Meeting companies at the early stage of their genesis can be revealing and humbling. You see their growing pains, all their efforts to become established and hopefully receive market approval, with no guarantee of success at any point in their life cycle.
Giovanna Eastwood, with a fashion degree in design and development from the London College of Fashion, is following her instinct in the growing ethical fashion arena. This is no random, band-wagonning endeavour, but a desire to work in promoting and selling the products she has handpicked from an ethical, sustainable global market. She has had a good mentor. Her mother set up Ephemeral Brazil (EB) many years ago, while in Brazil kick-starting project in the slum ‘Favela De Canta Galo’ (The Singing Cockerel) this project trained the women of a particular Rio favela to make products with profit share and ownership retained by the women.
Giovanna’s company ‘Ethical Collection’ (EC) is similarly oriented to help economically and socially disadvantaged communities. A number of the brands she supports and stocks originating through prison-artisan projects, as well as garments sourced from designers that match her criteria. In January for her blog she will be interviewing a reformed prisoner who can talk about the life transforming and transitioning benefits of having a garment-making skill learned in prison that can be applied to the real world.
What are the EC criteria? “They are mainly products you can’t find in the UK. The business concept is an online multi-brand luxury eco-boutique, selling unique womenswear and accessories with a beautiful story behind them – shopping without a conscience.” Presumably without a guilty conscience, as the ethical pre-assessment will have been carried out by EC. The company has been live and online for around 6 months, promoting garments to 25-45 year old professional women. Giovanna has handpicked garments and accessories – bags, scarves, purses – from thirteen brands around the world, including: Guatemala, Kenya, Spain, USA, Mexico and the UK, ranging from £10 to £450 for Alpaca capes.
It’s an interesting and enviable challenge – sourcing from around the world, garments that are by definition unique, with a fascinating brand and product story for each one, ‘owned’ by the wearer as a life-style differentiator. “I am choosy about the brands I stock. I want intricate, hand-embroidery items to be well made and ethical. “Often the fastenings and zips are not thought-through and the garments not very well finished.” Quality control of course very important for brand perception of premium and hi-end eco luxury goods, and one of the key ways of protecting (or damaging) the reputational side of the business.
How do you know what you are sourcing has been ethically produced, and by the way – what is ethical? Thankfully the work of Ethical Fashion Forum and its new platform, Mysource (currently being crowdfund launched) and its due diligence and benchmarking will help address these issues. The main benefits being so that not only are you comparing apples with apples, there will be an appropriate level of informed vetting to connect bone fide ethical suppliers with like-minded stockists. It can’t currently hope to be fool-proof because of the relative maturity of this area of the market. But it will in time afford best practice guidelines to build a business around, without fear of provenance inconsistency embarrassing the mission statement of the brand. What allows one particular community to maintain their sustainability ethics may simply not be possible (economically) in another. And this is the fine line that Giovanna walks with each brand she selects, tacitly endorsing their ethical credentials by virtue of EC’s promotion of them.
As any business today that needs to be marketed, understandably there is a focus on social media for EC, primarily Instagram. For example, how the stories of hand-woven bags made on a loom in Guatemala can be told, identifying each female producer of Mercado Global (MG) branded products, with the status of an MG artisan partner. Interestingly, Guatemala for many is a great cottage-industry producer story-in waiting for a Monsoon-type brand to get behind – the way they have done for the charitable foundation they set up in India, receiving profits from the products they make for Monsoon Accessories.
There’s a sense from talking to Giovanna it’s a question of critical mass and time. The two components inter-connected, fuelled by her passion and the enthusiasm of interns, linking the business to as many different visual sound-bites as soon as possible. (In fact, Giovanna is looking for more interns, should a FC reader want to offer their services!) Mysource once established should also potentially help connect EC.
As many will tell you, in the fashion industry often it’s about doing it the right way, the hard way – knocking on doors, sending out press releases, attending trade shows. All the while refining and fine-tuning the story to make the brand and the products relevant, accessible and at the right price point. It will be very interesting to pick up the story of this interesting ethical initiative in the coming months.
By Paul Markevicius