Chantal Brocca wears many hats, and I'm not talking about the ones you usually find at the bottom of your grandmother's closet - the Dubai-based creative works as a writer, photographer, stylist, creative director, and still finds time to run Studio Asanawa, the multi-label lingerie store she co-founded in 2018.
In this interview, Chantal and I chat about her thoughts on how advertising threatens personal style, the unsustainable practices of luxury brands, her own label, and so much more. So find yourself a cup of tea, and get ready to be inspired - this is an interview you won't want to miss.
You're a writer, a stylist, a photographer, and so much more - but while you wear all these different hats, there's always a connection to fashion. Where does this passion come from, and when did it begin?
It's funny I wouldn’t actually say that I’m into fashion – not in the general sense in which we think of it at least. I was really into fantasy and mangas as a kid and loved to dress up and my mom’s wardrobe was the perfect place to source the oddest, unique pieces. I think that’s perhaps where an innate sense of style was nurtured, she always celebrated uniqueness – the more weird and socially unconventional, the better. Her favourite thing to tell us was always “If everyone goes to jump off a cliff, would you??” - the meaning being, always, under any circumstance, do you.
But when it comes to the actual fashion industry, I was always kind of outside of it – I just can’t wrap my head around the idea that everyone dresses a certain way according to the season or trend, and that that is somehow a celebration of diversity. It’s such hypocrisy and it’s the very language with which the fashion industry is coded.
When I finally did begin working within it, it was through criticism, and a lot of it thanks to a passion for semiotics and history. I’m incredibly passionate about why things are the way they are, how prevailing ideas and norms in society shape us without us even knowing it. What I find so interesting and exciting about fashion is that everything it projects is a reflection of society, culture and its values. Through that I began writing, and as I began experimenting with what I could do, I started to try on all the hats – it kind of just all transitioned naturally from one thing to another.
We often talk about the negative impact of fast fashion companies and their practices, but many luxury brands take the same unsustainable route. What does real luxury mean to you nowadays?
I think sustainability is the new luxury. Unfortunately, the image of traditional luxury that we imagine - uncompromising quality, authenticity, exceptional craftsmanship, purity – no longer exists and hasn’t for a long time. What remains is just excellent luxury branding content and PR strategy. I just tend to dump on fast fashion because it’s hugely to blame for the state of luxury today and for the fact that it’s something people can generally more readily digest. You get a lot less opposition from people when you tell them that Zara employs modern slavery than say, Prada. When you mention that the same manufacturers that produce t-shirts for Carrefour produce t-shirts for high end luxury brands it just blows peoples minds, we’re too used to living peacefully with the illusions of things, and a lot of the time, when you get opposition you also get denial.
When I say that sustainability is the new luxury, I mean it in the sense that it ticks all those boxes that traditional luxury used to – small scale production, high attention to detail, careful and considered sourcing of precious raw materials that are then processed consciously, upholding fair wages and the dignity of your workforce, and working with artisans in order to support and preserve historic crafts that are in danger of disappearing. It’s all of it really. A lot of the sustainable fashion industry is made up of small companies that are still small enough to keep an eye on things; they’ve not been corrupted by the values ingrained in multinational corporations ie. profit at all cost.
What comes out of such a considered process are products made well, that last and that hold immense personal value because they embody your very principles and outlook on life.
Being based in Dubai and having lived in Europe, do you notice a distinction in the way sustainable fashion is embraced/perceived by different countries and cultures?
I definitely see a distinction between Dubai, where I live, and Europe. I think abroad, people are more used to calling bullshit when they see it. I know this sounds like a generalization and perhaps it is, but maintaining appearances, networking, ‘keeping the peace’ so to speak is a big thing culturally in Dubai. We’re not used to open discussion and debates, it’s the sort of thing that puts everyone off. What Dubai likes is superficiality and image, and this has been unfortunately extended to sustainability. It’s a simple clash of values. Dubai is inherently superficial and consumerist, and so it’s really difficult to get concepts that entail a certain level of restraint and consciousness through.
