At the individual brand level, sustainability is a key priority for most fashion organisations. As an industry, fashion is still falling far short of the comprehensive changes it needs to make if targets are going to be met. And beyond those targets lies the real unanswered question: what does an industry that’s currently defined by high-volume look like when the only option left on the table is making and selling fewer clothes?
One brand that’s tried to get ahead of that question is L’Estrange London. Co-founded by William Green and Tom Horne, L’Estrange began with the bold step of making a small assortment of durable, versatile menswear suitable for a range of occasions. And the results, from a sustainability point of view, are compelling: clothes that are worn ten times more often than traditional fashion, a minimised carbon footprint, and a pursuit of innovation in materials.
But one brand can’t lead a cultural change, and as The Interline discovered when we sat down with William Green over the holiday season, that kind of sweeping cultural change could become necessary sooner than anyone expects.
The Interline: With this being the year that the pandemic recedes into the background, at least in the UK, Europe, and the US, this feels like a time to take stock. Our first podcast – centred on Intelligent Retail – released earlier this month, and in it we talked about how different components of the fashion retail business have been reshaped, maybe forever, by COVID. What were the acute effects of the pandemic on L’Estrange’s business, and how far have they turned into lasting changes?
William Green: Our first mission has always been how we can reduce how much fashion we need to buy. Our objective is to design products that can be comfortable, smart, casual, and suitable almost everywhere in day-to-day life. So in that sense we benefitted from our fundamental proposition being COVID-friendly, since lockdowns where huge segments of people’s wardrobes went unused for months really underlined the core problem we’re trying to solve: the need to have so many different clothes for different occasions.
We were also lucky in that we were set up for eCommerce, and in the early days of the pandemic if you had clothes you could sell online, you were in good shape.
Unfortunately the disruption on the supply side was more of a problem. We had numerous categories that we either had to delay in a big way, or just reschedule for the following year. That actually didn’t become a lasting problem, and we were managing to ride it out, but the second storm of Brexit hit that side of the business harder, so disruption is very much ongoing when it comes to our supply chain.
What’s interesting in the context of COVID, though, is that we’re seeing great performance in our retail stores at the moment, even though footfall is down. So online is obviously still benefitting from the pandemic in a big way, but we’ve also had several back-to-back record months in our flagship store in Covent Garden, even though foot traffic is down 60%.
The Interline: What does your actual channel mix look like today?
William Green: It was about 80% online and 20% offline pre-pandemic, and it’s returned to around the same proportions today. What’s changing, though, is the cost of doing business across those different channels.
We’ve actually come out of COVID with more stores than we went in with, bolstered by a revolving pop-up strategy, and we really want to continue to invest in physical retail as we go forward, because, as I mentioned, our retail stores are performing very well despite the disruption to passing trade.
Compare that to online, where the cost of marketing has seen a big increase, and where there are more and more people all targeting the same eyeballs, and physical retail is looking very promising. And more than that, we love retail, and we think physical spaces are always going to be the best way for customers to quickly understand what we’re about.
The Interline: Can you tell us what L’Estrange is about, and where the concept came from?
William Green: The ethos is really around the idea of essentialism. We have a fundamental problem in the fashion industry where the average person uses less than 30% of their wardrobe, and at the same time we’ve gone from producing around 50 billion units of clothing per year 15 years ago, to producing 100 billion units per year now. And it’s said over 70% of that ends up in landfill.
There’s also the casualisation of society happening at the same time. People are tending to work remotely, and the old dress codes are being thrown out. So our goal is to create a singular, modular wardrobe of garments that are really built for versatility – where you can move between different environments, different settings, and different occasions without having to change clothes.
And that’s something we can substantiate: we’ve surveyed our customers and found that our 24 Trouser, which is our hero product, is being worn upwards of 100 times in the first year of ownership by some people. That’s about ten times the average number of wears you’d normally see from a traditional brand.
The Interline: Everyone’s familiar with the idea that shoppers are over-buying and that brands are over-producing, but it’s difficult to think of any other industry where the core product is used so little for its intended purpose.
William Green: I think fashion might just be the original source of planned obsolescence. The technology industry gets a lot of heat for creating that concept, but where does it really come from? It’s become culturally accepted that products have a shelf life, but at least in the technology sector there’s a functional justification for that; in fashion, aesthetics are almost the only reason.
