Interview by Marie-Pauline Cesari

Antonin Tron, creative director, and co-founder of Atlein, is an outstanding designer. Having cut his teeth at some of the most prestigious French houses, including Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga, he made his own way and crafted his first collection out of a jersey deadstock. Inspired by the ocean, Altein’s DNA is based on fluidity and the beauty of the body, as well as Antonin’s commitments and visions. We had the opportunity to meet this talented and fascinating designer, to talk about his career, his brand, and his vision of sustainability in fashion.

How would you describe the aesthetics and identity of Atlein in a few words?

Atlein is a women’s wear and a ready-to-wear brand. It has a minimal, central, and sexy aesthetic. It’s body-hugging and focuses on construction. The core of the brand is dresses, and I consider myself a dressmaker. I enjoy molding and sculpting fabric, mainly Jersey, to create dresses that enhance the female body.

The brand has an athletic attitude, portraying the body in motion and intention. This is the essence of the brand.

The name Atlein comes from the Atlantic Ocean. It’s an ocean that you like to ride, and surf is a source of inspiration that you explored a lot in your first collections. Is this still the case today, and do you still have time to surf? 

Yes, of course I do. I have a very strong connection with the ocean. I try to surf whenever I can, even if it’s not enough for me as I’m based and landlocked in Paris. Nevertheless, this deep relationship with the elemental force of the ocean is an integral part of the brand.

Surfing and the ocean give me energy and there’s a parallel between the fluidity of surfing and my artistic and cultural approach to designing clothes. It’s a sense of fluidity that resonates with me. In a way, it makes sense to me. And yes, the name “ATLEIN” is derived from the Atlantic Ocean.

You mentioned your desire to create timeless and durable pieces. How do you reconcile this approach with fashion trends and how does Atlein manage to stay relevant in a constantly changing fashion industry?

Atlein is certainly not a trend-driven brand. Its creations are timeless. They are not specifically linked to a particular era or trend. The emphasis is on creating timeless designs. As a result, we operate somewhat independently of the fashion system and trend cycles. Some of the elements and techniques we used in 2016 are still relevant today. We often reuse and rework patterns and construction methods. This focus on construction and tailoring contributes to the longevity of the brand, as it is not tied to fleeting trends.

This approach allows us to maintain a timeless quality, ensuring that a dress bought from us today can still be worn and relevant, even after a decade. I hope the brand retains its relevance and appeal in the future too.

You draw your inspiration from fashion history. Who are your icons and mentors? What is the first fashion book you remember buying? 

There are indeed several great masters in the fashion industry, particularly during the 20th century.  Some notable names include Madeleine Vionnet, Madame Grès, Cristobal Balenciaga, Azzedine Alaïa, and Rei Kawakubo. They form a sort of Pantheon of influential figures.

However, the first book that truly captivated my interest was about Madame Grès. She serves as a significant artistic reference for me. Grès was an incredible woman who defied societal norms of her time. She successfully ran her own business and was truly ahead of her time in many aspects. I find a deep connection with her work, and I believe our own creations often carry subtle references to her innovative spirit.

Can you tell us about your transition from studying literature to fashion, and how this shaped your vision as a designer?

I have always had a distant interest in fashion, but initially, I wanted to pursue the study of modern literature in Paris. At that time, my plan was to join the Fine Art school. However, everything changed when I visited a friend who was studying at the Royal Fine Art school in Antwerp. During that visit, I had a strong intuition that I needed to be there and attend that school.

Although I didn’t have any prior art training, I independently prepared for the entrance examination. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to be accepted, and from there, everything unfolded quite organically. There wasn’t a specific plan or calculated decision—it just naturally fell into place.

Do you think is the fundamental difference between studying fashion in France and doing it in Belgium? Why did you start your career in Paris? 

Well, back to the early 2000s, the fashion landscape was quite different from what it is today. During that time, I discovered Belgian fashion designers and found myself attracted to their work because it represented something beyond traditional fashion.
While I appreciated the strong and influential Parisian fashion scene, epitomized by designers like John Galliano, the Belgian designers offered a different perspective. There was an extra dimension to their creations. It wasn’t solely about fashion; it conveyed something more, something unique.

I felt that Paris, at the time, was somewhat insular and lacking in international diversity. It didn’t offer the alternative culture and creative richness I was seeking. In contrast, Antwerp, Belgium, provided a vibrant and dynamic environment with a wealth of alternative, punk, and free-spirited culture. This was precisely what I was searching for, and it felt truly invigorating and inspiring during that period.
Today, Paris has opened up and become more international, with a significant influx of international students and a broader cultural atmosphere. It has become a more vibrant and diverse city. However, during the time I initially left Paris, I found Antwerp to be incredibly interesting and captivating.

