Over the recent weeks, we saw Saint Laurent pull out of Paris Fashion Week, Gucci announce that they will be going seasonless and Dries Van Noten releasing an open letter backed by fashion’s biggest industry players calling for a fundamental reassessment of operations. Whilst it took a crippling pandemic to make the fashion industry sit-up and pay attention to their impact on the environment and society, the reality is that fashion has been broken for a long time and this ‘shake-up’ has been a long time coming.
This journal entry was initially meant as an Instagram post, as I wanted to talk about our seasonless model and pre-ordering initiatives, but as I penned down the post, it grew longer and longer, because I realised that there was much more to be said about the way fashion has been operating.
The existential issues that the fashion industry has been grappling with has been something that I’ve been trying to address with our little brand for nearly 3 years. Having worked in the luxury fashion industry for a number of years, and seeing first-hand the amount of waste generated and the mountains of unsold inventory stuck in warehouses had made me want to approach the way that we operate differently.
A broken system
The production of clothing, and all that comes with it, is hugely taxing on our environment and planet. The fashion industry is one of the largest consumers of the global water supply and produces 10% of our planet’s carbon emissions—more emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. The synthetic textiles used in most of our garments pollute the oceans with micro plastics, before piling up in a landfill, taking hundreds of years to biodegrade. Yet the irony is that fashion businesses are required to produce more clothing, at lower prices and in shorter timelines in order to ensure their survival. It is a business model increasingly at odds with itself.
When I worked in retail, I noticed that garments were delivered to stores too early for retail - i.e. winter stocks arrive during summer, and vice versa. With the increasing demand for new and trendy designs, garments are seen as aged stock by the time the relevant purchasing period comes around. Sadly, garments have almost the same shelf-life as the produce at your local supermarket.
To me, it doesn’t seem to make sense when a design team spends 6 -12 months (or even longer) working on a collection that hits the shop floor for 1 - 2 months before it’s discounted. Having made clothes for myself back in my university days, where it took about 1 - 2 months to complete a piece of garment, it perplexes me to see how garments are passed off as out of season and tossed away so easily. Regular discounting is seen to drive an addiction to price-cuts and sales, lowering consumers’ appetite to spend more on full-priced items later. As the volume of full-priced purchases diminish over the years, the sale stock piles up. Yet the fashion industry trudges on. Brands and designers produce more and more garments for the sake of getting fresh, new designs onto the sale floor. Designs these days seem almost homogenous. The greater creativity and beauty that fashion had stood for now seems lacklustre.
Trying to do things differently
That is one of the reasons why we started Esse. To rethink, reset, and to approach fashion differently. Over the course of running the brand, we've encountered customers and fashion media who didn't understand why we choose to do things the way we do.
‘Why do you only have 3-4 new styles? We need more products.’
‘Why don’t you have a Spring/Summer or Autumn/ Winter collection? We can’t feature you if you don’t have a full collection with new designs.’
During the COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve had time to reflect and think about our journey so far, and thought I’d delve a little deeper to share why we have decided to approach our business this way.
Small capsules and seasonless styles
For us, it seems more intuitive to break away from the traditional mould most fashion labels use - creating large collections throughout the year and then selling, distributing and discounting at the end of the product life cycle. That doesn’t help to slow down the desire to consume. That’s why we decided that we were only going to introduce small, seasonless ranges and move away from the linear traditional fashion system of take, make, and dispose.
The four to six week wait time for pre-orders usually weeds out any impulse purchases. The rationale is, when it’s something you really love, a couple of weeks hardly seems like a long time to wait, especially when you’re going to wear it for years.
In fact, pre-orders are not a new concept and used to be the way fashion was procured. Pre-orders help a small business like us maintain cash flow - your payment goes towards the materials and labour involved in making your dress. There are also many merits, like reducing fabric waste and overproduction. Traditionally, deciding on production quantities relies solely on guesswork - pre-empting what styles will sell and what sizes are more popular. This often ends up with frustration on your end if your size isn’t available or over-production and subsequently wastage on the brand’s end. As a small business, we are often only able to acquire fabrics in small quantities and instead of guessing what sizes we should produce, we try to put out the maximum number of pieces we can create with that particular fabric. That's why we can occasionally be quite flexible and bring back a style that a customer really loves in small quantities when we find a few metres of fabric left.
In short, pre-orders help to prevent material and inventory wastage, and help our customers secure a piece they really love, and that's something we're going to do more of as we move forward.
Sales and discounts
To meet bottom lines, fashion brands often lean on promotions to clear out all the unsold inventory and to get customers to purchase. The problem, however, is that this perpetuates a never-ending cycle - customers continue to expect discounts and hesitate to buy clothes at full price, more products go on discount, and more slashing of prices are expected. Contrary to popular belief, promotions do not support a business, but continue to starve it.
I do love a good deal, but I also believe that the clothes we love should be an investment, and shouldn’t be bought just because they were cheap. Sales not only perpetuates a cycle of never-ending discounts, but also devalues the work of the designers and makers, and pushes prices even lower - that’s how the whole fast fashion model came about in the first place.
Of course, these are just my opinions based on what I’ve seen and experienced. Our ultimate goal is to look out for the planet — reduce unnecessary waste, reduce our carbon footprint and redefine fashion. As a small business, we're allowed to find creative solutions and ways of doing things differently, and I’m heartened to see that the fashion industry is ready for a change. I hope that these changes will allow our industry to become more responsible and accountable, and hopefully bring back the creativity that has made fashion such an aspirational industry to be in.