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How Brazil’s Osklen became a research hub for sustainable fabrics

By Marjorie van Elven


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ASAP: as sustainable as possible, as soon as possible. That’s the motto of Brazilian luxury label Osklen, one of the winners of this year’s CO Leadership Awards alongside brands like Raeburn and Stella McCartney. Founded in 1988 by orthopedic surgeon turned fashion designer Oskar Metsavaht, Osklen started using organic cotton in 1998. Since then, its use of environmentally-friendly fabrics (e-fabrics, in the brand’s own terminology) has grown considerably.

“Our strive towards ASAP has transformed the creative process: instead of designing the collection first and then choosing the fabrics, the pieces are now designed with the fabrics in mind”, explained Metsavaht in a phone interview with FashionUnited.

Following its E-Brigade collection in the early 2000s, which featured prints with excerpts from the Kyoto Protocol and Agenda 21, Osklen founded Instituto-e, a nonprofit organization with the goal to turn Brazil into a sustainable development hub. Instituto-e is responsible for the research and development of new e-fabrics to be used not only by Osklen but other brands as well. “We want to be a center point for innovation and contribute with academic, governmental and non-governmental organizations to spark even more research”, explains Mitsavaht.

It should be noted, however, that Osklen’s collections are not entirely made with e-fabrics: the brand uses a mix of traditional materials and sustainable ones. “With each new collection we have more sustainable pieces, more sustainable materials, and we become more specialized in working with them. These new materials are innovations -- and not all innovations can be scaled up yet, they are still expensive, they still have flaws”, notes the founder.

Osklen’s innovations caught the eye of Alpargatas, owner of flip-flop brand Havaianas. The footwear giant acquired a 60 percent stake in Osklen in 2012 looking to expand the brand internationally. Osklen operates over 80 retail spaces across Brazil, two in the United States, one in Uruguay and one in Greece.

Pirarucu leather

One of Instituto-e’s staple e-fabrics is Pirarucu leather, made from the skin of Brazil’s biggest freshwater fish. Pirarucu is a common item in the Brazilian diet, but the skin is usually discarded by the food industry. According to the institute, about 1,000 riverside communities have seen their income increase by 30 percent since the fish’s skin started to be used for fashion. “It took us years of research and development to reach the version we have now”, said Mitsavaht of the Pirarucu leather. “The first pieces would fade easily, the leather wasn’t very resistant, the finishing wasn’t the best because the material wasn’t easy to sew”.

Now that they’ve reached the desired quality, Metsavaht believes Pirarucu leather can be the symbol of a new phase in the history of luxury, when sustainable fabrics and European techniques will come together. “I think the Pirarucu leather handbag has the potential to be one of the greatest fashion classics in History. Twenty-first century luxury will not be about crocodile, snakeskin handbags anymore, it will not be based on animals under threat of extinction. It will be based on sustainable animal-based materials from places like the Amazon, which has the world’s richest biodiversity”.


“Sustainability has become a buzzword. Many brands are now pulling the sustainability card as a marketing tool instead of a transformation tool”, shoots Metsavaht, noting that textile manufacturers have been much faster to take action than fashion labels. “Designer brands are only starting to use new materials now. The materials that the textile industry has been developing for years. Most brands never got around to research and develop anything themselves”.

“I really want to break some wrong ideas people have about sustainable development. People mistake vegan fashion for sustainable fashion, for example. I’d also like people to see that fashion can’t be 100 percent sustainable. There are small T-shirt brands working with organic cotton only and saying that they’re 100 percent sustainable because of that. That’s so naive. What really matters is the volume of sustainable practices you generate, how many ethical jobs you create, how much you’re really diminishing pollution across the industry. These are the truly significant initiatives”.

Pictures: courtesy of Osklen

Oskar Metsavaht