Print exclusive: Anja Rubik’s ocean odyssey

ANJA RUBIK is dedicated to making significant environmental changes in the fashion industry. Together with non-profit organization Parley for the Oceans and PORTER, the supermodel heads to the crystal waters of the Maldives to discover the vast impact of plastic pollution, how brands can embrace eco-innovation, and what we can all do to save our seas. Photography MARIO SORRENTI. Styling CAMILLE BIDAULT-WADDINGTON

Words Danielle Radojcin

On the tiny island of Mutteyfushi, tucked inside the north-eastern arc of the Gaafu Alif Atoll in the Maldives, a piece of game-changing fashion magic is being created. As the sun hovers just above the horizon, photographer Mario Sorrenti knows the beach will soon be cloaked in darkness. “Make sure she’s back before the light goes,” he says to stylist Camille Bidault-Waddington about model Anja Rubik, who is changing in a wooden hut doubling as a wardrobe for the day. Behind us is a forest of beach cabbage, ironwood and screw pine; in front, the ocean extends, unbroken save for a few distant uninhabited islands in a turquoise expanse as far as the eye can see. This has all the appearance of another glamorous fashion shoot; in fact, the motives behind it are far more profound.

What we are trying to do is highlight the beauty and fragility of our oceans, and to invite the fashion industry, especially luxury brands, to collaborate. We have passed the point of raising awareness; now it’s time for solutions that can be scaled quickly
Anja Rubik

Rubik is the reason we are all here. While most of us recognize her as the face of countless ad campaigns, an enduring runway star and muse of Saint Laurent, she is less known for her political and environmental work, both as a spokesperson for women’s rights and as a collaborator with Parley for the Oceans – an environmental organization primarily focused on the effects of plastic pollution. By bringing her fashion industry friends – PORTER editor-in-chief Lucy Yeomans, Sorrenti and Bidault-Waddington – to the Maldives, an area particularly vulnerable to climate change and where Parley has a base, she is shining a light on the issue and inspiring change. “What we are trying to do by working with PORTER is highlight the beauty and fragility of our oceans, and to invite the fashion industry, especially luxury brands, to collaborate,” says Rubik. “We have passed the point of raising awareness; now it’s time for solutions that can be scaled quickly.”

Parley founder Cyrill Gutsch, whom Rubik met at a Parley x Nasa JPL conference in 2016, is the creative strategist at the forefront of this movement. His premise for change is based on the fact that at least every second breath we take is generated by the oceans, that humankind cannot survive on a planet with lifeless seas.“Behind every environmental issue lies a faulty economic system. Meat consumption and burning fossil fuel both drive climate change, and plastic harms sea life and damages human health. We are paying a high price. We are paying with our future,” says Gutsch, who thinks that futurists are the new environmentalists.

Central to Parley is its AIR strategy, an acronym which stands for Avoid, Intercept, Redesign. It is an update on the traditional ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ mantra and can be applied to households as well as businesses and governments. In short, Parley is working to intercept plastic waste from remote islands and coastal communities, beaches and the open sea; upcycle it into what they have trademarked as Ocean Plastic®; and with the help of artists, designers and major brands, turn it into symbols of change, while finding effective alternatives to the material itself through collaborating with a diverse network of scientists, inventors, investors and creatives to develop new materials and replace plastic for good. “Change can either happen on a rational level, through facts and evidence, or quickly, in your heart,” says Gutsch. “That’s the beauty of fashion and art. They can create a process of change without the need for too many words.”

Back at the shoot, Rubik saunters out in nothing but a pair of voluminous metallic-gold trousers looking for all the world like a beautiful astronaut. Knee-deep in the turquoise water, tanned arms crossed over her bare chest, she tosses her blonde bob a little, lowers her chin and raises her eyes to the camera. The sun, now soft and pink, bounces off the fabric, creating glints of light that mimic the sea plankton, which comes alive at night in a magical display.

Waste not
Some of the trash found in Parley’s beach cleanup on Kondey Island in the Maldives

In person, Rubik is at odds with the ultra-groomed, hard-bodied, androgyne that we see in editorial work and campaigns. If anything, the 35-year-old looks like a lanky, if rather refined, teenager. She speaks thoughtfully and with a quiet confidence, as befits someone who has become accustomed to debating with politicians and activists whose viewpoint she is seeking to alter. In addition to her collaboration with Parley, Rubik has long been outspoken on the environment. She has campaigned against deforestation in her native Poland, where this year she also launched her #sexedpl campaign (which had more than 10 million views) calling for better sex education in schools. “I love his passion,” Rubik says of Parley founder Cyrill Gutsch. “Protecting the oceans is his life’s motivation and he works on it 24/7. I also love his optimism: that it’s not over yet, that we can affect change.” For his part, Gutsch was impressed with Rubik’s curiosity. “She was so hungry to know. What was interesting was that she wouldn’t come out right away with an opinion or an action plan. She wanted to learn. Then, when she was ready, she came back and was like, ‘OK, let’s do something.’”

