PURE LONDON - The Wardrobe of the Future

 
I had the joy of presenting a discussion on The Wardrobe of the Future to an audience of mostly British buyers (people who source clothes for stores like Harrod’s and Topshop) at    Pure London   , one of the most anticipated fashion trade shows in the UK. Here’s what I said, and the questions I was asked!

I had the joy of presenting a discussion on The Wardrobe of the Future to an audience of mostly British buyers (people who source clothes for stores like Harrod’s and Topshop) at Pure London, one of the most anticipated fashion trade shows in the UK. Here’s what I said, and the questions I was asked!

 

Relax! It’s not like we’re saving lives here.

My colleagues love to say that on set.  If we’re behind schedule, and the art director is starting to get pissed, inevitably, someone says, Relax, it’s not like we’re saving lives here.

But what if we were?

How many of you are buyers? (a number of people raise their hands) Do you understand how powerful you are? How much good you can do with your choices?

You can choose to stock leggings that pay a young factory worker enough to feed her children. Your order can pull fishing nets out of the ocean, saving the lives of dolphins and sea turtles and little starfish. You can pick dresses that will help a mother save for open heart surgery for her son. These are all real examples.

YOU GUYS! Did you even know that you could do this? YOU! As a consumer, when I buy a pair of leggings, I make *this much* change. (hold fingers about an inch apart) You guys are the next level up – you decide what goes on the shelves in the first place. When you buy a pair of leggings, you are buying a dozen or a hundred or a thousand pairs – you each are making *THIS MUCH* change. (holds arms apart) I am in awe of you!!

TODAY. I am going to show you how much opportunity there is in The Wardrobe of the Future. Yes, the secondhand and rental markets are growing, but there is SO MUCH that can be done with new clothing. I’m going to talk about how consumers are shopping each market, and what categories they are shopping in each. There are some drawbacks to secondhand and rental clothing that create BIG opportunities for you.

 

Okay, but who is this crazy American lady lecturing you anyway?

I’m Lauren Engelke, wardrobe stylist, tailor, and sustainability expert not only on Instagram but also in real life. Here’s a brief summary of my life:

  • I love clothes but I’m also clearly a closeted hippy. Here is my first capsule collection, Spring/Summer 1992. We have a tank from upcycled plastic, a pair of genderless, size inclusive socks, and a structured shirt and culotte set (quite on trend for this season, don’t you think?) from renewable cellulose, modeled by my brother.

  • I wanted to study fashion, but unfortunately I’m really good at math. My parents steered me towards a degree in Finance, and I sewed costumes for the theater as a side job during college.

  • After college, I went to work as an operations analyst for a tech company. WHICH IS RELEVANT BECAUSE my job was to wander around, figure out when people were doing something inefficiently, REDESIGN that process, and then convince someone that I knew how to do their job better than they did and they should do it my way.

  • Why do I tell you this? Because clearly I am the worst. But also. Because I learned something important about human behavior.

  • IF YOU WANT PEOPLE TO CHANGE THEIR BEHAVIOR, you have to show them about what’s in it for them.

  • This relates to sustainability because although people repeatedly answer in polls that they are willing to pay more for a sustainable garment, in practice, this is not true. You need to deliver the same cutting edge style, excellent quality and durability as you always have, plus sustainability, at the same price point. It’s not impossible, just stay with me.

  • I left that job as an analyst to work in fashion. I became a tailor, then a stylist, and then when I started offering fair fashion styling, my Instagram blew up. Which is how a tailor ended up on stage talking to you.

My brother models a structured shirt & culotte set of renewable cellulose.

My brother models a structured shirt & culotte set of renewable cellulose.

S/S 92 - First sustainable capsule collection & early signs of genius

S/S 92 - First sustainable capsule collection & early signs of genius

 

Rentals/Dress Hire

Let’s take a look at rentals, or dress hire, first. This has been around in the US for 10-15 years, and it’s just started to land here in the UK.

