We believe it’s time for you to meet the talented woman whose eco-conscious heart is shaping the brand´s future. We talked with Anni Ilves, ALPAKA´s head designer, about her journey to becoming a fashion designer, misperceptions surrounding the wool industry and the importance of sustainability in production.
Eva-Marie Saarva: You joined ALPAKA nearly six years ago and have already had a tremendous impact on the brand. If you look at your first designs in comparison to your current ones – what has changed?
Anni Ilves: Even though I came in with the idea to keep the line classic, modern and comfortable, by getting to know the material I have gradually toned it down even more. I want to emphasise this unique material by letting it shine and give the customers truly essential pieces that would effortlessly blend into their wardrobe and make getting dressed in the morning an easy and peaceful ritual. I believe that I have found a good balance between creating essential pieces and adding a key few pieces every year to accentuate the playfulness. This way our customers can always have their go-to basics, yet get to set their creative spirit free with mixing and matching. I feel alpaca as a material is so soothing and I’d like the pieces we create to highlight that. In a way it’s like creating places of refuge from the everyday chaos.
ES: You chose Tallinn as a base – what’s your take on Tallinn´s fashion scene?
AI: Tallinn or Estonia in general is quite a fertile soil for young designers. There is a lot of room and possibilities for experimenting and finding your own design language, as well as to try out what it means to have or create a brand. On the other hand the market is small, so it gets saturated fairly quickly. Although from a client’s perspective or for someone who likes to enjoy design, the options can be vast and creative – you can find casual pieces alongside elegant or structured ones, you can find some clean minimal aesthetics as well as a spur of colour and extravagant designer pieces. Not to mention a lot of source from nature, which is still very much instilled in Estonians. For the latter you can see more and more brands with a strong sustainability concept which for me is maybe even the most valuable part of Tallinn’ s fashion scene.
ES: You’re in between Estonia and Italy. Where’s the connection between these two? Where do you feel most at home?
AI: I must admit that fashion design wasn’ t the only design branch I was drawn to. If I´m being really honest, when I was still in high school I was somewhat afraid of dreaming of a career as a fashion designer, but since I enjoyed architecture and interior design as well, I found these two to be a safer option for the future. At first I set my sights on interior design, but in the second year of my studies I still had some doubts whether it was the right path for me. I decided to move to Rome to do a year of Erasmus, where I could study and get to know all three simultaneously. I had visited the city before but it wasn’t till my studies that I fell in love with the city, the sun and the Italian culture. I ended up living there for seven years! I do love Estonia and my family and lot of my friends are here, but if I must say where do I feel most at home, it is Italy – I can’t put my finger on it completely, but I feel more in the right place and in peace there. I feel more as a “my true self” there.
ES: Would you be a fashion designer today if it hadn’t been for your experience in Rome?
AI: I tend to believe that eventually everything falls in its place, but at the same time, there are multiple paths for us to choose from and in the end as a creative person every one of those paths could be enjoyable. Maybe I would not be a fashion designer today, but as creating and making clothing and knitwear is close to my heart, I believe that one day I would have become one anyway.
ES: What do you wish someone had told you before becoming a designer?
That you still need to use excel…And probably about the downsides for the environment.
ES: You once said, in five years you´d see yourself continuing as the head designer for ALPAKA and see brand get globally recognized for their knitwear line. That was just about five years ago – I think it is safe to say mission accomplished. Where do you go from here?
AI: Well there is something that I had in my deepest thoughts already then, but it was too early to say it out loud. My next goal at ALPAKA is to try and make the brand as sustainable as I can. It is one thing to start a new brand or company from scratch with sustainability as its core, but it is a completely different story to change an already functioning and growing brand. But you can say that in some ways it makes it more exciting. This is the challenge that today motivates me the most.
ES: You place great importance on sustainability and design timeless clothing with longevity in mind. Could you walk us through the sustainable choices of ALPAKA and what inspires you to make more considered decisions in your everyday life?
AI: From the beginning we made the decision to only make fully fashioned knitwear in order to eliminate as much waste and offcuts as possible. We have deliberately chosen smaller producers as equal partners so we could have a real relationship with them. As a result we can ensure that the practices they use are respectful to both the people they work with as well as towards the environment. We are working closely with both the knitting factory as well as the wool producers to find the most durable yarns and techniques that would make the products last. At the same time we are trying to find ways to reduce the polyester content in the yarns so that the fibres will become recyclable. In some cases it is still not possible for the sake of durability, but we are working on it and hopefully can show the results to our clients soon. We have a nice range of throws made from recycled alpaca and wool fibres. These fibres are collected directly in the wool factory as scraps, offcuts or shedding, and are woven into new yarn reducing the waste and raw material production.
In weaving you are still left with some small spools of yarn after each production, which are harder to use up in the industry, since every cone has a different but very small amount of yarn on it. Weaving the twist of the yarn is different from the one you use in knitting, so we have been testing how to use up these leftover yarns and are currently looking for the right partner to work with. I’m happy to say that we have managed to convert a big amount of our deadstock yarns into accessories that will be sold this fall in Canada.
