Designer and retailer Courtney Holm launched her sustainable clothing brand hoping to bring the fashion industry into line with her own values. Here she chats about educating customers, producing clothing for circularity and why brands can no longer make excuses for not working sustainably. Inside Retail Weekly: How did you come up with the idea to start a zero-waste fashion label? CH: I had a label before I started A.BCH. It was like a hobby but I was also working with another label and doing l
doing lots of random things to get experience in the industry. It didn’t take much for me to realise that the wastage and supply chain issues [from the fashion industry] were really serious and that my own personal values weren’t really aligning with what I was witnessing. I’ve always cared about making things locally and having a connection with making them, but I didn’t have a full understanding of sustainability or ethical supply chains. It started to grind on me and eventually, I realised I needed to get out of the industry or do something radical to change it. I had some time out of the business, did a lot of research and had an idea to create a label that would be the opposite of everything else in the industry. I wanted to turn it on its head when it came to transparency, understanding supply chain and what kind of materials we would use. That was my original idea and as I started to look into what sustainability actually means, I learned how hard it is and deep it goes. It was a 10-month process of doing research and grasping the ideas and values that I wanted to instil into the company before we even launched a product. I felt that every label I saw hadn’t started the right way, even those with good intentions, so there was a lot of backtracking to fix things. So what if we launched a label that started in the right way from the beginning? We started with six products and have slowly been adding more as we’ve grown and developed a library of materials that are biologically circular and can safely break down at the end of their lives or remain as a mono-material for recycling. That has been a really crazy, amazing and difficult journey. You might look at a garment and it might look normal, but it’s all the details you don’t see. We use tencel and organic cotton sewing threads instead of polyester to make sure the garment can be easily recycled – everything that makes up the garment has to meet standards that we’ve put in place from the start. We do mens- and womenswear and a lot of our pieces have worked out to be unisex as well. I’m a menswear designer, so this is my first crack at womenswear. A lot of the shapes are based in tailoring and menswear, but our main customer is female. It’s been interesting – both boys and girls will pick up the tailored pieces, but we encourage people to just buy what they like, rather than assign a men’s or women’s label to it. IRW: What have been some of the highlights for the business in the past financial year? CH: We were invited most recently to show at Helsinki Fashion Week in July. Prior to that, we were finalists in the BT Emerging Designer Awards in Sydney in March. We’ve been featured in lots of publications and seen our business double growth-wise from the year before, so it’s been kind of crazy. We’ve done numerous pop-ups and events. We run workshops and they’re a huge highlight, because that’s when we really get to disseminate all this information and talk face to face to people about what they can do as individuals to extend the life of their garment, buy sustainably and be more conscious about the clothing they buy and wear and what to do with [pieces] at their end of their lives. We run natural dye workshops, repair workshops and workshops on how to build a sustainable wardrobe. We try to run them every month or two. IRW: Tell me about the other offline events that you run. CH: We did a pop-up in the second month that we launched and ever since then, we’ve been doing them regularly. We’re about to do a pop-up in the Emporium in Melbourne on Saturday next week just for one week. It’s been a great opportunity to test out physical retail without having to lock into huge long-term leases. Especially for a new business, I can’t recommend doing them enough. There’s nothing better as an online business owner than to have a customer stand face to face with you, give you feedback and talk about the fit. You can’t do that online and it’s something that’s been really beneficial for us in developing a good relationship with customers. It’s been really useful. The dream would be for us to have flagship locations but we do a made-to-measure side of the business and I’d love to replicate that whenever we have a retail space. Customers connect with it and bodies are so varied, it’s hard to get a perfect size range, no matter how hard you try. Being able to offer any of the pieces we make as a custom service made-to-size means that we can really reach more customers. They really love that they can get measured up and something is made especially for them. That atelier in-store feeling is something that I’d definitely like to replicate when we get to the point of having permanent locations. IRW: What are some of your main focuses for the year going forward? CH: I guess the first thing we’ll be doing is Helsinki Fashion Week. Then from there, I’m going to work on a zero-waste project and a recycling project to look at ways that waste can be recaptured. Currently, once pre- and post-consumer waste is thrown away, the value is lost. I see a huge opportunity in recapturing that value and turning it into products, so I’ve got a project that has been partially funded by Create Victoria, where I’m working on a couple of different streams of ideas. One is looking at how we can recycle offcuts, which make up 15 per cent of fabrics. Even when you’re cutting with a digital cutter to help you minimise wastage, you still end up throwing out 15 per cent of the fabric. That’s a big problem