After successful careers in both fashion and interiors Suzi decided to create her own brand. Because of her experiences of working in fashion she knew from the start that she wanted to build her brand on a foundation that put people and planet at the heart of anything she created. As with other brands before her who have decided to take this path the journey is very different than if you are creating a product without any thought to the world you live in. In fact Suzi is still in the process of developing her product. Here Suzi gives us a fascinating insight into the twists and turns of getting that right.
D: Where did you grow up Suzi?
S: I grew up in North Yorkshire in Pickering, on the edge of the North York Moors and I absolutely loved it there. It was a real anchor point for me and my sisters growing up. Obviously, it is very rural and quite a bleak place in the winter and we had a lot of snow back then, lots of snow, cold and beautiful. I had great friendships, we went horse riding, we were outside most of the time, it was in the days where children were sent outside in the morning to play, and you didn't go back until you needed something to eat.
We go back once or twice a year to walk and check in with friends and family, and it's always a special place to return to.
D: What was your career path?
I moved South when I was 20. My career choices were inspired by a talk our needlework teachers daughter gave, who was a buyer for C&A. I was about 15 at the time and I thought that sounds amazing that's what I'd like to do. After my A ‘levels I applied to study textiles with a marketing subsidiary at Leeds Uni but didn't get in. So I went travelling instead, and as I am French Canadian I decided to go meet my family there. I had a ball travelling around and working in a record store, I loved it and found it really difficult to come back home.
After writing many letters to head offices of big fashion groups I got a couple of interviews and one job offer for Horne Brothers which was a small menswear firm that was part of the Sears group in Birmingham. I started there as a buyer’s assistant, but six months later they imploded and I was made redundant. However it had given me the experience to be able to apply for jobs in London and gained me an assistant buyer’s position at BHS, in children's wear for 4 years.
When you have your sights set on womenswear but find yourself working in kidswear you can think, well this is not really what I wanted, but actually it was a great place to learn. At the time we had a more local framework of supply, although we were buying cotton and denim from India we had a lot of suppliers in the Midlands. After progressing to junior buyer I decided I wanted something new and exciting so I applied for Topshop. For a while it was my dream job, a very exciting place to be. There were 40 of us in head office. I started working with the swimwear and underwear team. It was very different to my other experiences, very long hours and very quickly, I realised that the supply base was managed in a very different way.
D: I guess when you first started you were going to factories and seeing the garments being made.
S: I was at BHS, for example, the dresses for girls - apart from the denim, was coming from Nottingham and that local supply base worked really well, it was very much a partnership in design, sourcing and fabric development.
With Topshop the volumes were greater, I had moved from BHS who had about 100 stores to Topshop who had about 350 at the time and the volumes were immense. At BHS you would be learning for the next season, at Topshop everything was done in real time.
If you had styles that were selling out very quickly, the buying model was all about repeats, and how quickly you could get commitment in. Is that cut yet? if not can we change it because this shape is selling better. Is that dyed? No, okay good, can we dye it in this colour instead. It was all about getting your head around managing the critical path. It was all very exciting because you were reacting to trends from top down, for example Prada, and Tom Ford at Gucci, his sexy satin shirts and his hipsters which was a massive look - we were taking our design cues from there.
Equally at the same time everything was being offshored - this was around the mid to late 90s, and we were having to say goodbye to many UK suppliers. It was all about margins. You were told ‘OK this is your margin for the season, we don’t care what you do but that's what you hit.’ This meant you would be arguing over 5p for some garments, which makes all the difference to a manufacturer in the Global South. Then of course you had garments that were not selling well and didn't want any more of that stock in the business. Nothing was paid for until it arrived, so all the risk until then was with the supplier. We didn’t have any stakeholding in factories at that time. We had to make some very difficult phone calls to say we didn’t want the stock, which meant it ended up in markets or was incinerated and it was up to the supplier to get rid of it. Those sorts of decisions could bankrupt suppliers overnight. Of course they wanted to supply retailers like Topshop, however, the commitment they had with us was so great that if it was taken away it could destroy them. This didn't sit well with me. You can probably imagine the dynamics within the team, the long hours, the pressure, and always the focus was, how can you get more in faster and cheaper. All the things that we associate now with fast fashion were happening then.
When I look back now I think, ‘gosh why didn't I ask more questions?’ ‘why didn't we understand?’ why weren’t we educated on what happened further down the supply chains?
D: It wouldn't have suited the business for you to understand.
S: Everything was so intense, it had to happen so quickly, you did not have time to think, it was all about market share, profit and getting as much control as they could over the market. They were very successful for that period, that’s what people wanted or felt they wanted.
D: Well, it was and still is being marketed to people that way isn’t it.
S: Yes. It ended up being a really intense three or four years and in the end I really wasn't enjoying it at all.