The first fully synthetic plastic, a durable material made to last forever, was invented by Leo Baekeland in New York in 1907. Its ubiquity coupled with its imperviousness to water has led to it becoming, along with climate change, one of the two biggest environmental threats to our planet. Terrifying facts swirl around us: 33 percent of plastic is used once and then discarded, says the Plastic Pollution Coalition; Europe and Central Asia alone dump the equivalent of 54 plastic bags worth of microplastics per person per week into the oceans, according to Greenpeace; microplastics, shed by synthetic fabrics after washing, enter our oceans where they are swallowed by fish and other sea-life, ending up in our food. Research by the Plastic Pollution Coalition has also found that exposure to the chemicals leached by plastics is linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other ailments. The message is clear: plastic is not healthy – for us or the oceans.

The Maldives is a country of more than 1,000 coral islands – of which only one percent is solid land, with a height of no more than two or three meters above sea level – making it particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change. “The Maldives is the testing ground for our strategy and over the coming years we will roll it out to other Small Island Developing States facing similar challenges,” says Shaahina Ali, a prominent lobbyist for change in the area and director of Parley Maldives. Ali’s irrepressible firecracker spirit is obvious as she speaks about how it’s her job to affect change at ground zero. “Collaboration is the nucleus. Without a countrywide network including the President and different government offices, partners from the private sector and NGOs, we couldn’t have this kind of impact.” Ali is also at the helm of Parley’s efforts to intercept tons and tons of plastic. “We are cleaning up, but also educating local children. They will take care of the blue treasure that defines our country in the future.”

“People are worried,” says Gutsch later on, leaning back on cushions in the lounge area of the Park Hyatt Hadahaa, home to the PORTER and Parley crews during the shoot. “They don’t want to hear apocalyptic scenarios. If they can see that there is a positive, creative answer, then they will want to get involved.” He pauses and takes a long deep breath. “Doesn’t the air here make you high?” he says. “There’s so much oxygen.” The renegade is dressed in top-to-toe black, his trademark ponytail and thick-rimmed glasses. “Plastic is a design failure,” he says. “Ocean Plastic® is great for a transition phase, but in the long term, plastic needs to go. Recycling is only a band-aid.”

Born in Frankfurt in 1971, Gutsch and his partner, Lea Stepken, moved to New York in 2004 and set up a creative agency that specialized in the launch and relaunch of brands. Although they did well, the pair had begun to find their work unsatisfying. A chance meeting in 2012 with captain Paul Watson, the legendary Canadian-American ocean conservationist, changed everything. “What I learned from Paul, who looked like a pirate version of Santa Claus, was the projection of the oceans collapsing by 2048. That shocked me,” says Gutsch. “So I asked him, ‘How can you dedicate yourself to a lost cause? Where do you find the energy to fight a battle you will probably never win?’ He quoted Winston Churchill back to me: ‘Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.’ In that moment I realized it’s not just about the end result – it’s the process. Suddenly it made total sense to dedicate my life to an ‘impossible’ mission: protecting the oceans. Today, we know that we have way less time than expected to turn things around, a maximum of 10 years.”

People are worried. If they can see that there is a positive, creative answer, then they will want to get involved. We have way less time than expected to turn things around, a maximum of 10 years
Cyrill Gutsch
Parley founder

Using funds they had saved or borrowed from friends, he and Stepken immediately transformed their design firm into an environmental organization with the focus on combating marine-plastic pollution – not a prominent cause back then. With their branding experience, they came up with a strategy they felt would lead to optimal success: instead of lobbying governments, they would partner with creatives, media and lifestyle brands. “We decided the artist is the true agent of change; the best catalyst for ideas, the best translator, and also the best connector between different layers in society.”

