In an era of disposable fashion, some designers are trying to change consumer behavior with a new type of longer-living product. We talk to one label that encourages customers to “keep” and “share”.
In the past decade the price of clothing has dropped by 35% in the UK, and that trend has been echoed across Europe and the US with the growth of stores creating the latest fashions on the cheap (see our article Fashion guide I: Slow Fashion).
Fast fashion, while seemingly a boon to shoppers on tight budgets in search of the latest trends, is often being produced on the backs of foreign sweatshop laborers. In April of 2008, BBC radio talked to campaigners for their report Fast Fashion Nation who disputed whether cheap clothing is really due to “a revolutionised business model”.
In Dhaka, Bangladesh, the BBC interviewed workers, including one 14-year-old, who are “feeling the squeeze passed down by British retailers to Bangladeshi factory owners and on to wages.” Veteran worker Sufia said that the pressure of “uncompromising deadlines” has impacted her work environment. “I can be told ‘if you cannot reach your target then you will have to work for free’.”
A consumption antidote
Fast fashion, with its destructive impact on worker rights and on the environment- as consumers buy clothing to discard after a few uses-, has inspired a backlash. As we discuss in our article Fashion guide I: Slow Fashion, a core of conscientious designers are flipping the fast model on its head and designing higher quality pieces that will outlast the trends.
One such label, the UK-based Keep & Share aims to create for long-term wearer satisfaction. “We find it abhorrent that the vast majority of clothing is discarded before the end of its wearable life, and seek to reverse the effects of throwaway fashion by encouraging our customers to buy less, more special pieces, and to keep their items in use for longer.”
faircompanies talked to Keep & Share owner/designer Amy Twigger Holroyd about creating pieces that will transcend the trends and that can be worn “in different ways and by different people over their lifetimes”.
faircompanies: Is the concept behind the line to create pieces that people will keep and share, or is that too simplistically stated?
Amy Twigger Holroyd: “Pretty much, yes! The concept was about looking at how to encourage people to be satisfied with fewer items of clothing, and the two key strategies I identified for this were to keep items for longer, and to encourage ‘sharing’ (in its widest sense).”
“The ‘keep’ is pretty straightforward, encouraging people to buy for the long-term and designing the garments to last in terms of styling, quality and durability.
The ‘share’ is a little more abstract – I have some wraps which can be worn by people of any shape or size (or gender), which really maximises the potential for handing down or two people sharing a piece.”
Why did you decide to launch Keep & Share?
“I developed the concept for the label during my MA. Part of my final module involved looking at how you would manage and market your label if you were to launch it ‘for real’, and made me realise that it was a possibility.”
“When I finished my course I moved to Hereford, a town in rural England where there aren’t many fashion jobs! In a way it was a natural progression to continue with what I had started and launch the business – especially as I’d already identified that craft methods of manufacture and a small-scale business were right for the brand.”
How are Keep and Share pieces different from what we’re using to finding in stores?
“Well, part of the difference is the way that they are made – we make each piece in our workshop in Herefordshire, using mainly hand-powered machinery and a lot of skilled manual techniques. We use really lovely materials, including alpaca and cashmere reared and processed in the UK, which vastly cuts down on clothing miles and makes for a very short supply chain.”
How do you design differently to encourage people to Keep & Share?
“The main challenge – which I really enjoy – is trying to design pieces that will transcend passing trends, but still be interesting and quirky enough to hold the wearer’s interest.”
“I have to be really aware of short-term trends in order to avoid designing pieces that would fit into them! My main strategy is to combine archetypal shapes, garment details and fabric references with geometric shapes and unconventional methods of construction – to create something that is at once slightly familiar and also surprising.”
How do you encourage people to develop an emotional connection with their clothing? Or with Keep & Share as a company?
“Emotional connections with clothes can be encouraged by creating and communicating a strong story behind a garment or brand, and by making sure that the customer has a pleasurable and memorable buying/ownership experience.”
“In terms of the story behind a garment, each collection, and each piece within a collection, has a quirky name and a blurb on the website which describes something about its history or inspiration. Then there’s the story behind Keep & Share itself, our strong philosophy, and the ‘craft’ environment in which we make each piece.”
“I try to make the buying process as personal as possible, responding personally to every enquiry and order. Often customers request an item in a different colour, or perhaps with longer sleeves, and I think the experience of ‘commissioning’ an item can make you feel more attached to it.”
