An interview with Joelle Rueckert of Riel
Talking about the relationship between sustainability and fashion is complicated, to say the least. It’s a discourse that’s constantly developing, changing quickly as fashion pollution continues to cause irrevocable harm to our environments. As consumers, it’s so easy to run into instances of greenwashing, and fall victim to clever marketing techniques designed to pull the wool over your eyes.
Of course, there is a joy to be found in our relationship to clothing. It can become a space for expression, a space for connection, and a space to play and complicate harmful norms. However, judging from the busyness of Tatty’s on High Street or Crushes on Karangahape Rd, students on campus are engaging in this joy cautiously. Many are carefully emitting fast fashion, ensuring that their own self-expression is not engaging in the wider system of oppression.
Riel, which launched with its first mini-collection on the 1st of March, is a brand based in Tāmaki Makaurau that engages with a more sustainable approach to production. The collection consists of reworked vintage pieces, updating the shape of traditional blazers and dress shirts into more contemporary silhouettes. Joelle Rueckert, founder and designer of Riel chats about launching a business, navigating the oxymoron of ‘sustainable fashion’, and the gendering of clothing.
What did the beginnings of Riel look like?
The concept behind Riel has been in development for a few years. I’ve always wanted to have my own brand, but have struggled with finding a business construct that suits me. I think when your main focus is on the ethics and sustainability of your business and products, and you’re constantly questioning the necessity of both, it becomes quite daunting to actually launch a brand. But this is what I love to do, so I’m trying to navigate a way through business that sits with my morals, and where I know I’m doing the best I can do, ethically.
But, we’re still in the very early stages of development and have so much to learn.
What are your thoughts on sustainability and fashion?
The foundation of what I’m trying to build is rooted in the construct of a more sustainable approach to fashion. What that means obviously differs for every person, but to me that looks like small scale production, recycled/thrifted materials and natural fibres. I want to offer my customers a fun but ethical solution to their consumption habits.
Sustainability in fashion is a big complicated issue. And people are really starting to catch on to the notion that the way they’re consuming clothing, or any products for that matter, and who they are supporting with their money, is huge. Because you would never actively give $20 to a system that exclaimed they were upholding slave labour, poor working conditions, mass environmental pollution or cultural erasure, right? But if you put a trendy little dress in front of it suddenly people can’t see the system behind it that is benefitting from that purchase. That seems nuts to me.
But I have seen such a huge shift in consumer habits in this past year, even just amongst my friends who are starting to see the flaws in the system. People are starting to question how and why they buy things, and that’s the most important part. Because “sustainable fashion” which is such an oxymoron in itself, means something different to everyone. Whether that is only buying natural fibres, or using a guppy bag when they do their laundry, wearing thrifted items, or only supporting local and/or ethical brands, it’s a personal journey based on accessibility and awareness.
In our current climate of hyper-consumption and throw away culture, consumers are responsible for navigating how their values align with their shopping habits. And that really comes down to doing their own research on brands and systems, a little soul searching on what they believe in, and being aware that they have a certain amount of responsibility when it comes to upholding systems of oppression and pollution.
Where do you draw inspiration for the design process and overall brand?
The inspiration behind my designs is making clothes that I love, and that I know my friends will love too. And the inspiration behind my brand is creating a safe space to play.
What do you enjoy most about the design and development processes?
The design and development process for Riel is quite different to a traditional fashion brand because I’m working within restrictions. There are certain limitations when it comes to reworking already existing items, and any ‘new’ designs I make are being created out of materials that have come to me, not ones that I have sourced. For example, I thrifted two large rolls of cotton Jersey the other month, so I’m almost working backwards through the design process. It’s a mixed bag really, but lots of fun.
Many of the pieces from Riel seem to lean into androgyny and discard gender as a marker for style and expression. What is your perspective on the gendering of clothes?
I think the way people dress, and how they gender their clothing is a personal journey. I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by a large variety of people who identify and express themselves in many different ways, and you can see that in the photos I take, and in my customers. My aim was never to create androgynous designs, but just a safe space for anyone to feel good wearing what they like. It’s a natural progression based on my environment, and it’s been such a special journey.
What has been the highlight of your time with Riel?
The highlight of starting Riel has been the variety of work. For the last few years I have been working as a sample machinist and the work gets very repetitive, so being able to break up my day with different creative elements has been a joy. And also, as cliche as it sounds, I’ve been able to meet and connect with so many lovely people through this community that’s developing through Riel, which has been such a pleasure!
Check out Riel on Instagram @riel__store or online at www.riel-store.com