Interview with Kim Trager of OAR Basics
Speaking to Kim Trager, it’s clear from the offset that his experiences within the fashion industry have exposed him to how damaging and fast-paced the industry can be. In creating OAR basics, a brand that showcases exquisitely manufactured basic T-Shirts, Kim believed he could “contribute something better and more long-term orientated”. After training at Central Saint Martins, Trager went on to work under names such as Henrik Vibskov, so it came as no surprise when he told me he had “been schooled to believe creativity was the end”.
What became apparent during our conversation is that the threat of not thinking about these consequences is what initially drove him to start OAR basics: “I launched OAR as an experiment and a research project to figure out why the fashion industry was both experiencing an upswing of awareness around sustainability but simultaneously why the state of the fashion industry seemed more critical than ever”. The result of this dilemma was a brand that strips clothing right back to its core, closely examining each stage, from soil to closet, and crafting a GOTS certified T-Shirt that’s impossible not to like. Upon asking Kim what his foundational aims with OAR basics were, he told me “my mission is to find and share ways to accelerate long term sustainable practices in the fashion industry”.
I’m often curious as to whether sustainability has been significant to designers from the beginning, as a result of growing up in rural Danish countryside, Kim’s attachment to nature is perhaps more visceral than most: “I have always been surrounded by nature, homegrown food and taking good care of animals”. This conscientiousness primed Trager from an early age, and is reflected in the brands website, which explains their organic cotton farming techniques – from the Tirupur based spinner, to the amount of breaks the employees take over their shift.
Despite his evident affinity with nature, I asked Trager whether there was a specific point in his career when he felt compelled to create responsibly. “I have spent a lot of time designing luxury fashion. I started when all the pre-season started to accelerate which later got accused of burning out designers like John Galliano. Then later social media added more fuel to the accelerating pace”, he replied. Trager didn’t identify with this vapid flurry of trends and “hype”, and wanted to created a piece that was “something more relevant, I privately was always just wearing the same uniform, so it made sense to me to in the longevity of a garment instead of designing it to do obsolete within 6 months”.
Trager understands transparency in a different sphere to the rest of the fashion industry, he spent a long time travelling through Asia researching various factories before settling on his current manufacturing process in India. His mission had two clear fundamentals: diving deep into how the fibres are made and wanting to produce the optimum quality jersey that set themselves apart from the standard high street fabrics. At first, Trager believed that without finding the perfect ethical source in Europe, he wouldn’t be able to meet his manufacturing targets, but this turned out be naïve: “changing settings in the kitting machines in many factories would require me to completely overproduce by ordering an insane amount of T-shirts”. He realised that he would have to look outside of Europe, and spent almost two years travelling throughout India, researching manufacturers until he found two who allowed him access to their supply chain: “In the end, the Indian set up was a no-brainer as they went above and beyond what was expected in terms of changing the industry at a foundational level”. Trager has done what all apparel brands should be striving to do, stripping back their process to realign their fundamentals with an ethical manner in which to produce. From fibre to finished cotton, Trager and a photographer followed the cotton from the north to the south of India, where small co-ops grow the cotton for the newly built, green factories. The result for Trager was better than he could’ve expected: “I got very pleasantly surprised at lengths the factory has gone to turn to sustainability”.
Clearly, Trager feels exasperated at the fashion industry’s lack of willingness to open up and accept necessary change. Given his deep understanding of the fashion industry, I was curious to find out from Trager himself how he saw the future of sustainability. I myself often analyse the dichotomy between the food and the clothing industries; as a whole our relationship with food is far more considered than that of ours with fashion, and Trager couldn’t agree more: “It’s much easier to sell a message to a broader audience when you can personify a problem which people can identify with - hence why it’s easier to raise awareness to save cute animals vs. ugly ones despite it being no relevance of the importance”. Trager struggles to see how humans can start to view the industry in a less abstract way. The impact of contaminated drinking water and unusable agricultural land is much harder to personify than telling the story about baby orang-utans losing their habitats due to deforestation because of palm oil.
During the course of our conversation, Trager drew an effective parallel between the addictive properties of smoking (and its long-term detrimental effects), and the state of modern consumerism in the fashion industry. “Shopping has been proven to release dopamine to the brain – the same hormone that gets activated by smoking cigarettes. I have started to look at the sustainability problem in relationship to the obstacles of stopping smoking. Both things were, and still are, sold on their image and fitting in with the right group of people”, he explained. Trager understands, too, that halting our dependence on systems like these is a very challenging process: “If anyone ever has tried to stop smoking tomorrow always seems to be a better day to quit smoking than today. You’re not stupid, and you know of the apparent health risks, but you’ll only see the consequences when you get old…you get a pleasurable experience now and then maybe accumulated a lot of pain later.” This “accumulated pain” is beginning to be felt in the fashion industry today. Though there is “always another day to start to buy better quality” clothes, Trager knows that in the short-term this “costs more money” and that “the immediate downside is only going to be felt by people you don’t know on the other side of the globe”. He outlines the current state of manufacturing and shopping essentially as ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Trager realises that currently the burden of responsibility lies with the consumer, who has to be a “‘saint’ or an expert in sustainability” in order to research and buy the correct garments, and suggests instead a systemic, tariff-based solution: “I think similar [to the tax increases on tobacco] has to happen with cheap imported clothing or unethically sourced fabrics, or fabric that is cheap to produce”.
It’s possible also to see Trager’s viewpoint as pessimistic and, at times during our conversation, I was tempted to ask why he bothered anyway, but ultimately his worldview revealed itself as more realistic than most. The romanticism and faith in ‘the human’, which I often like to apply to sustainability, doesn’t exist so prominently in Trager’s analysis. He explained, “There is always another day to start to buy better quality. It’s a complicated world to navigate, and then it costs more money. And the immediate downside is only going to be felt by people you don’t know on the other side of the globe. Today you have to be a ‘saint’ or an expert in sustainability to choose the right garments to purchase. And even when it’s your hobby to do good, it’s still challenging.” Our underlying beliefs are aligned; we have to stop buying so much stuff. As soon as we curb the excessive demand for cheap, poorly made clothing then we can turn our attentions to better, more humanist methods. In his final words to me, Trager exclaimed, “we need someone to put up some guard rails to help us make the day to day decisions”.