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Tiffany Chung

04 Dec 2020

Text by Tiffany Chung

ØLÅF CITIZENS: REBEKKA BACH

04 Dec 2020

After more than a decade as the Head of Women’s Design at G-Star RAW, Rebekka Bach is now using her creative superpowers to make a positive impact on the world. In this episode of Citizens, we talk to the freelance designer and denim specialist about her journey into the industry, finding ways to include sustainability and humanitarianism into all her future designs, and the inspirations behind her latest projects.

 

Hey Rebekka, did you always know you wanted to be a fashion designer?

“Yes, since I was very small I had always wanted to be a fashion designer. I told my mom, but she always told me I can't make a living from it. So, her and my dad, they more or less forced me to study to be a doctor. When I had some of my first biology classes where we had to dissect a piglet and find out how it died, I had to throw up or stand outside the classes. Still until today, I can’t look at needles. It's very strange because I work in fashion, but every time I see a needle I almost have to faint. Knowing I wasn't going to be a doctor, my parents were convinced I had to do something like law. So, I went to business school and after one year I was like, ‘no, this is also not me’. Finally, I went to fashion school and I was like, ‘this is me’ and they could see that it really made me happy."

 

You’ve been dubbed a ‘denim specialist’. What made you choose denim?

“Actually, I never had an urge to work in a specific fashion direction. It’s the creative process that I enjoy. It suits the way my mind works. I have worked in semi-couture and with all sorts of different types of materials and fashion. But I think it all changed the moment I met the Head of Design of G-STAR in the Amsterdam Airport – the legendary denim master, Pierre Morisette. He literally ran after me at the airport to ask me where I bought the jeans I was wearing. They were jeans that I had designed myself and made at a factory in Italy. He was like, ‘Oh, I love them. You have to come and work for me.’ and almost a year later I quit my job in Italy and joined him at G-STAR. I was there for 13 years."

 

Rebekka Bach

PHARRELL X G-STAR

 

Do you still have those jeans today?

“I do! They are in a box somewhere. Every time I’m cleaning and I find them I always think, ‘No I’m going to keep these’. I must say I’m a little bit of a collector."

 

What do you collect?

“I’ve actually been decluttering my whole wardrobe lately. I really enjoy getting rid of stuff. It feels like a relief. But instead of throwing it out, I have started reselling them. I like the idea that some of the clothes I have can have new owners and can actually be used again properly. So, I don’t keep clothes, I prefer to only collect denim. Most are old jeans, but if I see one special pair I’ll keep them. It’s super nerdy sometimes, like for example, the other day I saw some denim pieces from a Levi’s series called Type 1. The concept involves a heavy stitching with 1-1.5 cm in between the stitches. It's technically more advanced as they may have been stitched by heavy-duty sewing machines and the designs are bolder and more outstanding than classic and authentic jeans. These pieces are from the 90’s and from a special capsule. That’s the type of thing that I like to keep. It's not for wearing or trying, my collector’s pieces are often too big because they are men’s jeans. It’s just for me to study."

 

Do you like designing things outside the world of denim?

“I must say denim is always the thing that keeps coming back to me. I think it’s because I naturally acquired a lot of experience with it. I love the denim industry, I love the people there, and I love the materials. But with fashion in general, I like the impact of what you can do with shapes and colours and also the connection it has in society. I like to see what it can do for individuals but also for a larger group of people. For example, one of the recent projects I have worked on involves jewelry and supporting women in Afghanistan in secluded areas. It’s a female empowerment project initiated by the United Nations and organized by CRS/Sustainability advisor, Caterina Occhio, who is also the founder of the meaningful jewelry brand, ‘See Me’ and the ‘Heart Movement”."

 

 

It’s really cool you get to work on projects like that.

“Yes, I love to work freelance now. I love the flexibility and freedom I have in terms of working with so many interesting and different people, companies, and industries, like the jewelry project, and looking into what I can do to help other people. Now that I have my own company I choose to work primarily with sustainability. So right now, I’m working freelance for a creative and innovative Dutch label, which is rooted in upcycling premium and luxury fashion. The brand is called, ‘1/OFF Remade in Paris’. Each piece is unique and re-designed from high-end vintage garments. It’s a great challenge. I like these kinds of projects where I actually feel the purpose of my work has a bigger impact."

 

Is it hard to break into the Dutch fashion industry as a foreigner?

“Mmm. Well yes, I think maybe it is. But in the years that I worked here, it was for an international company so most of our activities were global and I never had to face any issues integrating into the Dutch fashion scene.

