Caroline Fuss: making a difference through fashion
Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance
Starting her career in fashion at one of the most respected and recognised names in the industry through a coveted internship, Caroline Fuss was always destined to succeed as a designer. However instead of joining the status quo, she set out to build a brand that was entirely her own – one with a purpose to make a difference. Harare is an ecologically friendly and sustainable clothing label, where the garments are handmade by Guatemalan artisans. Fuss has expertly fused an environmentally friendly design and manufacturing process with cutting-edge looks – what she believes to be the way forward for fashion altogether. A creative mind if we ever did see.
You started your New York journey interning at fashion powerhouse Proenza Schouler. How did that experience inform your current work? How beneficial was it in terms of gaining knowledge of the industry?
After I graduated from fashion school at East Sydney Tech, I started to ask myself some questions such as: do I want to stay in Sydney and launch my own brand? Or do I want to move overseas and pursue other opportunities there? I really loved the Proenza Schouler brand – there actually weren’t too many brands I wanted to work for in New York, but they were at the top of my list. I packed up my life and moved over to try my luck. Shortly after I moved, I decided to walk straight in to the Proenza Schouler office, portfolio in tow, and ask to speak to one of the two founders, Jack or Lazaro. The receptionist looked at me quizzically, and told me they only accept applications online, they didn’t exactly accept “walk-ins”. I must have done something right, because she then called me back in for an interview for an internship the next week. The following year was a crazy New York City experience. I was doing a full-time unpaid internship; I didn’t have friends or money and was working restaurants at night to just stay afloat. I felt so lucky to be working at Prozena Schouler – I was getting the most amazing experience working alongside Jack and Lazaro. They are two gorgeous men; they founded their business after graduating from esteemed fashion school Parsons, and I was working with them prior to them having any major external investors. It taught me how to acquire people, to really believe in a vision and how to work really hard. They did offer me a job in production after a year of interning (which I wasn’t really the department I wanted to be working in, I’m more design-focused) so ended up declining it. I really did meet the most amazing people there – I still see one of the patternmakers every month! I’m still good friends with them all.
So what happened next?
Then, I travelled. I was on the J1 visa, which by then had run its course, but I wasn’t ready to go back to Australia. I went to Mexico, and while I was there, I found fabrics I fell in love with, which were from Guatemala. I needed to find out more, so I packed up everything in New York, and made my way down to the south of Guatemala, about a 5-hour drive from Guatemala city. I settled at the beautiful Lake Atitlan, where there’s a lot of artisan culture – people make their own everything! I started to learn Spanish, which made my life a little easier, and also put at ease some of the pressure I was receiving from America and Australia – people had no idea what I was doing there! It was on that trip that I met my agent who I told my vision of having these fabrics exist in a city like New York, and that I thought they were not only beautiful but sellable. I really believed that if they were in a shop in Brooklyn, they’d be in demand by everyone! There was a part of me that also felt obligated to shine a light on these talented artisans – not just the key players in the luxe fashion industry. I was going to these countries and seeing people with no money that are part of such a vibrant community – and that really put things in to perspective. My agent began managing all the artists in Guatemala, and we’ve been working together for 4 years.
I then knew exactly what I wanted to do – I wanted to start my own company in New York. I knew I had to attract some outside investment to make this happen, so I began to reach out to everyone I could. Over the course of a few months I had some good leads – but it was a trying time, as I was getting exposed to the business world for the very first time, and it was extremely different to the creative world I was used to. After establishing an investor, I had my company incorporated in NYC and I set about creating the first season. We launched SS14 in September 2013. It’s been fast and hard, but amazing.
How has Harare grown since your first season?
It’s been a very sustained and organic growth. We didn’t have a lot of financing – and we still don’t! But we have definitely grown – When the company first started I was working out of home, and now we’re in a beautiful creative studio, and I have full time staff.
It’s also made a big impact of the lives of the artisans. Our goal is to promote their culture and create income, and in turn, empower and grow their businesses. Every time I visit my artisans, the rewards of our collaborating work are so evident – renovations on their houses, a laptop that the children are using; it’s so great to see.
What retailers currently stock Harare?
Our largest wholesaler is Anthropologie, and also Shopbop. We have a number of speciality boutiques around Northern American and South America, and we also want to focus on selling direct to the consumer. That’s important to us from a brand perspective.
How does Harare differ from other eco-friendly brands?
I’ve spent so much time on the ground on those countries developing personal relationships – my agents and artisans are worth their weight in gold. In terms of standing out – I’m so involved with every step of the process; it’s a good competitive edge. But we also need to educate the customer about that – otherwise it’s just sitting in a store next to a competing brand that has a digital print that was executed in China. We’re very eco-sustainable, and that’s a movement that people are paying more and more attention to.
I think that fashion is going the same way as food. I can’t predict the future of fast fashion, but I think there will be a swing back to a practice of valuing clothes.
So many people told me this business model wasn’t sustainable, and that we could manufacture in China so easily – but it wouldn’t be fulfilling to me. Fashion is something I really enjoy but I also feel it is a bit of an evil industry. It’s the most damaging industry in the world after oil and gas, environmentally and socially, and I want to be the company that makes that change. It’s definitely not easy, but if it were, everyone would do it!
You’ve visited and worked with artisans from Guatemala, Sri Lanka and Peru, and Cuba. Why those regions?
I picked those regions because of what they’re natively good at. Peru has an incredible resource of alpaca – and some of the best knitters in the world. When we wanted to do knitwear that was an obvious choice. Sri Lanka came about in a similar manner; when we wanted to experiment with silk and lighter fabrics using batik – a wax resist process they are famous for. This method will continue as we expand. For example, when we want leather goods, we’ll perhaps go to Portugal. I’m trying to build up these networks of master artisans that truly are the best in the world at their given trade.
What inspires you to be creative? Whose creative mind do you most admire?
So many! Artists, entrepreneurs – whenever I’m having a day where I’m not “feeling it”, I put on a Ted Talk. I used to look up to brilliant designers such as Stella McCartney and Phoebe Philo – but increasingly I look towards individuals who have overcome great obstacles to reach their visions/dreams, its incredibly inspiring to see just how motivated human beings can be. My friends are all creative in their different ways; it’s interesting how it moves about.
Where do you see Harare heading in the future?
I would love to be the cliché lifestyle brand – homeware, swimwear, childrenswear, and to be known as a brand that is bettering the world. I would love to have a stand-alone store where we can really curate our world and vision, and also share with our customers the stories behind our products. I firmly believe that our products speak for themselves, and have a certain heart and soul about them, which others do not. By the time any one item is complete, there have been so many hands involved in making it – you can feel the love and care that has been out in to it – it’s a really beautiful thing.