Eventually, circumstances led me back to Paris. I landed my first job as a stylist assistant, and all the photo shoots were taking place in Paris. Subsequently, I secured my first job as a designer at Louis Vuitton. Consequently, I moved back to Paris because, I was always interested to work in the luxury business and Paris kind of makes sense for that!

You have been working for the most important fashion Houses in Paris. What were the main lessons you learned from your experience at Louis Vuitton, Givenchy and Balenciaga, and how have they shaped your approach in designing women’s clothing?

It’s interesting to talk about my experience at school in Belgium. Surprisingly, the teachers didn’t allow me to concentrate on women’s wear. They thought my skills in this area were insufficient, which is rather ironic because I think they were completely wrong. This kind of situation happens quite often.

Fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some great people in major fashion houses. However, I really learned the most by working with the ateliers and the technical experts, the people who bring the creations to life. It was like discovering a treasure. For example, during my time at Balenciaga, I had the opportunity to learn from skilled women who had started working at the age of 16 under the guidance of Cristóbal Balenciaga himself. They had incredible knowledge and expertise and were eager to pass it on. They taught me a lot.

What inspired you to open your own House and did you expect it to get so big? 

First, Atlein is not a huge brand in terms of its structure. It’s actually a very small company with only a few people behind it. If you were to visit our studio, you would see how little our team is. But this is a good thing because it allows for a hands-on and intimate approach to the project.

I need to work closely with the individuals who bring my vision to life. There can’t be a large distance between us. I don’t have a team of designers or anything like that. It’s a direct and personal process. I did, however, work for many years in big fashion houses, which I loved. But I wanted to carve out my own space and create a new house for a new generation—one that reflects my values and operates on a smaller scale, while striving to make meaningful creations.

How do you manage to maintain the principle of sustainability while Atlein is getting bigger?

When it comes to sustainability, it’s always a tricky question. When we started the brand, sustainability wasn’t even a widely discussed topic in the fashion industry. We try our best to do as much as we can, but I don’t believe that there is a perfect solution. No matter what you do, even if you use 100% recycled materials, there will always be an impact and some waste.

We do our best with textile development and considering our scale, we try to minimize our environmental impact. As we grow, we continue to find ways to address sustainability. However, it should be the norm. Everyone should be mindful of their environmental impact, and it’s an ongoing effort for us as well.

I really like your honesty towards sustainability because you don’t call the brand sustainable, you say you “find solutions”. Do you think the big Houses should be doing more?

It’s a complex question because even if you delve deep into it, it’s challenging to truly understand the traceability of textiles. The textile industry remains opaque, despite some improvements. I believe many big fashion houses are doing a lot behind the scenes without publicizing it, which is a positive thing.

Fortunately, today people, especially the younger generation, are becoming more aware and caring about sustainability. They can recognize when something is too good to be true. They see through the facade.

You started with menswear and then moved on to womenswear very quickly because you didn’t want your designs to be about you. Now that fashion is becoming more and more genderless, especially on the runways, could you explore a more masculine wardrobe? 

Atlein is focused on the idea of dressmaking. I’m happy when anyone wears our clothes, regardless of their gender. We have many non-gender-conforming individuals who love wearing Altein, and some of them are close friends of mine. I enjoy creating garments for all body types, and our jersey fabric is versatile and suits different shapes.

As for masculinity, I would say that the codes I work with draw more from the feminine wardrobe. Currently, I don’t specifically design with masculinity in mind, but fashion’s understanding of femininity and masculinity is becoming increasingly blurred. So, who knows what the future holds? The lines are getting more and more blurred these days.

The materials guide your design, you make clothes from the amount of deadstock you can find. Does this principle of creation is a constraint, or does it force you to think more? Would you prefer to do the opposite, imagine the design, and then think about the fabrics? 

Madeleine Vionnet once said, “We should not dress with a pencil, but start using the fabric.” And I agree with that statement. The material itself plays a significant role in guiding the design process. When I have a particular fabric, it often sparks the desire to create something. Therefore, I give a lot of thought to construction. It’s a combination of both factors.

However, at its core, the fabric is crucial. It doesn’t leave you much choice because if you try to force it, the result won’t look good. So, the fabric truly sets the foundation for the design.

