This is a recording of part one of the New Threads: Slow Fashion Panel Discussion with Eshita Kabra-Davies and Paola Masperi. This event took place at ONCA gallery on the 22nd of November 2019.
Paola: This looks like a presentation but it’s not really a presentation, I thought presentations felt quite corporate but … we’ve done one for pictures cause I feel pictures can help the story a little bit more so, so yeah there’s loads of pictures basically! So yeah, I’m just going to quickly flick through them just to give you a feel for what Mayamiko does, and I think about this slide the main thing is our strapline is ‘a meaningful wardrobe’ and I think that is really talking to the point that the clothes that we wear have got a meaning. Have got a meaning because they communicate who we are, how we want to be perceived but also the story, the people behind them, the people who make them, the fibres that come into them; so they all have meaning and I think … you know, we all know that meaning and that connection has been lost a little bit in the last maybe twenty to thirty years and so this is about reconnecting with that.
So there’s a little bit about the materials and the fibres that we work with, so obviously the first ones that you saw were locally sourced fabrics that we source in Malawi in Eastern Africa where we work. Although these fabrics have got complex and long stories so we know that they have got connections and heritage through the Dutch colonisers, which is sort of a complicated topic in itself but there’s still recognition, we still recognise there’s local textiles that people would wear traditionally over their waist and so we work with those as a testament to the local industry, or whatever little is left of it.
Also one of our commitments is to try and source locally because we want to try and make an impact along all the steps of the supply chain, and so where we are there’s no real certified fibre, so the only other option would be to import it. And so we are sort of trying to strike a balance between creating local impact and giving jobs locally and importing fibres that are certified and where we know exactly their origin. So, such as this organic cotton which is grown in Uganda and we’ve been able to strike a partnership with a group of Ugandan cotton growers that we work with.
Um, a little bit more about the fabrics, so we claim textiles and by that I mean either deadstock, so stuff that was produced and for some reason the industry didn’t find a use for it. You know which is a crime, and so we made it our mission to work with producers that will, that are willing to work with us and take their deadstock and turn it into something valuable. It’s a bit of a tradition we’ve been doing this for like four or five years now and yeah it’s got it’s own challenges because for example this is jersey and jersey requires different machinery than the woven fabric that we normally work with but we like a challenge and so we work on this collection as well.
And I guess from a marketing perspective it’s quite useful because not everyone feels comfortable wearing prints so this also gives us an option of something using some plain materials that our customers can feel perhaps more comfortable wearing. So more of that … um same organic cotton source from Uganda embroidered locally with our values; sisterhood, respect and love is love and I choose because one of our new principals is women should be … education is important because it gives choices and so part of our mission is to work with women to help enable them to make any choice it is that they want to make about their lives.
Our collections are all season free so we don’t follow a traditional fashion calendar. So typically we would do a collection a year and then have several drops for the year for the stuff that has been performing the best or you know introducing new textiles and new materials through the year. And also we put quite a lot of effort into making pieces that are cross seasonal so that with a little bit of creativity and styling you can wear across season. So you know, for example what I’m wearing you can wear with lots of layers or you can wear it in summer and so the idea is that your wardrobe doesn’t need to change with the pace that we are kind of being made to believe that it needs to change.
Just a few more pictures there… some of our evolution collections again this was one of the first experiments with the Ugandan cotton growers. White is very difficult to work with, I wouldn’t recommend it but it was a good learning curve for us. This is another upcycle project with silk, so this was done in Italy with a local workshop that employs refugees and asylum seekers. Um, so we sort of set out to try and make a capsule collection that was using upcycled materials, so everything was sourced within about a thirty kilometer radius, so no air freights, no anything of that sort so actually everything went on a train from the mills to the workshop and then. So there’s the environmental impact there that we try to control as much as possible and then the social impact, the workshop employs refugees and asylum seekers who are incredibly skilled tailors and so that was a capsule that we did a couple of years ago. Interesting work because when we work with that stock and offcuts you just have little bits and so it’s very hard to plan a collection around it so you’ve got to be really sort of creative and careful about how you use materials. And it really focuses your mind on the concept of waste and designing for zero waste cause when you’ve got only a little bit of something you’re gonna make your work hard, and so that was again an interesting learning curve for us.
