As part of our founder interview series, we speak with Andrea Sanabria Oviedo from La Petite Mort about hidden messages, inspirations, and the role of the consumer in fueling a sustainable revolution.
Describe La Petite Mort in three words.
Cool, comfy, mindful.
La Petite Mort or the little death is an unusual name. What is the meaning behind it?
This is always a great conversation starter! So, La Petite Mort is an old French expression, first used on the medical field around the 17th century to refer to the little moments of unconsciousness during surgery. Later, around the 18th century it made its way into the erotic scene where it started to be used to refer to the moment of orgasm (post-orgasm to be precise). To my point of view, nevertheless, the expression is so rich that it allows many readings; to me it’s about a moment of nothing, therefore a moment free of every possible thought, thing or feeling. No burdens, a tiny escape of the world for total mindfulness… but then again, I think it’s different for every person. I fell in love with La Petite Mort the moment I learned about it, so I didn’t let go.
What is the style philosophy behind La Petite Mort?
La Petite Mort is a philosophy on its own, on letting go; an aim to purify to be (somewhat) free, and this is clearly translated into the style of the brand. It’s all about clean, basic pieces enriched with discreet but though-through details. For example, in my “most basic” t-shirt, I had the neck and sleeve borders sewed first and then cut open by hand with scissors… to give it an “already worn” vibe… my manufacture team was at first nervous thinking they could mess up the whole piece on a bad move! But I loved the result! I am a big fan of handmade and manual finishings; I love the imperfection of it. It reminds you that somebody is behind it all, handling it, fixing it, “a somebody” with a particular skill. I’ve tried operating sewing machines... I sucked, you need skill. Finally, aligned to the whole “pure” feeling I was going after, I could not not work with organic fibers. To me, a good basic starts with the material choice, so I decided to work with the finest I could find and to this date my customers easily recognize the brand for its touch. You have to believe in the power of a good basic!
Some of your shirts have written messages. Some on the outside for the world to see, others on the inside only for the wearer to know about. What inspired you to leave these secret messages?
Every volume, or collection, is born out of a big message. The 1st volume of basics was named “La fuite hors du monde” or “the escape out of the world”, which holds a lot of content and may have many readings; so I broke it down to smaller texts or clues that fed the main message. At the time, and I’m going to say that even these days, graphic tees were getting out of control! I understand how a certain phrase, or a simple word, can connect with you or just bring up a smile or a laugh, it has happened to me a few times! One of my favourite tees has a frontal “I’ll destroy everything you love” text; it puts a smile on my face (and of those around me) every time. However, when I see or read something that really speaks to me… I don’t necessarily feel like sharing out loud with the world.
To me, leaving a hidden message on a tee is like planting a seed; you let it grow on you… if it speaks to you. It’s a secret wink from the brand to you; you either wink back or not. As for the few tees that have an external text, like on the 2nd volume “Le temps est une invention” or “Time is an invention”, I decided to put it out as an open interpellation. Again, though short, it is a phrase that can have many readings, I enjoy seeing and reading people thoughts on statements like these, I look at it as a healthy exchange.
In many of your photos, you have the models wearing masks covering their faces. What is the significance of this and why did you decide to take this artistic approach?
Honestly, it didn’t start as a rational or artistic decision. I just like playing with masks, they give a particular sense of freedom and confidence; it could be anyone behind the mask. I wanted to use them to hide the faces of the models because 80% of my Vol.1 collection where unisex pieces and I wanted to “erase” the gender; that’s why both, guy & girl, wore the same cardboard wolf mask. I liked the result, so I started incorporating masks from Peruvian traditions. These I’ve seen all of my life in a folkloric context and I wanted to see how they would integrate on a modern scene.
What is your understanding of ‘sustainable fashion’? How does La Petit Mort embody this?
