Through the coming months I’ll be talking to makers, designers, producers and fibre artists about their approach to sustainability, slow fashion and craftsmanship. First up is Alexis Assoignon and Kachen Hong behind the French sustainable clothing label Les Sublimes.
Long-time friends Alexis and Kachen quit their jobs, travelled to Nepal, and came home with big dreams. They wanted to create what they could not find: quality wardrobe essentials, produced sustainably, and that would also help lift women out of poverty.
Starting up in Kachen’s living room, they spent a year discussing every little detail before launching their first collection Made in France this June. It’s a small line of tanks, tees and knit dresses made from sustainably sourced materials and manufactured at a family-run atelier in central France.
I talked to Alexis and Kachen about their journey towards creating Les Sublimes, and what it’s like being a small business with high standards in today's fashion industry. Their warmth and passion is contagious! If you’re curious to hear more, there’s an audio snippet from our conversation at the bottom of the post.
What is the textile industry like in France today?
Kachen: The little village where we are producing our collection is actually part of a whole textile region specialised in knits. In France, before the massive globalisation and de-industrialisation over the last decades, different regions were known for specialising in different things, like lace or other materials. Now, smaller brands, like us, are coming back and reaching out to those who have really struggled to survive in the industry.
For example, we’re now working with our next collection and we really want to use linen. And France is the biggest producer of linen in the world. The biggest producer. But there are no longer any French companies processing the raw material into fibre as it’s labour-intensive work. So all the linen is sent to China to become a fibre, and then sent back to France to become knitted fabric.
It’s pure economic thinking, with no consideration of the social or environmental impact behind.
Alexis: And I think it’s so easy to look outwards and go: okay, there’s a child starving in Africa, let’s do something there. But then you forget that there’s always people in your own community who are also in need.
Through this venture we’ve noticed that almost all the small manufacturers in France, like the one we’re working with, have gone out of business. So what about the women who worked there? Their jobs are important too, and they all have families and mouths to feed, too.
Kachen: We share our manufacturing information openly. Hardly no other brands do that, but why? I was surprised at how outdated the textile industry is. Most of the manufacturers don’t even have internet. But if we keep the information about our manufacturers to ourselves, we’re not helping them. They need jobs and we want to send business their way. In turn that’s going to help them modernise, which again will benefit us.
We didn’t at first envisage a Made in France collection. We discovered these issues along the way and supporting the local industry feels important to us.
I imagine one of the challenges in producing responsibly is ensuring high quality throughout the production at a price level that is still affordable to many. How do you feel about that balance?
Alexis: We can’t compete with Zara or H&M, but I don’t think we need to. They might put “organic” on their clothes, but then it’s not certified or not fairtrade or the fabric doesn’t feel that great. We’re using the same luxury, quality fabrics as fashion brands who are selling almost exactly the same product for four times our price.
Kachen: We realised that we’re not really competing against other ethical brands. After all, we’re all fashion brands. We’re all selling clothes. So what differentiates us? Well, we don’t compromise. And we don’t want to. Not even on the economic part.
That’s where we have to get creative, because nobody is going to buy a t-shirt for €150 from an un-known brand. We may be naive, but we still have some economic notions.
We decided to cut out the middleman and sell directly to our customers online. And it’s also why we’re doing a crowdfunding campaign.
Alexis: And we’re excited that our costs will only go down as we grow, because right now we’re paying the highest prices for fabric and manufacturing because it’s all in small quantities. Our goal is really to make these options more widely affordable.
We offer a permanent collection. We’re not trying to change every season. We don’t think you need to throw out your whole wardrobe. We’re saying when you need to buy something new, here’s a great product. It’s the essential pieces you should spend money on, because you wear them every day.
You also work with an organisation in Nepal, funding a month’s worth of education for a girl there for every item you sell. What led you to work with Panuati Community Homestay in Nepal particularly?
Kachen: When we were in Nepal we met this man – he was nice, he spoke English and was about our age – and we were invited to his house where we met his wife. And there was a little girl there who served us tea. When we came back another day it was a big festival and all the women were dressed in red – except this little girl who just wore her ordinary clothes. We asked why.
It turned out that she was sold to this household and working for them as a servant, because her family was poor.
For us it was hard. Should we judge her family for selling her? Should we judge this family for taking her on as a servant? Is she better off or worse? We don’t know. It’s not that she seemed terribly miserable, but she was fairly young, maybe seven or eight, and it was a strong experience for us.
There is a big problem of girl slaves in Nepal and, although we can’t judge, one thing was clear for us: If we don’t do anything, this girl will have a girl and she’s going to pass on this – what they call destiny – on to her.
Alexis: The women who run this organisation have so little, but are determined to give everything back to the community. Women there have no trained skills, there are hygiene issues that make their families sick, they may not even know how to read or write, and they definitely don’t know how to speak English. The Panuati Community Homestay gives them English classes so they can communicate with tourists. They teach them how to cook hygienically, and lend them money to install a toilet and sanitary conditions in their homes.
Then these women can receive guests in their homes. They learn about the world by talking to travelers and their dreams expand. And the income goes back to the community educating girls.
We want to help women and we want to provide jobs. But to have a job you need to have some basic level of education. So we need to work on both sides to break the poverty trap. And this is an organisation we personally know and completely trust.
(The Independent wrote about Panuati Community Homestay here.)
What is your advice for those who want to transition to a more sustainable wardrobe, but don’t know where to start?
Alexis: Start with one thing. One piece. You can’t change everything at once, it’s too overwhelming.
Kachen: And also, be curious. When you buy something ask yourself: do I need it? Who made it? Where is it from? How will I make it last?
Questioning is the first thing. That’s what we do too. For every new thing we stumble against in our business we ask ourselves: Why is it this way? And how can we do it in a different way?
Listen to Alexis and Kachen’s own voices in this short snippet from our conversation. Alexis talks of their impressions from their trip to Nepal visiting a Tibetan refugee settlement and Kachen describes how the idea of Les Sublimes evolved into a Made in France collection.