Atlein started with a jersey collection. Can you tell us about the discovery of your first deadstock and how this fabric influenced the DNA of the brand?

I wanted to launch Atlein, and during that time, I visited a factory that we used to work with. I had known them for many years from my time at Balenciaga and other brands. When I visited their warehouse, I was amazed to see all the deadstock they had accumulated from various brands spanning from the 19th century until today. Most of it was jersey fabric since they specialized in jersey production.

It was a profound encounter for me because I realized all these unused materials were just sitting there, deteriorating. It became the defining moment that shaped how we would work in the coming years. Jersey fabric holds a special place at the core of our brand. It’s a stretchy fabric that allows us to play with movement and form.

I personally love working with jersey because it excites me. It has a sculptural quality, and I enjoy the process of shaping it. Some people find it challenging to work with, and there’s even a humorous saying that “jersey’s a bitch.” I find it amusing because it acknowledges the difficulty of working with this material. But despite its challenges, I love it. I love how it can be molded to fit the body and take different forms.

Covid and the lockdown were a time of exploration for you. For your AW21 collection, you used a version of Atlein’s signature crepe jersey, knitted from Seaqual, a post-consumer waste yarn made from recycled marine plastic. Is this a creative process you would like to explore further, the creation of new materials from recycled materials?

At Atlein, we’re interested in exploring the creation of new materials from recycled sources. We’ve partnered with Seaqual to license their fiber for our fabric development. While finding suitable recycled materials was initially challenging, we’ve successfully developed new jerseys in collaboration with them.

However, textile development is a time-consuming and costly process. As an independent brand, we have limitations in terms of resources. The textile industry faces pressure to meet the demands of multiple collections, making it difficult to allocate time for innovation. Creating textiles is complex and often underestimated. Nonetheless, if given the opportunity, we would love to further develop our own technologies and expand our sustainable material options.

What inspired you for your FW23 collection? What new and innovative materials did you introduce in this collection?

The latest collection pushed the boundaries of Altein’s cultural approach, taking inspiration from the concept of draping. I came across the Gradiva, a novel by Wilhelm Jensen, which features a draped woman depicted in a Roman bas-relief of the same name. Draping, a classical and ancient technique of wrapping oneself in fabric, fascinated me.

The collection drew inspiration from the colors of Northern Atlantic skies, beaches, and sea. It aimed to evoke a goddess-like presence with elongated silhouettes and a sense of serenity.

What are the main challenges you face as a fashion designer looking for sustainable solutions in an industry focused on fast consumption and profit?

I believe that solutions often arise from smaller initiatives rather than relying solely on large groups or entities. Existing alongside bigger conglomerates can be challenging, as resources and influence may be limited. At Atlein, we value a quieter approach that aligns with our aesthetic and values.

Sustainability, particularly when using recycled materials, presents its own set of challenges. Sourcing specific materials like marine plastic can be difficult due to factors such as weather conditions and logistical constraints. Additionally, developing new textiles can lead to unforeseen production issues, which can be catastrophic for an independent brand.

For instance, we encountered problems with Seaqual material, where the stretchiness we initially had diminished during production. This affected the fit of the garments and created time constraints in meeting deadlines. Despite these challenges, we embrace the daily pursuit of overcoming obstacles as part of our journey. After seven years, we continue to navigate the ever-changing landscape.

We’ve talked about sustainability from an ecological point of view, but I’ve read that you are very committed to human rights, including social, anti-racist, feminist, and queer rights. How do you integrate all your battles into your label, and what are the principles of social responsibility that drive Atlein?

These values stem from my personal beliefs and political ideologies. I strongly believe in intersectionality, recognizing that an unfair system disadvantages many individuals while benefiting only a few. I advocate for sharing resources and supporting struggles against oppressive systems, be it anti-racism, feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, or any movement fighting for justice and equality.

At Atlein, we strive to embody these principles in our operations and structure. As a small family business, our values are embedded in the way we operate. Moving forward, I envision aligning our business with social responsibility, ensuring that our practices reflect these values. Ultimately, it is reflected in our design aesthetic and the way we approach our work. This is where our commitment to social responsibility finds expression.

How do you see Atlein in 10 years? 

In the next 10 years, our dream would be to have our own building, equipped with solar panels for example (laughs). A bigger space where we can set up our atelier and continue to develop our business on a regular basis. Our ultimate goal is to continue to be happy and fulfilled, creating amazing clothes that are worn by amazing women. To continue to meet inspiring people and to serve our community. What more can we ask? 

backstage photographies YEDIHAEL