I’ve been using dress hire for about 10 years. It works very well for garments you would only wear once, like special occasion items. It’s also great for big ticket items, like luxury handbags, and subscriptions to add statement and trendy items to a small wardrobe. Here are some rental services in the US & the niches they serve:

  • Rent the Runway (occasion, daywear, subscription) - $169/mo

  • Bag, Borrow & Steal (luxury bags)

Armarium

Armarium

  • Gwynnie Bee (plus) - $69/mo

  • Nuuly/Urban Outfitters (bohemian) – $88/mo

  • Infinite Wardrobe by Ann Taylor (work) - $99/mo

  • Armarium (runway) - $200+

As you can see, most subscriptions are $70-$200 a month, or a la carte is 10-20% of retail, which typically includes dry cleaning and insurance. You’re probably still going to stock your wardrobe with essentials, though.

From looking at me, can anyone predict what the biggest drawback of renting is? (Murmurs in the crowd – “fit” “everything fits” “size”)

I’ll tell you. Everything fits me off the rack. I’m a smidge under 5’8” and a US size 4 almost on the nose. Everything fits. Pants and dresses are always exactly the right length.

The big drawback of renting clothing is most services will not tailor (Armarium is the notable exception), so tall women, petites, and plus women have far fewer choices. Which turns into an opportunity for you, as buyers of new clothing, to address this need.

The other deficit here is your everyday essentials. It simply doesn’t make financial sense to rent something moderately inexpensive that you will wear a lot, like tee shirts and basic jeans.

 
 
 
 

Secondhand

Now let’s take a look at the opportunities that the secondhand market gives us. Do I have any op shoppers in here? Vintage lovers? (A couple of people happily raise their hands) It’s getting so easy to shop secondhand nowadays, isn’t it? When I lived in Philadelphia, I would drive to the rich suburbs and go to the op shops there. Rich people’s thrift stores are so good, right?? Anyway, nowadays I can just peruse the internet late at night, in my pajamas, while eating cookie dough like a normal person! And there’s even free shipping and free returns, what!!

The secondhand market is blowing up. American consignment retailer ThredUP values the secondhand market at $24B currently, and thinks it will hit $51B in 5 years.

Why do I torture you with this info? Because shopping secondhand still has its drawbacks. It’s great because you can save money on pieces that are a couple seasons old from your favorite designers or high street brands. You could also score specific pieces like vintage Levi’s, band tees, or discontinued luxury bags – but they’re almost always a couple seasons behind. You aren’t going to find tons of options with the color of the moment or the hot neckline. This creates an opportunity for you as buyers.

Another cool approach is to integrate secondhand into your stores– some conventional retailers are actually starting to buy back their own garments from shoppers, and resell them in their own stores!

Eileen Fisher does this, the North Face, and Patagonia. They pay $5-$10- up to $100 for certain items, which they clean, refurbish, and sell in a part of their shops. Cool, right?

 Okay, so, secondhand and rentals are growing, but there’s always always ALWAYS going to be a market for new clothing. Brace yourself for some big opportunities!

 
 
Lauren at The Wardrobe of the Future, London
 

Inclusive Sizing

Talls, petites, and plus sizes are so underserved! Renting is difficult for these groups, and secondhand/vintage options tend to be hard to find as well.

 

According to the Mirror, in 2017, the average British woman is:

Size 16

Height 5’5”/165cm

36DD”/104cm – 34”/86cm – 40.5”/103cm

 Source: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/size-16-36dd-34-inch-10032782

 

The average American woman

Just under 5’4”/162.5cm

Waist 38.7”/98 cm

170 lbs/12 st/77 kg

 Source: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/body-measurements.htm

 

The average British or American woman CAN NOT SHOP in a high street store. Think about that! Think about how much money you are leaving on the table when you only sell clothes to half the population! Anecdotally, I maintain a database of all the sustainable brands I come across. Of over 700 ladies’ brands I keep track of, about 50 offer plus or custom sizing.

 Plus size women are used to paying more, working harder to find their clothes, having far fewer options, they are even used to waiting weeks for custom sizes to be ordered. They love and need clothing just as much as straight size women. Stock options for them and they will be loyal to you! Guys, plus women still need to get dressed!! (Shout out to my big & tall men as well!)

