Those are the words, Danish accented and all, that stuck in my mind as I got off the phone with Peter Ingwersen, CEO and founder of the high end luxury label Noir.
Noir first caught my attention with its beautiful clothes, but there was another layer of the label that really intrigued me. It was Illuminati II, the cotton fabric brand that Peter created to go hand-in-hand with Noir. The fabric Illuminati II produces isn’t from any old cotton in Georgia. Rather, the brand takes raw Ugandan cotton and produces the finest sub-Saharan cotton fabric. Peter has set up the Noir Foundation to support this endeavor, giving percentages of the sales of cotton suits and fabrics back to the African cotton workers.
This is what really caught my attention — this idea of fashion being socially conscious. So I asked Peter how he planned to convince the fashion crowd that they should support a cause like his — because after all, the fashion world is not exactly known for its attention to social responsibility. It was obvious that Peter had spent a lot of time deliberating on this: “People buy clothes for different reasons,” he told me. “Some want to send out a symbolic value, they want clothes that say, ‘This is what I like, I’m into this.’ They want to signal to the world that they can wear a certain brand. It’s like their calling card to the world.”
“This whole symbolic culture inspired me and my strategic thinking,” Peter continued. “And I thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be fantastic if people could wear luxury clothing, showing that they can afford it and they’re in the know, but also showing their point of view on a certain topic — political, sexual, whatever it may be?'”
After these initial thoughts, Peter’s whole strategy fell into place. And while some may be inclined to call what he is trying to do idealist, Peter has definitely taken a pragmatic approach to his concept. “Of course you can’t preach to anyone, as soon as you do, they start to lose interest,” he explained. “It’s all about people making up their own minds. So I decided to make the sexiest product out there that happens to be socially responsible — it’s an added benefit. We have to be able to sell the product first — then people will start to buy into the idea behind it.”
With this idea in mind, Peter looked to designer Rikke Wienmann to create the clothes to go with the concept (Peter and Rikke, at the end of a Noir show, right). “I’ve known her for ten years — we met way back at Levi’s. With her, I knew what I was going to get — her attention to details, her sharp intellect. Also, she was willing to go into a mad idea like this, and I didn’t want to jump into unknown territory on a project so important.”
If Noir’s Fall/Winter 2006 collection can bear witness, Rikke brought Peter’s goal to fruition, because the prevailing aesthetic is decidedly sexy. “The title of the collection, ‘Raven Ball’ came to us because in fall, there’s Christmas, New Year… lots of occasions when people wear nice clothes — hence ‘ball,'” Peter explained. “Then we wanted something to contrast nicely with ‘ball,’ because we’re more fascinated by the sensual than the girly boho fashion look.” I laughed at this point — his comment had conjured up an image of Sienna Miller in Noir clothing, and something just didn’t click.
As I was chuckling, Peter continued to elaborate on his inspiration for his fall “Raven Ball” collection: “The raven in Celtic and Nordic mythologies was the messenger between god and man — so that goes along well with our political message.”
“Helmut Newton was also a huge inspiration — because he was very liberating to women,” Peter went on to say. “When you turn women into sexual fantasies and sexual exhibits like he did, they are the ones in control. Men shut off their brain, follow their instincts, while women can dress up, show whatever part of their body they want — they have the power.”
“That’s where we got these really nice elements of S&M in the collection,” Peter expounded. “Like the leather trimmings from a whip, the leather garter belts, the cupless bras.” And he couldn’t help but add — I could almost see the twinkle in his eye over the phone, “It’s quite a new thing to bring S&M together with social consciousness and responsibility.”
Both of the collections that Noir has produced have had a predominantly black aesthetic — not surprising considering their name. But with the fall collection, there started to be tinges of browns, navies, even a bit of white in some of the pieces. So I asked Peter if we should expect color in the future. “We definitely don’t want to be pigeonholed,” he replied. “Noir elicits lots of images for people instantly — so we have to be careful. But we need to keep exploring. We want to change people’s idea of ‘noir’ all the time — maybe give it new stylings, new expressions.”
He went on to push the thought even further, in true Peter form: “For spring/summer 2007, we’re thinking about potentially taking it all white, or maybe some color. We want people to say: ‘Wow, I didn’t think sexy rock’n’roll clothes could be all white.’ We want to change the perception of color — to ask, ‘Can lime green or white be dangerous like black or red can?'”
And thus Peter brought us back in full circle, to the root of his label, with the symbolism of color. Noir’s name, black in French, and perhaps even a reminder of the Ugandan workers who produce the label’s fabric. Noir’s catchphrase, “In darkness all colors agree,” the political message Peter wants to sit with his consumers.
That catchphrase is the thought always sitting in Peter’s mind, because towards the end of our conversation, Peter went back to it, and reminded me: “This is not a charity, it’s a business model. We supply our farmhands with medicine as much as we can. We apply fair trade in Uganda. And in 2007, we will finally get to use our own cotton, because it takes time to start something up like this. In the end, Iâ€™m just hoping to challenge both myself and the consumers to look at clothing in a different way. We want to be the brand that turned social responsibility sexy.”