 

1OFF Paris.

 

 

Are you interested in exploring the industry in other countries?

“First of all, I’m really happy to live in Amsterdam. I was travelling a lot over the years and had cities in mind where I would think, ‘oh, I could definitely live there’. But through the years, I realized that whenever I was in Amsterdam I could really relax. There’s something very soothing about the bikes and the canals. I love it here. As for other cities, there’s something about Japan that connects with me. I think I would like to explore and live there for one or two years at some point in my life. Also, I love Copenhagen, I lived there before. I was raised in Denmark but was born in Korea. I was adopted and recently had the pleasure of meeting my birth family there. I found Seoul to be a beautiful and very interesting city. The people as well. It has a strong connection to me."

 

Your Danish and Korean background must influence your design aesthetic.

“I think so. When you grow up in Scandinavia, you grow up with a certain kind of aesthetic that you’re being impacted with all the time and you don't even realize it. Danish design aesthetics are Nordic, natural, simple and minimalistic. I can feel how the Italian, Provence, and Parisian influences differ from the Scandinavian. I find it inspiring and appreciate the difference. But I do definitely think that my Danish upbringing has an impact on my view of things. My Korean side, I don’t know. I was three when I came to Denmark. Maybe it’s more in my personality. Sometimes people say Koreans are very strong-minded. [Laughing]"

 

With Inge Onsea, owner of Essentiel Antwerp."

 

Do you wear your designs?

“I often get inspired by what I’m working with or wearing. A very great example is the first freelance job I had after my years with G-Star. I was working with the Belgian brand, Essentiel Antwerp, and their design values are nearly opposite to G-Star. It’s all about flower print, pink, fun, and colourful. I had been working with blue, black, grey denim for so many years and was so ready to get out of this monochrome colour card. I immediately was like, ‘let’s go and jump all in”. I really enjoyed it so much. When I design something radically new, I need to try it for myself. For example, I need to know what it feels like to walk out in a complete neon pink jumpsuit. I think it's a great experience to understand what it feels like for the consumer. I think it's like being a chef. You need to taste what you’re cooking."

 

 

Denim fabric by ANUBAH Mill.

 

And for our last question, what has inspired you lately?

“Uhhh, so many things. With the upcycle work at 1/OFF Remade in Paris, I’m getting inspired by all the unique and beautiful pieces of vintage clothing. When you work for a conventional fashion brand you often start like: this is the concept, this is the colour card, these are the silhouettes per season. But with this brand, the clothes are already made, it’s genderless and seasonless. So, you have to think about what you can do to redesign and repurpose it in order for a person to find it relevant and desirable today. For example, for SS21 we designed a beautiful tracksuit made from 3 different vintage sports garments like Nike and Adidas, and a vintage Hermes scarf in a hybrid with a Ralph Lauren shirt. One of the iconic pieces is a beautiful fusion between the classic tweed Chanel jacket and a Levi’s denim trucker jacket. It’s a very fascinating combination. Each garment tells a story and gives inspiration."

 

“Besides this, this summer I was working on a denim capsule and they weren’t specifically asking for sustainability. Like with many companies, it isn't really a high priority due to the pandemic and other business issues at the moment. But I thought I would try to push them. They wanted a small capsule for a spring/summer campaign, so I made a whole concept for them that was sustainable, very masculine, non-dyed denim, organic cotton, with performance characteristics such as an antiviral coating which was inspired by what’s going on today with Covid and virus protection."

 

“And lastly, for the current jewelry project I’m working on, I’m very much inspired by the location in Afghanistan. In that area, there are mountains with certain types of gemstones. These stones are said to be spiritual and have certain meanings and properties like healing crystals. I was reading all about it and buying all these vintage books about stone energies and the history of jewelry. I think during these times with the pandemic, we feel extra sensitive and drawn towards having extra energy or a spiritual gem in a necklace or next to our bed. So yes, all this inspiration is coming from what’s happening in the world right now."

 

Article image by: Valeria Heilbron

Tiffany Chung

18 Apr 2021

Text by Tiffany Chung

Citizens: Ahmed Ismail

18 Apr 2021

Ahmed Ismail is an entrepreneur, political thinker, public relations marketer, and philanthropist whose purpose has always been about serving the community. In this edition of Citizens, the future-minded businessman tells us about his inspirational journey from hospitality to becoming the co-founder of HXOUSE – an incubator devoted to helping foster innovation and opportunity for young creatives.

