Ethical fashion meets art at Artclub and Friends

WORDS Palesa Kgasane IMAGES courtesy of Artclub and Friends

Having started out in Cape Town in 2016, clothing and accessories brand Artclub and Friends is more than just its aesthetically pleasing logo and street credibility – it’s a considered call for conscious fashion to become everyone’s friend.

Artclub and Friends is synonymous with making ethical fashion look effortlessly cool.  So what’s in a name? VISI spoke to creative director and founder Robyn Keyser to learn about how her love of fashion manifested itself as a brand that’s youthful yet timeless and accessible.

Robyn, tell us how the name Artclub and Friends came about?

The name Artclub and Friends has become more and more suited to us as we grow – it’s a constant reminder of why we exist. The truth is I wasn’t one of those fashion kids growing up with my nose buried in fashion magazines. I’ve always found home and peace surrounded by the dreamers, the innovators and often times the artists who do what they do because it’s their life force. My inspiration has always had surprisingly very little to do with “fashion”, it just happens to be the medium I chose.

Artclub and Friends is the goal post in our lives: it’s the reminder that the dream is to create meaningful, fulfilling work by consciously creating pieces that uplift, support and inspire. Whether that be the seamstresses, pattern makers, milliners, fabric mills or photographers, musicians, writers, or fine artists.

The most important thing to us is to connect with those that create from a space of love for their craft. Artclub and Friends has become the world in which we get to create to learn, grow and inspire and not from a space driven by trends, sales and hype.

Would you describe Artclub and Friends as a strictly streetwear brand in terms of your aesthetic?

Although we used to, we don’t any more. I love streetwear and have been inspired by the culture around it since the inception of Artclub. So in terms of our aesthetic, there’s no doubt you could say we’re inspired by streetwear. But to me, streetwear used to represent independence, community and scarcity – the fact that Supreme just got bought out by Vans is a reminder that sometimes the “genre” brands attach to are sometimes just a lazy pitch.

Words and phrases like “streetwear”, “ethically made”, “sustainably made” etc. are words we use less and less, but not because we don’t resonate with them anymore, it’s more because we want the things we care about and align with to be built into the systems we are creating, as opposed to being a tagline we use to make people trust us. We’re learning to let what we do speak for itself and rather to focus on transcending the need for labels. I don’t know if that seems a little controversial, but it’s tricky when people try and put us in boxes.

You’re vocal about ethical fashion being part of your brand’s ethos. What inspired you to take this approach to fashion especially in a fast-fashion-focused economy?

When I started Artclub in 2016, the sustainability movement was presented to me as a fashion student as a selling point. If I’m totally honest it’s the thing I wish I could take back most around how I first put the brand out into the world. When you’re 22 and starting a brand you’re so heavily influenced by how others do what they do, and it’s scary how fast you can start to mimic.

In my old age (I’m hitting 28 this year) I’m learning that what truly guides me is people. The impact a clothing brand has on the environment is something you really need to consider when starting up, but being based in South Africa and doing our best to source all of our materials locally, there are some limitations.

We have turned our focus to rather creating really high quality pieces and the biggest focus for us right now is ensuring that those who make our pieces are valued and cared for in the best way we know how throughout the process. Through my eyes, no matter how “sustainable” your fabric is, if your brand doesn’t serve to uplift each and every person that’s a part of it, you don’t deserve to use the words “sustainable” or “ethical”.

So to try and sum it up, our relationship with sustainability and ethics is a constant learning and aspiration to get to the point where one day we can unequivocally call ourselves an ethical and sustainable brand.

The fast-fashion focus for decades has tricked us all into creating a really unfulfilling and vapid industry. We’re trying to slow it down and take it back to a space where each piece we put out into the world is something we’re totally proud of. Sustainability means answering the question “Can I do this again and again without harming the planet and the people who live on it?” It’s going to be a long journey before many of us can answer “Yes!” to that, but we’ve got the energy and we’re working hard to get there.

What are your thoughts on South Africa’s current sustainable fashion market?

I mean, we’re all trying our best, but we don’t have the access and support we need to get where we’d all like to be. As young designers we have so many great ideas on how to become more sustainable, but sometimes it’s really hard to change a whole system.

My wish is for more established brands to share their knowledge and resources with us, we need access to accelerator programs and more mentorship from experts in sustainability. It’s a really tough task for self-funded, predominately youth-owned brands to be carrying the torch and pushing forward the desperate changes that need to be made in our industry before we can even say it’s sustainable.

