The perils of fast fashion have been gathering a growing amount of media attention over the past few years, and the true cost of the multi-billion-dollar industry is getting harder and harder to ignore.
According to Greenpeace, in the last 15 years production of clothing has doubled, while the number of times a garment is worn before it is thrown out have decreased by 36%. Naturally this is having a significant impact, on just on our planet, but also on our financial and emotional wellbeing as well. The model needs to change, and that has to start at the drawing board where new clothes, accessories and jewellery are designed. In this post, Fabric of the North meets three independent Northern style brands who place ethical and sustainable production above all else, championing slow fashion designs that will happily find a home in your wardrobe for many years to come.
“Grey Milk definitely started as an extension of my own imagination,” says founder Gwen Harris, “in that I essentially started out by creating my dream wardrobe, and wasn’t too concerned with whether it would sell or not.”
“I’d previously been working as a print designer for a fast fashion company in Manchester, and had become really aware of the negative impact that the industry was having on our planet. Whilst the job was great for gaining experience, I found it incredibly draining and the more I learnt about the industry, the more awkward I felt about supporting a company whose values I didn’t really agree with.”
It took the coronavirus pandemic to give Gwen the push she needed to get started. “When the country went into lockdown, I was put on furlough and immediately took this as a sign to start Grey Milk,” she tells me. “Six months later, here I am, half way through my second season! I’m lucky enough to now make this my full time job.”
The current focus on ethical and sustainable issues within the fashion industry weigh heavy on her mind. “The issues around inclusivity and ethical labour within larger companies have been common knowledge for many years and, unbelievably, it’s taken until 2020 for some of these companies to start taking accountability for their exploitation of minority groups and greenwashing,” she says. “The entire industry is a machine built around mass consumption and the next “new” thing; trends we cannot possibly keep up with, new ‘rules’ we cannot possibly remember, and new products we cannot possibly afford. This is driven by the brands that introduce hundreds of new styles to their sites each week, that are made overseas to reduce labour costs, from cheap fabric, with poor fits – it’s all a mess.”
With Grey Milk I wanted to cut through all the fast fashion ‘noise’ and provide clothing with an honest origin.
“With Grey Milk, I wanted to cut through all of this and provide clothing with an honest origin,” she tells me. “Each season I offer a small selection of garments that are handmade from scratch in my home studio. I use organic natural fabrics that are printed using a non-toxic, waste-free print process. All of my garments are made-to-measure as standard, to make sure they fit properly, and that no customer is limited by standard sizing.”
Pricing is a huge driver in the divide between fast fashion and slower made models. “I strive to be as fair as possible,” she says, “whilst making sure the true cost of the garment is covered. Being able to spend £80 on a dress is a privilege, but it’s important to note that the high street companies charging less for similar garments, simply aren’t charging enough. This is why we often discover that the companies charging next to nothing for garments are allowing unethical practices to help keep their costs low.”
“I’m always hesitant to use the word ‘sustainable’,” she says, “because I think the industry is rife with greenwashing right now and it’s important to note that really, as a fashion label, you are always adding more products into the world, and that will never truly be sustainable unless you are 100% upcycling. However, I do make a real effort to only use GOTS certified fabrics and eco friendly printers. I work with a made-to-order model which means no extra stock is created, and then wasted if it’s not sold. I was also really keen to only work with UK suppliers, so all of my fabrics are produced and printed locally. This is much more expensive, but it means I can be sure my products are truly ethical, and as planet friendly, as possible.”
The issue of aspiration is also a key factor in fast fashion’s relentless turnover. “I think that for the longest time fashion houses have been selling us an aspirational image and an aspirational lifestyle,” she says, “but this generation is tired of that. We are tired of seeing people that don’t look like us, and we just want to see something real, and diverse, and honest, and inclusive. This is especially key for BAME and plus-sized communities, who have been overlooked for so, so long.”
“I understand that as a white, average-sized woman, I have a privilege that others don’t,” she says, “and my aim is to use this privilege to make positive change. I definitely don’t feel like I have the right to say how we should address such an important and complex issue, but I am certain that it begins with educating ourselves and helping to make minority voices heard. I started my brand with absolutely no money in the bank, but as my budget grows I’m excited to show more and more diversity within my own marketing.”
Having launched during lockdown, Gwen tells me that she doesn’t really know what operating under more ‘normal’ circumstances is going to look like. “It has been a huge learning curve,” she says, “and has absolutely highlighted the benefits of having a short, local supply chain, as I imagine this is where larger fashion houses that manufacture overseas will have struggled. My biggest challenge though, has been protecting my own mental health; the brand grew enormously in such a short amount of time, and to go from making one-off garments in my spare room to manufacturing hundreds of orders for customers in the space of just a few months has been super daunting and stressful at times! I still don’t really have any time off – I haven’t had a weekend in a loooong time – but time management is something I’m working on going forward!”
