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Antonin Tron on Why He is Here: An Interview by Anja Aronowsky Cronberg
I lock my bike to his and step into his studio. I say “bonjour” to his mom, to his partner, and to a few young women focusing on something important on a screen. He brings me coffee – we have milk! – and we sit down in his tiny office to talk. When I leave, I try to take everything in with my eyes: the clothes on racks and in piles, the Alaïa dress on a mannequin, the images of past collections pinned to a wall, and the focus and friendliness that seems a common trait of everyone who works here.
For me “sustainability” is about how you act on every level. It's about respecting everyone you work with—from the person who picks the fibres to the people in your office. I don't believe that fashion is “bad.” It's complex. Real sustainability is about how you practise it in a respectful way and on a human scale. We keep things local by working with a factory in France. I'm not saying that Atlein is succeeding, but we are trying. It's complicated and I'm very conflicted, like most people today. I don't think the answer is to feel guilty about loving fashion. We have amazing know-how and a history of fashion in Europe that needs to be safeguarded, but the challenge is to figure out how to do that in a less destructive way. Moving forward isn't about saying, "I'm right and you're wrong," and I don't believe in pointing fingers at anyone. I don't think that we solve anything by saying only high fashion is good and everything else is crap. I'm aware that I'm making expensive dresses. So yes, I'm conflicted. I don't have the answer. I try to find a way to work that's respectful to people and to the environment. That's all we can do: try, die trying.
In many ways, I have my mom to thank for my environmental consciousness. I remember sweltering hot summers in the car where she'd roll down the windows and tell us that she wasn't putting the air con on because she was thinking about our future. And this was in the nineties, you know. People didn't talk about the environment then the way we do today. I've always felt close to nature, even though I grew up in Paris. I surf. Not as much as I'd like to, but still. I've always felt that we're all connected, all one. When I named my company, I chose “Atlein” as a nod to the Atlantic Ocean. I've always been super interested in biology and zoology. I don't travel as much because I'm mindful of the effect it has on the environment, but I used to travel a lot. I have a big passion for primates, especially big apes. I've been to conservation centres all over to see mountain gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees: Sumatra, Laos, Uganda, Costa Rica. Seeing a mountain gorilla is like seeing the god of the mountains: it's almost mystical. There is so much of us in them, and yet we're so different.
Learning who to listen to is one of the hardest things, in work and in life. For me, I get clarity when I surf. Surfing is a great analogy for life actually. You have to pay attention to how the wind is blowing, you have to analyze the sea in order to catch the best wave. When it comes, you need to be prepared to grab it. You need to intuit: this is going to be the good ride. I'm still learning. Atlein is such a personal project. Everything I have goes into the company: all my time and every cent I make. My mom, my brother, my boyfriend—they all work with me. The name reflects what I care about the most. It couldn't be more intimate, but then again, I wouldn't know how to do it any other way.
We forget that people working in the shadows can have the biggest impact. Do you know the designer Patrick van Ommeslaeghe? He's not famous, but he is so important. He worked at Jil Sander with Raf Simons and at Loewe too. Maybe his name won't be in books, but to me he's one of the most important designers of the last decades. His dresses are on every mood board. You don't have to make millions or be known by everybody to be important or have a lasting impact, and now that fashion is so intertwined with fame, we lose sight of that sometimes. I do the same. I get consumed by the fact that we have only 10,000 followers on Instagram. I know it's silly, but it can keep me awake at night. I'm not going to lie—it's the way recognition is shown today. I hate how everything is about ratings, but I also realize that I need to partake in that culture. Instagram can give you amazing access too of course; it's brought us lots of good things. I've met amazing clients that way: one invited us to do a trunk show at her home in America, and it was fantastic.
People expect clarity of vision from a designer; a lot of people come to fashion for reassurance. Sometimes people just don't know what they want so the role of the designer is to say, “This is what's good for you.” But I'm a very intuitive designer. I don't always know why I do what I do, so when people rush up to me after the show to get my references, I don't always know what to say. I don't work with grand concepts. I'm interested in cutting, sewing, draping, structure, and silhouette. I'm a dress maker. I'm inspired by gestures and movement. The way a woman zips up the back of her dress, the way she rides a bicycle, or talks, or smokes. It takes time for me to digest and conceptualize what I've done. But as a designer, you get that one moment—the show—which is over in fifteen minutes, and then you have another ten minutes to explain yourself to journalists afterwards. The idea of success in fashion today doesn't always allow for someone like me: I doubt a lot, I'm not always sure. It's normal; I think most people are like that. But the system isn't set up to integrate it.
Why am I here? That's such an important question. It helps us clarify why we do what we do. I remember this summer, I was on a bridge in Paris as part of an environmental protest and the police were gassing us and I was scared. I thought to myself: I'm a fashion designer, why am I here? And sometimes when things are tough at Atlein I think I should've stayed working at some big fashion house, become the head of design somewhere, made a lot of money and been able to go on holidays. Why am I here? But no. The choices I've made for myself are the right ones. This is what I have to do. I can't really explain it. But asking myself that question again and again helps me define who I am. It's the point of creation, when all the possibilities open to you start to vibrate and you actively choose where to go, and what to make. Doubt is essential to creativity.
Anja Aronowsky Cronberg founded Vestoj in 2009 as a platform for critical thinking in fashion. Today, she creates the annual Vestoj Journal, Vestoj Online, and the live performative Vestoj Salons. She lives in Paris and produces Vestoj under the partial patronage of London College of Fashion, where she also works as a Senior Research Fellow in Fashion Theory and Practice.