Fashion industry

Les Sublimes: A passion for the good, with style

Image courtesy of Les Sublimes

Image courtesy of Les Sublimes

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.

© Les Sublimes

© Les Sublimes


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.

What is slow fashion?

Here I am with a slow fashion blog and the big question is, of course, what is slow fashion about?


Opposed to fast fashion

Slow fashion is the antonym of fast fashion. It sets focus on the quality and longevity of clothes instead of seeing them as trend-driven disposable goods.

The dominating fast fashion retail model involves producing clothing quickly and cheaply in large quantities, and selling them to the mass market at a low price point. It allows mainstream consumers to access affordable on-trend styles, but it also means compromising on quality, production standards and sustainable use of natural resources. Slow fashion is instead focused on the whole life cycle of clothes from materials, production, use and reuse.


Slowing down

Slow fashion encourages a slower rate of consumption, or rather, shifting from quantity to quality.

It also encourages a slower rate of production. It is ‘slow’ because ensuring quality, producing on a smaller scale and retaining decent working conditions takes time and effort. And that also makes slow fashion more costly compared to fast fashion.


The whole picture

Slow fashion is about seeing the bigger picture. It’s about understanding where our clothes come from and where they end up after our use. It’s about acknowledging the work and resources involved in farming and producing fibre and cloth. It’s about respecting the craftsmanship of making garments, and retaining that knowledge and skill.

Slow fashion is about supporting a sustainable and diverse clothing industry, often starting at the level of the local and small-scale. It’s about using and reusing what we already have, and thinking creatively about making use of local resources.


Consciousness, not self-sufficiency

Slow fashion is not a demand for self-sufficiency. Rest assured, you are not doomed to sew and mend for the rest of your life (unless that’s your thing, of course). But slow fashion does encourage consumer consciousness. Choose your purchases wisely. Buy things you will want to wear for a long time, that are worth repairing when they need it and good enough to sell or give away when you no longer need them.


New business models

Shifting away from the fast fashion retail model involves taking a fresh approach to business.

The New York based company Study changed their business model in 2013, stepping away from the fashion industry standard of producing new collections every season and designing a year in advance. Instead, they began releasing a few styles every month to create a cohesive capsule collection over time, allowing them to avoid the cyclical production peeks at their local factories and build more direct relationships with their retailers. (Read more about it here.)

The Norwegian clothing label Sølv changed their business model from seasoned-based collections sold through retailers, to a pre-order sales model. This allowed them to cut the costly middle link of the retailer and focus on the customer experience, while ensuring high-quality production and sourcing local wool. While they are sadly no longer in production, they openly share their business approach on their site.


Creativity and responsibility

Slow fashion is about being curious and humble, asking questions and challenging our whole approach to clothing. It’s about acknowledging our responsibility towards creating a more sustainable future. But rather than providing a single clear-cut solution, the slow fashion movement opens up to spectre of alternative paths with a few things in common: going slow, focusing on quality and thinking creatively.

That's what I like about it. It's an open-ended exploration. And we can all take part in it, in our own small ways.

Stitched Up, The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion

If you have ever wondered where your clothes were made, grumbled over sky-high salaries among fashion’s corporate tops or sighed over fashion models always being so very thin – well, you’re not alone. Tansy Hoskins’ book Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion published in 2014 tackles the many-headed beast that is the global fashion industry.

Hoskins digs deep and goes wide. She looks into everything from glossy fashion magazines and high-end crocodile skin bags, to garment worker’s wages and union rights.

Most importantly, Hoskins dares to think big. Hers is a voice we need to hear.

 

Against capitalism

“People are far removed from the production of the clothes they wear. The average high street shopper will never experience 20 years of picking cotton in sweltering heat or working in a polyester factory in Zhejiang. This gives the impression that clothes exist independently both of people and of nature.” (Stitched Up, p. 97)

The problems of the fashion industry are many and Hoskins tackles them one by one: great economic disparities, exploitation of garment workers, devastation of natural resources, unhealthy beauty ideals, consumerism and waste. Yet the main problem, she argues, is the profit-driven capitalist economy on which the whole industry rests.