And I guess this is kind of looking onto 2020, we know that cotton is problematic on a number of levels, we believe that organic cotton is good because we’ve seen where it’s been grown, we’ve seen the impact on communities. But we also are aware that a lot of the fabrics that we use are conventionally grown cotton and so that’s always a big conundrum in terms of you know, they still create livelihoods for people but they also have a lot of complexities and yeah, they’re problematic in a number of ways and so we are not experimenting with other fibres. One of which is linen and we are also working with hemp some of it locally grown but we are struggling a bit with it ‘cos we can’t quite get it to be sort of soft and flowy enough so again it will be a bit of a journey figuring out how we blend it and how we come up with something that you know gives us a really good product and also utilises the properties of the fibre.
So that was sort of a bit of a visual journey into what we do and then, I don’t know if you can read it, but these are some of the ladies that we work with so we’ve got a charity on the side that does training and another number of activities. But typically women go through the vocational training and become qualified tailors and then at that point they can choose whether they want to take a microloan and go off and set up their own business either on their own or as a small cooperative or whether they want to stay with us. And we’re completely happy with either option, it’s whatever works best for them, you know some of them might have children they might want a more flexible working arrangement and some of them might prefer a more stable employment so we are very open.
These are just some of their quotes about what it means to have those options and so one says “now my future is bright and clear I can make whatever I want”, one says “I dream of opening my own independent tailoring shop” the other one says “There are always new challenges and new designs to help me develop”, “I’m confident I can make money by taking my skills back to my village”, “in the future I hope to send my two daughters to school” and then to the last one on the right who’s the trainer says “if you have a little skills for your hands you can provide food for your home”. So it’s quite good to hear what the people who are behind the clothing have to say about it. So we talked a little bit about reconnecting with the clothing, this is something that we’ve introduced this year and I’m aware that there’s a million and a half QR initiatives out there but the way that this is a little different is that we’ve encrypted the QR code so every QR code is different, and you know typically you would scan a product with a QR code and go to some sort of generic page that tells you a little bit about the product, and that’s great, we wanted to try push it a little bit further. So now with these encrypted QR codes that are all different, every garment has got its own so we know exactly who made that specific garment.
Um, and that’s important because you’re really connecting, so you know you scan it and you go on the website and you can see, genuinely the people who worked on your garment. The other thing that we think this is important for is that when you talk about … or when you think about materials and you know extending the life of clothing and recycling one of the problems with clothing is that half of the time we don’t know what’s in the fibre and when you don’t know what’s in the fibre it’s very hard to recycle because typically you have a product which is, I dunno what 80% cotton 20% polyester or you know 80% polyester and 20% elastane, whatever. And so that process of taking the fibres apart and recycling is really difficult for mechanical and scientific point of view … But actually when you know what went into your clothing then you can recycle a lot better and so this is an attempt to maintain the transparency of the supply chain so that when we eventually come to the useful end of the life of your garment you’ve got a better way of recycling.
Um and by the way we don’t think that the end of life of a garment is once we’ve sold it, we think there’s a cycle and a circle there but eventually we appreciate that at some point materials will need to be recycled and so this is kind of a step in that direction. I feel I am talking a lot but I’ll tell you a little bit more about sort of, about us and how we think about fashion. So I think the first thing to say that we are on a journey so by no means are we there, and what I do is I use the systems thinking approach, so I think about fashion as a system, so there’s not just the people, there’s not just the materials, there’s not just packaging, there’s not just the shipping, you know … there’s everything. And the good thing about that is that you lay it all out and you realise the complexity and you realise that it’s you know, when someone tells you that they’ve got it all figured out they’re probably lying.