Most importantly, she is keen that the brand still exists in a few months’ time. “This sounds trivial,” she says, “but these are strange times, and you never know what’s around the corner. I would love to eventually branch out into a studio and bring someone else on board to help with production, because this is what takes all of my time away. If I was able to outsource this, and focus on strategy a little more, I would love to see where I can take the brand. I think my audience would love to see homewares, accessories and collaborations with other brands, so I’m excited to experiment with these ideas in the future.”
Grey Milk images including article lead © Portia Hunt, used with permission.
Sister & Kin
“For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to have my own brand,” says Sister & Kin founder Sara Collins. “I studied Fashion and Textiles at College and Surface Design at University, but after finishing my degree and doing some travelling, I found myself back at my parents, not really sure what direction to go in.”
“I was really torn by the creative route I wanted to take,” she says, “and something was niggling at me that I wanted to do more in the human rights field. I’d often been told I should have studied International Development, o in the end I went to India to volunteer with the WFTO (World Fair Trade Organisation) for 6 months. I spent time living with a family in Udaipur, and worked with a women’s enterprise there, designing and developing products for the artisans to create. I loved the whole experience and that was when I really knew that I wanted to continue working in this way.”
Some of us are lucky enough to be raised in places where this isn’t so much of an issue any more, but that unfortunately isn’t the case globally.
When she returned to the UK Sara began working for a fair trade brand with a huge product range, selling both retail and wholesale. “My job was a mix of all sorts of responsibilities,” she says, “but it was very much supplier facing, and that was what I loved most about the job. One week I would be managing the logistics of orders and productions, others I would be designing new product ranges with the suppliers. I visited Thailand, India and Bali whilst working there.”
“I knew I still wanted to create my own brand though, and after 4 years I got itchy feet. So I went travelling with my boyfriend, visiting fair trade enterprises along the way, and ended up living for a spell in New Zealand. After a long stint there, we moved back to York, and I finally started my business! It was always really clear to me that I wanted to work with small producer groups and enterprises, and so the whole brand was built around that.”
“I think a lot of my experiences with the design process have been very practical,” she says. “When I think about a product and how I want it to look, I always do a few sketches on paper, and then create a design spec. I think this is very much drawn from my experience in product development, but it also creates a clear guidance for the producers I work with.”
Her material choices are heavily influenced by sustainability and the natural world. “The Owhiro Collection is made from recycled organic cotton,” she tells me, “collected from a larger factory, which would usually be classed as waste. Then the artisans I work with use a handloom to create the beautiful textile of the woven bag. I discovered this method of production on one of my trips to India when I was looking for artisans to partner with. I loved what they were doing – they were creating rag rugs – but when I saw the process, I thought how it would translate into a bag beautifully. I chose the black and white colour combination as a real contrast to the tactile nature of the bag, offering a bold simple design.”
“It was a similar process when I designed the Pendant Collection. I had visited Cambodia on my travels in 2015, and was lucky enough to be able to visit the project that I work with now. It was fascinating to see the amazing work they do with recycled bombshell brass and the process really stuck in my mind. Five years later, when I started designing a pendant during lockdown, I had them in mind to work with. We developed the samples, and I couldn’t be happier to be working with them.”
Sara’s early exposure to the work of disadvantaged artisans paved the way for the ethical production practices in her business. “There was never a question when I started the brand that I would put my own values into the brand completely. Another huge consideration for me is gender equality internationally,” she says. “Some of us are lucky enough to be raised in places where this isn’t so much of an issue any more, but that unfortunately isn’t the case globally. When I make business decisions I often choose to support female artisans. One of the seamstress groups I work with in India was set up by a woman who was divorced by her husband for having a baby girl, rather than a boy. She was left with no income, and had to fend for herself, her daughter and her mother. She took a course and learnt how to sew; she now runs a studio with approximately 15 women, hiring those who are facing difficult times similar to what she experienced in the past.”
When it comes to the current retail climate, Sara tells me she is excited for the festive season. “ I think my bestseller will definitely be the Luna pendant; it makes such a beautiful gift because the simplicity of the design is backed up by such a positive story, which has made it a strong favourite since it launched in May. It’s made from recycled brass from old bombshell casings that litter the Cambodian countryside. The project I work with supports disadvantaged men and women who are still suffering the aftereffects of the Khmer Rouge regime, providing them with a good wage and safe home working conditions. The ethos is turning something used for hate into a symbol of peace and beauty.”
