June | Feature

Code Amber

The model and Karl Lagerfeld Sustainability Ambassador on sexy collabs, age acceptance and the future of circularity

Sarah Bailey

It’s a sun-dappled morning in Studio City, Los Angeles and the model, activist and Sustainability Ambassador for Karl Lagerfeld is at her desk, speaking to me over a video call. She’s wearing a simple black T-shirt and chunky 1960s Peter Sellers-style reading glasses (that she lifts on and off for emphasis). Meanwhile, her little dog Mila is doing her best to join the conversation.


Right now, we are talking about the latest Karl x Amber Valletta collaboration – a capsule collection of crossbody and tote bags in sleek modern silhouettes crafted from Mirum, a plant-based, plastic-free leather alternative made from responsibly sourced rubber and natural oils. “I mean, it’s incredible,” says Valletta. “It’s fossil fuel-free, it’s made here in the US, it’s completely recyclable into ‘new’ Mirum. And it’s just beautiful. When I received the samples last week and pulled them out of the bag, they just felt really, really nice. Normally, when you pull out a non-leather vegan bag, it can just smell incredibly toxic, ironically. But these were just gorgeous.”

The model and Karl Lagerfeld Sustainability Ambassador on sexy collabs, age acceptance and the future of circularity

Images courtesy of Karl Lagerfeld

Valletta has a long history as a sustainability changemaker, driving initiatives for ethical and environmentally conscious fashion. Since 2021, she has served as Sustainability Ambassador at New York’s FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), where she works closely with next-gen talent. She also hosted the United Nations World Oceans Day conference in 2022 and regularly campaigns with Jane Fonda, supporting the veteran actor and activist’s Greenpeace Fire Drill Fridays.


Karl Lagerfeld signed her up as its official Sustainability Ambassador in 2021 (after joining the global Fashion Pact in 2019), though Valletta was already advising the brand founded by the insatiably curious Mr Lagerfeld – her late, great friend – long before that. “It has been an incredible and inspiring journey to see a brand that has taken this on as a responsibility to themselves but also to customers and to the planet. They have educated themselves tirelessly.”


Within minutes of talking to Valletta, it is abundantly clear that she has a nuanced and highly researched take on circular fashion and regenerative materials. Unpacking the contested ‘leather versus pleather’ debate, for instance, she draws my attention to the negatives of the leather industry – deforestation, opaque supply chains and toxic chrome-tanning processes that pollute water streams, “killing the environment, but also harming people”.

“I don’t want to say leather is a bad thing per se; I think in some cases it can be traceable and the tanning process done properly,” she concedes. “But above all, there’s still a really big misconception that fashion is disposable, that ‘If I don’t want it and it’s not bringing me joy any more, then I’m going to let it go and it doesn’t really matter where it ends up’ attitude. But that’s not true. It does matter.”

Images courtesy of Karl Lagerfeld

“Why should sustainability be anything but desirable? I mean desirability in terms of great design… but also, isn’t it sexy and cool to live on a healthy, safe planet, where we take care of each other? I think that’s sexy, I think that’s hot!”

Amber Valletta

Valletta, who grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, started her modelling career at just 15. This year – her 50th – also marks her 35th in the fashion industry. Looking back on the 1990s, when she came to the fore, she says she regards the period with great fondness: “For me, they’re some of the most creative, interesting, innocent times in fashion in the past 30 or 40 years – in some ways the apex of creativity and commerce coming together. It was before fast fashion, before the conglomerates took over. I think there was just this amazing groundswell of creativity, where people were still buying magazines, there wasn’t the internet and smartphones and social media, and I just think there was an excitement. There was time and space to create.”


I tell her how empowering it is to observe her and her supermodel peers today: still potent and thriving in midlife, while using their platforms to do meaningful and interesting work. Has it been a struggle to remain in the frame? “I don’t think I’ve had to fight for my place. I feel like I’ve been here for 35 years and I feel very comfortable where I’m at,” she replies, smiling. “I’m not working every day like I was when I was 25, but I don’t want to work every day like I was when I was 25! I like picking projects and having time to work on sustainability.”


Does she think there’s been a shift towards age acceptance? “Yes! And not just in fashion. We’re seeing more and more acceptance and celebration of women ageing and I think it’s so important for us to see that, because it’s gonna happen to all of us! Nobody thinks that when they’re in their twenties, but the more we normalise and celebrate the wisdom of ageing and the beauty of ageing and the different milestones in one’s life…” She continues, “I feel very blessed to be alive at this time and to be able to have had such a long career. But I’m not surprised that all these women in my field, in fashion, are doing great things. They are smart, intelligent women, that’s why they were where they were, and that’s why they still are where they are!”


Her soulful affirmative take on life, with its different – and equally meaningful – chapters is something I suspect she learned from her mother. “I always see my mom as someone who leads by example,” she says. “She loves nature and she cares about people in her state. And at home growing up she cared about us being little kids. She’s a Master Gardener now and she goes and teaches little kids in kindergarten about the bees and why we need them and dresses up in a little bee outfit. She’s just really cool.”

Image courtesy of Karl Lagerfeld

Valletta shares a penchant for pottering in her garden (I omitted to enquire whether she has a bee costume), though she admits to not being an avid hobbies person. When she’s not working on her environmental advocacy or modelling, she likes to keep life simple, starting each day with prayers and meditation: “I meditate and follow some Buddhist teachings and also read different philosophies and thoughts about metaphysics and consciousness, a whole slew of things. I believe in a higher power. But I also believe everybody has the right to determine what that is.”


So where does she want to take her Karl Lagerfeld work next? “The ultimate dream would be seeing the whole brand across all categories becoming truly sustainable, whether it’s through the fibres or the materials or through circularity. You know, having all of that dialled in: a take-back programme, refurbishing, reselling, that ecosystem of circularity – that would be the ultimate,” she says, adding the caveat that these goals are hard to reach in a business where growth remains a driver. “It’s like, where can we find a sweet spot where we don’t necessarily create more, but we have enough to have a really robust business and stay circular? But I think that’s a bigger question for the whole industry.”


In the meantime, I tell her I love her Karl x Amber Valletta collaborations as they make sustainability look so damn sexy. She considers her answer for a moment. “Well, I don’t think it’s sexy and hot to be worried about the future and have eco anxiety, or to be living in greed and turmoil – there’s nothing sexy about that. So why shouldn’t sustainability and changing to be more innovative be sexy?”

Her eyes flash behind her Peter Sellers spectacles. “I think that’s right on point!”