Cutting the good cloth

Esther Kirwan at her ethical fashion pop-up store at the South Melbourne Market. Photo by Cleona Mirdin.
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Melbourne-based designers are proving that ethical fashion doesn't have to be expensive. Cleona Mirdin reports.

Esther Kirwan delicately layers the fabrics together on a plan. She cuts them into shapes of garments, leaving and saving odd bits and pieces. Like an abstract painting she tailors them into a unique contrast of pockets and linings.

She keeps asking and telling the families she works with to follow suit.

Since the beginning, Kirwan has sourced her fabrics from Balinese suppliers. Now, working with Balinese family-based manufacturers, also known as the makers, she uses the same technique.

This is a philosophy Kirwan employs to reduce wastage and economically run her small scale ethical fashion business, Theo the Label.

“Our products are cut by hand, so we can see how much is left and use whatever that’s left. We do a lay plan to limit wastage,” says Kirwan.

Kirwan’s passion for ethical fashion is a “personal faith”; the makers breathe life to her business and motivate her to keep going.

“I work with two families, for me this label is more than the clothing; it’s about what we do behind that and advocating for people’s human rights, ensuring workers get paid fairly, that is what inspired me to do what I do,” says Kirwan.

However, working with families has its complications. At times, she says, the challenge is “essentially not selling out”. It would be obvious to make decisions and scale up production to gain profits, but that is not the case when running an ethical business.

“It would be easy to just go to a factory and hand over my designs to a factory and have them make everything. It would be more economical, profitable and less logistic and decisions to make throughout the supply chain, but this is not what I do,” says Kirwan.

Kirwan believes that providing these families with employment, acknowledging their world and knowing how they produce the garments will help enforce labour rights and ethical fashion.

“For me and my experience, I personally felt like I couldn’t contribute to sweatshop conditions, human trafficking… it’s essentially modern human slavery,” says Kirwan.

Theo the Label Menswear collection. Photo by Cleona Mirdin.

Kirwan is part of the growing movement in Australia that advocates for ethical and slow fashion. Although there is not enough data on the phenomenon, there is a huge development of fashion brands and manufacturers in Australia that are producing ethically.

Ethical Fashion is a social responsibility towards the production, design and sourcing of fashion. The goal is to address concerns on fair trade, animal wellbeing, sustainable fashion and exploitation in labour and the ecosystem.

Angela Bell, national manager of Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA), says there are people setting up new businesses “built on ethical principles”. ECA’s purpose is to accredit and ensure brands, designers, makers, high profile labels and manufacturers are complying legally and transparently.

“I’ve definitely see an increase of fashion labels and manufacturers that are basing themselves on ethical principles,” says Bell.

The ECA is a non-profit organisation that works together with the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia. Their goal is to accredit, audit and ensure Australian clothing businesses are adhering to relevant work place laws throughout their entire supply chain.

Bell says an important element for an ECA accreditation is the workers’ entitlements.

“Essential to our accreditation is ensuring those people who are working in factories or at home are being paid appropriately according to the law, working in safe conditions and given right entitlements,” says Bell.

Bell is reassured by the increasing number of ethical fashion businesses in Australia, seeing that they also stand together with the ECA values.

“The businesses we represent, they are committed to making in Australia, committed to retaining and developing local skills and, they value their employees. We provide an independent assessment that they are complying with workplace laws within the supply chain and that means they are able to use the ECA logo. Seeing the logo gives the shopping public confidence to buy clothing knowing that it’s been made the right way.”

Holm, an ethical fashion designer and the founder of Melbourne fashion designer A.BCH, also believes in the importance of labour laws and workers’ entitlements.

However, Holm has taken a different approach to enforce ethical fashion. While working in the fashion industry and learning the concepts of ethical fashion, she realised she needed to do something “radical” to change the industry.

Through her journey she has learnt that ethical fashion is deeper than what meets the eye and like a Samaritan, she has to learn to carry the responsibilities.

“It was more than making a product locally. The more I learn, the more I realised that I had a responsibility to do a lot more,” says Holm. “So, I had an idea about A.BCH as a way to tackle very complicated issues in the industry.”

“There’s a lot of challenges when it comes to sourcing transparently. Challenges in communicating that to customers and being able to consistently articulate how we are different and why they should care.”

Holm says that communicating and educating consumers is her “number one” priority. She tries to take into account the perspectives of customers.

“I want something clean, timeless, basic and beautiful but I can’t find anything made in the materials that I would deem sustainable and there is no point in creating a sustainable product if it’s ugly! If no one wants it, you’re just creating more waste in the world,” says Holm.

That is why Holm takes designs seriously. The designs take account of all factors from the consumers’ point of view. She use it as a vehicle to reach and educate consumers about the need to care for ethical fashion.

Holm also aims for her clothing prices to be accessible to consumers.

“We don’t match up to traditional retail prices and we intentionally keep everything at wholesale prices. We sell one by one and the margin built in is the lowest possible. We’ve done that on purpose in order to make the price point accessible and it’s all about us being accessible from a design perspective and a cost perspective,” says Holm.

Although pursuing this method makes the business a commercial success, Holm believes keeping their prices affordable and more accessible will “help create trust and build a stronger base with the customers in the long term”.

Kirwan taken the same approach.

She says being transparent and accessible is fundamental to running an ethical business. She tries to rule out mass marketing and instead, uses the actual costing as a way to structure the pricing points.

“I have no interest in paying celebrities millions to market my clothing. So I take that out of the price of our clothing, which is not easy, which means sometimes the margins are smaller than a big chain store.”

She understands this means she has smaller margins and lesser profits to fuel her business. She says that in the long haul to grow her small business, this is a practical approach.

Ethical fashion designer and RMIT fashion alumnus Cameron James Dixon couldn’t agree more with the importance of gaining customers’ trust and being transparent through the clothing. “When you compare the price point of my label to other fashion labels you really can’t compete. I’m aware of this and so are my customers, but they are aware of the benefits of buying from me,” says Dixon.

Dixon, likewise, is a founder of an ethical fashion online store, Cameron & James.

He believes there is a need to switch the dynamics of the game. To him, controlling the production in the supply chain is the key to minimise environmental damages.

“I produce all clothing myself, that’s how I increase sustainability is that I make to order to reduce excess products coming out from my business. This means I can cut to order so I place pattern pieces in a way to reduce excess fabric wastage,” says Dixon.

Dixon acknowledges his pricing structure is at a “more premium price point” but this is because his garments are individually handmade in his studio.

He believes presenting quality and authenticity is what customers want. “They know my pieces last a lot longer. They were made under fair and quality conditions and we pick fabrics with less harmful chemicals,” says Dixon.

Despite this, he says he believes there are some consumers who are holding back on ethical fashion.

“People are aware of what’s going on in the industry and making more conscious decisions, but I wouldn’t say they have move away from the trend of fast fashion,” says Dixon.

Holm says says spreading awareness and changing the misconception of ethical fashion will take time and communities coming together. “I think the more that sustainability becomes important to fashion labels and to customers, the more the designs then the need to care will follow, but it’s just going to take some time.”