 When buying for plus, ASK THE SIZE OF THE FIT MODELS. More than half of my on set tailoring is for plus size models, and the proportions of a plus woman are different from the proportions of a straight size woman. A pattern from a size 4 fit model scaled to fit a size 20 will not sit right. Brands MUST use plus size fit models, ideally, in several sizes across their range.

 

Talls & Petites

I live mostly in Wisconsin. Please someone tell me they know where that is! Of course, Brits are ridiculously good at geography. My friends are tall midwesterners of Scandinavian or German descent, so at 5’8”, I’m one of the shortest of my friends!

 Tall women and short women have specific needs – it’s not just a matter of making sleeves and pant legs longer, they need patterns scaled to fit them. When a 6’ tall woman puts on a regular high street dress, not only is it too short, but the waist hits right under her boobs. If a 5’ woman puts on the same dress, the waist is down closer to her hip. If you decide to include talls and petites in your range, make sure to ask companies if they are using tall & petite fit models and patterns.

 

Fresh interpretations of trends & on trend essentials

When pastel ladies’ suiting came back in fashion last summer, I was thrilled! I went straight to my favorite secondhand sites to see what I could dig up. I looked for strong shoulders, bold colors, and long, high waisted trousers. What I found was… a lot of skirt suits. I may be a good tailor, but I am not a magician! I can’t make a knee length skirt into wide leg trousers. Every time a trend comes back around, it’s a little different, and a lot of consumers are going to want the new version. Embracing trends is a big opportunity for retailers selling new clothing, even when it comes to essentials! AND ON THIS NOTE. People can buy essentials secondhand, but they are going to struggle to find the colors and silhouettes of the moment. Timeless pieces are easy to find secondhand – so consider embracing trends in color and silhouette, even in your essentials.

 

 Oh yes, the American stylist is going to talk about undergarments.

HYGIENE! We’re ALWAYS going to want new undergarments, swimwear, socks, shapewear and bodysuits. Some people will also prefer to buy new tees, leggings, and anything they wear to the gym.

 There’s a second advantage of choosing sustainable intimates. People understand how sensitive those areas of the body are, so it’s an easy way to introduce shoppers to the health benefits of organic clothing. People quickly grasp the idea that putting organic cotton next to your bits is better for you than putting chemical laden polyester down there. This is an easy gateway garment – introduce organic intimates this season, and next season, expand organic to the full line!

 

 The Joys of New Fabric

Another advantage of new clothing is that it’s made of new fabric. Advances in fabric technology are happening all around us, all the time!!

Do you guys remember the cotton tees of the 90’s that were thick and rock hard after a couple of washes? No more. It’s easy peasy now to find essentials that stay buttery soft wash after wash after wash.

Other advances – washable silk. Fabric made from the waste of orange trees – Core by JSI has orange fabric in their offerings. Tencel is a silky fabric made from trees – it’s incredibly sustainable, yet soft and lightweight like a tech fabric. Bamboo and organic cotton blends that wick like athletic fabric but are soft and matte, so you can wear them to run errands or watch Netflix. Not only are natural and organic fabrics and blends becoming more available, but they are being engineered to have the features that customers want – wicking, wrinkle release, and the coveted STRETCH.

Why do I specify natural fabrics when so many glorious things are being done in the world of polyester? We have recycled polyester leggings and tees popping up all over the place, as well as swimsuits made from recaptured fishing nets (EcoNyl).

Well, first off, all of these are still plastic. They’re made from oil and it’s not biodegradable.

Second – is everyone familiar with the idea that, if you leave a water bottle in a car, as it heats up, toxins from the bottle leach into the water? (Heads nod) Okay. There are whispers in the industry that polyester does that. I’ve looked for research to support it, and I haven’t found it yet – but it’s something that I am hearing more and more.

Third, remember that fabric made from recycled water bottles? If you don’t ask the factory, frequently they use PRE-consumer plastic bottles. It’s cheaper than using recycled ones. Kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?

So rather than waiting for the backlash against recycled polyester in 3-5 years, when customers figure out what’s happened, just choose some delicious natural fabrics, and turn to poly only when natural is not available.