Unfortunately, a lot of start-up brands still get caught up in “greenwashing” what they do, but we’re all learning that it’s short-sighted to make these kind of claims when we’re just not there yet. However, I think it’s important to add that most small South African brands are pretty sustainable in that they do not produce high volumes, they source their materials from local mills and help support many freelance seamstresses and pattern makers nationwide. This for me is often overlooked, and I hope we all learn to focus on and celebrate this kind of creating way more.

Your clothes are timeless. What goes into creating an item from concept to final approval?

Wow! Thank you. Timeless is a goal, so if that’s how they make you feel then I am so, so fulfilled. The process of approving a new piece is getting longer and longer because we’re focusing less on what gets an item sold and more on what gets a piece to live a long happy life in someone’s wardrobe.

Learning that so many of our customers are still wearing pieces we created in 2016 makes me feel we’re on the right path. The trick to creating timeless pieces is asking yourself if you’d have worn this item five years ago, and if you’d still feel good wearing it in five years’ time. That’s the goal, that’s the dream.

Your famous dungarees! What went into the design initially, and can you talk about the recent changes?

The first pair was based off my favourite denim dungarees that I’d thrifted when I was about 19 – I still wear them weekly. There’s something about a dungaree that means freedom to move, freedom to create and freedom to make a mess. I love that about them as a piece. They are ageless, genderless and timeless. Each time we make them we think about how we can improve them and a lot of these changes come directly from our customers’ feedback. It’s a really fulfilling process to listen and improve constantly.

Did you envision these dungarees to be so popular?

Hah! No, not at all. I once threatened to stop making them because I wanted a little break. But we soon got a series of very angry messages from customers asking us why we’d be so selfish. Needless to say we kept making them.

The colour blue is somehow synonymous with your brand lately – your studio, your clothes. Why blue?

In early 2020 we wanted to find the perfect tone to make our own. #10069F is where we found home. We made the decision right before a global pandemic, and it’s been pretty symbolic to reclaim the colour as one that represents resilience, bravery, uniqueness and community.

Blue is the rarest pigment found in nature, and so, it’s a constant reminder and a promise to always focus on our journey and to learn to sit comfortably with doing things our own way, even if that sets us apart from other brands.

Tell us about your collaboration with artist Lunga Ntila?

I feel really lucky to know and have worked alongside Lunga. Besides being a big fan of her work, I just really have the utmost respect for who she is and how she navigates herself. I recently bought my first piece of her work, it’s still got to be framed but it’s one of those pieces that will stay with me wherever I go in this life.

Understandably, artists are often reluctant to collaborate with brands, but Lunga is also inspired by fashion and I think it was really fun for us both to learn more about how the other works. We released a series of tees with her prints on them, each tee was editioned and came with a signed certificate of authenticity, just like an artwork.

We’ve been meaning to work together again but as life has it we are both constantly overwhelmed by day-to-day tasks, so hopefully we will both come up for air soon and get to create together again.

The Lunga Tee

You have amassed a diverse group of supporters of the Artclub and Friends brand. How do you think your brand has attracted people from all walks of life?

This is something I think about often and my guess is that it’s because we’ve never really had an “angle”. We really want everything we do to come from a very real, conscious place. We are committed to making sure our voice remains honest and true no matter how big we grow, and maybe this is why our community can’t really be described in one line.

We are a collection of people who love to create, we love to uplift, we love to tell stories that move us, and we are working for a brighter future for us all – that’s the common thread.

What advice would you give to young designers building sustainable brands?

Focus on the aspect of sustainability that you’re really passionate about, and then just keep learning. It’s really overwhelming to try and be everything to everyone.

Connect with those that are experts and become a sponge.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and look at it as a never-ending process of trial and error.

Try your best not to “sell” sustainability, and rather to encompass it.

And finally, which creatives inspire you most and why?

I love so many local creatives and I love them for different reasons. I love Broke Boys, because they’re moving so strong and so brave and they’re following a dream many told them they couldn’t achieve.

I love Thebe Magugu because he has reminded the world that luxury lives in Africa.

I love Wanda Lephoto because his voice is so unwavering and steadfast.

I love Meghan Hotong because she has one of those “eyes” that you come across once in a lifetime.

I love Gcobisa Yaco, because they are without a doubt the kind of film director we NEED to help tell South African stories.

I also love Banele Khoza because very few artists can move you through a handwritten note posted on social media like this, Banele’s life is art as much as Banele is an artist.

I love Katya Abedian-Rawhani because she radiates a very sacred energy in all that she does.

I love so, so many South African creatives but I feel we may have run out of space to keep listing them.

Connect with Artclub and Friends here.