On the occasion of a complete rebranding of their flagship stores in Lausanne, Zurich, and Vienna, The Lausanne Guide took a deep dive into the ecology-driven Zurich-based brand Qwstion. Over coffee and vegan croissants, we spoke with the impassioned manager of the Lausanne store, Alia Elborai.
Qwstion at a Glance
Qwstion has been making bags, backpacks and practical accessories since 2008. The Zurich-based brand was founded by five product and graphic designers who were looking for a sustainable and functional option for an everyday bag. One of the stand-out features in almost all Qwstion bags is the fact that they are versatile: they transform from a tote into a backpack, or from a backpack into a briefcase. The designs are simple (at first glance) and minimalist, based on concepts of Swiss modernist design where less is more and functionality is key.
Another important feature of Qwstion products is far less obvious to the naked eye: sustainability, responsible manufacturing, and the continuous desire to make our planet a better place through a more ethical practice and a greener life. This holistic approach to design is applied to every aspect in the company, from the people who work there, to the design process and the production chain.
Qwstion is not just a brand, but it’s also a philosophy that embodies a desire for a better world. Has this philosophy been part of the brand from the beginning or has it developed over time?
From the very start, using natural fabrics was always important. One of the founders, Christian Kägi, tested a lot of different materials, from hemp to linen and many other plant-based textiles. The challenge was always how to bring sustainability without compromising pure aesthetics and clean lines. How to design a bag with functionality at the core without compromising the aesthetics.
Circularity at the Forefront
Qwstion initially used organic cotton and PFC-free water-repellent coatings that allows the brand to avoid harmful substances and make healthy products, materials and processes that do not put a strain on the environment. But it wasn’t enough.
In 2015 Qwstion first came across a plant of the Banana tree family known locally as “Banana Hemp” or “Abacá”. Cultivated within a natural ecosystem of sustainable mixed agriculture and forestry, abacá is sturdy and self-sufficient, requiring no pesticides or extra water. After three years of research, testing and development Qwstion developed Bananatex®, the first durable, waterproof fabric made purely from Banana plants. As an open source project, Bananatex® offers a viable alternative to synthetic fabrics. It is not only biodegradable but also compostable (yes, there’s a difference!). The buckles and zippers are recyclable. All parts of the bags can go back into the ecosystem without leaving a trace that it was ever there.
But of course, you can’t know this from looking at the bag–which was part of the problem of the previous store. Before, the Qwstion stores also sold a diverse range of objects and products, items from clothing to accessories, books to decorative items. The rebranding of the stores will place circularity in the forefront. Qwstion will concentrate on Qwstion.
As Alia put it, “Less distraction, more focus”.
Bananatex® is now up and running and doing great things. Are there any other developments that you are working on? New materials or ways of doing things (process)?
For now, we are focusing on Bananatex® only. However, Bananatex® is not the end game. There is more to come. We believe in diversity. The idea behind circularity is to never be mono. It’s not monoculture, it’s permaculture. It is not good for the planet to only depend only on one product or one material. It’s more about having a variety of textiles that can be used for different reasons and that allow for different cycles in the field (or in the forest in the case of Bananatex®), because that’s where it starts. We want to bring diversity into the textile industry and we truly believe that we can help the textile industry move forward towards a more sustainable practice.
Are you developing other alternative textiles to not deplete the abacá trees?
Not for now. It is really hard to develop a material and you are never sure if it’s going to actually work! Before Bananatex®, the abacá fiber was only used as a rope. We then found the system to turn it into paper and then from paper, it is spun into textile. The natural color is white, which was a wonderful surprise, so we don’t have to use dye.
For now, Bananantex® is still small, and we need to develop it. We are not looking for fast growth but for organic growth. We need to make sure to find the right balance: the balance between being big enough that people find it but not too big that the production starts disrespecting the planet. It’s very important that we stay in alignment with the principles of circularity. We want to be respectful towards all living beings and the planet. We believe that Bananatex® can replace synthetic materials.
Luckily, abacá has a fast growth and naturally has a cycle that works well within an ecological framework.
Everything is cultivated and harvested by hand. The bags are produced as close as possible to where the plants grow, as to reduce the transportation and carbon footprint. We cultivate a holistic approach to make sure that we are constantly in alignment with our vision every step of the way.
What will be different about the new store?
There will be a repair station to fix peoples’ bags, and rolls of Bananatex® sold by the meter. Small, significant collaborations will be placed in the forefront on what we are calling “The Platform”.
The first collaboration is the ENSŌ Lounge Chair created with the historic Swiss furniture company Lehni. ENSŌ is a seat for circularity. Recycled aluminum and regenerative, naturally grown plant fibers form the base and seat, while all other materials as used in screws and feet can continue their life in existing cycles as well. Designed by Frédéric Dedelley, the ENSŌ Lounge Chair combines innovative metal crafting and progressive material development in the field of textiles, to complete the cycle and bring Swiss Design to future generations.
It’s important to create an atmosphere that encourages conversation. We want to talk to people and explain what we are doing and why. That is why we want the store to be the starting point to a much bigger conversation, a conversation about the planet and what we are doing to respect it.
We do not overproduce. We purposely limit how many bags we make and deliver. Sometimes a product is sold out and that’s OK. We are timeless, we don’t belong to trends. So if a certain product is sold out, it is OK to wait for it. We are against impulse buys. We encourage people to think before they buy and truly understand the product and how they will use it. Usually the customer will buy a bag and use it for a long time. We do not want to be part of mindless consumption.
Qwstion Store Lausanne opened in August in 2018. Since then, Alia has been the manager and Lausannoise face behind the brand. With a background as a seamstress, Alia felt an immediate connection to Qwstion through common passions, values and priorities.
How can a shopping experience change consumer habits?
By focusing the shopping experience within the store, people will be less tempted to buy more things. The approach is to really connect with the product and understand it. I always leave the door to the store open, and encourage conversation and exchanges. We want to take the time to have a coffee with clients and talk. We want to offer a calming experience. Shopping can be draining, and emotional. We don’t want to be part of a rollercoaster kind of experience. We want to bring focus to the experience.
At the beginning, Qwstion was more about sustainability. Now it’s about circularity. So we have gone much deeper with our involvement. We get nerdy about sustainability. Everyone in the company is now an expert in the field and we want to help people learn about it too!