I mean there’s very few people that can say that they’ve got it all figured out, just because it’s so complex. The sort of slight disadvantage with that approach is that it feels quite overwhelming because there’s just so much at play and so much that you need to think about but what it does for me is that, and to those of you who are considering opening sort of brands and working in fashion – it really allows you to plan all the touch points of your products from the fibres and the design face all the way to the marketing and extending the life of the garment and the end of life. And what we do is, we look at where we think the biggest impact is on the one side and then on the other side we look at the effort that it would take to address that particular item. And so you sort of quite quickly figure out if this thing has got a massive impact and if it’s sort of, not relatively easy but not completely impossible to solve, that’s where I should put my effort.
And so that’s the approach that we take, slowly slowly we are chipping away at these different things that we need to look at in the supply chain and in the way that we do fashion. I told you already we’re season free, design, I mean I think you will have heard this statement that “waste is a design flaw” and you know I completely agree. It’s hard, but I do think that as designers and as brands we’ve got a role to play and almost like a duty to think about how we design waste out of our products and that sort of, you know the way we do it, for example, I mean there’s lots of ways to do it, but the way we do it for example is to design patterns, utilising the maximum amount of fabric possible and figuring out how to lay every single piece of the pattern so that we have maximum useage and the minimum amount of waste. And then, it’s things like, we’ve stopped using, almost stopped using zips and try to replace them with things like knots and ties and things that adjust more to the body and are more flexible and easy to use.
Same with elastic, it’s sort of like we are really thinking about what goes into your product and how can you make it less wasteful and then I suppose the other bit is that we, you know probably out of necessity, don’t throw anything away. So anything, even like the smallest offcuts get turned into something, so anything from earrings, hair scrunchies or whatever, depending on the size. And then we’ve got a programme that works with local schools and the local refugee camp where we use the offcuts to make sanitary pads for girls that we give out to the community by partnering with local organisations that you know, work with girls in different levels. So yeah, so that’s sort of our approach to designing for zero waste. The workshop is solar powered which is fantastic I mean you know we’re in Africa, there’s a lot of sun, at least for a large part of the year, again challenges there because the solar power is great for powering machines, sewing machines, not so good for powering more power hungry devices like the iron. The iron is like a giant kettle and it sucks up a huge amount of power so you know we’re still figuring out how we do that.
So yeah, it’s all about the journey and obviously thinking about growing I think, we will talk about this later I’m sure as we answer questions, traditionally for a brand growth has meant doing more and faster and I think we really are challenging that concept of growth now as a society, certainly part of the societies challenge in this. And for us you know it’s about partnerships so I don’t wanna produce a million garments to be considered a successful brand. But I wanna partner with people that are already out there, that are already doing things that just need a platform and a way to get their products to customers so that’s sort of how we look at growth.
So sorry a few random thoughts here, one of the things we have been able to do this year is to completely remove all plastic from our immediate supply chain, so for example when I say immediate I mean when we buy fabric it might or might not come in plastic we don’t know that but for the bits that we control we’ve been able to remove all plastics, so we’ve now moved to compostable envelopes and so we wrap things in paper and scrap paper. And when there’s fibre that is more gentle or you know white for example again we add another layer of biodegradable or compostable packaging with that. Um, yeah so we are sort of looking at various stages of the supply chain and trying to unpack how we can make it a little bit better but there is still certainly a lot to do.
In 2020 we are focusing on a couple of things. We are trying to bring back a culture around natural dyes in the community that we work in, which is obviously something that was part of the fashion landscape up until maybe I don’t know, 50, 60 years ago and then with the introduction of chemical dyes, you know it sort of became less common. But we think there is real value there so we are sort of trying to work with natural dyes a bit more.
And the other thing for us is the work on more size inclusivity. So one of the challenges of using 100% cotton is that it has got no stretch and so it’s quite hard to make it fit around different body types and so we are really challenging our designs and our styles and our materials to make it more inclusive and so one way might be, as I was saying, removing zips and replacing with elastics and you know ties and other way of wearing clothing or just completely redesign for a more size inclusive world. And by that I don’t mean just kind of like the size spread but also people with disabilities that might have different requirements for how they wear their clothes. So that’s sort of on the cards for 2020 which is exciting.