D: What was your next move?
S: I thought the grass would be greener somewhere else and was questioning ‘what should I do?’ Everyone in Topshop was super young and there were very few buyers beyond their early 30s.
D: Of course that strategy of working you so hard you would burn out and leave would keep the reality of the supply chain at bay because before you started questioning things you would be moving on and the next batch of youngsters would come in.
S: You would also be constantly looking over your shoulder in that sense because there are plenty of people that wanted to work there, for all the reasons I did, I guess.
When I left I went for interviews at Karen Miller, Miss Selfridge and House of Fraser. I was offered a position at House of Fraser and remember thinking, is this going to be more of the same? or do I need to move on?
Design, colour and everything you can pull in from a creative point of view was always something that excited and stimulated me, so I enrolled on a fashion drawing course at LCF, I also worked on Saving Private Ryan on the film set for in their wardrobe department as a runner, things like that. I was really experimenting with what direction to take. The wardrobe side inspired me, so I interned at the BBC for six months, but it gave me that experience and insight which was great as I worked on a few TV programmes, I worked with period costume, contemporary costume and met some really great characters but generally the work was sporadic and you couldn’t rely on it for having, or for being in work.
I had always had an interest in interiors and with a bit of a drawing background I thought right let's do a degree, which I did by correspondence, on interior design and architecture. That kept me occupied for four years. Then I started my own business, I set up my own studio and within the first year I had a really lovely client in London, I never advertised after that, I was always recommended on and worked on about 3 or 4 projects at a time. It was a really lovely 10 years of being very creative, working with a realistic budget, having the time to be meticulous and source things properly and put it all together and work with the client and with the supplier. I did a lot of bespoke furniture design, spatial planning and lighting schemes, not only the fluffy bits as I used to call them. I liked getting into the 3D space getting maximum return with what each client had. I loved it. Then I had my daughter quite late it wasn't planned that way, it just took a long time to get pregnant. I felt after 20 years I would have a break from work and give my time, at the age of 40, to my daughter Florence.
We had been renovating a house in Italy and decided to move there for couple of years. It was a way of cutting out all the noise and bringing this lovely little girl into the world and living the dream for a while and it was a very special time.
When we moved back to England I picked up the interiors again, I didn't do as many projects because I realised that when you're up in the early hours with a toddler, you can't really be onsite at 7:30am.
D: When did you decide to create your own brand?
S: My thoughts started turning back to fashion. There are two reasons why, one was because I'd been working on a new build project for a client who lived in France who had become quite demanding of my time. He wanted meetings at night, and it didn't really gel. I had created drawings and spent time that hadn't been paid for, and I started to think, ‘is this it? do I need to rethink? Is interiors really what I want to continue doing? Very soon after that I read an ECO Age article in the Guardian, about tanneries and the supply chain, further reading led me to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Make Fashion Circular and I was absolutely intrigued, but also horrified that the industry was so much worse since I'd left it 20 years earlier.
On a holiday I had found myself working on daily sketches of an interchangeable clutch and thinking could this work? Then started wondering how I would produce it, I had lots of thoughts going around in my head. I knew I didn’t want to make it from leather, so what else could it be made from? My research then led me to plant based textiles, biochemistry and recycled fibres – all of which I found fascinating and the realisation that more research was needed to understand where the industry was going, because there's no way I could put my name to something that's attached to the dreadful human and environmental stories I'm reading.
An intense period of research and learning followed, which included enrolling on the Future Learn course at LCF written by Dilys Williams, and Kering which was brilliant because it was so well structured. Wherever you were in the fashion ecosystem, it was appropriate for all. The course has lot of extra reading and research opportunity you can do, which I did, because I really wanted a broader understanding.
I then acquainted myself with the team at the Sustainable Angle and thought, right let me learn more about the sustainable fabric offering, and they were brilliant, helpful but I realised I still had a more lot to learn.
I knew if I was going to create my own brand I had to learn more about the responsible production side of it. Then I discovered Cradle to Cradle which was my turning point. It was a cohesion of things coming together.
When I contacted the Cradle to Cradle Institute in California, they told me about their assessors in Europe and if I was interested, that it's quite an undertaking and to speak to one of the assessors first, which I did. I selected EPEA in Hamburg which is founded by Michael Braungart who founded Cradle to Cradle with William McDonough. His science lab in Hamburg has some 30 creative scientists and was founded in the 90s when he was working for Greenpeace. He had done his PhD with Carmen Hijosa founder of Pinatex, and is an amazingly interesting person, thinking 30 years ahead of everyone else. I decided that this was a really good Institute to work with. Cradle to Cradle principles focus on five categories; material health, product circularity, water and soil stewardship, clean air and climate protection and social fairness. Acquainting yourself with these areas became a very intense journey, however it provided me with my framework for business, and for my manifesto.
