Turning leftovers into couture

Walking inside Ronald Van der Kemp’s atelier on Amsterdam’s historic Herengracht canal is like the scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when the children finally enter the candy maker’s magical world. Suddenly, you’re surrounded by beautiful colours, shapes and textures, and it all looks so amazing that it’s hard to resist running wild and touching everything you see. 

Gorgeous clothes can inspire these feelings in any style addict, of course. But after the initial euphoria fades, thoughts of fashion’s dark side often seep in – including underpaid garment workers and a massive carbon footprint – and the magic disappears. 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. To put it simply: “The only way to be sustainable is to use what’s there already. So that’s what I do.”

RVDK portrait

Dancing toward the runway

As a little boy, Van der Kemp was dreaming about a future on the stage. “I studied ballet and dance, but something went wrong,” he explains over coffee. “My back wasn’t really good for dancing…I started realising I should do something else. In the meantime, I was always making clothes. And then a friend of mine went to fashion school and I thought maybe I should do this. So, I went to the Rietveld art academy and became a fashion designer.”

Though this change of direction might have seemed unplanned, Van der Kemp had been preparing for a fashion career for a long time. “My mom taught me (to knit). At first, she was a little hesitant because it wasn’t the thing to do for boys,” he says before adding that he used to make sweaters for his late father. He also believes dance “gave me discipline and a sense of freedom…with ballet, once you are disciplined enough to learn a technique, you can let go. And this is what I did with fashion as well.”

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The dark side of luxury

After graduating from the 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,” he explains. “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 six 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.”

RVDK Black Hat

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 that they saw: something new.”

In many ways, his approach to fashion is distinctly Dutch. He’s direct about doing what he wants to do and isn’t afraid to take a risk and try something different – echoing the spirit of a people who’ve reclaimed land from the sea, invented everything from the microscope to the CD and made the humble bicycle a preferred mode of transport. 

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].”

RVDK leopard print

An Amsterdammer at heart

Though Amsterdam’s fashion scene is on the small side (much like the city itself), there’s no place Van der Kemp would rather call home. “I’ve worked everywhere,” he says, “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 Amsterdam. It’s also made him sought-after in the most elite circles, proving a commitment to doing good can pay off.

Read more about Amsterdam’s creative sector.