Founded by young entrepreneurs passionate about both style and sustainability to showcase the fascinating stories of grass-roots brands from across the world, Gather & See presents an alternative vision to fast fashion. We speak to founders Alicia Taylor and Stephanie Hogg about their venture to sustainable style.
DEPARTURES: You both have an interesting background prior to establishing Gather & See. Stephanie, you were operating a clothing company from Sierra Leone. What is the story there?
Stephanie Hogg: I set up NearFar in 2009, having visited Sierra Leone on and off while my parents were living there. I noticed the number of tailors in Freetown, the capital. After the civil war many NGO's had come to Sierra Leone and developed skills training programmes to fill the education gap left by years of fighting. One programme was the art of tailoring, but the results were only being sold locally. So I decided to go there and create a small collection and see what the response would be in the UK. Working closely with local tailors and using African print materials we created NearFar.
It was perfect timing, as fashion had started to look towards Africa for inspiration, and the response was extremely positive. NearFar created a new market for Sierra Leone tailors and we were also helping dispel the myth of Sierra Leone as a war torn country.
The fashion industry is worth billions, and giving people jobs
and paying them a living wage has a huge affect on their lives - I've always
believed that fashion channelled in the right way can be a real force for
Alicia, your work life prior to Gather & See saw you within the corporate world of fashion. What lead you to leaving this and embark upon a venture such as Gather & See
Alicia Taylor: I really see the two paths as connected, and my decision to move from one to the other was in some ways related to the education I received working for LVMH and Value Retail. Without exposure to such successful businesses at a grass roots level, nurturing by talented managers and developing an understanding of the fashion industry from the inside I don’t think I would have had the skills or confidence to believe Gather & See could become a reality.
Gather & See has been a long time coming - we dreamt up the idea of a fashion forward ethical brand in 2003, as wide-eyed teenagers travelling around South America. The passion for sustainable fashion never went away but we needed to get some real life work experience. I felt the need to mature and achieve a “regular” career path before setting up a business of my own. The timing was right in 2014, professionally and personally, to make the leap.
The timing also seemed ripe in a wider market context. Ethical fashion had a brief golden spell that was cut short with the recession in 2008. Fast forward to 2013, and consumer attitudes were different - authenticity, transparency and quality were becoming more and more important. We felt we could offer appealing and design-focused ethical fashion that would hit a unique spot for a fashion-savvy and socially and environmentally aware woman. It was go for it or miss the boat and regret not acting when we could.
Social responsibility toward the origin and methods of production in fashion (and other industries) is taking an increasingly forward facing role for brands. What are your thoughts of this recent ‘greening’?
G&S: There are two sides to this. It is good that something is being done - for luxury goods companies like Kering to be investing in sustainability positive and will have a trickle down effect. Unethical production contradicts what luxury means today so brands have no choice but to address these issues. Customers are demanding to know more.
Even fast fashion brands are promoting recycling and ‘green’ collections. This highlights the issue to a wider consumer but the flip side is that the fast fashion model causes much damage. Companies build massive profits from vast quantities of cheap clothing almost designed to end up in landfill, worn a few times and thrown away so the customer starts again. It is well known that social and environmental injustices also take place in order to make product so cheaply – the Rana Plaza tragedy, for example.
So efforts to appear more green and sustainable seem somewhat staged, more of a PR story than a genuine commitment to change. Their margins are too big to allow anything other than cynicism. A truly sustainable fashion industry would mean effectively dismantling the fast fashion model.