Sustainable fashion designer and columnist at The Huffington Post, Eleanor O'Neill, chats to me about the challenges of building an ethical fashion business and shares her thoughts on the future of the fashion industry in this two part interview. In Part One, Eleanor and I talk about what inspired her to start Newcastle-based STUDY 34 and discuss the ins and outs of running a small fashion business.
How did STUDY 34 begin?
STUDY 34 began towards the end of my last job in Italy as a junior designer. It was driven by a frustration with the experiences I was having and my observations of the industry. I became really frustrated with the lack of creativity, and frustrated by how limiting my job was. As the designer, I was in charge of drawing an item and not involved in the technical process of how to make up the garments, so I felt like I wasn’t improving any skills. I’ve often found the office environment quite challenging. Those atmospheres where everyone’s stabbing each other in the back or rifling through your desk to look at what you’re designing when you’re supposed to be a team. I didn’t enjoy it. But most of all I didn’t enjoy the isolation of being a designer and not being involved in all other aspects of the supply chain. It’s a really important thing to know about and to be involved in so you can be better at your job.
When setting up STUDY 34, what drove you to create an ethically-driven brand—was it because you had worked in a bigger company, not been involved in the supply chain, and wanted to know more about it, or because you thought it lacked ethical principles?
I think that when you work for these slightly larger brands—certainly in my experience—a designer is never exposed to the supply chain. I couldn’t say that it was unethical because I hadn’t actually seen it. But… I guess you get a vibe from things and think that there may be issues. Perhaps if I’d worked for a smaller brand in the first place, and was therefore involved in all the different processes, I wouldn’t have started STUDY 34 so quickly. I would’ve felt fulfilled by that experience, for sure.
And so, when you started STUDY 34 it was partly because you wanted to address all aspects of the label: the design, working with the production team directly, and wanting to see the whole company…
Absolutely, because I think you have to have knowledge of all of the stages in order to really understand the impact of the thing that you’re making. Right back at the beginning I made everything myself. That was driven by several things: Firstly, I didn’t have any money to ask someone else to do it. Secondly, I had the skills to make the pieces myself. And thirdly, I really really enjoyed manufacturing. I loved manufacturing. I’m not one for sitting in the office and styling the photoshoots—I hate to do things like that—I’m much more interested in the nitty-gritty of how things are put together. I definitely wanted to be more hands-on.
How has your process developed?
It started where everything was made to order. Someone would order something, I would have all the sizes ready, all the instructions ready. If someone ordered a small, medium, or large, I put the paper in front of the machine and started getting to work. It’s enjoyable if everything goes right, isn’t it? You’re like—god!—I love making things. But, actually, when you have to make stuff back-to-back and something goes wrong and it means you have to start a panel again, it’s a bloody nightmare! So, actually, I did enjoy it, but not when the pressure was on. It actually gets quite difficult. It also means that you can’t do anything else for your brand because you’re sitting in front of a machine. So it started like that and, to be honest, that was stage one of STUDY 34. Stage two has been working with a manufacturer, so outsourcing the production. I still source all the raw materials myself, I do all of the technical drawings and measurements, but the actual making is sub-contracted, as it were. Last year’s crew was made in Leicester—not, I would say, part of the UK which is particularly known for it’s knitwear craft—but, as a small brand it’s so hard to find someone who will work with you, to work to your minimums and work with your deadlines. I did get to a point where I just worked with whoever would work with me, which you might say is not a good thing, but I had to. It’s difficult because you want to do everything right, but also you run a business. You have to get something off the ground to prove that your idea is worth something, otherwise you’re just wasting your time. You have to produce something to test the market, so I produced my first crew. In terms of craftsmanship it could be a million times better—I still like it, I still wear it everyday, but I have ambitions for it to be better. Now I’m working with a different factory near Hawick, which is between Newcastle and Edinburgh—which is much more the heartland of knitwear—so I’m looking forward to seeing how far we can get there.
Where do you source your raw materials currently?
At the moment I source them from a guy in Manchester who buys end-of-line from mills and design houses. He bids for them in bulk and he’ll ring and say, “I’ve got a really nice cotton but I’ve only got 20 kilos, do you want it?”. It’s a way for me to access raw material that is really good quality, but also in quantities I can afford to buy and that fit my manufacturing capability. Another problem arises where you have to make the decision: right, ok, it’s about 20 kilos—your average cotton garment weighs 300g, so you can get about 50 something out of that—do I buy it? After making the financial choice to buy it, I’ve then got to find someone who’s going to use it. It may be that their minimum is 70, and I’ve not got enough to make 70. It’s very difficult. In terms of sourcing the raw material, that’s what it’s been like so far. Moving forward, I went to Peru in October to learn more about Alpaca and met the two leading mills there—that was really great. Sourcing alpaca is something I’m looking to do in 2017 for fine-gauge alpaca jumpers.
Where do you see STUDY 34 going in the next year or so? …What’s the plan?!
Well, [laughs] we all know how well plans work out! I’m currently working on some cotton jumpers with the factory near Hawick. If everything goes according to plan they should be up on the site in March. Then, for the release in September, I’m looking at using alpaca. So that’s two little knitwear collections coming. The issue with the second collection is that it turns out manufacturers in the UK, who work with alpaca, are hard to find! Alpaca’s not a fibre many factories here are working with—it doesn’t behave in the same way as wool or cotton, it requires a lot of knowledge and a lot of skill. If you don’t have that prior knowledge, it requires a lot of patience to test, and patience is certainly not something that I would associate with our industry. The thought of producing with alpaca in its native country is something I could do, too—Peru has a really great textile history that’s a part of its culture. I’m really passionate about our manufacturing in the UK, but I’m more passionate about a transparent and ethical supply chain. If these aren’t in the UK, I’m not going to bust my balls and try and make it here when there’s a perfectly good option in Peru. In terms of knitwear, that’s the plan. In terms of STUDY 34, the platform and content, I’m working on a few ideas for it to become a platform where you can come as a consumer and not only find my knitwear, but other brands’ clothing whose values and aesthetic match my own. I’m often asked “Els, I’m looking for a t-shirt or a leather bag, where can I find one?”. I’ll reel off a list of brands making incredible products, and I’d love to have them all in one place on STUDY 34 where you can not only buy a product, but learn about it and its founder and their vision. Maybe, as a consumer, you’ve decided you want to make changes but you can’t change everything all at once, so you ask yourself, “What do I really care about?”. Do I really care about the fact that it’s made in the UK? Do I really care about organic cotton? All these sorts of things. I’d like STUDY 34 to be a place for someone to discover what all these terms mean. You know, what is organic cotton? Explained simply. And if you’re interested, what are its benefits?