Local production and upholding the arts define Robert Rodriguez’s newly launched Koltson
While the eveningwear segment is not exactly small-scale, the number of designers in the category fully committing to sustainable processes is seemingly narrow. It is this factor that Robert Rodriguez wanted to tackle when setting up his newly launched brand, Koltson.
Rodriguez is no stranger to the industry, however. The veteran designer previously served as chief creative officer of Halston, operated his own namesake label alongside business partner Nicola Guarna and worked as part of the design team at Christian Dior. Now, Rodriguez wants to take matters into his own hands, using Koltson as a pedestal to push forward sustainability into not just eveningwear, but the New York fashion scene as a whole.
And it seems he is already making some pretty large steps. To unveil its first AW23, Koltson managed to nab a place during the most recent New York Fashion Week, debuting in a gallery-style presentation where he partnered with abstract expressionist Vicky Barranguet on a series of paintings inspired by his designs. The spectacle saw his collection displayed alongside artwork, in an event that went beyond the current trend of merging fashion and art – as seen in prominent design collaborations and co-op exhibitions between notable fashion houses and artists.
Talking to FashionUnited, Rodriguez spoke on the importance of supporting creative sectors, the current state of New York’s fashion industry and what to expect from Koltson in the near future.
What was the trigger for you to launch Koltson?
I wanted to build a brand that was sustainable. At this moment in my life, that was very important to me. As an eveningwear designer, it’s crucial to take responsibility in making eco-conscious collections, and use more eco-friendly materials, because a lot of these collections do not do this.
I thought of the idea for the brand back in 2019, when I registered the name Koltson. I didn’t want it to be about me. I wanted it to be more about the brand and the collaborations with artists and artisans, as well as giving back to the community here in New York. Everything is made locally. I wanted to not only support the Garment District, but also the local suppliers. This method shortens lead times and allows for on-demand production. There were a lot of pros about putting a brand like this together, and I wanted to do something that was a little bit different for the eveningwear segment.
You’re not entirely new to the fashion industry and you have quite a bit of experience behind you. How has this project differed from your work in the past?
Initially, I was in contemporary ready-to-wear, but I’ve always loved eveningwear. I started my career at Christian Dior, where I worked in this category. It has always been a passion of mine. At this point in my life, I wanted to do what I wanted to do – something that was meaningful to me, something where I would be able to give back. I’ve built a nice team and it has been an amazing experience. The brand really resonates with what I think today and what I think fashion should be.
When you were creating the brand, who did you envision your consumer to be?
I wanted to create a collection that connected the brand to the customer. I think a lot of women today don’t want to wear just anything. They want something that they’re connected to – may it be art or sustainability. Something that feels a little more special, especially at the designer price point. That customer wants a connection and an experience.
Where did the idea to merge art and fashion stem from?
It was something that I dreamed about. I love art, I love fashion. To me, it’s the marriage between both. It was natural to do. There’ve been a lot of collaborations with different designers and artists, so I’m not the first, but I wanted to do something that united both. Not only showcasing artists, but also collaboration and creating collections and textiles based on what the artist is doing. It was important that we all collaborated and we did it together.
Did working alongside Vicky Barranguet have any impact on your design process?
It was a little different, only because I had my ideas, my mood boards, my tear sheets, my colours and fabrics that I wanted to use. I had to put that together before meeting with her and we shared the concept, we shared the vision. We worked together to create seven canvases, capturing what the concept was. She created her art based on what I was feeling, and then we created the canvases, textiles and colour palettes. It was a great collaboration.
As you mentioned, collaborations between art and fashion have become more prominent. What do you think is behind the surge in this format of partnership?
There are so many collections out there, but I think the consumer is looking for something new, something that they connect with, which for me, is all a part of sustainability. It feels like there is communication between the brand and the consumers who are really reacting to it. Not everyone has done it my way. I showcased canvases in my presentation as if they were part of the collection, and I think that was quite distinct.
Indeed, the concept for your show definitely differed from that of the typical runway set up. What did you want to portray with such a spectacle?
I wanted it to mirror a gallery that showcased not only the fashion, but also the art and the mood. I wanted to create an experience, not just another 15 minute runway show, bringing together the audience with the clothing, the artist and the message behind the art. It was a good opportunity for myself and Vicky to engage with the attendees and share more about the process. Vicky was very much front and centre as much as I was, and it gave people attending a different perspective that you wouldn’t get from the usual runway. It was more personal.
Why is it so important for creative industries to come together on projects like this?