Recycled cotton is taking hold like crazy in the US. For Days is a company offering a tee shirt SUBSCRIPTION. You sign up for $38 USD. They send you one organic cotton shirt and you can trade it in for a new one whenever you like for $8 per trade. They also offer you $4 store credit for every stained, ripped old clothing item you send in, which they will grind up and make into new tees. In one shipment, I earned $50 in store credit and now I get free tee shirts pretty much forever.

 
 
Lauren at The Wardrobe of the Future, London
 

 Tell Compelling Stories

Sustainable brands go to great lengths to choose ethical factories that pay their workers living wages. They test numerous fabrics & sometimes develop proprietary blends that function as well as conventional options. Many brands have a charitable aspect as well.

 Because all of these choices require so much extra effort, many brands share their stories and photographs of their process. Ask to share this information with your consumers, either in store or through social media – it’s exciting to know that the shoes or pants you bought are putting a girl through school or helping a mother afford open heart surgery for her son.

 

 No Excuses!!

There are some clothing items that are so widely available in a spectrum of sustainable options, that there’s no excuse left to offer a conventional option. Going conventional will only be a disadvantage when your competitors offer a sustainable option at the same price point.

 Everybody and their mom is making tees, knits, denim, and athletic. Kids and baby clothing is especially easy to find. There is every aesthetic, every age, every price point in these categories. If you need help finding a certain look, material, or price point, just come talk to me after or take my info.

 

 Get Your Team on the Sustainability Bus

You might have to be an ambassador and educate your team on why sustainability is important. Break it down into two categories:

  • Human/Ethical

    • Many workers are subjected to unsafe working conditions, whether exposure to chemicals or abuse from superiors.

    • Garment workers are grossly underpaid. In some garment producing countries, minimum wage is 20-50% of a living wage.

    • Source, Labour Behind the Label 2015, http://labourbehindthelabel.org/campaigns/living-wage/

    • Labor typically accounts for 1% of the cost of a garment. On a $100 pair of jeans, $1 is labor. If you increased that minimum wage to a living wage, you are adding $1-$4, bringing the price to $101-$104. Honestly, as a buyer, I don’t think I would even notice.

  • Environmental

    • Polyester, acrylic, and nylon are plastic, which is made from oil.

    • They’re not biodegradable, and wearing poly exposes you to toxins.

    • Prioritize natural fibers like linen, hemp, organic cotton, bamboo, wool, etc. Upcycled materials and recycled materials are also great options.

 

Why get involved now?

  • Positive PR: shifting to sustainability puts a positive glow on your company. Britain is doing cool things in sustainability – in May, the whole country went for over a week without using coal power! People are excited and want to be a part of the movement. By offering sustainable options, you are giving people an easy way to be a part of the solution. It feels good.

  • COMPLIANCE. Imagine if legislation passes in a couple of years mandating fair wages and sustainable practices. Think of how long it can take to shift over your company’s practices! The transition will be easier and smoother if you start making the transition slowly, as you are ready, rather than when you are under the gun.

In conclusion, sustainability is quickly becoming mainstream. Renting and shopping secondhand work well for certain occasions and certain sizes, but there will always be a market for new clothing, especially for plus sizes, talls and petites, on trend styles, garments worn close to the body, where hygiene is a concern, and for go-to everyday needs in innovative fabrics. Be discerning and choose styles that will excite your consumer and fit their budget.

Thanks so much for listening to me talk about my favorite topic! If you need any extra assistance finding brands that are a fit for you, just follow up with me after.

 
 
Lauren at The Wardrobe of the Future, London
 

Some questions the audience asked me:

You mentioned natural fabrics, including cotton. Can you explain the benefits of organic cotton compared to regular cotton?

Excellent leading question, rep from GOTS! Cotton is an incredibly thirsty and pesticide intense crop. It accounts for approximately 3% of the world’s crops and about 16% of the world’s insecticides and pesticides, which means that it uses far more than it’s share. Also – pesticides are inherently dangerous. Just think – we use them to kill bugs. The same chemicals can hurt us.

