An Interview with Kim Stevenson of The Autonomous Collections

Kim Stevenson founded The Autonomous Collections a few years ago with a clear and thoughtful idea in mind inspired by her experiences of extreme weather and global warming in her native Geelong Australia. Her collections are all sustainably and ethically made in London.  Here is her story.

Kim Stevenson

Tell us about your background ?

My father went to live in Australia with his family when he was 10. He was born in Kent, UK. He was always very creative and worked as a park ranger. My mum was born in South Australia, Adelaide and met my father while working at my father’s family restaurant. We were bought up feeling quite free when it came to religion. My father was more religious than my mother. While they always made us aware, they allowed us to make our own decisions about what we believed.

What is your personal story – education, prior work, and so on?

I am originally from Geelong, Australia. My father was very creative and I always wanted to learn new things. We were always making things, carving, pottery, painting and drawing. I loved to draw and would ask my father’s opinion as I went along. We didn’t grow up with much money but my parents would always make sure we had enough petrol in the car for a weekend adventure somewhere. My parents loved fashion and loved to shop at the charity shop (which I hated). I would sometimes have a different uniform to everyone else and it felt really embarrassing until I started customize my clothes. As soon as everyone else started to customize theirs, I felt okay about it.

I went through high school and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I went to TAFE to study hospitality management for 2 years and from then on I worked in some top hotels and wineries in Australia. I wanted to study again but I always wanted to travel. My father used to tell me stories of his childhood in London. So I decided to come to the UK when I was 23. I travelled a little, my money ran out very quickly and had to get a job. I fell in love, a few years later had a baby and when he was three, I decided to get back to what I really wanted to do.

As I hadn’t been at school for a while, I studied an art and design foundation degree for a year to allow me to figure out what direction I wanted to go in. Originally I wanted to study Fine Art. But as I had a family to support I felt that I could merge my art with fashion. I went on to complete a BA in Fashion Design at the University of East London.

How did you get interested in ethical and sustainable fashion? How did your educational/professional experience inform fashion work?

I’ve always been interested in ethical/sustainable approaches. I use to always find random materials to create with. I used to use my mother’s old curtains and play ‘weddings’ up and down the garden with my friends. A mixture of a willingness to play around whilst being pretty conscious of Australia’s extreme weather conditions, made me grow up with a thoughtful ideal in terms of how to value what I owned.

When I studied my art and design foundation I wanted to make my own paper so went around and collected everyone’s old newspapers and made lots of textured papers. I love the whole recycling process and knew I wanted to take this through to university. The more I read about ethical fashion and how much waste went to landfill actually made me sick. This was where I really knew I wanted to create an ethical clothing brand.

What is the importance of ethical and sustainable fashion designers and companies? What is the importance of fair trade?

It is so sad when large companies can price their garments so low by any means necessary to humanity.

All it does is water down the selection of our wardrobe, making people not care what they buy, as they can always throw it out or buy something new without even thinking who it has effected or the hard work someone has put into that garment.

Millions of tons per year go to landfill and that, for me alone, is one reason why ethical companies are so important.

Not to mention the working conditions or low wages these people get. Since becoming a designer it has made me so conscious and appreciate the hard work it takes to make a single garment.

When something becomes the ‘norm’ it is hard for the world to see any different. It is only through education that we can change that.

It takes ‘we’ as a community to come together and shout about this importance.

The Autonomous Collections studio in London

Kim and her team hand make all of the products in their studio in East London ensuring each garment has its own unique characteristic.

What is The Autonomous Collections?

The Autonomous Collections is a directional young brand which takes an ethical approach to fabrication and design. We are womenswear, but we do have some statement pieces which are unisex. Our process is to design first, then find ways to create each step ethically. Our ethos is to appeal to a confident, young, old and young in spirit audience in order to promote ethics in production and consumption.

It is Our Mission to be as ethical as possible and to inspire other brands to follow.  It’s not an easy way to develop a business, but it is a rewarding one.

What inspired the title of the organization?

AUTONOMOUS – Meaning, having the freedom to act independently.

Autonomous for me means a strong sense of identity which and self-expression. A contemporary look that defines the wearer irrespective of age, race, gender or personal style.

What are some of its feature products?

We cover all types of garments, Jackets, sweaters, skirts, dresses, jeans and so on. We make all the products here in our studio in London. What characterises us is our contemporary urban design aesthetic with fabrication techniques and cultural influences from around the world. Each collection has a story behind the process but still carries the signature such as, fringing, weaving, denim and the use of natural fibers with a relaxed silhouette.

If I was to say one or two products it would be our organic denim jacket with wool fringing and organic sweatshirt lining and our tassel skirt made from scrap fabric, yarns and wool.

What are the main fibres and fabrics used in the products?

Our focus is to use as many natural/organic fibers as possible with in the design. But it really does depend on our story behind the collections. It may be that we have created one off or limited pieces within the collection that have the use of up-cycling or found fabrics in them. We also have some fabrics from a factory in Spain that use the cabbage from the factory floor. After the garments have been cut they re-spin the fibers into new fabrics (therefore we are unsure of the exact fiber content). Some of our acrylic yarns used in the weaving process are from the Woman’s Institute. The Women’s Institute (WI) was formed in 1915 to revitalise rural communities and encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War. Since then the organisation’s aims have broadened and the WI is now the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK. The WI celebrated its centenary in 2015 and currently has almost 220,000 members in approximately 6,300 WIs.

