The Future of MENA Fashion: Meet Roni Helou
Roni Helou is a luxury ready-to-wear label based in Beirut, Lebanon. He rose to prominence after being named winner of the ready-to-wear category at the first ever Fashion Trust Arabia (FTA) competition held in Qatar in March of 2019.
What sets Roni apart is his commitment to sustainability, free education and animal rights. These values are at the heart of the Roni Helou brand. As such, Roni works to uphold these values in everything he does, from sampling to production and everything in between.
Captured by Lebanese photographer Fouad Tadros, Roni Helou launched an online shop by unveiling a virtual photo shoot that features Tunisian model Syrine Barhoumi in pieces from the SS20 collection. The images were brought to life by way of webcam screenshots which features the model in the comfort of her own home.
Saturated by natural light and surrounded by greenery, the model takes powerful stances alongside plants and décor that convey organic shapes and natural elements. “The brand is reminiscent of rebellion throughout,” said Roni Helou. “This virtual photo shoot was able to portray a rebellious, unapologetic aesthetic, which is a reflection of [our] signature style,” he adds.
We chatted with Roni about sustainability, running a sustainable ready-to-wear brand operating from the Middle East and the challenges that come with it. Read our exclusive interview with Roni below.
Q1: What inspired you to start a sustainable fashion brand?
My intention as a designer is fuelled by my own values surrounding activism and creating positive change. This has guided me to creating an altruistic brand that tries to highlight issues while remaining true to myself. For these reasons, we up-cycle vintage and old stocks to avoid the risk of fabrics being burnt or thrown in landfills; we support our local community by producing with artisans and tailors from all over the country; we create modular clothing that can be worn in different ways to expand the lifespan of the garment; we produce small quantities and use organic techniques in the making of the clothes; and finally we use our platform for activism, shedding light on issues regarding people, animals and the environment.
Q2: What does “sustainable fashion” mean to you?
Being environmentally conscious, or “sustainable”, means taking actions that consider and try to positively affect the well-being of other humans, animals and the planet. So, in my opinion, “sustainable fashion” refers to an industry that does its best not to harm the things that surround us by creating clothes in moderate quantities while promoting ethical consumerism.
Q3: What is your brand's mission?
We create characteristic, forward-thinking and androgynous ready-to-wear pieces while shedding light on social and environmental issues and maintaining a system that preserves values of eco-friendliness and ethical practices. We source our materials from vintage and/or dead stocks instead of purchasing newly imported fabrics, and by doing so, we discover beautiful, quality vintage materials, each with their own history.
Q4: What is something you wish people knew about sustainable fashion?
I wish more people would realize that sustainable fashion is not just another trend and that it should become a norm adopted by the entire fashion industry to avoid creating waste, to respect nature’s boundaries and to abolish violations of human and animal rights.
Q5: What’s the most challenging thing about running a sustainable business?
Running a sustainable business, in Lebanon especially, is quite challenging when it comes to finding and outsourcing organic and ethical materials or fabrics. The costs of production are therefore very high, forcing products that are eco-responsible to be more expensive. This creates a strain on brands who suffer from selling their products, as well as on sustainability in general.
Q6: Other than your own, which sustainable fashion brands do you like? Regional & International.
Stella McCartney, Marine Serre, Ahluwaila, Phoebe English, Emergency Room.
Q7: If you could make changes in the fashion industry, to make it better, what would that be?
Just like any sector or industry, what is needed is a complete overhaul of the system. With regards to fashion, the changes needed are three-fold and are equally important. A complete stop to child labor. A ban on the use and production of all animal-based products, including furs (whether real or synthetic) and leather, as there are sustainable alternatives available. Finally, serious efforts towards reducing the carbon footprint of our industry starting with a reduction of the number of fashion weeks and an increase in accessibility by using the digital tools that are at our disposal.
Q8: How do you think consumers should shop?
Consumers should look for staple season-less pieces that outlast changing trends. They need to think of quality first and foremost and then build their wardrobe as a garde-robe instead of a seasonal wardrobe. Consumers should also buy local products, which helps boosting economies.
Q9: How do you think a consumer should make the transition from fast to slow sustainable fashion?
It’s quite simple actually! Researching local and small businesses is the best way to introduce consumers to the closest available options. They can then choose the businesses that match or suit their needs.
Q10: Do you think the future of apparel is sustainable? Explain.
I think we are already seeing the early signs of a more sustainable understanding for fashion and apparel. I also think that the future of fashion will have to be sustainable because we have reached a tipping point as to how we treat our planet. In order to diminish the consequences of what we have created so far, sustainable fashion is the only way forward.
Q11. What are the challenges you face in the Middle East today? Is it the resources, demand, etc…?
The Middle East is facing many difficulties at the moment which has only exacerbated our problems on the local level. Resources, lack of political will, lack of awareness and support of local businesses and lack of a good production infrastructure are only a few of the many challenges we face. However, having these limitations serve to fuel our passion and our determination to make a change and show the true potential of the Middle East.
Designer: Roni Helou
Photographer: Fouad Tadros
Model: Syrine Barhoumi