In Dubai people talk a lot about sustainability, it’s become a huge trend, but not many people encompass those values or embody them in their actions. Global sustainability trend reports show that this is something that happens all over the world - I guess the herd-driven, show-only mentality of social media has something to do with it – but it’s pretty bad in Dubai. We even have a couple of local labels that have sprouted up that base their entire marketing strategy on being ethical, but that in fact do nothing of what they say. Brands like that would be ripped apart in Europe that’s 100% certain.
I’ve put up a lot of sustainability focused events in Dubai, and what I’ve gathered is that although people find it interesting or are touched by the shit that goes on behind the industry, not many are willing to make changes to their habits. These are differences to your lifestyle that are not so easy to implement, and so I think a lot of people back down, but you know, human beings are also not perfect. It is what it is. I’ve thought about this a lot and even though I do feel that intent matters, the simple fact that something is out in the open and talked about a lot incites the active players in a society to move their asses on it, and Dubai talks a lot. That must count for something.
You co-founded Studio Asanawa, a multi-label lingerie concept that sources sustainable designs by emerging European talents. Why did you choose to focus on lingerie?
It was actually my university thesis! I was looking into the visual codes of the industry and noticed how it had been stagnating for a while – women were only represented in these ridiculous one-dimensional stereotypes such as vamps and innocent ingénues. I felt like the whole industry was due for a shake up and I was right - right after I’d begun my research on launching a potential label all these cool new lingerie brands started sprouting up, producing handmade, ethical pieces and creating content outside of a norm that’s stayed in place for decades - the lingerie industry we see today, where women are creating for each other, is really only the product of the past 3 to 4 years.
I know you believe advertising and trends to be the enemies of true personal style. How does one break free from these influences?
I think it’s a never ending process. We don’t live in a vacuum and so it’s only normal that we’ll pick up group perceptions and habits here and there. Without even consciously willing it our eyes are scrolling through countless images per day, most of which tend to be product or sale focused in a way. That fashion masquerades a lot as art nowadays in editorials I think only adds to the appeal that products displayed in those images have, it shrouds them in all these ulterior meanings that go way beyond simple clothing and this only exacerbates our collective desire for them.
But it’s never so simple – even if I feel intensely strongly about this, after a year or so of working for an ecomm luxury platform, I’ve noticed that my heart started to really want things it never used to want before – that new swimsuit, those cool pair of trousers. In those moments I try to remember what it is that I really care about, I try to locate where this need arises from and remind myself how it’s just a trap. Perhaps that’s a little dramatic, but I really do feel it that way – a fucking trap. Before I took this job and wasn’t bombarded with hundreds of new fashion items per week I was broke, essentially hadn’t treated myself in years, and yet I was extremely content with what I had. I was really proud of the fact that I’d managed to extract myself from the industries of image and see them for what they were.
That being said, I’m not such a purist that I believe everyone should just stop purchasing unnecessary things – the economy needs to run on something. But I do see how ingrained advertising, the selling of concepts or objects is in our society – I mean, what are influencers if not walking talking advertisements right? In a world such as this, it’s important to be aware that what you spend your money on counts, and that requires you to actively look into things.
In the end the best and I believe only way to break free, is to constantly feed your brain and your awareness. Everything you learn shapes how you perceive the world and honing your critical thinking skills is the only way to think for yourself. Not to take what you see at face value and do some digging on your own. It’s incredibly rewarding, because through it, you also learn a lot about yourself, what you’re willing to compromise on and why, and what lines you could never cross. Like anything worth having, it takes constant work.
And finally, the tough question I ask everyone: what's your favorite item from your closet at the moment?
Right now I’m so in love with this made to order dress from Auné. The past four years I’ve always been in trousers or covered in loose layers – this year I hit 30 and realized – hang on, this bod needs to be glorified! I want to get naked and feel fabulous and this dress is just perfect. It’s also the first time that I ordered something where I had to send in my measurements, and it feels great! I love that this was made just for me and that through my purchase I am supporting small designers doing things right.
This interview was first published in the Non Manon biweekly newsletter. You can find Chantal on Instagram here!