Irene Kostas fuses together traditional craftsmanship, ethical materials and an urban, futuristic vision with her clothing brand ONAR. It is these unlikely combinations that have seen her designs gain global attention.
These are clothes that stand out. When you step into ONAR’s flagship store in central Helsinki, you are greeted by coats, vests and accessories in bright colours, soft leather and urban, geometrical shapes. What connects all the designs is the use of pre-existing, ethically sourced materials.
“The idea was to break the traditional connotations around fur and use natural materials from an ethical and ecological background. Thus, ONAR as a concept has been acknowledged as pioneer work within the industry. This is also visible in my style language,” says Irene Kostas, founder of the brand. “Heritage and roots are important to me, but at the same time I aim to revolutionise tradition, be contemporary and look forward. We encourage people to be brave and distinctive.”
Kostas has the same uncompromising approach to her choice of materials. She researched them for two years before finding the right fit in Merino and Toscana leather and shearling and only when it’s sourced as a food industry byproduct. These materials are then transformed into garments in the hands of small producers in Greece, Finland and Estonia.
The appreciation for local production and natural materials derives already from Kostas’ childhood.
“My parents are craftsmen specialised in fur and leather, so I have witnessed the clothes manufacturing process since I was a child,” she explains. “Natural materials have always been close to my heart.”
DJ turned designer
The name ONAR (which means ‘dream’ in ancient Greek) comes from the name of a monthly club where Kostas DJs in Helsinki. When she started her own clothing brand in 2014, she wanted it to echo the same themes of mixing cultures, organic sounds, electronic music and futurism.
“I’ve always integrated into my music the fact I have grown up in two different cultures, Northern Finland and Greece. I felt this meant I could give something new to the fashion world as well,” Kostas says. “From the Nordic side comes the appreciation for clean nature, functionalism and the pureness of form, and from Greece and the Middle East the rich textures and colour schemes.”
This mix came to fruition in ONAR’s first collection, which was showcased at Paris Fashion Week in late 2014. It is also where her brand was discovered by US-based urban concept store Opening Ceremony. What made this a significant feather in Kostas’ cap is it’s industry tradition to follow new brands for several seasons before stocking them.
Since then Kostas has been selected among the fashion icon Vogue’s Young Talent finalists, opened her first store in Helsinki and found retailers in metropolitan cities across Asia, Europe and the US. In particular ONAR has raised interest in Japan and South Korea, which are also its biggest markets. In fact, when we meet, Kostas has just returned from Seoul.
“People there are receptive to new phenomena and, what is important for us, they appreciate high quality,” she enthuses. “But our primary goal is not to target specific markets, it is to get a global foothold in stores that fit ONAR’s profile.”
Away from fast-fashion
When it comes to the direction the fashion industry is moving, Kostas identifies several trends. She believes the prevailing beauty ideals are giving way to more diversity and genderless thinking. It is the future Kostas also sees for ONAR.
“So far it has been a resources issue, but we are taking ONAR in the direction where we have a lot more unisex clothes,” she explains. “Personally, I think more attention will be paid to minorities in fashion. Also, being political is a major trend. You cannot afford to be neutral, you have to make a stand.”
A stand ONAR is already taking is against the ever-faster cycle of fashion. The design house brings out two collections a year, instead of continuously pushing out new lines.
“[Fast cycle] collections don’t even have time to sell, it’s crazy. It isn’t sustainable in any way and there must become a point when it changes,” Kostas says. “I believe the future of fashion will be more interdisciplinary. You can already see this in some brands which are creating collaborations. The borders of what is fashion will get blurred.”
Text: Eeva Haaramo