This is Joyce, I thought she looked ace so I thought I’d put it up there. Um … Credentials. I love them and hate them. Because you kind of need them to tell, help you tell the story right, but they are flawed and they come with their own challenges and complexities. So I think, you know for example, certifications tend to cost money and not everyone can afford them, so I think while it’s great to have them where it’s possible, we shouldn’t just take that blanket approach that if there’s no certification then this isn’t good enough. So you kind of always need to really challenge yourself to understand why something might have a certification and why something else might not have it.
So yeah, we’re a founding partner of The Ethical Fashion Forum, we use certified textiles, quite a lot of our products are vegan certified, we are part of Textile Exchange, so we are really actively working in the street to promote a better culture around fibres, part of the Ethical Trading Initiative. We’re one of the first supporters of the Fashion Revolution, we support the vision of Extinction Rebellion and underneath it’s all the magazines that put something about us. Which sort of tends to impress people generally but you know, make what you want of it.
I talked to you a little bit earlier about the charity. But for us, it’s a bit of a funny journey for us cause we started off as a charity, so in 2008, that’s how Mayamiko Trust came about, and it was about working with women and to help give women choices and that was by vocational training, microfinance, that kind of stuff. And then gradually we realised that for that employment to be sustainable one of the things that we needed to look at was export and so we started that journey. We first worked for other brands as a production workshop so if you were a designer and wanted to produce in a way that resonated with your values and we would do that for you and then gradually developed our own brand which is sort of where we found our kind of niche and sweet spot.
Another few magazines that have got things about us. A few influencers there that believed in us and wanted to wear our clothing which is always great. We were awarded a leadership award at the beginning of the year. I was completely taken by surprise and obviously very happy about. And the main reason was because everyone else on that list, there was ten of them, they’re so big and so established and so it was like oh my god if you saw the chaos behind the instagram account you probably wouldn’t give this to us but hey we’ll take it. I mean it’s always, it’s obviously lovely to be recognised and to be alongside great names like Stella McCartney and Bottletop and you know, Outland Denim and Raeburn and those guys. And the panel of judges was great as well, so it was good to get feedback from them on kind of what they thought worked and what we should focus on for the future. And then this happened, can’t say anything about it but I’ll let you look at the pictures. So that was another surprise we were not quite sure how this all came about but it did. So obviously that was a very special day and we were very happy to see Meghan Markle wear Mayamiko, particularly because it was the first day of her first Africa tour so it felt like a significant day and it’s the day when she went and talked to groups of girls and yeah, so that felt lovely and meaningful.
We didn’t get rich with it because obviously we only had seven of those dresses so all the people that said “They were sold out in seven seconds”, yes they were but there were only seven. So there you go, that’s kind of the, sort of the truth of it. I think I’ll add a little bit about, I don’t know if it’s gonna play but … if it does, otherwise it doesn’t matter it’s only a few seconds but… we’ll try…
[African music plays]
That’s just a bit of color to show you how we make the sanitary pads and one of the fun things about this is that when we started we had two men at the workshop and they would not even go anywhere near the pads, like it was a thing. It was like… and you know they wouldn’t want to have anything to do with them, they wouldn’t wanna sew them you know and I dunno, six months into it they were chucking them around the workshop, completely you know at ease and comfortable and I think it sort of proves a point that if you talk about something openly enough then it sort of you know, steps happen naturally. And I guess I hope that’s the message with, around sustainable, slow or responsible fashion, whatever you want to call it. You know, talking about it is a great starting point and so thank you for having me here tonight!
Eshita: Hello everyone, my name is Eshita. I don’t have a presentation, I was gonna do one but I changed my mind last minute. I thought I’d just share my journey with all of you as to kind of how I’ve you know, changed from being a shopaholic to being someone who’s more conscious about the way that I can consume fashion. And also how it led me to the creation of By Rotation which is now the Uk’s first peer-to-peer fashion rental platform. We’ve also been likened as the ‘Airbnb’ of fashion, where you can rent and lend your clothing therefore rotating it, as we call it.
