Once again, we are changing the language, and that’s because we are travelling to Athens! We have to tell you – we wouldn’t go that far for an interview unless it was truly special.
Not often do you find designers with Kseniia’s same mindset. She’s the founder of Functional Clothing Lab. In her designs, utility is key, and R&D plays a fundamental part in the whole creative process.
Creator: Kseniia Sofianatos
“Function over fashion.”
While the fashion industry moves forward into a single use of clothes, Kseniia introduces with FCL a new approach to fashion, custom clothing, reparations and research to her portfolio. And this, is too circular economy.
We wanted to start this interview by asking about your beginnings. We know you have been working at Functional Clothing Lab for a long time now, but how did it all start? Did you study Fashion Design? How did you start making your own clothes?
It all began in a small town in Siberia, where I was growing up and not finding available clothes satisfactory. At the same time almost every household in Russia in the 90's had a sewing machine, legacy of lack of clothes in the Soviet times, so my home was no exception. Actually there was something exceptional: not only my mom, but my dad also knew how to sew. And among his creations were winter jackets and ski pants for me and my brother, when we were kids. But this actually had not laid a direct path for me to become a functional clothing designer. Only in a way that I knew that anything you need, but can’t buy, can be made with your hands.
I then studied Monumental Art, Graphic Design and finally got a Bachelor's Degree in Fashion Design from St. Petersburg Academy of Art and Industry. I learned patternmaking and sewing there, but came out of school without a clear idea of what exactly I wanted to do. I worked for a short time for other designers as seamstress and as a stylist on fashion shoots for a year. There was always a background feeling of dissatisfaction with myself, caused by the fact of being involved in the fashion world, with all its wickedness. But the drive to make new clothes was in me and it wasn’t going away over years. I needed to find my own way of expressing my talent and at the same time being honest with myself.
To concentrate on making functional clothing was not an idea that was born out of brainstorming and this spiritual search. Rather I stumbled upon it: I got my first down jacket from Uniqlo, it was really good, I wanted to make a scarf to compliment it’s collarless design, so I started looking for materials and information about making down-filled garments and came across a subreddit community "MYOG", which stands for "Make Your Own Gear". That’s where I learned about somewhat obscure online speciality shops, to source necessary materials from, and sewing tips and tricks. This was all shared by enthusiasts, who were making their own hammocks, sleeping bags, rain jackets and whatever else they needed for their outdoor adventures. This was a paradigm shift for me. Once I started concentrating on problem solving, and not the appearance when making clothes, I finally felt that was the right path for me. I am feeling content with my direction ever since.
(Disclaimer: I don’t think that fashion design is inherently bad, by no means. I think the world of fashion is like a beautiful river that is getting exploited and polluted by so many, that it is very hard to find your own truth there and not get intoxicated and start believing that what you see around is the only way. Your clean stream, patch of grass and flowers on the riverbank is there, just keep wandering.)
Not many people in this industry share your mindset. We can recall Yohji Yamamoto talking about the utility of the garment, but we can’t find one person who talks about Fashion as an R&D field to explore and innovate. What made you begin with this project? Where do you believe your unique mindset comes from?
I believe that clothing design should be like a science: applied research on comfort and performance, open sharing of knowledge among researchers, designers striving to advance the clothes.
I have a principle: Act like the future you long for is present.
Add those two beliefs of mine and what you get is the [ functional clothing lab ].
My mindset is a result of a unique blend of my interests, my genetics and my surroundings. Both my parents are engineers, as well as my brother, and my husband is an engineer and a scientist too. Almost all my friends come from technical backgrounds. It’s a way of thinking that I was predisposed to have a tendency for from birth. Engineering is a problem solver. I solve problems in the field of apparel.
One important influence on my vision of future was science fiction books by Strugatsky brothers, especially ones taking place in the Noon Universe:
“The Noon Universe is very peculiar – it boasts an extremely high level of social, scientific and technological development. The Noon World knows no monetary stimulation (money does not exist) and every person is engaged in a profession that interests him or her. The Earth of the Noon Universe is governed by a global technocratic council composed of the world's leading scientists and philosophers.”
Everyone is a researcher, an athlete or an artist in that future, or all of this together. That’s what I want to be, that’s what I am. I just have to pave the path for this future to be possible, in my own small way, using my talent to break grounds.
Lately, we have seen how your company has kept growing, with new collections, the creation of an ecommerce and some future upcoming projects. Could you share with us - what will we see in the future from Functional Clothing Lab?
I’m writing this on December 31, 2020, I just did some strategic thinking session in last few days envisioning where I want to stir my Lab towards. One of the most recent ideas that I hope to release early in 2021 is ‘Gear Repair Map’ - a directory of sewing professionals and enthusiasts who can repair or modify technical clothing, like waterproof or down jackets. Repair is noble.
Another thing I’ll keep experimenting with is the format of product release. During October and November I tried a format where I’d be accepting pre-orders for a specific item for 10 days, then I’d manufacture them all together, saving time and therefore being able to offer lower prices for those who are willing to wait 2-4 weeks before their order would ship. I learned a lot from these two pre-orders and I’m planning to keep experimenting with this, to find a better balance in the business side of things.
Also I want to explore other ways of sharing my creations, not only in form of garment, but its pattern, step-by-step tutorial, etc. Once I asked my followers: what should I release, product or information? The majority’s vote (~75%) was for information, which surprised me. In some way sharing information is easier than producing a garment for a tiny brand like mine. Certainly in 2021 I will release more men’s versions of designs that are now offered for girls only. Though I enjoy being a brand of technical clothing that is female-oriented, boys have so much good technical stuff to choose from already.
I am slowly building towards offering highly customizable products. My ultimate goal is to offer a basic cut and a wide variety of add-ons that a buyer can choose from, like pockets, ventilation zippers, hood, additional insulating layer, cinch cord, etc. I do already offer, for example, an option to add ventilation zippers on the pants, or to remove one or both pockets from the basic model. I know that people most of the time want a ready thing and might not be interested to choose, but I want to cater to people who know what they want and can take the responsibility for making their own choice.
This are some of the directions I want to take in the new year, but of course I can’t predict how it will turn out.
In your website, as well as in your Instagram, we can find a lot of tutorials, BTS videos and even Design Diaries! Has all the behind-the-scenes material become an essential for your business model? For us, particularly, it definitely has.
That’s a peculiar question. It certainly has become an essential part for my audience, but I can’t say how much it helps regarding cash flow. It’s entertaining for most people and useful for a small bunch of makers. It is very satisfying when one of the makers reaches out to say that my tutorial was useful in their project. I enjoy recording it and lots of people enjoy watching it, so regardless of if it brings me more money or not, I’ll keep doing it.
How do you see the Fashion Industry in the near future? How much do you believe fashion will change in the next 5 to 10 years? Or not at all?
It is very difficult for me to say as I am a total oddball in the industry. I don’t follow what’s going on there. I am more interested in tiny brands who try to do things in different ways. I hope we will take over!
But seriously speaking - I don’t see an average person thinking too much before buying new clothes neither before discarding it. As long as the majority of people keep doing it, the Fashion Industry will thrive and will not be pushed to change its ways.
One thing I don’t like about the fashion industry is that it is gobbling up anything that is fresh and good, making it meaningless. And lately it is trying to absorb outdoor and performance clothing, I hope that outdoor clothing will resist and will not become shallow, but rather take over for good.
FUNCTIONAL CLOTHING LAB
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Photos courtesy of FCL