There's 26 year old me, a Senior Designer in my company, designing fast fashion clothing for some of the biggest brands on the highstreet (names of which I probably shouldn’t mention).
On busy months I'd design hundreds of items, maybe 30 styles of which got booked, and of those 30 styles, maybe a couple of hundred thousand units of garments would have been produced in factories and shipped into store. To give you an idea of the scale of the production, I could walk around a festival and every few hours probably point out someone who was wearing something that I had designed. It was a crazy business. You could literally have an idea, sketch it out, get a sample made in a day, and within 6 weeks it would be in someones shopping bag.
For the first few years of doing this I was living the dream. The company I worked for gave me so much responsibility and creative freedom, and looked after me well to keep me there. It was very much a sales job too, we would have to pitch our styles to our clients every few weeks and try to convince them to buy our product over someone elses. The people buying had such huge budgets due to good sales, that sometimes you could walk away from a meeting knowing that they had just ordered 200,000 units worth of clothing. Occasionally a buyer would ring up our office and say “I have 2 million pounds to spend on blouses this week, what can you deliver into store quickly?”
That was really the heyday of highstreet fashion where almost everyone was doing well. Customers just seemed happy to fill up their baskets with any old stuff because it was cheap and accessible. People were proud to have found the cheapest possible item going; tops for £2, shoes for £5, and there seemed like no limit for how cheap it could be. When I was younger I was definitely guilty of shopping in that way too, it was the rise of the cheap highstreet brands. But after some time I sort of realised that I didn’t value cheap clothing and my respect grew for skills found in the manufacture of vintage or second hand clothing. I didn’t want to wear the same thing as everyone else, and also maybe I started to know a bit too much about the industry and the consequences of this kind of mass production.
A few years later, we had a few seasons of bad trading and had to let a few people go in our company. We had predicted that sales were going to continue at the rate we had been used to but for whatever reason it didn’t happen and we were scraping by. The work days seemed to get slower and longer, and I had a lot more time to think things over. I always loved working at our office because the people made it amazing. We had our own little family there where we looked out for each other, people of all ages and all backgrounds were friends, all working together in this funny melting pot. Some of the older ladies would cook lunch for us on almost a daily basis, and we called them ‘mummy’ because they really treated us like their kids.
That’s one of the reasons I stayed at my job for such a long time, because I couldn’t bare to leave the work family. It breaks my heart a bit now to think that I won’t be working with them anymore, but I knew that I couldn’t stay forever for that reason.
Anyway, so trading seemed to be getting progressively worse, and there was a lot of pressure to get right the orders that we did have. Sometimes if sales weren’t good in store, we would be waiting for some sort of ‘mistake’ to be found on one of our garments so that they could be sent back to us, to get them out of badly-trading stores and to claw back some money for the client. These sort of tactics are all part and parcel in the business but it’s obviously not a very ethical way to trade. There was also a lot of pressure from the clients to get product made very quickly based on demand. In effect, that would put a lot of pressure on the factories, and if they were late for whatever reason then we would get fined. It can almost be like a lose lose situation in our industry at times; if you say you can’t get something made quick enough then you don’t get the order, or if you say you can do it and are late then you get fined. It seems pretty tough going to me, especially when we are talking about investing hundreds of thousands worth of pounds in product, and the welfare of everyone working in the factories.
And then there’s the wastage. These clothes that we are making here aren’t exactly designed and made to stand the test of time. These clothes have been manufactured as quickly as physically possible using fabrics that have been engineered to be made in the cheapest possible way. You will be lucky if they last a few years at most. Some of them will shrink beyond wear on the first time you wash them, or the dye will run into your other clothes in the wash. The fact that we are making ‘fast fashion’ clothing means that they will probably go off trend within a couple of months. And even if there is nothing wrong with the garments, who wants to wear something that is out of fashion? I mean the scale and quantity that we are talking here is just sickening. It’s not just my company doing this, we are talking about hundreds, maybe even thousands of suppliers all making product in this way.
On a weekly basis I would go to the shops and have a look at new garments in on the highstreet. There were hundreds of new styles in store every week and regardless of whether the old stuff on the shop floor has sold or not, they have to make space for the new. We are talking constant change, and constant marking down of clothes into sale. And then there is wastage in all aspects of the chain….. garments that have been made wrong, garments that aren’t selling, fabric that has been produced incorrectly….. the list goes on.
