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ONAR: Slow Fashion, Sustainability, and Finnish Greek Aesthetic Blend

ONAR is the ancient Greek word for “dream” or “oneiro.”  It is also a fashion house located in Helsinki’s design quarter, the dream made real of Greek-Finnish fashion designer Irene Kostas.

20160815_153142 20160815_153101 20160815_153009“ONAR as a word reflects the spirit of my label because it is a fusion of unlikely matches, “Kostas explains. “It’s about organic materials in plastic hallways, tradition meets future, rich textures in pure Scandinavian shapes. A mix of my influences that come from the richness of Greek and Middle Eastern aesthetics combined with the minimalism of Scandinavian architectural culture.”

Kostas’ designs do feel “spacy”—in both color and form. Her flagship store in Helsinki features lines of furry earmuffs in warm colors. There is as much focus on what is left out, the space in the design, as what is revealed in it. Indeed, Kostas cites architecture and contemporary art as informing her design process including Bauhaus and James Turrell. Acidic and bright colors alternate within a monochromatic spectrum.

20160815_153838Creating my own label was the perfect way of working for me because it encompasses so many facets of my design sense. I was researching this field for a few years and I found out there were no other brands that were creating from this type of value base with this type of design.  –Irene Kostas

As with all good Scandinavian design, much planning went into the design house before it became a reality. “I researched more than two years before launching,” says Kostas who also managed a night club of the same name in Helsinki.   She wanted to start a “slow fashion” movement; design that is grounded on sustainable values, and not the frenetic two-shows a year, then throw away one the industry is used to.

“The word ‘design’ has no meaning any more. It is not enough to just create and bring new objects into the world. I don’t believe in creating a whole new collection every season. The whole pace of fashion has become so fast. The moment things have been Instagramed it’s already old; I wanted to create this slow fashion label to create designs that would last over time.”

She believes that fashion must be sustainable and enduring. To ensure the sustainability in her practice she uses local materials and Greek and Finnish craftspeople. “I know my producers and know where all my skins come from,” she comments as this intimate knowledge has come about through her long research process.

It is perhaps counterintuitive to believe a label that uses fur and leather exclusively can be sustainable given the negative connotations the fur industry has had in the wake of PETA. But Kostas has proven that fur can be ethical because it is natural and sustainable. It all has to do with the how and not the what. Her shearling suppliers from Italy are checked for best practices in recycling the skins of the sheep that go to market in the food industry. “We forget that leather at one point had fur attached,” she cautions. Real fur winds up being more sustainable as it lasts longer, is government regulated, and does not like faux fur use an inordinate amount of synthetic oils in production.

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“We have the animals in the native wilderness whose population must be controlled through hunting,” Kostas explains, “so for me the most sustainable way of living is to utilize what already exists and to use natural materials because the quality will last . . . to consume less but with more quality.”

She does not believe that animals should be farmed for their skins; however, it is good to utilize skins that are usually wasted through the food industry. She relies on the recent government initiatives that regulate hunting by rewarding hunters who drop off their game at established tanneries around Lappland.

Another unique element in Onar is that it steps beyond fashion; it is a bona fide design house. As such it has an organic, facile union with contemporary art. One is the film Damask Roses in Space, a collaboration with designer Jesse Auresalo, which pays tribute to legendary filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, and showcases ONAR collections for 2016.

Next summer Kostas will be one of 10 Scandinavian fashion designers chosen to display at the Art of Contemporary Design in Espo. “There are so many aspects and dimensions in my label,” Irene Kostas explains, “that I feel that a piece of clothing is not enough to express them.”

Kostas currently has 20 retailers across Asia, the US and Europe that carry her label.  In the spring she will be a resident designer, compliments of the state of Finland, in New York City in conjunction with a show for the best of Scandinavian design. Onar is not new to New York City, as for the past two years it has graced the runways of New York Fashion Week and made blotters in the New York Times’ Style and Fashion section as well as Harper’s Bazaar.

She would like to build the brand to the point that she could focus more on the design aspects of her label and get involved in wider fashion art projects.  “You need to be driven and have goals,” she explains, “but for me the best goals come about when you follow what comes naturally.”

Her mixed heritage is evident in her designs as in herself, “I feel 50% Finnish and 50% Greek,” she confesses. But she admits it was the outsider perspective that comes through a bi-cultural lens that influenced her design.

“We were moving quite a lot between Greece and Finland, between two cultures and aesthetic environments. I felt like an outsider, so from a very young age, things like music, clothing and art became important to me,” Kostas admits. “This is when I first began to create my own way of seeing things.”

No wonder Vogue Italia has noted ONAR as one of the rising Finnish labels.


To order from her online store and keep up with her designs, log onto www.onarstudios.com.