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Nina Ricci

In Conversation: Rushemy Botter and Lisi Herrebrugh Talk Transatlantic Roots, BOTTER and Nina Ricci

by Charlie Zhang

Rushemy Botter and Lisi Herebrugh have been quietly and tirelessly cleaning the oceans since the start of their fashion brand, BOTTER. Based in Antwerp, the label creates contemporary menswear with Caribbean influences and has been critically acclaimed (2018 LVMH Prize finalists) for their underlying social commentary and eco-conscious designs. “BOTTER is not just about fashion,” they tell us. “Fashion is a reflection of the times we live in, and if we want to be current, we shouldn't limit ourselves to just garments…”

“I think we need to make the world better.”

Spending half their childhood in the Caribbeans and half in Holland, Lisi and Rushemy dream of the clear waters they once swam and played in when they were kids. As they remain in Paris during lockdowns, running BOTTER and creative directing French luxury house Nina Ricci, they’re more eager than ever to protect their childhood homes, even if it means doing it from an ocean away. 

Dialing in to local government authorities and a diving company, after months of relentless back-and-forths, Lisi and Rushemy managed to set up an underwater coral nursery in Curaçao remotely — nursing dying coral reefs back to life. Such environmental efforts are still a rare endeavor in high-fashion, but it’s what the two believe a modern brand needs.

Ocean conservation, transatlantic Caribbean identity and high-fashion — each deeply influences Lisi and Rushemy’s designs. Just look at any piece from BOTTER’s Fall 2022 runway “Romancing the Coral Reef," like a dark suit sewn with a fishing tack carved by a Japanese craftsman, or a tailored sport jacket with a cutout that subtly reveals lime-green diver-inspired lining. Since the designers’ explosive entrance in fashion over the last few years, each collection has become more subtle, and more sustainable.

In this series of In Conversation, we sit down with Rushemy Botter and Lisi Herrebrugh to discuss their design philosophies, their multicultural backgrounds and their seemingly impossible task of managing both BOTTER and Nina Ricci at once.

“Really create your own language and believe in yourself.”

Can you describe your childhood and where you grew up?

Lisi Herrebrugh: I grew up in Holland in a little village near Amsterdam. My mother is Dominican and my father's Dutch, so I've always been in between two cultures, and that has really enriched my life and my way of thinking. I felt quite soon that it was kind of rare to be able to think how my family taught me to think in the small village where I grew up — to be open to others, other cultures and other ways of thinking. I think it really gave me a wide perspective on life. I always traveled to see my family in the Dominican Republic about once every two years, sometimes once a year. I experienced having two different families.

“I need to work with my hands. I need to see results.”

Rushemy Botter: I grew up and was born in Curaçao, but at a young age — I think I was two and my brother was one — we moved to Holland with my mom. That's where I spent most of my time. But like Lisi, we moved quite a lot. We ended up in a small village near Lisi's village. Looking back, I was already very creative early on. I think because of that I was a bit lonely. As a young kid you're always trying to fit in, but I was always sort of in my room, dreaming. I spent a lot of time visiting different countries and making things. In my culture, however, you’re not really encouraged to be creative.

It’s more common to be pushed into becoming a doctor or lawyer. I was a bit lost and I didn't know what to do, so I went to the army when I was 18 to give myself a bit of structure.

How did you guys develop your creativity?

R: In the army, I spent a lot of time flipping through magazines like Vogue and then hiding them because it wasn't really cool to be reading those things. One day, I came across Antwerp Fashion Academy in one of the magazines and saw that Walter Van Beirendonck was its director. That for me was like a "Wow" moment. I had goosebumps. That’s when I realized a career in fashion was possible. I was already cutting up garments, but I didn't know that you could go to university for it and be taught to harness your creativity. So I left the army immediately and went to a technical school to learn how to build garments. That was for four years. Then I finally gathered the courage to visit Antwerp Fashion Academy. When I arrived, I saw Walter just casually sitting there and I just became so fascinated by the place. You could just feel the soul in the building. I could picture Martin Margiela walking through the hallways. That's when I was like, "I need to go to this school." So I applied and I got in. 

“Those four years were the best of my life.”

They really teach you to dream big and that you can do anything. They teach you about art history, art philosophy, how to properly reference things, how to study and think critically.

L: For me, I never really wanted to be a creative. It's difficult to explain because I'm creative in my own way, but I was always interested in the technical aspect of fashion. Before any of the fashion stuff, I was always drawn to the technical side of things. For example, I helped my father in construction, like doing little construction projects in the house. I was always like the number one person to go to when something needed to be done for our house or for friends. I really liked repairing and crafting things with my hands, so I probably see fashion in a different way. I love what Rushemy does. I love and admire his way of thinking, creating from zero, but I create differently.

What’s the creative process

L: I work on Rushemy's starting points and from there I build. I build silhouettes, I build details, and I like to see, for example, that if you made a garment stand, how would it drape? Even if it's just a few centimeters or millimeters of change in the waist or in shoulders, how would it look on the body? For me BOTTER is quite feminine, and I think one of my goals was to achieve subtlety — details that you don't really see but feel. I want this nuance to carry through in the branding and the garments, and to have the dichotomy between femininity and masculinity fade into one. 

How would you describe your experience going from school to the real world?

R: In the academy, you're really protected. I feel it now that I’m really out there, even though Antwerp Academy is known for being tough. But they do prepare you. You go through phases, and it's really a process. They're not going to take you by the hand and only say good things. That school is tough, but stepping into the industry is even tougher. It's not like people are going to say they like what you do. You really have to fight for your ideas, stand by your ideas. And just like what Lisi said, it's not just about creating like in the academy. It's more than creating or drawing silhouettes, it's also communication, managing teams, you know? It's how we grew up, you know? We need to go out and get it on our own. 