Look at these economic facts taken from the book:

  • The profits accumulated in the fashion industry are huge – £759 million for Zara and £2.5 billion net for LVMH (Moët Henessy Louis Vuitton) in 2011 (p. 69).
  • The wages of garment workers could be doubled without there being a noticeable impact on the price of clothing, accounting for only 1-3% of the price the consumer pays (p. 87).
  • In 2009 North Americans discarded 300 million pairs of shoes, yet some 50 million Americans live below the poverty line and another 100 million subsist on a low income (p. 53).

Hoskins’ view is of a capitalist system fundamentally based on inequality, where status quo serves the wealthy few. As long as maximising short-term profits is the main incentive of fashion corporations they will squeeze costs where they can. Business as usual, then, inevitably means cheap labour, exploitation of natural resources, increasingly high turnovers and fierce advertising.

 

Why I don’t believe in a rosy Marxist future

Hoskins envisions collectively owned garment factories. There would be safe working conditions and feasible working hours, no over-production and clothes would be valued for their use, not merely as a commodities to be sold. All this would be secured through collective participation and democratic voting.

I am not immediately convinced. Would it be a centrally planned economy, then? Who would work in garment factories and where would their income come from?

If we are to overthrow the capitalist economic system that fuels the fashion industry, we better know what we are doing. The same economic system is integral to almost all aspects of our lives – food, housing, jobs, transport, health care and welfare.

Know thy enemy. So, what exactly is capitalism? And how are we better off without it?

Perhaps surprisingly to critics of capitalism, profits are not solely connected to devastation of natural resources and exploitation of workers. In fact, a fairly recent study from Harvard Business School shows that companies with a serious sustainability agenda tend to outperform those without. Environmental and social sustainability seems profitable, and economic prosperity is in turn integral to human welfare.

Reality is complex and capitalism is extremely hard to define. We should be wary of throwing it overboard without knowing what we are doing. But nor should we conclude that everything is fine just as it is. It is not.

While I certainly do share Hoskins’ sentiments that a lot is wrong with the fashion industry and our current economic system, I don’t share her trust in a rosy Marxist future as the all-encompassing solution.

But we need to think big and ask difficult questions. And Hoskins dares do that.


Women and making

Hoskins is no advocate of the handmade movement.

“Women have fought to free themselves from the domestic yoke; an ideal society would not send them back to it. Home-alone knitting is neither the most efficient nor enjoyable way to make socks, It represents a triumph of individualism over collectivity.” (Stitched Up, p. 193)

Yes, I am a woman who happens to knit socks at home. Ouch. Thankfully, it is not something I have to do because I am a woman or because I cannot clothe myself or my family otherwise. It is something I choose to do because it reconnects me to the materials and garments I wear. And yes, I do actually enjoy it.

Knitting by hand is certainly not as time and cost efficient as producing machine knits in a factory, but when did efficiency become the defining standard for all things good and valuable? And why on earth is Hoskins championing efficiency when she simultaneously argues for the downfall of capitalism? Efficiency is perhaps the one thing capitalist economic markets actually do extremely well. Equality, no. But efficiency, yes.

Yet, she raises interesting questions. Questions worth thinking about.

Why are there so many women knitters and sewers and so few men? On the other hand, why does Hoskins, along with many before her, rush to the conclusion that traditionally female domestic work is of little value?

 

Ethical fashion

On ethical fashion, Hoskins is clear: reform is not enough. What is needed is a revolution.

Again, she raises interesting questions: Is it really up to consumers alone to force change? What about the many who cannot afford to choose ‘ethical fashion’? Why are individuals and small businesses offering ethical fashion as a solution (*ahem* or bloggers writing about their personal quests for sustainable clothing), yet so few are campaigning for political change collectively and on a grander scale?

“Ethical consumerism can cement people’s identity as passive consumers rather than active citizens. Life is about more than just retail and we must not allow all major functions of society to be subordinated to the task of shopping.” (Stitiched Up, p. 172)

Why, oh why, is not all clothing ethically made in the first place?

Sharp, visionary and brave, Stitched Up makes you think. It is well worth a read, whether you share Hoskins’ conclusions or not. It provides food for thought, and that is something we need more of.

Have any of you read it? What did you think?