Nadja Swarovski - Interview

Nadja Swarovski was interviewed by Ample's sustainable fashion journalist Megan Doyle during Graduate Fashion Week 2022. We're sharing a condensed Q&A from GFW of Nadja's thoughts on the history of her family brand, the importance of handcrafts, and the future of sustainability. 

Nadja has had an incredible career in fashion, driving the Swarovski brand for 26 years, which was founded by her great-great-grandfather in 1895. Nadia established the Swarovski Foundation in 2013 and worked with various charities and the UN to push for greater social and environmental responsibility in the fashion industry. Nadia is the President of the German Fashion Council and a member of the Nature Conservancy European Council for Global Conservation.

How has the fashion industry's position on sustainability evolved since you started your career?

I have to say, there has been a tremendous evolution in the last 10 years. Up until five years ago, perhaps it was a non-topic. When I lead corporate communications for Swarovski, we supported many wonderful organisations, such as the different fashion councils. We felt the fashion councils were so important because they created these awards for designers, which are so impactful to them and the progression of their careers. 

But we really wanted to see these councils creating sustainability awards; however, it took a long time to gain traction. Sustainability was something incredibly important to talk about, to consider and recognise, and to also celebrate those brands who were doing that. Fast forward to now, and it seems like it is the most important topic. I think it's wonderful and it is wonderful to see that. But I think another big topic in the industry is greenwashing.

We have seen a similar situation in the food industry around the entire topic of organic. It was more like a marketing label versus organically grown produce. The question here is: what is really sustainable? So often, maybe 1/10 of an entire manufacturing process is sustainable, and brands allow themselves the liberty to refer to their garment as sustainable, even if the 9/10th remaining is not sustainable. But to answer your question, yes. It's more streamlined now. Although the fashion industry is a huge polluter, I mean, fashion is creative, right? And so much of it is creative problem-solving. 

Tell us about the Swarovski factories and the connection to the natural environment in the Alps.

Our factories are in the Tyrolean Alps. I just remember when people would come to visit the factory, they were so amazed because they expected an industrial estate. And instead, here was our factory in the most beautiful environment in the Alps. I think it's that environment that sparked my father's grandfather and my yearning to ensure that both people and the planet are taken care of while you manufacture and produce. 

The founder of the company, Daniel Swarovski, my great-great-grandfather, came from Bohemia and developed this crystal cutting machine. But because everyone else was developing crystal, he felt he needed to get away from that competition and move to Austria, but he chose that location because it had a powerful mountain stream. So, he used that water as electricity for his machine, and nature worked so beautifully hand in hand with the manufacturing process. Because my family was pretty much the biggest employer in the region, and we're in this beautiful environment, we did everything we could to take care of our workers and the environment. We invested a lot of time, effort, and resources in manufacturing sustainably. I think privately owned companies may do a little bit more because there's a greater sense of responsibility and accountability.

To us, what was the norm was not the industry norm. And I have to say it motivated me to also create the sustainability department within Swarovski in 2012. We did not have an official sustainability department, but we connected the dots of various manufacturing plants worldwide. We compared various practices and facilities, whether it was the crystal cutting plant in Austria or our jewellery manufacturing plants in Thailand and Vietnam; the advantage of owning your own manufacturing is that you have total transparency of the supply chain.

Swarovski has that true link between artists and crafts and the real beauty of creating something done by hand. 

When I started at Swarovski, nobody wanted to work with me because they associated Swarovski with figurines. So I always had to tell them the story about how hard it is to make crystal and how the crystal can be a wonderful, sparkling ingredient within their creations. It was ironic that Alexander McQueen really appreciated crystal, but then again, Alexander McQueen appreciated any material. You know he is an expert working with leather, wood and metal and feathers. 

Someone was telling me about the story when he and Lee McQueen worked together, and they had no money to buy materials. They went to Brighton Beach and just walked up and down the beach collecting trash and materials washed up. They used clear plastic; they didn't have coloured plastic, so they painted it with Sharpies. No one would ever have known that was how they sourced their materials because the overall design was so amazing. Talk about creative problem-solving. 

What great inspirations the McQueens are, it doesn't get much more impressive than that. It's a lesson in the importance of handcrafting skills. Zero waste design with textile waste, scraps and deadstock rolls and all sorts of things is where many young designers are starting. It's an accessible way to get materials that no one wants. A lot of the time it is cheap to buy, and yet you can create something extraordinary.

I always think back to the craft. In the last 10 years, the world has become so digital and mass manufactured, and I think the pendulum is definitely swinging back to that greater appreciation of craft. Craft is not old-fashioned. Craft is where the innovation lies. And I think it's also important for younger designers to practice their craft because that'll give more traditional craftsmanship legitimacy.

Swarovski has an incredible family history. And I think looking at history can inform the future of fashion. So what is something that you've learned from your family heritage or the heritage of the Swarovski brand that you think people can really be inspired by as they look to the future?

In the case of Swarovski, it goes back to the craft. My great-great-grandfather was a poor boy in Bohemia who was given long glass rods by the local glass factory on Monday morning, and then he had to cut little crystal stones from this long glass rod by hand in his house. And at the end of the week, he had to give these crystals to the factory. He thought it was boring, so he went to the first electricity fair in 1862 and saw machines by Edison and Siemens and started to make his own machine to make crystals faster with greater precision, quantity, and quality in less time.  He has always been incredibly meticulous in terms of quality, not one scratch or bubble in the crystal when it leaves the factory, and I think that care and consideration are crucial for quality craftsmanship.

Even today, we make the same stone that we made 127 years ago — that has not changed. Just the implementation of the stone has changed. If you have a super quality product, it's there forever, you know? That's my piece of inspiration.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. For the full conversation with Nadja Swarovski, check out the Graduate Fashion Week 2022 Live coverage here.