“I stay in touch with my customers by sending them small (useful!) gifts from time to time, which hopefully encourages them to think fondly of us… and reminds them to keep wearing their Keep & Share purchase, if it has happened to fall out of use.”
How do you try to encourage customers to hold onto clothing longer? Is this something that can be taught?
“I suppose there are two strands to my strategy, overt and covert! I think there’s a lot to be said for communicating directly and saying, ‘this is a special cardigan, we expect you to keep it and wear it for years and years’.”
“Then there’s my more covert methods, such as doing all I can to encourage an emotional connection, and choices that I’ve made in the way that I run the business – pricing, packaging, after-sales communication…”
“High street shops and supermarkets selling cheap clothes have managed to teach us that their clothing is almost disposable – so it stands to reason that designers like me should be able to guide people in the other direction, especially when so many people are starting to question our throwaway society!”
I’ve heard other designers talk about certain garments as “heirloom pieces”, do you think we should have pieces we keep longer and others that are shorter-lived or do you think all of our clothes should be kept and shared?
“I think there has to be a diversity of solutions for more sustainable fashion. I personally like to keep pieces for years and years (whether they were investment buys or charity shop finds) – but this might not be for everybody.”
“I like the idea that just as there are different rhythms in nature (from the lifecycle of the mayfly to that of an oak tree), there should be different rhythms in fashion. Keep & Share belongs at the slower end of the spectrum, but I’m excited about the potential for new, more sustainable, product and business models operating at a faster rhythm.”
How do you encourage people to share your pieces? What kind of feedback have you gotten from customers regarding their sharing habits?
“The sharing, I leave up to the customers… I know of some couples or sisters who share a piece or two, but also many customers who have formed a sufficiently strong emotional attachment that they wouldn’t dream of sharing their item! For them, I think the sharing will be over time – they might hand on the piece to a friend, child or even grandchild…”
Do you think Slow Fashion is a philosophy that could go more mainstream? Should it?
“I think there’s potential for Slow Fashion to be far more widely discussed and recognised, and (given that lots of people are aware of Slow Food and Slow Cities) that it would be a really useful way to get people thinking about the clothing that they buy, and the speed at which they do so. Also given that ‘fast fashion’ is such a recognised way of operating, I think that people are ready primed for us to start talking about the direct opposite!”
You wrote your masters thesis on “Reconciling fashion and sustainability”, how do you see the future of fashion: can we reconcile fashion and sustainability? Is zero waste fashion achievable?
“I think the current situation is SO unsustainable, that there is vast room for improvement without worrying too much about the exact goal we’re aiming for…”
Your MA- in European Fashion and Textile Design- was based jointly in the UK, the Netherlands and France; was this more international perspective helpful in gaining insight into cultural differences or current research regarding sustainability and fashion?
“Not sustainability and fashion in particular, but yes certainly regarding design for sustainability. Many Dutch designers in particular have a really refreshing, almost poetic attitude to sustainable design and I was really influenced by the (now defunct) ‘Eternally Yours’ network.”
Should things “go out of fashion” or is that a problematic idea?
“I think that as humans we have a natural thirst for the new, and interest in change, and that what we wear is so tied up with non-material aspects of life such as identity and belonging, that it’s natural that our collective and individual tastes will change over time.”
“I believe that this natural interest in the new has been gradually hijacked and accelerated over the years by big businesses who now specialise in seducing us with artificially created trends – and so now it’s hard to separate one from the other.”
“Given my first statement, some items are bound to fall out of favour – but in a more efficient system those items would be ideal for re-modelling or recycling, or perhaps, given the cyclical nature of fashion, we could hide them away for a few years and be delighted with the unfamiliar styles when we rediscover them!”
What is your advice for building a long-term wardrobe?
“Having built up quite a collection of clothes in my teenage years, I’ve spent the last few years (I’m 28 now) being much more selective in my hunt for clothes. I look for ‘the perfect….’, e.g. the perfect dress to wear on a certain type of spring day, or the perfect jumper to wear under my favourite coat.”
“I’d advise to look for gaps in your wardrobe, what sort of piece would allow you to get more wear out of pieces you’ve already acquired – then always be on the lookout for potential contenders! Be aware of current trends in order to avoid the most easily pigeon-holed example…”
“And leave a bit of room for quirky statement pieces from creative designers and makers, with a story behind their creations. I’ve had most of my clothes for years, but change the way I wear and combine them over time…”