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People to Know: The Couple Making Sustainable Clothing That’s Both for Everyone and No One in Particular

By Lynette Kee

From left: Elliot Upton and Jeanne Guenat, the couple behind the clothing brand, Sottes, that’s setting the tone for the future of fashion.
 
Sottes
From left: Elliot Upton and Jeanne Guenat, the couple behind the clothing brand, Sottes, that’s setting the tone for the future of fashion.

Growing up, Jeanne Guenat, 33, one half of sustainable upcycled fashion brand Sottes, had her closet populated with clothes hand-knitted by her mother. It was perhaps because of that, that Guenat finds herself steering towards clothes with laborious expressions — ones that have its soul peeking through the seams. Guenat met Elliot Upton when they were both working for a fashion brand in London. It was through his fashion and graphic design curriculars as a student that Upton discovered his penchant for the unconventional, apparent in both his style and demeanour. Now, at 28, Upton is breaking traditions in terms of the graphic design and print illustrations seen on their garments.

Fashion today is seeing a cultural shift. While brands are slowly redefining their cultural, social and political footprints in response to consumer behavioural changes, fast fashion inevitably continues to thrive as fashion reaches the mainstream, broadening its potential audience. Grappling with the same grievances of the fashion industry, the duo decided to create a brand to rebel against industry conventions. Hence, the birth of Sottes — named after a French word, which translates to “rebellious”. Since its creation in 2017, Sottes continues to uphold itself as a brand with no rules. Guenat and Upton launch two collections of garments every year made from recycled materials that are one-sized, unbound by gender and fully hand-made.

In an interview with T Singapore, Guenat and Upton delved deep and shared on the ethos of their brand and the future of fashion.

LYNETTE KEE: How did the idea of Sottes come about?

ELLIOT UPTON: When we first [had] the idea of starting a brand, it was always going to be on an upcycled basis because with the amount of waste in the fashion industry, we didn’t want to be adding to the problem. We wanted to try to come up with a solution. That was always our main basis, but then we also went into unisex and one-sized [clothing]. So, everything stemmed from there, one idea after another.

LK: What is your philosophy on owning a piece of clothing?

JEANNE GUENAT: I have a seamstress background. In my family, my mom used to make me jumpers. So, for me, I think it's really important to see quality work. What I look for in a garment is one that has a bit of a soul, something that is not too clean and too “fast fashion”. I love owning something when I know it's going to stay longer in my wardrobe. My mother never taught me how to knit, but I think it is what makes me want to make this [my work] because subconsciously, I was always surrounded by it.

EU: For me, I always look for the story behind the brand and I like to know where it came from and where it was made. I really love Greg Lauren, it's one of my favourite brands. He has a similar ethos to us. I really don’t like fast fashion, even though I might wear a couple of things. It's not easy to fill your wardrobe with expensive, upcycled brands but at least you can have a couple of these in your wardrobe.

Sottes
 
SottesAt Sottes, no one garment is the same as the other, thanks to the labourious handmaking efforts of the seamstresses.
At Sottes, no one garment is the same as the other, thanks to the labourious handmaking efforts of the seamstresses.

LK: Can you describe the "child-like" aesthetic of Sottes and how you convey that through your design?

JG: We translate that in ways like embroidery and prints that are really child-like. It's the naivety of the way we place these embroideries on the garments. Also, the construction of the garments is hand-made by seamstresses and this grainy aspect of it really gives off the child-like aspect. This concept also translates well with the [feel] of the brand because we are completely going against fast fashion, and Sottes is a French word that means rebellious; something you say to a kid when he does something naughty at home. So, it was like the visual coming to life in fashion.

LK: The illustrations on the clothing really remind me of how we used to draw as kids. Do you have to put yourself in that state-of-mind to come up with these ideas?

EU: When kids draw, it's really crazy because they don’t have outside influence — they are young and naïve. So yes, you sort of empty your mind and let your pen do the work. I do a lot of sketches and try to keep my mind as free like a child as possible. I tend to listen to a lot of music or films, just to take my mind off things, because once you think too much about it, it becomes a bit forced. Kids don’t try, they just do.

JG: But it's also your style. I think it's not just about challenging yourself to be like a kid but it's you as an artist with a specific style. For example, if you look at this garment, the drawing is not like the other one, which looks exactly like a kid's drawing, but it is still the same idea and style. LK: Sottes brands itself as a genderless, one-sized and seasonless fashion line, which essentially checks all the boxes of social ethics surrounding the fashion business today. What does it mean to you for your brand to keep up with this narrative? JG: For us, we like to go the extreme way of doing things. Like you said, this symbolises the future of fashion and we would like to take it [to the extreme]. We want to do it as a whole and not just a trend. To us, it is not marketing, but a necessity.