I’m looking to solve, not just for myself, but for other brands as well. We’ll be doing some trials in taking that fibre, shredding it back down, blending it in with new fibre to make a semi-recycled product. That’s one avenue. We’re also looking at getting biodegradable stretch yarns, knitting them into jerseys and trying to create a completely compostable garment that still has stretch in it. That’s another big problem – once you blend elastane into fabric, it can’t be separated, even if it’s organic or tencel. Whatever you use in the main part, you still have 5 to 10 per cent of elastane that nothing can be done with. We’re also looking at other ways to minimise waste in terms of making and cutting in the design process too. We’ll do a video with that and a runway show for VAMFF next year. It’ll be a nice tie-in together of the research and work we’ve done into a collection people can see and get excited about. I guess talking about recycling shredded fibre is not very exciting for most people. It’ll be cool to bring it back into a beautiful product. IRW: Are you happy with where the business is at in terms of sustainability? What’s that journey been like for you? CH: In terms of transparency, we’re at where we need to be. We’re honest about everything, so even with the things we haven’t figured out, we’re honest about them and we tell our customers. But because we’ve been transparent from the start, it means we’re out in the open about those things that we can’t afford or influence because we’re too small and we’re still working on solutions. It’s something we’re actively working on and in the last six months, we’ve solved two big problems. Our inside care label was made from conventional cotton and we wanted it to be an organic traceable product. And our brand label was made from recycled PET bottles, and those were the things in our garments that were not biodegradable. We wanted a solution, but no one in the world can make a woven label with cotton or any cellulose material because the fibre isn’t strong enough. We’ve solved those problems. For the untrained eye, most people don’t notice it but for us, because we’ve been talking about them as blind spots for us, we’ve been able to fill them out now. We don’t claim to be perfect by any means, but the fact that we talk about imperfections means we’ll find solutions faster. IRW: What is your customer base like? CH: A lot of our customers are on that conscious-consumer journey themselves. From an age perspective, they vary from 20 to 65+, but our main customers are in the 20- to 35-year-old bracket. They’re often young professionals who have young families and are trying to make a better world for their children and themselves. Fashion has got some big issues and your choices and purchases have an impact, so a lot of people are looking for a brand like us. There are always people who just like our product and a lot of them are either designers or architects or have an aesthetic where they like our clean shapes and the timelessness of the pieces. Then we can gently educate them after they discover us – that’s a group of customers who we really love, because we help them learn about sustainability. IRW: I think for a lot of sustainable brands, educating customers is a large part of their work. CH: I’d say 50 per cent of our business is focused on solutions in the form of product and the other 50 per cent is educational and how we talk to them. For me, I see that the responsibility of the product being made lies with the brand. The brand needs to make sure their supply chain is up to speed, that they’re not contributing to exploitation or forced labour and the product is made for a circular life and they provide that information to the customer. The brand has to take responsibility for their product’s history and future. I do feel that it’s the customers’ responsibility to engage with that process, because without them, we can’t practice circularity. They need to return their garments to a point where it can be recycled, practice life extension of their garments or launder their garments appropriately. There’s a big piece the customer is responsible for. In a way, we’re trying to tell the customer that this is their responsibility too, without being preachy or making them feel bad. We’re saying that it’s not a hopeless situation where big brands aren’t moving quickly enough – you have a part to play and you’re involved in it as well. We’ll do our bit at A.BCH – we’ll give you all the tools and resources – but you’ve got to take some sort of responsibility as well. We like to say that our journey with the customer isn’t about trying to get them to buy the garments and move on. That’s when we can provide them with the education and tools, and give them every opportunity to repair and care for them. It’s a group effort. There are a lot of people who want to put the blame on someone – government, the brands, big businesses or the consumer, and I don’t think that’s right. Everybody needs to take responsibility for their part. IRW: What tips would you offer businesses that want to start the journey towards sustainability? CH: Honestly, I don’t believe anyone should be making a product where they don’t know what’s going to happen to it at the end of its life or throughout. It sounds harsh, but there are too many people making excuses why something can’t be recycled, reclaimed or reused and it’s not that the customer doesn’t want it, it’s not too expensive, it’s that people don’t want to take responsibility. People need to change how they’re designing, understand what happens to different materials over time and when they go into landfill, and not just design a product but a system for it to go into and circulate. This is why a lot of brands and retailers fall short. They feel an insurmountable task of making fashion more sustainable, but they’re looking at it too late – you need to move it to the very start of the process before something comes into existence.