Ronald Van der Kemp: redefining couture from the heart of Amsterdam
Designer Ronald Van der Kemp creates clothes for musicians, movie stars and a coterie of celebs from a small atelier in the Dutch capital. I amsterdam spoke with him about his journey from industry insider to successful rebel.
Turning leftovers into couture
In Ronald Van der Kemp’s atelier on Amsterdam’s historic Herengracht canal, you are surrounded by so many beautiful colours, shapes and textures, it’s hard to resist running wild and touching everything you see. Gorgeous clothes can inspire these feelings in any style addict, but there's no denying the dark underbelly of the fashion industry - including underpaid garment workers and a massive carbon footprint.
With Ronald Van der Kemp’s line, things are different. Everything he makes is crafted from materials saved from the scrap heap, including vintage 70s silks and pieces of python skin leftover from the handbag industry. He’s also making a unique contribution to Amsterdam’s sustainable style scene. The city is filled with stores selling affordable second-hand goods and mid-priced brands specialising in things like eco-friendly jeans and sneakers. Van der Kemp, however, occupies the highest echelon of the industry with his couture line, creating red carpet clothing that doesn’t harm the planet. According to him, “The only way to be sustainable is to use what’s there already. So that’s what I do.”
The dark side of luxury
After graduating from the Rietveld Art Academy, Van der Kemp began working for high-end designers in New York, Paris and Milan as he climbed the ladder of success. Behind the glitz and glamour though, he couldn’t help but notice a rapacious business model focused entirely on profit.
“I worked for 25 years in the luxury industry. I saw what was happening with the world and the world of fashion, and I saw how uninspired things became, because everything became very formulaic. The collections, instead of twice a year, were done 6 times a year. And if you do that, you have to do it according to a system…so it’s no longer about what you feel, what you sense about making beautiful clothes and paying attention to every detail, because there’s just no time.”
Even worse, Van der Kemp discovered a dirty little secret about posh labels: they often destroy unsold clothing to preserve their exclusivity. “I found out that the brands that don’t go on sale burn their leftover merchandise. So, people started becoming aware of fast fashion being terrible for the environment, but the bad thing was that luxury fashion started doing the same thing.”
Clothes with soul and history
Successful but unfulfilled, Van der Kemp had a life-changing experience during a trip to the United States. “I was in New York…and I saw all of these clothes made in high-tech factories and I was like ‘ok, nice, whatever’. Nothing really got to me. And then I went to this store which had vintage couture pieces from Saint Laurent and Valentino from the 70s and 80s. I started feeling emotional…and I thought…these are kind of clothes I want to make – those with a soul and history.”
Van der Kemp decided to follow his dream, returned to Amsterdam and began making his own pieces from reclaimed materials, including deadstock fabrics and old American flags. “I created a wardrobe for this sort of eccentric woman, and I took it to Paris for couture week where all the big brands are showing…and from then on, it started going. French Vogue was behind it, American Vogue was behind it…they liked what they saw: something new.”
Proving sustainable can be luxurious
Nowadays, Van der Kemp is one of Amsterdam’s most acclaimed designers and occupies a unique niche in its sustainable fashion sector, dressing the likes of Michelle Obama, Celine Dion and Emma Watson. However, he was originally wary about being associated with green fashion. “I didn’t want to use the world ‘sustainable,’ because you’re put in a certain corner. I’d always worked in luxury fashion and wanted to stay there…I wanted to be next to Chanel, next to Valentino, so I did it this way. I’m trying to show the world sustainability can be sexy, exhilarating, exciting. It doesn’t have to be what you think of [first].”
An Amsterdammer at heart
Though Amsterdam’s fashion scene is smaller than some (much like the city itself), there’s no place Van der Kemp would rather call home. “I’ve worked everywhere, and I thought if I want to [make sustainable clothes] I want to be in Amsterdam because I want to be away from the circus. I want to concentrate and do what I believe in…and Amsterdam is good for that. I don’t feel the heat; I don’t feel the competition or people pushing me in a certain direction.”
Going his own way has perhaps been the wisest career choice Ronald Van der Kemp could make. Breaking away from the pack and combining two seemingly disparate branches of fashion – sustainability and luxury – has made him one of the biggest names in fashion. It’s also made him sought-after in the most elite circles, proving a commitment to doing good can pay off.