Olivia Rubens’s collections explores material innovation and social justice initiatives

Canadian-born designer Olivia Rubens creates positive knitwear designs. Every material and trim used is certified organic, recycled, ethical and/or traceable, and she utilizes a number of collaborations to make sure her ethos comes full circle in her design process.

Olivia Rubens grew up in Ottawa, ON, a small city in Canada with access to much of what the outdoors in all seasons has to offer, which is where her dedication within sustainability grew. She obtained her BA in Fashion Design from Ryerson University in 2015, worked within industry in Canada until 2018, when she moved to London to pursue her MA in Fashion Design Technology Womenswear at the London College of Fashion, which she obtained in earlier 2020, participating in the press show at the Camden Roundhouse for AW20 at London Fashion Week.

Having been bullied in her youth, Rubens overcame many obstacles to unapologetically become who she is today. For every person who told her they didn’t like the way she looked, or that nobody would ever like her, she was herself even more to the Nth degree. Rubens stands for every womxn who has battled their way to the boardrooms, to running their own studio, to standing their ground and believing in the truth of their path and their fate.

Photo Courtesy. Olivia Rubens

Editor: Olivia, tell me how everything started .

Olivia Rubens : I suppose my interest in fashion was deeply rooted from my teenage years, especially finding my own voice during that time, being a sort of outcast in the way I dressed and in my interests. I thrifted and altered a lot of my clothing back then, before realizing I really had an interest in it. My love for design really sparked at the end of high school, and never dimmed. Back then and for a part of my career, the “why” would have been simply that I find so much joy in creating garments from the beginning, and the whole development process and relationship with the body of work, especially from the ground up through textiles and knitwear. Now, I believe in making a positive change for the planet and people, and that this is done by changing and disrupting the industry from within. That, along with the idea that clothing is meant to be lived in and to move, and the historical and sociological ties make designing clothing so complex, intriguing, and a continuous challenge.

Editor: I read than you graduated at London College of Fashion last year. What does it mean for you to be a young fashion designer in today’s society?

Olivia Rubens: It is both exciting and challenging. The pool of emerging talent is ever-increasing. It is now so intersectional though: it is no longer just about aesthetic, but there are so many layers of which we now need to be conscious. On one hand, the industry is so saturated, which is even more evident in our current virtual climate during the pandemic. On the other hand, there is so much room for innovation and opportunity, and it’s exciting to be part of that unstoppable wave.

Editor: Well Olivia, can you explain to me the idea and the creative process behind your brand? Have you ever thought about making a men’s collection?

Olivia Rubens: My research usually stems from discourse, taboos or sociological topics or issues. I like to prod at delicate subject matter, with good intentions to maintain and further important discussions about society and humans. The creative approach varies with each body of work, but can be very unorthodox and often humorous, such as acting out various characters in a Cindy-Sherman-style photoshoot. Design research always involves analyzing objects and garments in archives. Visually, I am most drawn to photography from the 1970’s to the early 2000’s. I find there is often a dark or dry humour to them, similarly to cartoons. I am drawn to the awkward, the dark, and the ridiculous. From all these aspects stem knit and textile experimentation and development. There is an extensive approach to design development and toiling involved, often involving upcycling and utilizing manufacturing offcuts, which can sometimes guide the design output or details.

I have not considered designing menswear specifically, but my collections are inclusive in the sense that anyone can wear my pieces.

Editor: Let’s talk about art: what is your relationship with art and how does influence your collections?

Olivia Rubens: Visual research is always part of the creative process and design inspiration for my work. Aside from the photography previously mentioned, art, usually referring to the same subject matter, whether that’s abstract or realistic for example, is always part of the picture and broadens my perspective on the subject matter. This is because artists often express their viewpoints or life experiences, and present situations, thoughts or experiences that I could never know, but can address, question, and hopefully honour through my work.

Editor: In 2020, you won the ITS Platform Responsible Fashion Award and the CNMI Award. How you do express “the imperative of responsibility and sustainability” in your collections?

Olivia Rubens: I work not only with highly certified materials, natural dyers, and local farmers and production, but also with organizations such as the Octavia Foundation in aligning social enterprise with design, and Manusa, my knitters in Italy, an organization that trains and employs African refugees and women with fragilities. I am vocal about my values, transparent (a necessity for any brand), and try to share the knowledge I have as much as possible. I believe in rectifying the damage we’ve done to the planet and people by not only working on a circular economy, but a climate negative one as well, and to disrupt and reinvent business models and consumption systems.

Editor: Covid-19 pandemic is changing our ways of living everyday life. You were part of an initiative in Ontario where you have sewn some masks and hospital gowns. How are you experiencing this pandemic period? Is it affecting the vision you have for your brand?

Olivia Rubens: This has been a roller coaster of a year. I was under the belief that I would be staying in the UK, when I’ve had to return and stay back home in Ottawa, Canada. I’ve had to problem solve all year, and it has changed my perception on what I want for my life, long term, and how I can make that happen in this new age. It’s allowed me to find more balance in my life, and to ask myself many questions about my work and purpose as a designer. Due to the turbulence of the year and having to let go of so many ideas that I thought were once rigid, this year has allowed me to become much more flexible in defining my role as a designer, and more open to experimenting with new ways to interact with clients, the market, what design should be, how I can create more unique outputs through unique collaborations, and what my goals are. It has allowed me to let go of any idea of typical presentation or expected release of new work for my brand, and to experiment to see what works in this new world going forward.

Editor: Would you like to give any advice to young creatives like you who will read this interview?

Olivia Rubens: Bolster your purpose as a designer on this planet. How can you help people and the planet? How can you inspire? How can you innovate? We, as creatives, give light in such a dark period. This is so important to humanity, but at this time, we need to make sure we are consistently questioning ourselves and doing what we do for the right reasons. Relevance is more important than ever.

Photo Cover Credits:
Photography: Brian Rankin | Makeup: Martha Inoue | Hair Styling: Arisa Yamasaki and Hiroki Kojima | Models: Ausrine and Lola | Styling: Paola Nerilli





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