In cotton growing regions like Texas and India, the rate of brain cancer among cotton farmers is incredibly high, as well as the rate of birth defects among their children. It is not uncommon for cotton farmers in Texas to die in their 40’s from brain cancer.

In India, there’s an additional issue that Monsanto – who we don’t like in the Midwest either, by the way, that’s something farmers everywhere can agree on – Monsanto pushes Indian farmers to purchase pest resistant seed, which is expensive and drives them into debt. The seed doesn’t actually repel pests, so then they need to go further into debt to buy pesticide. And selling their crop actually doesn’t repay the debt. Desperate, MORE THAN 200,000 farmers have committed suicide. Many do it by walking into their fields and drinking a cup of that very pesticide. It’s the LARGEST RASH OF SUICIDES in human history. If you do one thing, please choose organic for the farmers.

 **An audience member came up to me afterwards, who is a business owner in the area of India affected. She said that she had seen this problem firsthand, and that her organization has been reaching out to farmers and encouraging them to change their crop from cotton to groundnuts (peanuts). She explained that because cotton isn’t edible, if the farmers can’t sell their crop, they and their families go hungry. If they grow groundnuts, and it doesn’t sell, at least they can eat. I’m tearing up as I type this – how frustrating and sickening must it be to work all season, bear the anxiety of debt, and then not be able to sell your crop?

 

You mentioned that Tencel is a good fiber to use. Is it better than cotton? How can you tell?

 Yes. Tencel is made from beech trees and eucalyptus trees, which require very little water and little to no pesticides. The breaking down process also requires less water, and the trees yield more fiber per acre.

 

Is there enough organic cotton to go around?

 No. Organic cotton makes up, I believe, 1-2% of the world’s cotton yield. And if a big company like H&M decided to switch to organic cotton, they could easily gobble up the world’s supply and leave nothing for anyone else. The good news is – I’m sure you have all heard Zara’s recent announcement to shift over to sustainable fibers over the next couple of years? This shift will actually end up making sustainable fibers like organic cotton more available for everyone.

There are other approaches. For example, there is a Canadian company, Kotn, that has decided to partner with a community of cotton farmers in Egypt and work with them to take them from conventional to organic over the next 5 years. They’re helping the farmers work through all the certifications and practical transitions. It would be great for other companies to do this, too.

 

You mentioned undergarments. What kind of fabric would you ideally make undergarments from, if you could choose?

 First, let me say that there is a company who has brought out natural fiber undergarments that I’m excited about – Warp + Weft. I’m excited because their design is seamless. The major issue up until this moment was that brands were using organic cotton and adding an elastic, which created a massive VPL – Visible Panty Line – issue. You definitely need to use a fabric that can have that flat edge. I believe Warp + Weft is using modal. Tencel might also work. You need something with a good amount of elastic to hold it’s shape, and something that you can do that flat edge on.

 

Another audience member approached me after and asked about how different natural fibers stack up against one another – which are better for the environment, etc.

 Most importantly, choose a fabric that creates the best product for what you do. It doesn’t matter how sustainable the fabric is, if it’s sitting unsold on store shelves, that’s the least sustainable option. If you know that a particular fabric is perfect for your product, below are some ways you can make your choice more sustainable. If you are still figuring out what fabrics you want to use – I’m working with a designer friend on a blog post that should help! Give me a couple weeks to finish my research. 😊

Ways to make your fabric selection more sustainable:

Try to reduce waste in your workshop by playing with pattern layouts and thinking about what to do with scraps. You can make them into accessories, like scrunchies, or send them to a fabric recycler. You can also reduce waste by reducing inventory – order in small batches or make some garments or sizes to order.

Also, research your fabric all the way back to the beginning. Is the factory that weaves the fabric running efficiently? Do they try to reduce their waste, or energy consumption? Are they using non toxic dyes? Do they pay their workers a fair wage? Don’t drive yourself crazy if you can’t make everything perfect. The idea here is to look for low hanging fruit – easy changes that will make a significant difference. All of these factors play a part in sustainability. 😊

 
Lauren at The Wardrobe of the Future, London