Sustainable fashion: a tricky road for emerging labels to take
Founding a fashion label can be an uphill struggle, and going for an eco-sustainable positioning makes it even harder. But this was not enough to dent the resolve of some of the fashion designers talking at the newly launched The Big Blue Project conference, held in Paris on 10th-12th April, a forum where labels, designers and industry institutions debated the challenges of sustainable fashion.
Part of the debate focused on the obstacles designers are likely to face along this route. “For an emerging label, the bar is set higher at all stages of the process, from production to distribution. And this is even more true for a label with an eco-sustainable positioning,” said Priscilla Jokhoo, Director of the department which supports emerging brands at the French Women’s Ready-to-Wear Federation (FFPAPF). “In the end, some new labels drop this positioning along the way,” she added.
Suppliers and distributors aren’t the only ones to blame though. “There is also the fact that, for consumers, green is reassuring, but it’s not a priority,” said Patricia Romatet of the IFM Labels office at the Institut français de la mode (the French Fashion Institute). “We are fully aware that, for customers, it all eventually boils down to price. Are they ready to pay the extra cost of their [green] stance? Besides, even before the issue of ethics, there is the question of design,” added Romatet.
“We try to have a degree of transparency, because our generation also has a penchant for aesthetics, while previously, with eco-responsible fashion, it was just so many words,” said Steven Alexis and Moriba Koné, founders of the AppleCore label. “But it’s nothing new. Fifteen years ago, Margiela already worked on sustainability in an entirely natural, artistic way. There are big challenges facing the major luxury groups. Certain niche, emerging labels are fostering this trend, but it’s down to the likes of LVMH and Kering to broadcast a clear message, at any rate a stronger message than they do now,” said Alexis and Koné.
“When I see a major player like H&M launch ethical collections, frankly, I find it’s like they are creating something of an alibi,” said Patricia Romatet. “There’s more at stake for big names, but are they being truly upfront? I’d say they aren’t. They buy themselves a reputation but the real impact isn’t on par with what they communicate. There’s an imbalance between the advertised impact and the business reality,” she added.
Indeed, fast fashion often came up in the discussion. “When I launched [my label] three years ago, they told me people only bought the cheap stuff, and everything else was out,” said Charlotte Dereux, co-founder of Patine. “This isn’t what we’re experiencing now. We have a community we feel is keen to learn. If a brand is able to explain why it is doing things a certain way, people will follow it. Nowadays, everything is instantly available. Desire is dead. We must foster it again, without proselytizing. We don’t work in a declining industry, we want people to buy our products.”
“We must not hesitate in reaching out to consumers, to understand their expectations and sometimes even to receive their advice in the process,” said Steves Hounkponou, a.k.a the influencer The Black with the black hat. The former commercial director of a luxury label, Hounkponou leveraged his community of followers and eventually launched the BlackHats Paris brand. “People are keen for this kind of experience, this kind of emotion. Seeing we source our products in Benin and we manufacture them [in France] is what makes them want to follow us.”
“It’s important to give genuine substance to our purpose,” said Priscilla Johkoo. “We don’t sell a mere product, we sell a narrative, a set of values. Nowadays, being an entrepreneur is tough. We must not set up a business and, six months later, wonder what to do next. We are the skippers of our boat. We sail it together with a sales force, with subcontractors, journalists, and more. To exist as a brand, we must truly be a brand. There’s more to it than a few pretty models in a pretty lookbook,” she added.
Floriane Fosso, designer of the eponymous brand, offered a more nuanced view on this, advising not to neglect the visual side of things. “What made the difference for me was the investment in my store and my visual images. I thought I had some leeway in the latter but no, there’s no leeway: you must be as glamorous as the next label,” she said. Fosso also urged labels to look for distributors which work specifically with sustainable brands. “Alas, they are few and far between, but the returns will be much better,” she said.
“Be your own sales force. Choose your agents with care. Steer clear of sharks. And never forget that, even if you are a sustainable fashion label, first and foremost you are a fashion label, and it’s something to do with style and pleasure. This means you shouldn’t make consumers feel guilty, you should instead take on a guiding role for them,” said Floriane Fosso.
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