Um, so I dunno, I just kinda wanna know a little bit more about you guys, are you guys big shoppers? Like do you buy something at least once a month? No, okay – great so I completely wouldn’t fit in here last year at all, I mean okay yeah you are here on a Friday night to talk about slow fashion so fair enough. Yeah, so last year I’d be the kind of person who would, I dunno every time there was a sale email from one of those you know retailers that I liked, I’d you know, open the email I’d send it to all my friends. I’d be like “guys 50% off, next week 70% off” you know, I’d be so excited by it. And I guess that kind of comes from my upbringing, which is that I’m Indian but I moved to Singapore when I was two and a half years old and Singapore is really well known for one thing, which is shopping. We have about thirty shopping malls on one road, very similar to the Oxford Street, it’s called Orchard Road actually, and every Friday with my pocket money I would go shopping with my friends because we didn’t have any outdoors.
Singapore is a city state, you know, you might know … yeah! And yeah there wasn’t much to do besides you know buying the latest trends, seeing what was on Disney Channel and you know like trying to copy what people were wearing in the Western world. When I moved to university it was the same, you know I was getting pocket money from my parents and I was kinda like you know what I can go shopping now in all these western retailers that we didn’t have back home then, which is you know H&M, Zara. Now you’ve got these new ones like ASOS, all these e-tailors, Pretty Little Thing or whatever. And at university we also had My Uni Days, so there were extra discounts, you know the Singaporian that I am you know I’m quite, I would say pragmatic with my money, so I’d definitely take advantage of any discounts that I got and that basically meant you know lots of shopping online because of the convenience.
And then eventually when I started working in finance, so I’ve been doing that for the past six years and I recently quit my job just six weeks ago to go full time on By Rotation and you know, with a job in the professional services sector such as working in finance you get paid kind of a nice salary and I remember I was, I start working at Standard Life in Edinburgh, very different to the London scene, and kinda realised that you know, I had what you would term as success but I just felt very lonely, so I could buy all these things if I wanted but I didn’t really have meaning in my life besides materialism and that’s probably something that I fed into growing up as well.
Um, and that sort of continued on for a good five years until very recently when I was getting married. So my husband is actually here, my child is here as well as you’ve met him. So we had an Indian wedding which meant there were man outfits, there were many guests, there was a lot of waste. There were a lot of outfits, I do love them, they live in my attic right now and there’s nothing I can do with them, they’re very, you know Indian outfits can be quite elaborate as it is and when you’re the bride they’re even more elaborate. I can’t wear them anywhere, so I don’t just have one white wedding gown like you would in a western wedding, I have four different very elaborate gowns that I couldn’t wear anywhere in the UK where I live now.
And I guess it sort of made me start thinking about what I wanted to do even for my honeymoon. So we decided to go to where I was born, which is Rajasthan in India. Rajasthan is actually really well known for its textile industry, which is why I think I love fashion anyway. And I just kinda wanted to reconnect with my roots, you know, besides just being in Singapore and London, very metropolitan cities, and I wanted to show my husband, who’s English – he’s behind, he has never been to Rajasthan. He’d been to India once, that was for my sister’s wedding and that was just Dehli so we just saw a big city. So we decided to go to Rajasthan to sort of reconnect with where I’m from and while I was planning my honeymoon I was thinking again about all the outfits I wanted to wear to look special on my honeymoon and that’s when I started thinking about how, you know when you look at all these places that you’re being advised to stay, to live, to eat, to wear, you know on Vogue magazine or whatever it is. All of them were promoting this sort of picture perfect life and often with all these expensive outfits that you only seem to wear once for that photo and I kind of thought, do I wanna do the same thing and feed into the culture where I’m still kind of buying new stuff just to wear it once and contributing to the problem.
And that’s when I started looking online about sharing clothes, you know be it swap or rental, and so I started looking more into fashion rental in the UK and how there’s nothing that well known here. I mean you probably have some highstreet stores in local towns that have, you know you can rent clothing for weddings and hats and those kind of things but there was no big player, like how the US has Rent the Runway, and that’s when I start thinking about going beyond just renting clothes that belong to a company, what about renting clothes from each other? You know, be it your friends or your family or complete strangers like you and me.