 

Hey Ahmed, you’ve achieved a lot of career success. Where did your career journey start?

“When I was 19, I had already dropped out of high school because my teacher and guidance counselor were putting me in programming to become a janitor. They didn't care about my political IQ or my business IQ. They didn't see me. So, I dropped out and started to work as a valet at the Fairmont Royal York. That job changed my whole perspective on life forever."

 

How did that first job change your perspective?

“I got to see everybody: high roller guests, mom and pop, politicians. When you live in a concentrated urban neighborhood, like the ghetto or one of the projects, you always see the cops or people like you. You don't really see people from other worlds. Every day, I got to see what position or career I wanted for myself. I tried to ask every guest one question and learn how to connect with older people. I asked one guest who had all these cars, ‘What do you do for a living?’ and he asked me ‘Are you in school?’ I said, ‘No’ and he said, ‘Don’t waste my time.’ The first time I ever approached a Black man at the hotel, and he shuts me down. I was so mad. That motivated me to prove myself."

 

 

Did you go back to school?

“I went back to school and got into a university. When I saw that guest again, I told him which university I was going to and he said the school was garbage and I should go to Wayne State in Detroit where he was a professor. He even offered to help me get a scholarship and hook me up with a job so I could afford it. What ended up happening is once I get to Detroit, the professor ended up transferring to another school before he could help me. I didn't have the money and I couldn't ask my family for money 'cause they didn't have it. My whole plan just fell apart. "

 

How did you handle that setback?

“So, the day that I'm about to give up on university, another guest from the hotel pulled up in front of me. We talk, he gives me his business card and tells me to call him. I don’t call him. But I stay and study political science. In my fourth month at school, I was running out of money. In America, if you run out of money for school immigration deports you. What ended up happening is I was reading one of my history books and recognized a face. I'm like, why do I know this man? He was an old civil rights politician who got Rosa Parks out of jail and fought for Martin Luther King. I don't know why but something made me check my wallet and the former guest who gave me his business card, Christian Barton, was the Chief of Staff for the Congressman that I was reading about in my history textbook. So, I call him and he's like, ‘Why the hell did you wait three months? I’m at this bar, meet me there.’ We start to talk, and he offers me an internship with the United States Congress. The highest office in the country. I say yes and he mentors me. When he quits, he recommends me to replace him. That just boosted my confidence. So, I would go to work and watch them change laws and then at night I'd be studying the laws they were changing in school."

 

With @The Weekend and @Cashxo.

 

What do you think he saw in you to give you that internship?

“I think he saw that I was just really hungry. I had no baggage. I just wanted to work. He saw my immigrant spirit. He knew I had only one agenda which was to dominate and work hard and he gave me the opportunity to do that. I never let him down. When I was supposed to go home at 4 in the afternoon, I would stay till 10 at night to learn what I don't know. He mentored me. He told me what to do and who to stay away from, which is very important because nobody ever told me that people in an office could also be cancerous."

 

 

Who are the people to stay away from?

“The people only working to make a check and don't believe in what they’re doing. The ones that are only are working when the boss walks by. Everybody sees it. Management knows and they're just waiting for the right moment to dump you."

 

How did you move from politics to PR?

“I did the same thing I did at the hotel, I started to look around at other people and their positions and saw Karen Morgan. She was the public relations person for the congressman. If you look at a congressman’s schedule, they could be in 3 or 4 states a night, 2 or 3 planes a day, 10 meetings, and she gets to go tell the congressman who they’re meeting, give them the research, give them the speeches. I never wanted to be locked in an office, so I was like that's my job. I went back to school for public relations. Long story short, that opened up a lot of doors because I didn’t want to do political PR. I did a little bit of automotive PR and then I started to work in sports and entertainment because I realized it's recession proof. When people have no money, they still watch basketball games on TV. I quickly realized what I liked about being in politics and what I liked about sports and entertainment and combined them both to start a socially sustainable marketing PR firm. Helping celebrities and corporations make money, but also help them build their philanthropy or teach them how to become better philanthropists."

 

2018 Toronto Brand Star and host Ahmed Ismail begins the ceremony.

 

So, how did HXOUSE begin?

“December 2016, La Mar Taylor tweeted after winning Forbes 30 under 30, ‘There's so much talent in my city, we’re undervalued. Before I’m 30, I'm going to build a facility for young creatives so they can outshine me and The Weeknd.’ So, I called him and said, ‘Brother, two years ago I designed exactly this project, but nobody wanted it. If you’re serious about this, we can build it together."