Sustainable fashion is a concept still evolving so it’s hard, even now, to make a unanimous definition. To me it’s about values, whether it’s linked to animal rights, environmental impact, consumption habits or social development. You don’t have to be all of them (I don’t think it’s even possible) but each one of these are an aspect of sustainable fashion aiming towards the same goal: to make a more human and responsible industry. You engage with the values that really speak to you and in my case it was the social and environmental focus. The social character of La P.M. was almost inevitable, growing up in Peru where the artisan know-how is such, to me it was unthinkable to go otherwise.
Nevertheless, I feel the need to point out: it’s not like brands like mine are giving them “a job” or “helping them”; it is rather the other way around. We work under their rhythm and their conditions; they give projects like mine the chance to even exist! Artisans in Latin America have worked their way through several difficult decades and they’ve earned the recognition that the international market is starting to give them. As for the environmental aspect, every piece of La P.M. is conceived under the principles of circular economy, they idea is to make them suitable for a new life cycle either through composting or recycling (all of our pieces are compostable). To achieve this, we do not blend fibers, we stay 100% natural in fabrics, colour dying and even hangtags!
You are writer and activist championing for a better fashion industry. What aspect of the industry are you most passionate about changing?
Definitely consumer behaviour! Though the bad practices in the fashion industry have a big impact, it is all driven by consumption. Rather than finding cleaner ways to produce (though still very important) we must work on the habits that general public takes on fashion. Of course, it’s not about making them stop shopping; we all like to treat ourselves. Consumption itself is not the problem but careless ridiculous over consumption is. All of us, working on sustainable fashion, take the role of educators, but the fashion revolution is not going to be guided by brands or suppliers, it has to be led by consumers.
You also have a background in marketing and are familiar with the concept of ‘greenwashing’. How can we tell which brands are truly committing to sustainable production?
You can never tell. Expect for all the big players that start promoting their “green practices” by all media possible, including printed flyers that end up tossed around in the street; that launch tiny collections of upcycled/organic cotton while keeping 90% of their offer in synthetics at 5€ the piece; that indeed give money to sustainability research but are incapable of sorting their own trash in their retail stores. But when it comes to small-medium size players it gets harder, in part because several aspects of the whole “sustainable fashion” rest unclear.
Being “sustainable” often gets confused with being socially responsible; you can be fair to your producers, or donate a share of your earnings, but what if your materials and processes are not “eco-friendly”? Or the “vegan” term also gets thrown around a lot but stays rather ambiguous… for all I know several Nike models fit into “vegan”. I think people are starting to do things right and of course, they should communicate on that, but we can do way better, we have a lot to improve, so we must be careful on our speech.+
You have lived all over the world, from Peru to Paris and even a brief stay in the US. How have all of your travels influenced La Petite Mort?
La P.M. is a result of what I’ve learned while studying and working in these three countries. In Peru I grew up surrounded by rich culture, generous nature and artisan know-how, but the U.S. showed me how big the world is and the infinite opportunities we have, it gave me the “go for it” mindset; while Europe taught me about creative industries and sustainability.
They all have influenced my current vision of the world. But no destination is made without its people and ultimately La P.M. is a portrait of the people that intrigued me the most while traveling. Despite their different cultural/educational backgrounds, they were the ones looking for that “something else” feeling; through different practices they were all after “it”. What is “it”? I guess it depends, but I was also after it and we know is out of the traditional path. This is why La Petite Mort is a quest. C’est une quête pour l’extase.
Do you have plans to return to Peru and share your knowledge of sustainable fashion?
I return to Peru every year and stay for a few months. It is my home as much as Paris is now home, as much as Minnesota was once home. La Petite Mort is a link between my origins and what I am now. Initially, the brand was launched simultaneously in both sides of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, Peru proved to be a too young market for a sustainable brand; media had little interest on the matter, so I concentrated my commercial presence back in Europe. I’ve kept on working, however, with the Peruvian Association of Sustainable Fashion to promote better practices in consumption and supporting new ethical projects in the region. This is a rather young association and they are doing an amazing job, still, it’s a long road for Latin America, consumers are still bedazzled by fast retailing.