FEATURE: Belgian designer serves up luxury, transparently

AFP, ANTWERP, Belgium

Mon, Sep 23, 2013 - Page 15

The hallmark of luxury is exclusiveness and mystery, but Belgian fashion pioneer Bruno Pieters wants to break tradition and offer high-end buyers “transparent shopping from A to Z.”

Last year, he created Honest by, a Web-only fashion label that gives the shopper an intricately detailed breakdown of a product’s elaborate supply chain that can circle the globe, even if Pieters favors the local.

In the regular world of fashion, “you can sell a 50,000 euro [US$67,000] dress without being aware that the product was made by children,” Pieters said. “In the fashion world, few ask themselves the question.”

However, the question became a burning one after the catastrophic collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh killed 1,100 people in April. The disaster shocked consumers, putting a spotlight on the often appalling conditions for workers making garments and, activists hope, creating a desire in shoppers to consider every link in the worldwide supply chain.

At Honest by, click on a piece of clothing and a long list appears, itemizing supplies and workmanship that made the shirt or suit possible, prices included.

The client “can verify the origin of materials, where the clothing is made and at what price,” said Pieters, standing in his workshop in the heart of a hip neighborhood in Antwerp, Belgium’s main commercial hub and a major port.

Click on a garment and the shopper, comfortably surfing at home, sees not only where the fabric comes from, but the buttons, stitching and labels too.

All added up, the tunic costs 225.87 euros compared with a wholesale cost of 69.14 euros. The mark-up, clearly stated on the Web site, is the company’s premium for creating the item.

“It no longer works that companies produce in China and slap on a ‘Made in France’ label,” Pieters said.

“Transparency will soon be inevitable for the luxury business because the only reason to pay the prices, is quality and know-how,” he added.

Pieters, 38, is a refugee from high fashion. A former art director at Hugo Boss, he burned out in 2009, embittered by the drive for the bottom-line that he says rules the luxury goods industry.

Yet adorning the walls of his studio are the bright colors and tight angles more associated with Paris cat walks than fair trade shops.

Pieters took a two-year break from fashion before building his firm and insists despite a switch to vegetarianism, he is no activist.

“I’m just creating what I’d like to buy,” he said. “From my time in high fashion, I learned the power of consumers, whose every mood is closely scrutinized, analyzed by hundreds of experts,” he said. “Fashion, which by definition leads the crowd, is a good means to change things.”

Honest by, whose name is a play on the honest buyer is not a large-scale business, producing about 1,500 pieces since its launch, expanding only by inviting young creators to also sell on the site.

Pieters says that 20 percent of the profits made in designer collaborations will go to charity, but the company overall does not yet turn a profit.