The WI plays a unique role in providing women with educational opportunities and the chance to build new skills, to take part in a wide variety of activities and to campaign on issues that matter to them and their communities.

So if we do use any manmade fibers we really take into consideration the thought about supporting good causes throughout the world.

Who grows, harvests, designs, and manufactures the products of The Autonomous Collections?

We are only a small company and it is myself and a small team of students and graduates who more want to learn about ethical fashion and how they can use this in their work.

The Autonomous Collection denim jacket

The Autonomous Collection denim jacket

Will the fibres and fabrics for the products from the company biodegrade?

I would say that 90% of our products will yes.

What is your customer base – the demographics?

At the moment our age range is 20-40-year-old woman mostly based in the EU. Our customer is a person who has an appreciation of hand craft and forward thinking. They are unique and like to be different. Through our design process we try to ensure that each garment is different. Whether it be a different color lining, hand embroidered logo or different pattern through the cutting. They will always find something different to the next wearer. They like to feel comfortable and have a love for creativity.

How can individuals, designers, fashion industries, and consumers begin to work to implement those rights so that these vulnerable populations, women and children, in many countries of the world have better quality of life?

For individuals, you can ask questions when you purchase something. ‘Where are the clothes made’? ‘Who made them’? It is a knock on effect. If we continue to ask these questions, it will make retail staff ask the questions and so forth the education getting wider and higher. If you buy from companies who don’t support these rights, you are just contributing and supporting these vulnerable communities.

For designers, it is our job to be aware about our suppliers and if you can, visit the premises where the clothes, fabrics are made. Or if you can’t get there, research and ask questions to see if other companies have. If you care, they will care.

From personal observations, more women than men involve themselves in the fashion industry by a vast margin of difference at most levels. Why?

Men never used to sew. They were the ones who went to war or built things. While the woman stayed home, prepared the food, looked after the children. I think as boundaries everywhere are broken it allows others to be accepted. This has been happening for centuries and these things take time for people and the world to be in sync and to become educated to another way of thinking. It will and is happening, it will just take time.

What might make men more involved in the fashion world in general?

Our acceptance. No judgement in particular from other men. Many think you have to be gay to be a designer. As a designer it is not just about making clothes but a whole process. You need to co-ordinate color, research, draw lines etc. Doesn’t that sound like an artist? If a man said to another man, ‘I am an artist’ is that more acceptable. It took a long time for an artist to be recognized as a real job or profession so how is a man in the fashion industry any different?

What might make men more involved in the ethical and sustainable fashion world in general?

A male figure in the sustainable community. Whether it be a male designer or public figures which most men look up to, making the change.

Will having men in the discussion and on-the-ground improve the implementation of children’s and women’s rights?

Yes. It is one thing for a woman to stick up for other woman but when a man does it, it will other men think about the way they behave. I’m sure it would not be an easy fight but the more men who get involved the better.

What personal fulfillment comes from this work for you?

It is so much hard work starting a fashion label and sometimes very stressful. I forget to look back at what I have done until someone reminds me all I have accomplished in two years. Sometimes I feel like I have done nothing. When people approach me saying they love what I do I feel so thankful that I have spread the word a little further. I get to be creative, doing what I love, be involved in this movement of making the world a better place and as hard as the fashion industry is I still continue my effort to think about the bigger picture.

The Autonomous Collection clothing

The Autonomous Collection pieces are made of woven fabrics, natural fibers, relaxed belted silhouettes all with minimal waste.

What other work are you involved in at this point in time?

We are being involved in a University charity event in February where they are hoping to raise money to support The International Rescue Committee, a charity which responds to humanitarian crises all over the world, predominantly in Syria. They provide essential healthcare, food, security and protection for vulnerable men, women and children whose lives have been torn apart by conflict.

The IRC provides safe houses for those in need as well as psychological support to deal with the aftermath of trauma. It also helps communities rebuild their infrastructure and teaches them new skills to ensure sustainability. Furthermore, the charity strives to empower refugees through educating them in ways which enable them to sustainably recover and change the direction of their futures.

We are working on a new collection where we will be working with a fair trade factory in Cambodia and hoping to be involved in more charity events to come.

Any recommended authors or fashionistas (or fashionistos)?

No not really. I am so busy with work and family it is hard to catch up with these.

Any recommended means of contacting, even becoming involved with, The Autonomous Collections?

We can be contacted at info@theautonomouscollections.com or follow us on

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/theautonomouscollections/

Instagram https://www.instagram.com/the_autonomous_collections/

Twitter https://www.twitter.com/theautonomousc

What has been the greatest emotional struggle in business for you?

Limited access to funding and balancing work and family life.

What has been the greatest emotional struggle in personal life for you?

I think having a family and a business is always hard especially when you are over the other side of the world.

What philosophy makes most sense of life to you?

I just believe in things like-

‘What goes around, comes around’

‘Respect others’ and so forth….

I am a bit of a realist when it comes to your future. I believe you have to work hard for anything you want in life.

Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?

Thank you for having me and letting me tell you about The Autonomous Collections and my views on ethical fashion.

Thank you for your time, Kim.

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