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BusinessDecember 12, 2020

Ingrid Starnes is imagining a new future for fashion – make fewer clothes


Earlier this year, Ingrid Starnes was forced to close all its retail stores after Covid-19 severely disrupted its business. Now the fashion label is embarking on its next chapter with a brand new business model – one which promotes an honest and sustainable future for fashion, writes Ingrid Starnes managing director Simon Pound for Ensemble.

For our next season we won’t decide how many pieces to make, our customers will. We think too many clothes are being made, which is perhaps a contradictory position for a fashion label, but we’re really trying to do something about it.

This attempt at a meaningful alternative to overproduction is possible because we’re in the unusual position of being freed from the traditional retail model, one upside of a year that started with the most hope and excitement we’d had, and went very sideways very fast.

This year has been hard and upsetting with Covid landing just after we’d taken on a new store and nearly doubled production. As a result, our new store was unable to open for most of the season, and as we were not an essential business, we were unable to sell anything.

We had a lot of stock, a lot of debt, and no way to put orders in to make another season without knowingly trading while insolvent. We are just one of so many affected businesses in this pandemic, just unusually stretched from this leap we’d taken to grow just before Covid existed.

We went out to the people around the label to equity crowdfund to continue, but it wasn’t successful, which is entirely understandable – the outlook for the business did not look very good. We tried everything but couldn’t manage to get capital to make another season, and so we had to make the decision to end retail and the traditional approach to making and selling clothes.

Designer Ingrid Starnes (Photo: Derya Parlak)

It was a really hard process making friends redundant, leaving leases and trying to get out of a very big debt hole. But we’ve also been lucky. People have supported us, landlords have worked with us in really kind ways, and we’re in less of a hole than it would otherwise have been, as we were facing liquidation and likely bankruptcy.

We didn’t realise just how unsustainable the model was until we were caught in such trouble. We were doing nothing that wasn’t normal fashion business practice, and although the pandemic and closure of retail are extraordinary events, the fact the whole model is based on never-ending growth and constant sales, and that if the world stops for eight to 12 weeks you go from having a good business you’ve built over 10 years to being potentially bankrupt, feels an unsustainable way to live.

As a result, we’ve had a year of unusual and uncomfortable openness.

So much of fashion is presenting a face that you’re a luxury and premium brand, as the clothes are beautifully designed, made and consist of special fabrics and materials.

But making these things here is expensive and the margins are small. You’re competing against brands making things overseas in the same manner as fast fashion who sell for the same price as your locally made clothes, and so those labels have more money to spend on branding and creating great experiences for their customers. It is hard to compete. There are a lot of businesses, like ours, that present success and battle hard behind the scenes.

The Ingrid Starnes ‘Rhodes’ jacket (Photo: Supplied)

Our new model is one of total openness. We totally understand why lots of good labels run by good people are following the current standard practice. They’re trapped in these cycles. We were until very recently, and this year’s change wasn’t something we would’ve chosen. We are not saying anyone running the traditional model is purposefully doing anything unsustainable. But we are saying that there is a lot of unsustainable business practice and environmental and human impact that is happening as a result of the way the industry operates.

For years we have been struggling with the impact of fashion. The over-production and the way clothes that are beautifully designed, produced and presented are then discounted and devalued to repeat the process again and again. The shops groaning with clothes, the sales ever-deeper and sooner.

This new model is a genuine alternative, where we’re as open about sustainable business practices as sustainable production practices. We’re setting out to try to address two big issues that encourage mass overseas production: the need to make lots of clothes speculatively and the price inaccessibility of made in New Zealand fashion.

We’ll attempt to address this by only making the numbers of garments customers want, and selling them for less.

The Ingrid Starnes ‘Delphia’ dress, featuring a print by Amy Neave. (Photo: Karen Inderbitzen Waller and Delphine Avril Planqueel)

To do this we will look at each style and work out the minimum number we could produce for it to be at a reasonable cost-effective point for small-scale local production. For some intricate pieces, this might be a small number like five. For some pieces where cutting and making more units would mean a lower price for the customer, this might be 20. We will still never make more than 100 of any style and will hand number each piece to shine a light on the small-scale and artist edition qualities.

We will offer these items for pre-purchase and produce only the pieces that meet the minimum. By only making what people have chosen to pre-purchase we can eliminate waste and lower the price by 30%. We will only make what people want, plus a few pieces for size swaps.

By only making 10-15 styles a collection, and doing fewer collections, we can slow down and share the stories of the artists and makers we work with, the decisions behind the clothes, and why we love them so much we want to make and wear and enjoy them.

Artist Amy Neave wearing the Ingrid Starnes ‘Lular’ dress. (Photo: Lula Cucchiara)

It is a big change to ask people to pre-purchase – in most cases never having touched the sample – and then to wait three-to-six weeks to receive it. Even at 30% off retail prices, it’s still a commitment and a privilege for people to be able to support locally produced beautifully made clothing. So we are offering deposits and payment plans and swaps and refunds on anything people pre-purchase. We have been going for 10 years so many customers know the fits and shapes, and we’ve had a lot of positive response to the idea, so we are hopeful it will work. But it may not.

So this is an experiment, and one that we look forward to building on and improving with the people who share the same hopes and concerns we do – people who love thoughtful design, and small-scale production and special pieces that carry art and skill and beautiful fabrics. Pieces that make you feel great, and where the way in which they’re made and presented carries an idea and hope for an alternative model and relationship to clothing.

We will continue to be really open, and work with all the good people in the industry to find new ways to do things. We don’t have all the answers and are painfully aware of the things that can and should be better in what we do.

But we have many questions, and we want to use the lucky side of this wild year – our unexpected and unwished for freedom from the constraints of the old model – to try some new and exciting and scary things.

We launched last week on December 2 with pre-order available through our website for two-to-three weeks, with deadlines based on holiday shutdowns of our suppliers.

And again, almost unimaginably considering where we’ve been in 2020, we look to next year with hope and excitement for what might be.

Keep going!