“Looking ahead, it’s important that Sister & Kin continues to grow as an ethical brand,” she says, “so that I can continue to support the artisans I work with and hopefully more down the line. From a values point of view, I want the brand to do more in the space of gender equality – in rural India especially – as that is where most of my products are from. Product wise, I have something really exciting planned, and have started working on developing a garment. It’s taking it’s time, but I’m all about slow fashion. It will probably be launched next year, so keep an eye out for that!”
Sister & Kin jewellery photography © We Are Kin; bag photography © Michael Sreenan; all used with permission.
“I started Nyōō as a bit of a passion project alongside my then full time business as half of the fashion brand Syd and Mallory,” says founder Lucy Jo Newell. “It began as a Pinterest mood board, then a roll end of fabric, which quickly became an Instagram page and the rest, as they say, is history!”
Lucy Jo’s business background paid dividends in helping her get her new venture off the ground. “I’ve had experience in running a successful brand for the past 14 years, so it all came together very naturally for the start-up of Nyōō,” she says. “Syd and Mallory was coming to an end, and I felt very passionate about my new direction, which I’d had festering in mood board form for a couple of years.”
The brand’s tagline, ‘Inspired by nostalgia for a slower paced world’, was coined by her partner, artist and painter Nicholas Newman, who she tells me came up with the line when they were crafting the ‘about’ section of the website. “Slow fashion is something I’ve always felt strongly about,” she says. “I grew up fascinated by secondhand markets, and love a good flea market, vintage market, charity shop, jumble sale – you name it! I love finding an old gem that I can rescue and study the making process that went into creating the garment.”
It isn’t always easy to find varied sizing in vintage garments, so I have taken inspiration from my favourite shapes and styles, and made them more accessible to everyone.
“I’m very interested in vintage silhouettes,” she tells me, “and have always had an affinity with the music and fashions of the 1960’s/70’s. Of course, it isn’t always easy to find varied sizing in vintage garments, so I have taken inspiration from my favourite shapes and styles, and made them more accessible to everyone.”
Fabric shopping has always been a favourite pastime of hers. “I’ve always shopped at local fabric shops that have deadstock roll ends of fabric,” she says. “This means I only ever have small quantities of fabric, which limits the production run, but makes a made-to-order garment even more special. All of my printed items are created locally, a 5-minute walk from my studio, by Hünk Print in Sheffield. They are a silkscreen printers that use eco-friendly water based inks, working with earth positive garments.”
Since all her items are made-to-order, her designs are naturally inclusive of all body shapes and sizes, yet there is a difference between made-to-order and made-to-measure she tells me. “I have a size guide I work to, but am always happy to make tweaks to orders if customers have any specific requirements. I think there has been a huge shake up in the fashion industry recently with inclusivity and the body positivity movement, and I am working on my pattern grading and still very much learning along the way.”
“An important part of starting Nyōō was I really wanted it to be a brand for everyone,” she says. “Although I have a specific aesthetic, I’d like to think my garments can be worn and styled by any age or size in different ways. I want to make staple pieces that people can feel comfortable and confident in wearing over-and-over, and for any occasion, from the supermarket to the dance floor!”
“Starting a new business amidst a global pandemic wasn’t something I’d anticipated,” she says, “but it has definitely made me even more driven to make it work. I feel safe working alone in my creative bubble. My studio is a 5-minute walk from my house with the post office en route, so I am very lucky and grateful to be able to continue working normally. I think the online support for independent businesses during this time has been incredible, and feel very chuffed to be a part of an ever growing DIY ‘makers’ creative scene and community. It really does feel like people are only a DM away, and we’re all sort of ‘in it together’ attitude, even though a lot of us work completely alone day in, day out!”
Next up on the agenda is her first online market. “I’m part of the Endless Love Creative market next month (21-22 Nov),” she says, “and have met some excellent brands through that platform. Virtual markets are definitely something I’m a little nervous about, but something we’re all going to have to get used to for a while it seems!”
“I feel like I’m very much still at the very beginning of this little business, and I’m going to continue to take it slow, and grow. It still all feels a little like a dream and I’m very much enjoying the (slow) ride! Hopefully at some stage I’ll be able to open more as a showroom-by-appointment, with open studios and collaborations – even events. I have my very first open studio event this December with my good friend and ceramicist, Grey Suit Clay, and we’re going to be working on a collaborative piece to launch at the event. So there is lots coming up in the next few months at Nyōō HQ!”
Nyōō images © Danni Maibaum, used with permission.