Ronald van der Kemp is something of a national treasure. On Monday he will receive Holland’s highest accolade awarded to a luminary in the fashion industry, the Grand Seigneur, a prize which recognises exceptional service to The Netherlands and beyond. Since its inception in 1984, the prize has been awarded just 28 times.
Of course there couldn’t be a more apt recipient than Dutch designer van der Kemp and his label RVDK. He is the original sustainable couturier who slipped on the cloak of eco-warrior long before it became fashionable. Part designer, part revolutionary, he has been forging his own path since launching his high-end circular business five years ago.
On the second floor of his light-filled studio in the heart of Amsterdam’s canal district, we sit down with Ronald van der Kemp and talk sustainability, what’s he’s learned and what he’s still fighting for.
The Grand Seigneur is an incredible recognition of talent of what a designer has contributed to Dutch fashion, yet you seem to be on an exceptional journey and just getting started. What are your aspirations for RVDK in five years time?
To spread the word and deliver our positive ethical message to a larger audience and to make a real impact by creating exhilarating fashion statements and responsible products. The couture aspect of the business is where everything starts. We are growing our private customer base each season and are working with other companies to find creative solutions for this disasterous waste problem by creating exciting products made from leftovers, by-products and waste. We are currently developing a fully sustainable perfume and skincare products, sustainable sunglasses and jewellery as art. It’s a constant evolution to find answers on how to be a profitable couture house of the future, without damaging the world and everything that lives on it.
You’ve been a pioneer and crusader for ethical fashion since you launched your company and long before sustainability became a buzzword. What is it that you would like to see happen in the wider industry?
I’d like to see the big conglomerates change their system, take full responsibility for their actions and slow down their productions. It’s about real change not sustainability as a marketing tool. The ongoing parade of fashion shows and collections needs to slow down. Brands should think about new and different ways to create momentum and attract customers.
You’re about to show your 10th collection during Paris couture week in July. Looking back, what has changed since your early collections when you just started out on your own?
The focus is more on couture and statement pieces. The DNA of the brand is still the same but I think the clothes have evolved with more detail and refinement and show a true ‘modern’ couture sensibility. We have entered the intimate circle of haute couture customers now as well with our sustainable couture, which was a dream for me when I started.
Tell us about a typical week at your Amsterdam studios. What is your day to day like in the run-up to the Grand Seigneur ceremony?
Preparing for the show, working on the last pieces and fittings, developing the accessories. I’m also thinking about the show concept, the look of the girls, styling, and ultimately the message. We’re working on our perfume concept and each day we have meetings, interviews, and are doing what we can to take the business forward. Together with my business partner Mirjam Bax we have established an ambassador program, where we are reaching out to a small group of select investors that support our brand and spread the word. And I’m writing a small speech for Monday’s prize.
You were one of the first designers of a luxury brand to speak openly about sustainability but also showed a different path is possible. Was there a moment when you became conscious of the damaging consequences of clothing production?
I realised after 25 years of working in the luxury fashion industry that fashion was spinning out of its axis. Luxury brands are just as damaging to the environment as fast fashion companies, producing an overload of new clothes and products with an unmanageable carbon footprint. The majority of activists are focused on the more affordable fashion producers and retailers but I realised that high fashion was perpetuating a lot of the same problems with overproduction and waste issues.
"Our ethical message has always been at the heart of what we do."
The big problem is that companies have become too big to be able to make the necessary changes. Businesses simply cannot keep growing and growing. What was happening in sustainable fashion five years ago was not ‘real fashion’ and not very sexy. My mission was to first win over the top tier of the fashion world with exhilarating fashion statements, but at the same time our ethical message has always been at the heart of what we do.
Ronald van der Kemp will be presented the Grand Seigneur award in Amsterdam on Monday, 17 June. For more information on the designer visit www.ronaldvanderkemp.com.
Images Marijke Aerden, courtesy of RVDK