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Sofia Ilmonen wins the first ever Mercedes Benz Prize for Sustainability at the Hyeres Festival

While less known in the United States, the Hyeres Festival just celebrated it’s 38th year as a preeminent competition of fashion and photography in France. For its 38th celebration, the festival took place at the villa Noailles and salin des esquiers in France from October 14th to the 17th. The designers/finalists were given the opportunity to showcase their original creations through group exhibitions. Their designs were then judged by the festival’s jury, which consisted of creative director of Lacoste, Louise Trotter, shoe designer Christian Louboutin and others.Prizes and grants—Chloé Prize, the 19M Chanel ‘métiers d’art’ Prize, the American Vintage Photography Prize and the Hermès Fashion Accessories Prize—were awarded to designers from the festival’s long-time partners. These partners include: CHANEL, le19M, Première Vision, LVMH, Chloé, Hermès, Mercedes-Benz, American Vintage, la Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, le DéfiKering, Premiere Classe and Supima.

This year’s Hyeres Festival showcased dazzling collections focused on innovation, craftsmanship, whimsy, storytelling – but above all sustainability (in its true sense). Which leads us to Sofia Ilmonen – the winner of the first ever Mercedes-Benz Sustainability Prize.

The judges overwhelmingly chose Ilmonen whose work embodies radical innovation. Orsola de Castro (co-founder of Fashion Revolution and mentor to the finalists) says unequivocally, “No industry is as old fashioned as the fashion industry right now. It’s great to watch it being challenged to its core, from its core.”

 And to write about this oh so very chic radical designer and open with a confession of having read her MFA Thesis might sound a little nerdy for No Kill –yet read it we did. And we too were wowed by the undeniable brilliance of research and concept that ultimately led to the collection.

“My starting point was to look for a solution to the shortevity of clothing that would act as a protest against the waste of the clothing industry. All the outfits in the collection are built of squares of same size, so the shape of the pattern pieces will not determine its function in the future. The idea is that a garment lasts a while, because it can be modified over and over again with the help of buttons and button loops’. ”— Sofia Ilmonen

The name of her collection ‘Same Same but Different’ playfully describes the idea of the collection: the squares remain the same, but the shape can change.

While we could go on about the clothes, see the images for yourself. What really jumped out was the process since so many of our readers are makers we thought a quick (and I mean quick) review of how she arrived at the idea worthwhile.


Relocating to Finland to do a masters in fashion after working full time at Alexander McQueen, she became fascinated by her grandmother’s heritage, particularly a tradition of layering scarves onto clothing. Using a zero-waste approach and identical square shapes for each garment led to modular design and multiple functional pieces –Buttons and loops were sewn into squares allowing for this assembly and reassembly, i.e. changing a sleeve into a skirt. Multiple iterations and material experimentation led to more questions about modularity.

Ilmonen’s practice becomes one of transformation, inviting the wearer into an active role – you are part of the transformation of it from y to z; your own influence on the design “can evoke positive and even liberating emotions, encouraging (you) to care and use the garments longer.  The transformation of identical square modules into whimsical wearable silhouettes that can be assembled and reassembled further transform our notions of “sustainability”.

When all is said and done, the unique benefits to her modular clothing design provides a clear and exciting path that challenges the very core of the current industry. And it didn’t hurt that the pieces were brilliant; theatrical, colorful, meticulously finished, minimizing fabric waste, using sumptuous vegetable dyes integrated into clever (re)makeable modules.

–KL Dunn

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