 

Do you look for an immigrant spirit and hunger when considering future tenants at HXOUSE?

“100,000,000%. That's all I look for. I look for somebody who doesn't want me to build their dream. Anybody can have an original idea. So, I just check how hard they're going to work on it. Time and consistency equals success. Some of my friends became successful in the first 3 years of their career, I waited 12 before my career started to make sense but I still came with the same energy every day and knew I was destined for my opportunity sooner or later. You have to work. If you don't put in the work, you don't get the results."

 

 

That must’ve felt good.

“It still feels like the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my career."

 

Speaking of your career and results, can you name a few of your proudest moments?

“In my neighborhood, owning a vehicle was a big deal, all the street dudes had nice cars. So, having my first nice car and making money was a proud moment. Second, was getting the job in the US Congress because it gave me a confidence that I can't overlook ever again. HXOUSE is definitely my biggest accomplishment and I don't even want anything to be bigger. Then the icing on the cake is seeing my career come full circle, from learning to speak English by watching news about politics, to studying political science in school, to now speaking to the Prime Minister regularly and helping him come up with ideas on how to get the Canadian economy back on track."

 

Today annocuement of 200+ million to Black Entrepreneurs is a testiment of my father's two favourite teachings he instilled in me.

 

Originally, the government didn't fully support your idea for HXOUSE. So, it must’ve been a big deal to host the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau?

“Almost two years to the day that we opened HXOUSE, the Prime Minister came to make a historic announcement and offer the Black community $250 million to launch a fund to repair the relationship with the Black community that has suffered and endured systemic racism in Canada. Why that was so monumentally important to me is because it was hard for us to get a grant, it was hard for us to talk to the government, the only thing that really helped was my patience in knowing how the government works from my previous political experience in the US. It was historic because it's one thing to give a check, but it's another thing to acknowledge there was wrongdoing. To have the Prime Minister say that systematic racism is real, it's happening, and it's stopping our growth, became a wake-up call for corporations to get their act together. Now money is flowing in Toronto for Black organizations which has never happened before."

 

With co-founder La Mar Taylor.

 

That must’ve felt good.

“It still feels like the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my career."

 

Describe your partnership dynamic with HXOUSE co-founders La Mar Taylor and The Weeknd.

“A lot of respect. I feel like the little guy because when I talk to them about politics or community or partnerships it's like I'm almost over excited about it and seeing something they can't see. Then when they're talking about creative things that the world doesn't see but needs, I feel like I don't even know what they're talking about, I’m just in awe and I always try to catch up. So, we have a very supportive nature where we all help build each other's ideas."

Celebrating the opening of Hxouse with Swizz Beatz.

 

Are you more of a traveler or a homebody?

“As you get older you become a homebody, but traveling is the only way I live because it’s my inspiration. I write and my writing becomes a plan. My plan becomes a project. When my project is in a place where I'm happy with it, I like to come home and build. So, I'm a homebody when I'm building but I still travel as well."

 

Are you a thinker or doer?

“Both."

 

Zanzibar doors.

 

Any causes you think need attention right now?

“I'm in Europe and what they’re doing with migrants is appalling. Corrupt colonial countries that still haven't acknowledged their wrongdoing have benefited and continue to benefit off of bad policies that disrespect immigrants without ever acknowledging what these countries have done to those communities. So, I would love to see a version of Black Lives Matter but for immigrants. I would love to see our communities wake up because you can only be enslaved if you allow whatever they're telling you to become your truth. Canada has had to acknowledge they've got to start finding ways to pay things back. America compensates by still allowing minorities to grow, have jobs, or even become the president of the United States. I just feel like Europe has made zero concessions and is still exploiting Africa every day. Europe needs to change."

 

We like to conclude each interview by asking our citizens to name a person, place, and thing they find inspiring.

“People that inspire me are immigrants. All immigrants have a story. I'm always keen to plug in and ask them where they are from, where their journey started and why it started. It sparks my imagination and when I ask those questions, it always takes me back to when I started as an immigrant and first arrived in the United States and Canada. One of the places that inspires me is Amsterdam. It has this introverted, communal vibe. If you don't want to be around anyone you can ride your bike, you can walk the shops, check things out and have a great day. But if you want to see people, they are also very community oriented. It’s one of those places that helps recharge my battery. I think the only ‘thing’ that inspires me is I try to be a better Muslim every day. It's not easy but I feel that when I pray more, I have structured order and my life makes sense. "