €52.78 (A$66.60) for 5.2 m of quality cotton, €0.75 (A$0.95) for five corozo nut buttons and €0.5 (A$0.63) for sewing thread. The retail price: €700.96 (A$884.28). But according to the website description, this includes €44 (A$55.50) for manufacturing, plus a wholesale mark-up twice the cost of the garment to cover wages, utility bills and transport. You know where the dress was made and the origin of all raw materials. In case you’re wondering, the corozo nut buttons came from Ecuador.

Many Honest By pieces sell out, some within a week of launching online. Major department stores wanted to place orders but Pieters had to decline as they would not allow him to publicise their mark-ups.

Allanna McAspurn, CEO of MADE-BY, a European not-for-profit organisation helping fashion brands improve their sustainability, describes Pieters’ project as “out-there thinking”. “Traceability and transparency are becoming more important,” she says.

Admittedly, Pieters’ production runs are small, which aids accountability. And some materials, such as Chinese zippers, are used from necessity rather than choice. “All zippers come from China (or Asia) today,” he says. “Even the zippers on €100,000 (A$126,130) couture dresses.”

As a fashion design student Pieters dreamt of working for a grand fashion house. Indeed, after winning a major fashion award in 1997 and launching his own label in 2001, he became creative director of luxury leather company Delvaux and art director for Hugo Boss. During travels in India in 2009 he realised his priorities had changed. Mahatma Gandhi’s mantra; ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’, became his driving force.

He wound down his label and sold off part of his archives, giving proceeds to Sebastian Indian Social Projects, a children’s charity in southern India (20 per cent of profits from Honest By also go to charity). He sourced fabric suppliers and manufacturers willing to share information that is never usually even requested, let alone published on a designer’s website. As a consumer he wanted to know that the garment he was buying had caused the least possible damage to the environment and not exploited anyone along the way.

“There is an assumption that organic fabrics are worse quality,” he says, stroking a swatch of cotton that has a GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certificate. “But it’s the opposite – like organic food, the quality is actually better.”

Pieters says, “the eco-conscious grandmother or mother” will eventually make his style of production more mainstream, defying suggestions he’s playing to a niche audience. “It’s everybody’s audience. They are coming to me, but they are everywhere. In the end this is normal. Unfair trade is not normal. Unsustainability is not normal. You need transparency and that’s why every brand will have to do it eventually.

“The worse the recession is getting, the more we are selling. I love that quote from Chanel when she said hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity. Either you find it in heritage brands, or you find it in a brand with values. I think transparency will be absolutely normal in a few years, not decades, because it is so logical. But it will not be the government that will decide; it’s up to each and every one of us to make it happen.”