On a personal level, I am motivated to make better choices in everyday life due to my inner ethics and my love for nature. I have always felt that nature is the medicine to calm my nerves and I can’t even bring my self to imagine a world where so many incredibly beautiful places would be destroyed because people simply do not care enough. I think we are smarter than that…why should we act ignorant if we have been given the power to think and reason?
ES: What piece of advice would you give to someone who’s interested in making a move towards a more conscious purchasing behaviour but doesn’t know where to start?
AI: One of the options would be to ask yourself the following questions before a purchase: would I like to wear this item more than 30 times, would I like to wear it next year or in five years time and could it last that long, do I love this piece or is it more of a spur of moment emotion? Buy less and buy what you truly love. Find something that represents you! Another way is to start purchasing more natural fibres and when possible opt for garments that have only one fibre in the composition or recycled fibres. My advice is to compare the garment price with your average grocery shopping bill, if the garment costs less, it’s safe to say it has not been produced under fair, conscious or sustainable practices.
ES: We spoke about the designers ability to promote change but let’s talk about consumers. People are becoming more aware of what they buy, where the product comes from and the impact it has on the planet. What are the most common misperceptions when it comes to brands working in the wool & fur industry?
AI: Regarding wool, two of the misconceptions we have encountered are that animals need to die for us to use the wool or that shearing is a cruel process that harms the animals. Using the wool is not the same as using the skin of the animal. To produce wool you only need the fleece, meaning the animals are not harmed in the process. When talking about alpacas, the average lifespan of alpacas is around 20 years and most of the farms in Peru are small family farms. Families whose income depends on these animals to thrive. Another thing to consider is the quality of the fleece. Wool is directly affected by the state and well-being of the animals. You could draw a parallel with humans, our hair and skin condition is affected by stress, anxiety and our living conditions. The same applies to animals. So you see, it is in the best interest of these families and farmers to make sure that they are treated well.
Speaking of the fur industry. It’s important to know the line between wool industry and fur industry, as they are completely different things, which brings us to one of the biggest misconceptions regarding alpaca fur or our brand. Alpaca fur, although it bears the same name, does not fall under the category of fur industry. In the fur industry animals are kept and raised with the sole purpose of getting their fur, whereas alpaca fur is an unfortunate byproduct of the wool industry. This means alpacas are not raised nor killed for their fur, but the skin is used to make products in the unfortunate event when the animal does not live up to its full life expectancy due to harsh weather conditions or other natural reasons. In a way you could compare it to the leather industry, where the leather is a byproduct of the food industry and until people continue to eat meat, there is a material resource that would otherwise be wasted. Personally, I believe that alpaca fur stands in its own separate category, as for the farmers, brands and the industry it’s essential to see the animals live as long and under the best conditions as possible.
ES: How do you respond to these people? How do you know which brands you can trust?
AI: I feel that every industry is in one way or another a representation of the society in general. Most people are good in nature and do not harm other people, but there are always some who act differently. Unfortunately some of these people might find their way to the wool industry. Although these cases are more of an exception and when discovered these people should be made responsible for their actions and should not continue their work in this industry. Nowadays there are better means of detecting these cases to protect the animals.
Deciding which brands to trust is definitely difficult these days, with so much contradictory information and marketing going around. When it comes to bigger brands, my advice is to look for certifications. In big organisations there are a lot of people and fragmentation, and the best way to be sure is if they have some external verification. When it comes to smaller brands, obtaining the certifications might have its complications, but they usually have a much better overview of what is going on in various steps of their production and processes, as well as a more direct contact with the producers. In some cases it can be up to your gut feeling. If you are following the brand, their story and their people, then over time you get to know their values and why they do what they do.
ES: Do you feel that the fashion industry became more open towards this topic within the last couple of years?
AI: Yes, I would say that the industry has become more open. Following the industry news you can see a clear message that this is one of the top agendas. From what I learned and saw on my most recent trip to Peru, is that the change is also happening in the alpaca business. When a few years ago sustainable practices were still very abstract to many producers, now most of them are already taking steps to choose the optimal way. Obviously these changes take time and we can’t expect a change overnight, but I am glad to see the change in mentality.
ES: Your last collection was all about escapism. Can you give us a hint on what we can expect from your next collection.
AI: Colours inspired by the Andes. Usually I have been inspired by a concept or forms and shapes, but this year I fell in love with the mesmerising colours that nature can offer us. And no, I am not talking about beige and grey. In the Peruvian mountains you can find the most perfect palette of colours, which I wish to highlight in the designs and shapes this year. That´s all the hints I can give for now! I hope our clients will love and appreciate it as much as I do.
ALPAKA´s new Autumn-Winter collection will be in-stores and online Autumn 2022.