This week Sew Co. begins sewing the muslin prototypes of the Riding Jacket for the beta-clients (!) Slow and steady, but progress nonetheless. We will have them by mid-month at which point we will assess the fit with our beta-clients. For the moment, beginnings are right there alongside the endings, which is the way it always is, but sometimes it is more apparent than others. I am sad to report that Liberation Threads, a unique local (Durham, NC) women’s apparel shop, community educator on all things ethical fashion, and our retail partner for our Riding Denim is closing its doors mid-February. Liberation Threads will continue with an online store for their home furnishings.
I was very sad to hear this, because they were really at the forefront of sharing information on ethical fashion and brands, helping people begin to think deeply about where they spend their fashion dollars, and an extremely supportive partner for our Riding Denim. And yet I also acknowledge that we are in a great period of transition for fashion and retail. Many of us are moving more of our shopping online, we are being asked to reconsider fast fashion, though our habit of spending very little money on our clothing is engrained over nearly two decades of access to super-cheap fast fashion. To say it is a difficult market to enter is a bit of an understatement.
The BIG question I think about in the context of a tumultuous women’s apparel market: How do we remake the women’s apparel market to promote socially and environmentally responsible manufacturing, while making garments that more closely align with needs of the modern woman?
One of the benefits of coming to a field with no previous experience in the apparel market is that I get to ask these sorts of questions, without the bias or fidelity to a business model that comes from being engrained in an industry. And what I concluded after 3 years of working on a women’s apparel start-up is that if you want to make higher quality, more ethically made apparel in today’s market, a larger share of the price of a garment needs to go to the sewer and to purchasing sustainability made materials. Even in the higher-end boutiques, much of the clothing does not fit this bill, because the reality is that the model for most boutiques is to charge 50% or more of the price of each garment. (Liberation Threads used a more modern consignment model so the mark-ups were less than traditional retail, while they didn’t need to pre-purchase inventory.) Unless the prices are exorbitant, that does not leave much for the sewer or the materials. It still squeezes these extremely important parts of the item, the garment itself.
But there is huge value to having a person handle and try on your apparel in a retail environment – trusted places that consumers know to go to for the sort of items they are looking to buy. Retail is not going away it is just worth revisiting alongside all of our other assumptions about this market. (To be clear, I am not arguing that boutique owners or retailers should make less money, just that the business models will likely need to be restructured to make ethical fashion financially feasible for a larger share of the market.)
Women, our society and the environment demand an improved system.
And the custom-made womenswear model forces us to think about new ways of reaching people because our needs are so different. Rather than having a place where we have inventory and sizes to take home, we need a space to connect with customers in person, to share our products, let them feel the Harris Tweed, look at swatches, try on our styles, connect with a shared vision of a modern, powerful woman. And this is likely temporary locations initially, since our offerings will be seasonal, limited edition, made to measure.
And so we are pricing out strategies to do this. Completely novel strategies. I am very fortunate to have a whole team of Duke professional students from the Business School, Engineering Management, Law and Medical Physics (for sizing technology) working on informing our model for reaching customers using what we are learning from the beta-testing. Building for the future of apparel, no its past. The dream: create a powerful, deeply respectful experience for women, that places them at the center of an effort to build a more environmentally and socially responsible world. We are going to price out a handful of strategies to do this, to quantify the potential for our work.
With this business plan, and the beta-testing numbers, we are building a novel company worthy of the strong, beautiful, creative women we serve.
Thank you for helping us make it awesome.