Sottes“The construction of the garments is hand-made by seamstresses and this grainy aspect of it really gives off the child-like aspect. This concept also translates well with the [feel] of the brand because we are completely going against fast fashion, and Sottes is a French word that means rebellious; something you say to a kid when he does something naughty at home,” says Jeanne Guenat. “So, it was like the visual coming to life in fashion.”
“The construction of the garments is hand-made by seamstresses and this grainy aspect of it really gives off the child-like aspect. This concept also translates well with the [feel] of the brand because we are completely going against fast fashion, and Sottes is a French word that means rebellious; something you say to a kid when he does something naughty at home,” says Jeanne Guenat. “So, it was like the visual coming to life in fashion.”

LK: How do you ensure the longevity of such a concept?

JG: I think it's something where we grow as we go. Like the fashion industry now — people do not question the way it goes, it just does. For us, we would like it to become the norm as more and more people do it.

LK: In using 100 per cent upcycled materials to create your garments, which do you take prior consideration to — sourcing of materials or design of clothing?

JG: We source all year long; we never stop sourcing for materials with different organisations and companies. When we create garments and accessories, it is actually nice that our material dictates what we are going to do. It is a very nice creative process because you go the other way around instead of having a page of drawing and then finding the material. You challenge your mind and it's always exciting when we design.

EU: The thing I most hated when I did fashion school was doing the drawing before fabric cutting. It's so boring and it's such a basic way of designing. Allowing the fabric to dictate the design is a lot more exciting because you'll never know what you're going to get.

JG: Exactly. This hat is a symbol of that. It is basically just bags of thread, and our seamstresses put it together to create a new fabric with this interesting texture. In the end you always come up with something that is even better than a classic material.

LK: With your garments produced by hand, what are some of your approaches to upscaling your brand?

JG: We have a studio of four people working every week with us. In parallel outside, we have a jewellery designer, leather workers and knitters. We create this community of people, and so in total we work as a group of around 15 people. I wouldn’t mind upscaling the business, I think it would definitely be interesting but it would always have to be in the same concept. We talk about it sometimes, to find another space to increase the size of the studio. It's just a question of not going too fast and losing control of it. I think that is the problem that a lot of brands have, like suddenly having more investors and then they lose the essence because then marketing takes the upper hand. So, I think it's about breathing and taking the time to think, and also not forgetting the way we work with the people
— for us, it's really important. It's good to be upcycled and waste-free but to change the world, you have to also help the people behind it. Sometimes people forget that behind every product, there are people.

SottesThe brand’s accessories echo its sustainable ethos by reusing silver waste.
The brand’s accessories echo its sustainable ethos by reusing silver waste.

LK: In jewellery, we've also seen a rise in sustainable sourcing. Can you tell me more about your jewellery collection?

JG: Yes! Our accessories are also made out of upcycled silver. It's taken from unwanted jewellery and melted [down] to make new silver pieces. You see, when you melt jewellery [down], it creates these particles that becomes the holes you see here in our jewellery. It's like a mistake that is really beautiful. The jeweller we work with has different partnerships with material sourcing companies and the company was like, “We have a lot of it (silver waste) but nobody ever asks for it.”

LK: As a socially conscious brand, what are your thoughts on the culture of sustainability in fashion today?

EU: I think we all have a responsibility to be more conscious, and if you don’t, it is sort of seen as ignorance. But it is difficult for the big brands, for example, to pay people good wages to do it.

LK: And is that part of the reason why you both have decided to start something from scratch?

JG: Yes, because we believe that brands that are new and exist in today's context, should take responsibility straightaway, whereas for big brands, it's more difficult to change and adapt because the machines are already running. A company with a lot more history can't just pause everything to rethink their direction. Fast fashion companies, especially, because there are people who cannot afford upcycled garments, so fast fashion will always exist.

LK: Many brands are moving towards e-commerce of late. How do you think Sottes’s shop-in-shop concept would benefit the brand?

JG: Personally, I like going into shops to see the garments, especially when a garment is going to cost a certain price. When Elliot and I travel, we enjoy going into shops that we like and discovering pieces that we don’t see online. It's an experience. The first time I bought a designer bag, I went to the shop, I tried it on, they put it in an ice box—it was a full experience. Also, [our consumers] can choose the fabric that they like even if it’s the same jacket because each piece is different with different linings and embroidery details.

LK: Fashion is experiencing a trend in brand collaborations. Are there any plans for collaboration in the making?

EU: We are definitely open to the idea but it has to be the same concept [as ours].

JG: Yes, if a really big brand like Nike, for example, [seeks] to do a collaboration with us, it would have to be upcycled too, and not something brand new. Because then people would say, “What are you doing, guys?” We don’t want to be lying to everybody in the name of profit.

LK: And is that something you're actively looking for?

JG: No, if it happens, it happens. We've had some really good meetings with artists during our travels, and we think these kinds of collaborations will happen before collaborating with brands and it's even more exciting!