Our objective is to work in the product categories that people are familiar with, to create multi-use products that fit those categories, and then to map out, measure, and manage the impact those products have. We published our first impact report last year, which looked at both our overall carbon footprint and the footprints of individual products, and we committed to offsetting it all. And while we recognise that offsetting is not the long-term solution, knowledge is powerful – the more insight we have into the effect our operations have, the better-informed choices we can make.
The Interline: How do you actually quantify that impact? Because one of the most significant challenges around supply chain transparency is how to gather the right data at the source.
William Green: Firstly, we make all our products in Europe: mainly Italy and Portugal, but also Lithuania and Romania. That relative proximity makes it a little easier than it might be if our production was concentrated in Asia, and it allows us to look at the impact of the entire product roadmap – from raw material through weaving, dyeing, finishing, into the factory, and to air freight and road freight. We make use of the tools developed by Higg to calculate all of that at the product level.
One of the most interesting things we discovered is that the margin of error can be quite large when you’re working with averages. If you, as a brand, think about the footprint of your offices, or your employees’ travel, exact figures can be hard to come by. So in our experience it’s best to err on the side of caution and offset, say, 1.5X the average, to cover potential inaccuracies in what you’re doing.
Most importantly, though, that impact exercise taught us that it’s actually much more achievable than you might think to cover that carbon offsetting from a cost perspective. And there’s something quite empowering about knowing that you’ve crossed that starting line, where at the very least your routine operations aren’t having a net negative impact from an emissions point of view.
The Interline: The prevailing opinion here is that, when it comes to sustainability, the definition is so nebulous that any measurable, quantifiable step is a step in the right direction. But beyond emissions, there’s also a much bigger consideration behind all this: the idea that improvements to materials and labour are positive things, but that in the long run fashion is simply going to have to start making much less product than it currently makes.
William Green: I love that you brought that up, because there’s so much discussion right now about swapping existing materials for more sustainable ones, but that’s not getting to the crux of the problem. And the problem is that we have an economy – and an industry – that’s predicated on infinite growth, and the only solution to fashion’s fundamental problem will be to slow down that growth.
The Interline: That’s a question that doesn’t get raised nearly as often because, to be blunt about it, it’s not just difficult to answer – it flies in the face of so much of what we’re taught about business. But it’s a question that has to be raised, because sooner or later the industry will have to reckon with the reality of producing less, and individual brands, retailers, and suppliers will need to figure out how they remain profitable. How do they make margin on a much smaller volume of product? How do you create an assortment that’s narrower, more focused, more adaptable, and still make money?
William Green: I can tell you how we think about that question – how we consume less – because it’s one we ask ourselves a lot.
To start with, I believe you need to have products that are more versatile. We’ve already talked about that, and in essence we mean creating products that are season-less and multi-use. But we also need to extend the life of those products. That’s something the industry’s discussing right now, with circularity, but before we get that far down the line, there’s huge value in extending the lifespan of products in their original form.
Think of it in the same way you think about polishing your shoes. Right now there isn’t really an industry around polishing clothes, but I believe there should be, and that’s an industry we’re interested in being a part of. And I think that should change the way the companies of the future operate; we’re always going to need clothes, but are we always going to need so many products? Instead, a fashion business that’s viable for the future should be providing the service of clothing as much as they are providing the products themselves. That, to me, feels like the right way to remain in the business of fashion, at the same time as dramatically reducing the resources that business consumes.
Implicit in that, though, is an uncomfortable reality: the solution for fashion’s sustainability problem is to have a smaller fashion industry. That means there are going to be winners and losers in that equation, because there are disruptors who are positioned to really do things differently, and then there are entrenched business models that are simply incompatible with the idea of a smaller industry.
The barriers to getting to that state aren’t business models, though – they’re cultural issues. Human nature loves newness, we love identity and expression, and we buy and wear new things because we like what that act says about us. Businesses will always exist to serve market demand, so change on the grand scale that fashion needs is going to be gradual and evolutionary, because it’s going to require brands and shoppers to take a critical lens to some very core components of society.