Celebrated New York-born artist and film director Julian Schnabel was an early supporter – he designed the Parley logo and hosted the first event at his Palazzo Chupi in New York – and they have since worked with art-world heavyweights Doug Aitken, Ed Ruscha and Jenny Holzer. Other collaborators include brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev and its brand Corona, with whom Parley started the 100 Islands Project, protecting remote places from marine litter. To grow these efforts, they have just launched Clean Waves, which engages designers to create products made from upcycled marine-plastic debris, starting with sunglasses. But by far their biggest success has been their work with Adidas, which has committed to boosting eco-innovation and becoming plastic-free by 2024. More than 1m pairs of Parley x Adidas sneakers made with Ocean Plastic® were sold in 2017, with millions more projected to be sold this year.

“There’s nothing more glamorous than saving lives and having a purpose,” says Gutsch. “Purpose is the new luxury.” Rubik agrees: “Brands should be more responsible. When you buy something expensive, you expect it to be made in the most environmentally aware way possible. That kind of transparency is the future. The fashion community can drive the movement – we can create trends.”

Halfway through the shoot, the fashion crew and local Parley teams meet at a long communal breakfast table in the dining area of the Park Hyatt. An upbeat mood pervades, everyone laughing and sharing stories over iced green tea, egg-white omelets and sliced papaya. Positivity and a spirit of collaboration is a key motif of the Parley modus operandi. “While other organizations say, ‘Give us your money and we will solve the issues for you,’ Parley empowers you with ideas, knowledge and tools – so you can help the planet yourself,” says filmmaker Christian Miller, who works as director of Parley Australia.

After breakfast, hair stylist Christiaan molds Rubik’s hair into a warrior’s topknot, a contrast to the romantic ruffled blouses both new (Simone Rocha, Emporio Armani) and vintage (Thierry Mugler, Hermès and YSL), combined with a rhinestone-encrusted, nude-and-lilac body from Gucci, edgier pieces by Loewe and Faustine Steinmetz; and a sprinkling of scuba-sports swimwear from Adidas by Stella McCartney, Solid & Striped and Gooseberry Intimates. As we walk along the jetty, Rubik lets out an excited scream and points to a school of fish swimming beneath the wooden slats. Suddenly, half a dozen reef sharks and a nurse shark appear. “We should go in! Let’s go!” shouts Rubik, jumping in, Sorrenti at her side with an underwater camera. As she rises and dives down repeatedly, a flash of scarlet lace Rodarte skirt moves with her, like an exotic sea creature.

Throughout the trip, anticipation has been building around a visit by a group of local children, part of the Parley Ocean School program. It is a project close to everybody’s hearts and the fundamental purpose for Gutsch’s and Parley’s Maldives endeavor: to educate local children about environmental conservation, to teach them how to swim and to certify them as Ocean Guardians, with the mission to educate their parents and bring change to their island communities.

Under the leadership of Ali, the children arrive by boat and gather in a semi-circle on the beach. They giggle and chat as Sorrenti snaps away. For many, this is their first time in the water – most Maldivians can’t swim, and most have never seen life underwater. They are taken out in groups of five into the warm, knee-deep water on a surfboard or glass-bottomed kayak, under the guidance of Chilean pro surfer Ramón Navarro, director of Parley Chile.

Brands should be more responsible. When you buy something expensive, you expect it to be made in the most environmentally aware way possible. That kind of transparency is the future. The fashion community can drive the movement – we can create trends
Anja Rubik

Afterwards the kids grin with pride at their achievement. Rubik is delighted. “I was showing one of the boys the coral and the fish that was swimming by, which he could see through his mask. He was holding my hand, because he was a little afraid. And then he started pointing the sea life out to me. He was so into it he started to let go of my hand. It was such a beautiful moment, I was really moved.”

“It is mind-boggling,” Sorrenti adds. “That you can live on a tiny little island surrounded by ocean and never instinctively go in. It was amazing to witness how the parents were bringing their kids, taking that leap into the water, into the future, into education.”

The children are also here to take part in a beach cleanup, and together with the fashion crew and Parley collaborators they fill huge sacks, each about two-meters high, with plastic litter. Within 20 minutes, four sacks are full – a stark indicator of the enormity of this mission. Once collected, the waste will be used in one of Parley’s upcycling programs.

After dark, Rubik stands in front of a glorious bonfire on the beach in a rust-colored boho dress, like a goddess sending a message to the heavens. The team gathers around her, silently absorbing the beautiful scene, Sorrenti’s words resonating in our minds. “I spend my whole life searching for beauty, art and photography, trying constantly to move forward. The last days with Parley were a wake-up call. Now, we can start putting our energies and creativity into inspiring people to start making something positive, a change.”

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The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.