Mansion, a traditional 1930s villa in Beirut, had lain derelict, quietly crumbling, for decades, before it was taken over by a collective of artists who have lovingly renovated its high-ceilinged rooms and draughty corridors. Its lofty central hall was a fitting location for the recent launch of fashion designer Larissa von Planta's debut collection, which consists of innovative couture pieces made using dozens of old dresses, coats, trousers and offcuts, re-envisioned as contemporary fashion.
Couture designers are known for using expensive, high-quality materials to create their coveted pieces. Von Planta’s collection is certainly high-end – every piece is handcrafted and unique – yet her approach differs radically in that nothing she uses is new. Every zip, collar, strip of beading or carefully fitted lining has been scavenged from what other designers might – and sometimes do – deem to be rubbish.
“It’s luxury, but I don’t want to hide the fact that some things I found in the bin,” she admits. “Some things are old linings. Other things have the most incredible craftsmanship and hand-finished seams.” The young designer has found inventive ways to transform items, including her great-uncle’s cotton shirts, a collection of 1980s sequinned dresses and a lace blouse dating back more than 100 years. Her aim is to prioritise preservation and highlight a new approach to sustainable fashion. “I think our mindset needs to change massively because the consequences of what we like and what we desire and how it’s made for us, are huge,” she says. “The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries… I don’t want to lecture people or tell them off; I rather want to charm them and convince them of another way of thinking.”
Von Planta was born in the United Kingdom to a Swiss father and an Austrian mother, and studied in London and France. On a visit to Beirut in 2015, to help a Lebanese friend launch her debut collection, she fell in love with the city. After graduating with a degree in fashion from Central Saint Martins in London last year, she decided to move to Lebanon.
Six months in the making, her debut collection is unusually diverse. Oversized leather jackets adorned with beading and sequins painstakingly cut away from 1980s dresses are juxtaposed with delicate black silk dresses, as light and fluid as water; a dramatic asymmetrical maxi-dress is a combination of a fitted, sculptural black dress owned by von Planta's great-grandmother and a length of Japanese printed silk that belonged to her grandfather.
“I stay really strict. Sometimes there’s colour clashes and things don’t work out perfectly, and I could just buy a cheap piece of leather and the whole thing would look correct, but I don’t want to do that,” the designer says. “Sometimes I get lucky, and there will be a roll that someone’s throwing out – that’s five metres of flatness, which is amazing – but it takes a lot of hoarding and collecting and assembling.”
A dramatic flowing pink suede coat, fringed with soft shearling and inspired by Afghan jackets from the 1970s, has been pieced together from a patchwork of a smattering of older items. Towards the bottom, a series of button holes punctuate one panel, hinting at the fact that the fabric once had another life. One panel on a pair of supple leather trousers is pierced with tiny holes, where an old pocket has been unpicked.
"I want to honour and glorify the imperfections in things, show this as beautiful. The fact that something is faded or the fact that it's a bit damaged – for me that's the value," von Planta explains. "I want to change what we perceive as luxury or beautiful… in fashion it still seems to be that new and perfect is the ideal. I really don't think that's necessary."
She credits her approach to several different experiences – from working with a collective of women embroiderers in Lucknow, India, and experimenting with sustainable fabrics in Kathmandu, to spending six months as a seamstress and assistant costume designer at the Vienna Opera House and interning with Savile Row tailors Byrne & Burge, where she learnt the true meaning of bespoke.
“They sit down with the client and talk, and it’s almost like you’re psychoanalysed,” she says. “They’ll spot what your insecurities are – they’ll see you’ve got a bit of a hunch, or you feel a bit short – they can tell without necessarily bringing it up.”
Von Planta collaborated with Palestinian embroiderer Samira Salah, who embroidered four oversized white cotton shirts, originally owned by her great-uncle.. Panels of delicate embroidery around the bottom of the shirts transform them into one-of-a-kind artisanal pieces.
"With Palestinian embroidery, the colours, the motifs, are like a pin on a map. I think it's quite powerful, especially if you're living in exile and can't go back," she explains. "I wanted to give the embroiderer a say in what they embroidered, rather than just dictating exactly what I want. So I chose the colours, but then we really had a discussion about what would work," von Planta adds.
Collaboration is key to the designer's approach, as much of her work consists of bespoke commissions. "People come to me with old pieces that they can't wear anymore – they're often really stuck in their time, the cut is very old, so you need to do more to them than just take them in or put on a belt," she says. "I guess the sentimental value comes in that I really respect the detail or something that's beautiful about the original piece… I think I celebrate the time."
One very light, translucent kimono-like jacket is made from soft, faded white cotton with a faint red 1930s pattern. Cut very simply, the garment has a row of horizontal ruffles stitched across the back and shoulders. In her studio, von Planta holds up a length of fabric with familiar ruffles stitched along the bottom – it's an old curtain, the pair of the one used to make the garment. "These were my grandparents' curtains in the kitchen for maybe 30 years, and you can really see how the sun has done its work," she says, gesturing to the faint patterns. "It's faded them, and the cotton is so light and airy… luxury is about things that are unique and special. What this curtain has seen and experienced through being where it was for 30 years is something I find very special. It's irreplaceable."