L: I remember when we just launched our graduation collection, we went to Paris right away for our showroom, but we didn't invite any buyers. So it's like these kind of like stupid mistakes we made as students, but in the end, it was a success anyway because we kind of hustled: we went to shows, we sent out flyers and we went to get people from the streets. Problem-solving like that has also been a big part of our mentality. You have to be eager to learn. You have to be open to do stuff that you didn't learn from the academy and perhaps makes you feel uncomfortable. You can't sit in your ivory tower and think, "I'm a designer so I shouldn't be doing those things." That's not the reality of the industry.

“We found the balance between our creativity and having a good structure for the brand as a company.”

To what extent are you guys influenced by things other than fashion?

R: I'm a bit spoiled in that regard because I get inspiration from anything and everything. I'm constantly in the process of creating something new, pushing new ideas... I don't get influenced that much by fashion itself. It's more by cultures, by emotions, by art and I really just pull from the things around me, usually not too much by fashion.

L: You know you've got like designers that need to flip through art books or whatever, but I've been next to Rushemy for several years and I see that he can just turn on the TV and sit there and find inspiration. It just comes from everyday stuff. It's almost like you need all this noise around you to be in a buzz. That's something that's very important. Maybe something developed during childhood. He needs to have the radio and TV on at the same time, you know, people speaking, music playing, like this collage of ordinary things that's morphed in your mind.

You've described BOTTER as an aquatic brand in past interviews? Could you explain why?

L: It goes quite deep. Since the beginning, we've been talking about the health of the ocean because to us, the ocean has been what has tied our families together. Our families live on the island. An island is so fragile because it's surrounded by water. There are so many things that islands deal with, like pollution from tourist boats, pollution from other countries and islands. 

“Water is important to us for this cultural and environmental reason, to live in harmony with nature as human beings.”

We've even started our own coral nursery in Curaçao because it was really terrible. There was severe bleaching going around and you know, this is the coral is also what protects the island. For example, when there's a storm, it stops the water from going beyond a certain distance, but it also promotes the biodiversity of fish. That's what we mean by aquatic brand: it's not just for fashion. It's really also about giving people the opportunity to be part of something bigger than just ourselves. It's our way of being better as responsible humans by working on the health of the ocean.

How was the process of joining Nina Ricci as Creative Directors?

L: It was quite tough to be very honest. We can’t say it was all rosy. In the beginning, we struggled because we didn't really have a great structure at BOTTER and Nina Ricci required a lot of time from us. So it was quite a struggle in the beginning to find a balance, but you have to do it, you know. It was very important for us to maintain both. We just had to make it work and we had no choice. So we focused on finding the right people, creating a good team and creating structure. These kinds of things are very important to the process because it was not easy at all.

Nina Ricci also needed a lot of development. It was quite outdated and not only in the garments, but from the inside of the company — we needed to do a lot of work. This took a lot of time, but I think it's normal. We never expect things to come easy. But to be honest, it's these kinds of difficult situations where we discover beauty and where we find unexpected solutions. So we're always open to the struggle.

R: It's hard. We can always tell you the beautiful story of it, but you have to know it's hard. It's a struggle. You have to fight everyday for your ideas and for your vision. However, 

“if you really want to do this, and this is your passion, it's a fight that you're willing to fight, you know. It's like you're fighting for your kids.”

How do you separate Nina Ricci from BOTTER?

L: In a lot of ways we don't. We just don't [laughs]. Many times we'll come across something beautiful that works for both brands, but use them in different ways. I feel BOTTER is much more direct and to the point, you know, it's almost like a kid that's growing with us. It's like going through puberty right now, going into, you know, before it was like kicking and screaming, but now it's like rebellious. Nina Ricci, she's much more romantic. BOTTER is much more emotional. Nina Ricci is more fluid. BOTTER is a bit more structured. There are ways to mold them differently — molding them from one idea to two separate ideas. That's how we do it.

R: For me it's a challenge to do it, but it's also nice to go out of your comfort zone. Sometimes you have this great idea and you go, "how can I translate this idea for Nina Ricci and deliver it in a different way?" Things like that people don't really see because it's so conceptual. I like to work in that way.

What do you guys want people to feel when looking at your designs? 
R: What I want them to feel is that it's beautiful to be unique, and that it's beautiful to contribute to making the world better and that it's not just about fashion. Fashion is a reflection of the times we live in, and if we want to reflect what's going on, we shouldn't limit ourselves to just garments. That's not healthy. It's not avant garde. If we really want to be fashion and have a voice, I think we need to make the world better.

If you were to give some advice to young creatives, what would it be?

R: Really create your own language and believe in yourself. From my perspective, I think it's also good to step away from the internet a little bit and not see it as the only place you can find resources from. You really need to go out there and find another source. These days it's very rare to go to a library and find references, studying objects, cultures, you know? You need to go out there instead of sitting behind the screen because 

“there's more to life than the internet.

L: I think the industry is much more open than ever to new talent. So I would say really go out there and follow your dream and find your passion and just go for it.

R: What I always say is "if we can do it, you can do it too." I'm not different than any other kid. You just have to dream big and don't let anyone tell you that you cannot or that you don't fit in. Use that as your engine and as your fuel to just kick in doors. Just go for it anyways because there's always room for more people, especially now as things are shifting. I really love this time. It gives me goosebumps. It's like the old guards are moving. So it's now time for the young ones. The kids are the future.

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