Amber Valletta is turning her hand to sustainable clothing design as part of an ongoing collaboration with the Karl Lagerfeld brand, which is to release her first accessories designs today on Karl.com and Zalando.
“I got to put my stamp on clothing,” she said during a video call. “I’m super excited. I will wear these things and we were very mindful on materials, but also design. Design was super important to me. I put my personality into it.”
Her second sustainable collaboration is for the spring 2022 season, and other details are still under wraps.
A prominent sustainability campaigner, occasional actress and an original 1990s supermodel who still still pops up on the runway now and then, Valletta poured all her knowledge and passion into the first Karl Lagerfeld project, carefully considering the environmental impact all the way up to the content that will be used to promote the cobranded range of handbags, small leather goods and personal accessories.
For example, rather than organize a photo shoot, which often involves travel, the Lagerfeld company simply purchased the first promo image of the Oklahoma-born Valletta from the photographer Annemarieke van Drimmelen. And new imagery for social channels was filmed in a desert that’s only a two-hour drive from Valletta’s California home. Only the accessories, including cushion-like bags made of cactus leather and recycled cotton, had to be shipped in.
Those are the kind of “mindful choices” that characterize Valletta’s working methods, which energized the entire Lagerfeld organization, where the average age of employees is 29 and the sustainability agenda ranks high on their priority lists, according to chief executive officer Pier Paolo Righi.
“Amber has definitely been an amplifier internally to create further excitement and making certain measures more concrete,” he said in a telephone interview. “We speak the same language and that has a huge impact. She is so literate and so passionate about sustainability, and was able to talk at eye level throughout our organization.”
He noted that Valletta interfaced with product, sales and design teams, as well as its logistics and procurement departments, and hinted that the company’s relationship with her is likely to continue. He also noted that innovations achieved and insights realized with her eco accessories would probably touch other categories in the future.
In an interview, Valletta lauded the enthusiasm of the company to be more conscientious and pivot to more sustainable practices.
“They’ve been very collaborative,” she said, dressed in a white T-shirt, her blonde hair pulled back. “We will only create the massive change in the industry that we need to create by collaborating with each other.”
She lauded the company for allowing her to delve into all aspects of its supply chain to minimize the carbon footprint of all Karl Lagerfeld x Amber Valletta products.
“They were great about letting me ask deeper questions about the factories, how they operate, their certifications and things like that. They were very open, conscientious and took the time to answer difficult questions,” she said. “That’s really how we’re going to change things: being able to ask difficult questions, pivot once we know we found a better solution, and make better choices.”
She pressed the company to make the handbags as circular as possible.
“It’s either something you’re going to keep for a lifetime and pass on because it has value and meaning, and it’s a classically designed piece — or how can we design things so that they’re more circular?” she explained. “When we designed this bag, we thought about, ‘Can the zipper be detached? Can the chain be detached? Could that be used for something else?’ So we were just very mindful if we could be prepared for a take-back program, how would that look and design that way.”
She noted a take-back program has yet to be fixed, but she is advocating for one.
“For the fashion industry to become more sustainable, it will of course be about innovation with materials and the supply chain, but it will also be about not extrapolating new virgin materials, and new resources to make virgin materials and just be about taking back what we already have, breaking it down and making something new,” she explained.
A cornerstone of the collaboration is the K/Kushion bag, a squishy style introduced as part of Karl Lagerfeld’s fall 2020 collection.
The bag’s ribbed texture and pillow-like proportions were inspired by a special cushion Lagerfeld always traveled with. According to the house, he had kept it since his childhood and treasured it, though it had become weathered and torn.
“That’s an homage to Karl because that cushion that he carried his whole life was an intimate object of his. And so we chose something that was very classic and iconic to the brand, but also very meaningful to Karl,” Valletta noted.
One version, available in green or black, will be made of a vegan cactus leather developed by Mexican firm Desserto. No irrigation, herbicides or pesticides are required to cultivate the cacti, and the plant-based material, tinted with organic pigments, is considered sustainable and recyclable. Desserto bills its cactus leather as breathable, durable and highly resistance to abrasion and tearing.
Valletta was impressed that the Lagerfeld company found the supplier. “They showed me a fabric I’d never seen before. That was great to learn something new and hear about this material,” she enthused.
A board member of the FIT Foundation and an FIT Sustainability Education Ambassador, Valletta is taking a “biodesign” class and marveling at the strides being made using mushrooms, microbes and yeast to either break down or grow new fabrics. “I know we’re on the cusp of some amazing cutting-edge materials. I think it will take us to the next level, and hopefully we can just eliminate petroleum-based materials.”
Close to Lagerfeld throughout her modeling career, Valletta approached the German designer five or six years ago about doing a collaboration for Masters & Muse, an e-commerce venture of curated eco brands she had mounted with Yoox at the time. While a project is only coming to fruition now, Valletta is convinced that the late designer would have been thrilled with the outcome.
“Karl was an innovator and highly creative and extremely intelligent. And he had already told me ‘yes’ to this collaboration,” she said. “I know he would have loved this. I know he would have understood it. And I know he would have been a champion for doing the right thing, sustainability wise, and making it cool, right? He always had that twist on things. He could do something that was very classic, but make it very cool.”
Although she has worn incredible and iconic fashions throughout her career — from silk blouses and low-rise flares at Gucci to that famous jungle-print Versace gown synonymous with Jennifer Lopez — Valletta confessed that she’s no fan of shopping, and very careful with anything she buys, knowing the positives and negatives about how clothing is made.
Still, none of that has diminished her affection for a massive industry that by some estimates employs almost one in four people, if you consider farming to the end of a product’s life span. “Fashion is fun. Fashion is fantasy. Fashion gives us armor when we go out into the world,” she said. “It’s a culture shifter. It has a very important influence on society.
“And so if we can change fashion, we can change a lot of things, and make people conscientious of the way they shop, and the way they think about things when they get rid of them,” she continued. “I’m not somebody who’s going to say, ‘Fashion is the enemy,’ because I actually think we can be the greatest change agents to industries around the planet.”
All profits from the sale of the cobranded K/Kushion bags will go to The Ocean Cleanup, a charity that supports the goals of the Fashion Pact, an environmental initiative spearheaded by French luxury group Kering. More than 60 global fashion firms, including Karl Lagerfeld, signed the pact in 2019 as a framework to reduce the industry’s impact on the climate, oceans and biodiversity.