Having a bond is important, especially when it comes to art and fashion. This links to my slogan: “A common thread between art and fashion”. It’s about being creative and creating something that you believe in. This is a part of my DNA. All these years I’ve been designing collections in my own head, so for me it was a good experience to have artists around that inspired me and I, in turn, inspired them. When creating this collection, and future collections, I feel that not only is it a fun process, but it feels like a more important process. People can often forget that there’s a whole world behind creating a line. I think it’s important that consumers understand what it takes to do this so they recognise it and experience it the same way you do.
This also rolls into the sustainability element, which was a huge focal point for you. How did you incorporate these values into the actual collection?
We worked with certified, natural fabrics, most of which were FSC certified. We also used a lot of natural silks, which were chosen because they were biodegradable. I was very cautious of what fabrics to use and what to do with them. A big part of the collection was created in this way, but the other part was produced locally, because sustainability is not just about designing a collection with recycled products and calling it sustainable. It has to do with lots of different factors. It’s about being more locally-minded, minimising transportation, producing locally and not wasting materials. There is a lot of waste in our industry, and we need to keep that in mind when creating. The consumer doesn’t want “stuff”, they want the right garments. Items that they feel proud to wear, where there is a whole story behind it. This message needs to be sent, and I hope that I can play a small part in it.
There aren’t many eveningwear designers that actually implement sustainability into their values. Why do you think creators in this segment are hesitant to adopt these methods into their process?
I think it firstly has to do with the cost. Fabrics are more expensive when they’re certified. They’re natural fibres. So a lot of the reasons why could be price, but it could also be a lot of other things. It could also be that they’re simply not interested. For me, it was essential and I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to accomplish it.
By creating these kinds of collectible pieces, they become works of art. They are not just designed to be worn once. You’re going to want to hold onto them, reuse them, appreciate them. The designs [for AW23] included the reworking of the iconic kaftan, for example, which has been a timeless staple in fashion for decades, and won’t go out of style. It’ll hold its value in the sense that it’s a unique capsule work of art. It's more of an art collector's item.
Linking to this aspect, there is a lot going on where you are based in New York too, from investments in the new Fashion Innovation Centre to the bill supporting local production. What do you think is still lacking from the local industry that needs to be changed?
The industry right now is a little confused as to what it wants to do. We’ve had Covid, for instance, which forced a lot of factories to either close or cut down. These huge factories that used to be here are gone, and people are sending production overseas to other parts of the world. Maybe it’s time they rethink the way they do business or operate on a smaller scale – become more practical. Then fashion is not mass produced. In New York, almost everything has been scaled down. Whatever you do here feels more special. Maybe it’s not 100 percent there, but I strongly feel that it will get to that point. I wanted to be able to start doing that with my collection and hopefully play a small part in the change.
What can we expect from Koltson’s next collection?
The concept will continue as is. I will be designing four collections a year – fall/winter, a small resort collection, spring/summer and pre-fall. These will also be in collaboration with different artists. Nothing’s changing for now. I think pre-collections are important, especially for eveningwear. Some retailers want five or six collections a year, but I’m just sticking to four because I don’t want to overproduce or over-design. There are companies that are just too fast, and they spill out collection after collection. Being sustainable is being cautious of what you produce. People don’t need all those clothes. For me, it’s more about giving them capsules that are meaningful. They’re art pieces, collector’s items. They won’t be thrown away next season.
Is there a particular form of art that you are drawn to for this concept, or are you open to all possibilities?
I like modernism because my clothes are very architectural, very clean. I connect to that. One of the things that is important to me is giving artists the chance to flaunt their work. Vicky, for example, had never done a collaboration with a designer before. She had never experienced anything like it. We also highlighted the illustrator, Pepe Munoz, who is usually behind the scenes, but suddenly people could see the way that he illustrates. Pepe brought the art and fashion process full circle. They are given a chance to show their work not only to the industry but the public, the people, the consumer. That’s what a collaboration is about.
What has the response been to your collection like from retailers and buyers so far?
There have definitely been very positive responses. I’ve had a lot of retailers wanting to launch the collection exclusively, with which I am partnering up with one or two. There’s some others in London that are interested in carrying the collection too. One of the things that they love about the collection is the sustainability factor. This is something that their customer is looking for. I’m very fortunate.
From a business perspective, what is next for Koltson?
I don’t really see what I’m doing as a business. That side of it will come. For me, it’s more about creating something that has meaning behind it, because when you have that, you have a purpose. I think the business comes along with that. It’s more about creativity, supporting the art world and local businesses in New York. At this stage of my life, that’s what is most important. We want to engage in exhibitions, publications and charity work. We are also thinking of trunk shows, to support cultural events that customers are already interested in.