From the five categories I decided that I would focus on material health and product circularity, with emphasis on recycled materials, and optimising materials for the circular economy.
It’s important to point out, that when you work on a consultation basis it's really expensive, these institutes aren't cheap, and it was a big decision because I wasn’t drawing a salary, and it is not easy to quantify this phase of development. But I felt it formed the basis of moving forward.
D: Have EPEA supported your product circularity vision?
S: They have, and they are brilliant. I've been working with them for over 3 years now on a consultancy basis, progressing to Cradle to Cradle certification. They have a super-supportive team, and I now have a depth of knowledge, together with an innovative supply base due in-part to EPEA.
Because I use high value recycled waste materials, with the tech to enable product disassembly and end-of-life solutions, I wanted to have the whole collection certified. There was no point in looking at materials only, but a rubber stamp for the collection. My pledge was to develop a responsible end to end model where you are also taking responsibility for your waste. You have parameters you must work within, with scope for improvement.
There is always a challenge in achieving a balance of aesthetics and functionality, with circularity. Coatings have been quite a headache; the bags have to be fit for purpose but some coatings can be more toxic and impede recycling. Material health is about material optimisation and the phasing out of hazardous chemicals. Every single chemical of every component is analysed which dictates your certification level. Various lab trials on water based coatings for example, were not stacking up, not for a bag.
Adhesive can be another impediment to optimisation as it often contains hazardous chemicals. We have been developing a greener alternative for over two years with a UK lab, something we hope to out-source to the industry, eventually.
D: Who would have thought you would have been looking at adhesive when you started your career.
S: I always remember Stella McCartney saying ‘this is what gets me out of bed’. It is really incredible, the innovation is so inspiring. You are focused on a better future, a better way of making things which is very stimulating.
I think you've got to be really tenacious, determined and patient. As a start-up you get a lot of doors slammed in your face, because either you can't afford the lab trials, or they are working with bigger brands for whom minimum order quantities are not an issue. In that respect Cradle to Cradle really helped me because they put me in touch with people and organisations at the leading edge, and who understood such issues with a start-up.
D: How far off do you think you are from launch?
S: Nearly 5 years into development, I have realised that in order to be a fully circular brand, taking responsibility for the entire life cycle of our product, is all about the long game. Veja, Allbirds have taken years to develop and deliver their sustainable solutions to market. Of course, the pandemic and Brexit have delayed our lab trials and have sent the supply chain into chaos, not to mention price volatility, however we are navigating these issues carefully and hope to get Rplanet out into the world in 2023.
Circularity is definitely a pipeline of thought because it's all about optimising materials, so they can be reused and retain their value. The ultimate way forward is a fibre to fibre loop, whereas currently a lot of materials are down cycled as the quality degrades. Brands have to design with end-of-life solutions in mind. This is the future.
Dvora, what do you think is going to make the culture shift?
D: I don't know, this is something I’ve been talking about, ‘has fashion found it’s plastic bag moment yet?’ I don’t think so. When I first started talking to everyone, people were saying fashion is brilliant because it can pivot really quickly as we see with all the different seasons. The reality is that it’s a huge slow lumbering beast that can’t pivot quickly. Maybe designers can pivot collections quickly with new designs but changing the whole production system behind takes time. It needs to completely change.
S: That’s what worries me. Change is not happening quickly enough. When I talk to people, there are plenty of naysayers that don't or won’t understand what I'm doing. Perhaps they don’t care - but someone has to.
D: You have to for your children and grandchildren and all the future generations whether you have children or not.
S: To design well, having a restrictive bill of material to work with is a good discipline, fewer materials within a principled framework, forces you to be creative and able to reimagine.
When I started on this journey, some tech innovation did not exist – now it does and it is being scaled. There are so many great ideas and initiatives being accelerated. We can never stand still.
D: How amazing that a growing number of people are working along these lines, that the thinking is along these lines and that production will eventually be along these lines too.
It also needs to be marketed to everybody in a new way.
S: Policy has got to have something to do with that too.
D: Totally 100%.
S: Rplanet reflects the true cost of producing something that’s safe for people and planet. At the moment we have an unlevel and unfair playing field in the fashion industry. On one hand you have the majority of brands still using bad practice and will do for as long as they possibly can. On the other you have smaller brands who are nimble, innovative, the pioneers who would love to have some concessions, yet the government aren’t saying to those producing with virgin petrochemicals there's a tax to be paid for using virgin polyester, or giving tax breaks to those who are innovating, or using high recycled content, or producing in ethical and environmentally friendly ways.
D: How great will it be when you do go live and you are able to say ‘Look this is what’s possible, this is what you can do, come on, join in.
S: That’s exactly what I want to do. I want to say ‘Look its possible, we can all go down this route. That's really what keeps me going. Because it is possible.
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