Sometimes when I did my weekly trip to the highstreet I would look around in despair at the sheer scale of the industry and physically feel sick. I knew that I was contributing to this mass global consumerism, and I was responsible for this enormous unnecessary waste. The fact that I wasn’t the one buying these clothes was no comfort to me any more, because I was doing an even worse thing. I was the one designing the stuff purely to sell on a mass scale and the guilt was too much to bare.
I stayed at my workplace another few years before I found the courage to leave. It has been an 8 and a half year rollercoaster of success, then realisation, but all made bearable because of the amazing team that I worked with, which made day to day life enjoyable. In the end, I had stayed such a long time because it was the easier thing to do then to confront my morals and find a new path. Me leaving was never anything personal against my company because they had always looked after me so well, but I was having problems with the industry as a whole, it’s ethics and it’s wastefulness.
In the summer of 2017, I left my workplace to go long-term travelling with Mark. A 10 month adventure that gave me the time and space to fully think about what I was doing in life and where it could take me. I had done the hard bit, leaving not only a career but a family behind. And now that the first steps had been taken, the opportunities seemed endless. I can’t believe I hadn’t done it before now!
Travelling for 10 months was probably the best choice we ever made, in some ways even exceeding our decision to get married. We realised that we could have quite easily stayed on the treadmill of living to work, without ever stepping back to think about whether it was truly what we wanted to do or not. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in what you are doing, and I knew deep down that designing mass-produced clothing in the fast fashion industry wasn’t right for me any more, but I couldn’t see a path outside of it.
Whilst we were in minus 15 degree weather in a yurt in Mongolia, Mark and I came up with an idea. “Why don’t we set up a yurt camp of our own back at home. We could make a really cool experience for people; we could design and make all the furniture, curate all the textiles from our travels, prepare some homemade foods and just give something back to others.” We had experienced a warming openness from the Mongolian people and wanted to share the ethos back at home. Although the yurt camp is still our ultimate goal (a very small one mind you with only about 3 yurts in a back garden), it’s going to be a long while before we get there mostly because it’s a big thing to set up, and we currently live in a flat in London. We would need to sell up, have enough equity to buy a property with some land, and start building some yurts (along with a load of legal jargon that we haven’t even looked into yet!). So to make this happen in small steps, we first want to set up a furniture/ product business, making and selling things that we have crafted by-hand, that we care about. These pieces of furniture will hopefully work in our yurt camp one day, or we would have gained enough experience to design and make some new things to go in there anyway. We want to try to make a living out of making things, and for us it’s not just about the products but the process too. It’s the opportunity to experiment, to develop our skills and to be creative, maybe to end up as a skillful craftsman, who knows!
Ultimately, we are trying to get out of the constraints of working full time for someone else. We figure that if we have our own business, then maybe we can break out of some of the norms, ie if we want to take a month off to go travelling then we can do that, and hopefully we can find a bit more balance in our day to day lives. Maybe when we have kids we will both get to spend more time with them, and they will see us being creative at home. It’s also important to us to be working on something that we both care about that is in line with our moral values. Surely hand-crafting 30 products a month is much more sustainable then producing 200,000 of them that fewer people care about.
I’m not saying that I have all the answers yet for how I can sustain this ideology, because I am only at the very beginning stages of setting up a business and it’s not currently sustainable (financially anyway), but at least I have the confidence in knowing that I tried to step away from something I didn’t believe in and changed my path.
We’ve got a hell of a long way to go. Many many hours of working to make this business a success, and hours of doing all the boring stuff that comes with it too like tax returns and paperwork. But there is also a lot of amazing stuff to look forward….. like being in control of what my day looks like, and having the time to be creative and experiment with cool materials. I can take time off when I want to, no more holiday approvals or just the statutory 20 days off a year. Hopefully I will have the satisfaction of knowing that my products are giving someone joy to use, or that our blog is inspiring someone to make those changes too.
I’m not saying this sort of lifestyle is possible for everyone because not everyone is in exactly the same situation as me. But I do ask you this.... are you happy with your life? Are there any small changes that you could make to find a more balanced lifestyle? Perhaps you could work a 4 day week and spend the other day doing something that you truly love, or you could try something new that you have always wanted to do like a course in carpentry. And even if you don't know what that thing is yet, why don't you give yourself some time to figure it out. Sometimes the idea of making a change can be scary, or can overwhelmingly take you into a dark hole of anxiety, but I assure you that when you come out the other side there is light and freedom. You just need to find the courage and believe in yourself to take those first difficult steps……
(so you can find it again)