And that’s when I started doing my research and this was last year I think actually at this time, on this spreadsheet with my honeymoon trip. And yeah I did it for very pragmatic reasons right? I’m still a shopaholic, well I used to be anyway, right now I’m buying vintage or I’m buying second hand, you know I still like Manolo’s um, but I found a way to sort of you know feed into that habit which is by buying secondhand or vintage or renting. So I’m on my honeymoon and didn’t buy anything new, decided to wear what I already had and borrowed stuff from my friends as well. Came back thinking I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna make a beta test platform and I’m gonna test it out to see if this country is ready for it. We did that in April and obviously got picked up by a lot of press and I totally agree with Paola, you know there’s a lot of hype that the press and unfortunately when you’re in the fashion industry you need to sort of go along with it. And personally I still don’t, I don’t really like it and you know when you work in a very different sector that’s not really how things work but fashion can still be very much about who you know rather than what you know. I found that quite frustrating actually.
Um, yeah so we started that up and I kind of launched that platform for people who feel the same way, they want their, they want that hit of something new, my dog for example, when I’ve bought him a new toy he’s definitely much happier than when he is playing with his old toy. It’s just something innate in us right? Like, we love something new but I started feeling that when I began renting from the other users as well. You know people would put up their very on trend dresses as well. So instead of going to you know whatever, Zara to buy a knock off I dunno another brand like, I dunno what do you wanna say, like GANNI, some of those on trend dresses, instead of going to Zara to buy a rip off dress or like actually going to buy those expensive dresses for two to three hundred pounds. I could now rent one for twenty pounds and it felt amazing because I actually didn’t really need to look at the dress … anymore and I still got my hit and dosage of new.
And that’s when i kinda thought, this is a practical solution to how we all feel, you know we do like new things, we do like looking different and special and expressing ourselves. Why don’t we do it in more of a practical way? So that’s where By Rotation, that’s how By Rotation was born and that’s the kind of person By Rotation is for. Just a practical person who’s still fashion-conscious but increasingly more conscious and I guess you know, beginning to think that something in their life has to change.
So yeah, as for By Rotation, we had a panel actually that was I was moderating and it’s all very new for me still, you know I quite six weeks ago just in the same time that our mobile app launched, it was covered by business of fashion and we had some really good press, I do however think that press can only get you that far and for me it’s always been about building a community. So when I was asked by Susuana to come to Brighton and give a speech I was very excited ‘cos I wanted to share the concept outside of London as well.
For me it’s not about London only and it should never be, it should be really about … well we think of ourselves as a global company anyway and you know we do want to be the Depop of renting, the Vastya of renting. I’m actually having good conversations with both of those companies. And you know it’s kind of, I really want it to meet people in Brighton as well, I’ve only been here twice actually to the beach, and once I think to Meatliquor, I dunno if it’s still here, is it still here? Is it still good? I dunno. It got worse in London so… I’m vegetarian but I love the vegetarian burger just so you know.
But yeah, so and for me I think community is very important, ‘cos we are telling people to share with each other and you know, a lot of times people might feel uncomfortable with that especially when it comes to fashion and clothing. And we are talking about mid to high end clothing and that’s where I kinda thought that having the community angle to it really makes this more… you know, talk about these issues be it trust confidence or well even the environment and our environmental footprint that we are having just from going to Zara or H&M or Topshop or all of those companies.
So I believe for us, our main sort of goal is to get people to stop buying from those high street brands that often just push you to buy more or they have like a conscious label attached to it. I think the problem really is with production and I personally feel a lot of panels that I go to to talk about production and different sort of production methods and how they’re more eco-friendly, that a lot of people don’t really talk about consumption. And I think that’s what we’re trying to fix or provide a new solution besides resale and reuse … Rotate! I think that’s actually probably all I wanted to cover. I’m sure we will have questions as well.