The Interline: It’s very easy to say that fast fashion is the villain, but that’s a simplistic viewpoint. If we put principles to one side, fashion is still a commercial enterprise, and in that context the answer will always be: “if you keep buying it, we’ll keep making it”.
Thinking more about how a brand can overcome that temptation, there’s a lot to consider from a technology point of view. In L’Estrange’s case, you’re making garments that are modular and durable, which must require them to be both high-quality and have incredibly consistent fit. What technology are you using in service of those goals?
William Green: We work with a partner called EasySize, which uses customer data to provide us with a lot of insights into sizing. There’s still work we want to do there, though, and the question of how we bring customers on the sizing journey with us – and how we can use that journey to drive returns down – is one we’ll always be asking.
Indirectly, I think it’s also important, if you’re designing versatile products to last, that you design in some flexibility in fit. It’s easy to say that we’re going to master fit with a beautiful, technology-only solution, but it’s not especially easy to execute – not least from a stock management point of view. The other approach is to engineer a degree of fit flexibility in, so that someone who’s a medium in summertime and then, perhaps, a medium-large after Christmas, can still wear the same piece all year round.
So we’re taking a two-pronged approach. It’s products built to accommodate a degree of change, and it’s making better use of data to guide shoppers towards their objectively “correct” size in the first place.
The Interline: We’re talking about the fit journey here, but L’Estrange also works to bring its customers into the design and development cycle as well. How do you approach that?
William Green: We have a very active audience, and we survey people often. Before and after the launch of every new product, we survey our customer base, and the insights we derive from that has been a huge discovery point for us.
We also have a platform called CONCEPTS, which is our experimental domain where we work with more innovative materials, new shapes, and things that might not necessarily be made to fit a core wardrobe. That allows us to test out new ideas with a smaller set of customers.
As an example, we introduced a new swimwear product as a concept, which was designed for both swimming and as a pair of shorts that could be used to walk around town in. We launched that in very limited quantities – about 150 pieces – and sold it exclusively to existing customers. They were able to buy those products through a closed environment, provided they were willing to participate in a survey, and people really embraced the idea of being able to feed back to us and to influence where we were going.
The Interline: Are there any particular technology applications that you’re hoping to be able to make use of in the near future, or that you’d like to see mature further so they could help you progress towards your goals?
William Green: Fabric innovation and material science is a heavy focus for us. We’re working on a process at the moment to redevelop the core fabric we use in our trousers, to incorporate both regenerative cotton and nanotechnology for traceability. Regenerative cotton production is fascinating to me, because of its process and its myriad benefits. It’s a process that involves continuous presence of crops – or use of ‘cover crops’ and bringing in livestock to move natural nutrients into the ground eliminating tilling to avoiding cutting up the underground network of fungi. Done right, it can improve the biodiversity of an ecosystem, improve soil health for long term production sustainability and importantly sequester carbon from the atmosphere. This all obviously reduces the per capita footprint of your finished garments. We have a goal to move all our natural fibres to regenerative sources by 2025 – quite a tough ask, but something we’re keen to push.
We’re also working on a traceable Merino that we’re hoping to introduce soon. And we’re super excited that we could be one of the first to bring to market a new, biodegradable elastane which we use a small percentage of in our cotton trousers – which will be a big step.
The Interline: That’s interesting, because it’s often hard to tell how close to scale and commercialisation alternatives to synthetic fibres are.
William Green: For sure, it will be a huge breakthrough if we can get biodegradable elastane to scale. All our other synthetic fibres are recycled currently, although we’re exploring the opportunity to make these biodegradable as well. Neither route is perfect in and of itself though, it’s about considering the end of life. And in fact that’s a way to capture a lot of this conversation at once: it’s easy to assume that recycled polymers from other sources coming into the fashion market is a clear win, sustainability-wise, when in fact what it’s doing in some cases is disrupting an otherwise circular plastics economy, which is fine as it is. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with a plastic water bottle so long as it’s recycled and brought back into the loop; it doesn’t need to become a pair of shoes to have a net positive impact particularly when there’s arguably less chance that shoe’s materials will be able to stay in the loop.
And to me that’s the essence of a lot of the sustainability conversation. Success won’t just be about what the fashion industry does, but how it does it.