There’s a new movement gathering momentum in fashion and Helen de Kluiver right in the midst of it. Her brand CAES, founded in 2019, was built around the belief that fashion does not have to be fast or seasonal. Through careful consideration of each fabric, CAES designs timeless garments with sustainability front of mind. Through a network of suppliers that share Helen’s steadfast vision, CAES is able to closely follow the production process as everything is made in-house in family-owned factories in Portugal.
Limited styles which are meticulously designed mean every piece produced receives high attention to detail, while the tightly edited collections release in editions rather than following the standard pattern of seasonality. The result is a collection of consciously-made minimal, comfortable and luxurious essentials ready to be cherished for years to come.
To celebrate CAES’ launch at Incu, we recently had the pleasure of chatting with Helen about the origins of the label, an insight into the brand ethos and a refreshing talk about consumer behaviour and sustainability habits.
Hi Helen – thanks for chatting with us! How are things going in your world?
Anytime - thank you for having me! My world consists of many good things at the moment, one of them being our upcoming launch at INCU of course. I am actually seeing many positive developments after these crazy past 18 months; things might be getting back to normal but with a lot more appreciation for the small things in life. I never would have imagined going to a restaurant with friends would feel so special.
Well, we’re very excited to be welcoming CAES to the Incu family. Tell us, how did founding the brand come about?
Before launching CAES, I worked as a designer for many years on huge collections that had to fall within a strict framework of (seasonal) styles, budget and time, as is the case with most fashion brands. But for me personally, it didn't feel right anymore. I had a strong desire to focus on quality and designing items that would not be limited to one season only. To be able to really give my full attention to each piece, take my time and really love the end product. That was my dream. I toyed with this idea for some time but was finally brave enough to take the first steps at the beginning of last year. I envisioned smaller collections in "editions" rather than seasons, with qualities and colors that would remain timeless and wearable year-round.
The first thing I did was look for the right suppliers who shared my vision. We ended up working with family-owned companies in Portugal so we can visit them often and closely follow the production process because everything is made in-house. They are all very dedicated and truly care about their people. To me, this is at least as important as the quality of their work.
The actual start of the brand was a very exciting time for me, and it still sometimes is. I have worked in the fashion industry for a very long time so am fortunate to have many talented people around me that I can turn to for advice. Last year Jolien joined, who has a financial background which really complements mine. It’s been nice to be able to work closely together and discuss everything with someone.
The origin of the name CAES is twofold. I wanted it to embody the importance I give to clothing items; the way they are worn close to your skin every day, protecting your body like a case. It's the reason I value high quality materials with a luxurious feel. Secondly, CAES is phonetically the same as my father's name "Kees". He was a great business man and true inspiration to me, and sadly passed away when I was a teenager. This is my way of honoring him.
I am also a true vintage lover; nothing makes me happier than finding a vintage treasure. It’s the timelessness of (re-)wearing something for many years or even decades which appeals to me, and I hope to really capture that with CAES.
CAES’ ethos extends beyond producing sustainable pieces and edition drops, can you elaborate on how else you incorporate sustainability in your business?
Sustainability is a difficult concept to describe because it’s ever-changing and affects many different parts of a business. I believe it’s not just about using the right materials; the human aspect is very important too. Working with the right people who share your vision and bring knowledge and experience to the table. And making sure all these people are treated fairly. We also try to minimize the environmental impact from our design and production process. It requires a lot of research but it’s very rewarding to find methods and partners that can help us improve. For instance, our pattern maker who works in 3D exclusively to avoid waste, or our packaging partner who develops compostable bags for packing and shipping. Design wise, I create seasonless styles in a neutral color palette, which allows our customers to combine editions together through the years. For our photoshoots we take it one step further by styling CAES items with vintage pieces, to reinforce the idea of combining the old with the new. We are lucky to work with a great art director, Merel, who is always thinking of new ways to communicate our story.
What’s your take on the industry as a whole? Are we on the right track, or is there a way to go in the fight for a more sustainable future?
There has been a growing awareness during the pandemic. So yes, I think we’re definitely on the right track but haven’t won the fight yet. Clothing companies are acknowledging and speaking up about the impact of the industry, which is a great first step. I can also appreciate how, for big companies especially, it’s impossible to turn everything around at once. But awareness and willingness to change are important developments that we need to embrace and encourage.
What’s the most important thing consumers should be doing in their journey to for more sustainable habits?
I would say to really treasure the clothes (and other objects) you already own by taking better care of them, like washing them gently for instance. If you want to invest in new pieces, buy from brands that offer transparency about their values and how they produce. Or you could of course shop vintage pieces, which is another great sustainable habit.
The fabric selection is incredible. Can you give us an insight into the process of sourcing, selecting and manufacturing your garments?
Because our designs are so minimal, the fabrics are the most important so we start there. Sometimes it’s hard because we mainly work with low impact materials, so that limits our choices while sourcing. When I have found a selection of materials I like, I look at how they combine together. I like to combine a nice mix of soft and rough textures to create a more interesting visual. After that, I design the actual garments and have them made. Our suppliers are all based in Portugal and have been with us since the start of the brand.
Slowing down is a big part of CAES’ identity – how does slowing down help you in your creative pursuits for the label?
To be honest, sometimes it’s so incredibly busy that I need to remind myself that we are a slow fashion brand! But all kidding aside, having worked also in the “not-so-slow fashion business”, I have dealt with impossible deadlines, last minute changes and tight budgets. For CAES, I try my best to focus on the design and sourcing process, and be thoughtful about the end product. And it’s okay if it takes a little bit longer to get it right and to feel good about it in the end. My focus is on the process, not so much on just cranking out lots of new designs.
Your collection captures modern minimalism, how does this resonate with your individual style?
I think it’s very much my own style. When you look at my closet, you will find mostly minimal pieces, some of which I have had for many years. I am also a true vintage lover; nothing makes me happier than finding a vintage treasure. It’s the timelessness of (re-)wearing something for many years or even decades which appeals to me, and I hope to really capture that with CAES.
What feeling do you wish to evoke when people wear CAES?
Clothes are a way to express yourself, and I hope when wearing CAES people feel like they are doing just that. Besides that, I want them to feel comfortable – because of the great quality, but also because they made a conscious choice to wear a brand that cares about the planet and its people.
Can you share with us, the inspiration and creative process behind your latest collection?
Edition 04, which launches this month, was created during our lockdown and I was very into the idea of protecting yourself with clothes. It was about using protective materials and creating a uniform. I like to look at shapes to add in each collection, which is why art is often a big inspiration for me.
I am working on the next edition now, and I feel it needs to be softer and more tactile. Each finished edition can really define how I felt in that moment and what I was inspired by, but my creative process generally stays the same.
What’s in the works for you and the brand in 2022 and beyond?
CAES will launch in some beautiful stores, which we are very excited about. We aim to grow organically but steadily; 2022 will definitely be a year of growing partnerships with stores around the globe and giving more people access to CAES. And of course, just keep doing what we love.
Discover the CAES collection here