"Buying The Right Clothes Is One Solution To World Poverty"
An interview with the founders of Parisian Fashion Brand Les Sublimes that want to change the world by respecting the environment and empowering women.
Back in 2014 the two ladies Alexis Assoignon and Kachen Hong had an idea that would change their lives forever: Les Sublimes, the Paris-based online fashion label that offers ethical and eco-friendly clothes that are responsibly produced in France was born. To empower females plays a crucial role in their mission meaning that for every piece sold,they provide one month of education to an underprivileged girl through their non-profit partners in Africa.
Last week, I sat together with the two inspiring women behind the brand to talk about their personal story, the challenges they are facing and how buying the right clothes is one solution to world poverty.
MIA WINDISCH-GRAETZ: Can you first tell us the story behind Les Sublimes? How did you get involved in this line of work?
ALEXIS ASSOIGNON: Kachen and I met studying at Sciences Po Paris back in 2006. We had a class together and were assigned to a project. Kachen took me under her wing because my French was really bad (laughs). Over that year we became close friends and even when we moved away (Alexis lived in Vancouver and NYC, Kachen in Taipei), we kept in touch all this time. In 2014, we both quit our jobs to go travelling and decided to meet in Nepal for two weeks. We had both been thinking about starting something of our own but we weren’t really sure what to build or where to start. Then in Nepal everything started falling into place.
KACHEN HONG: In Nepal, there were long, scenic treks with lots of time to talk and share ideas. We went to visit a group of Tibetan refugees spinning yarn for weaving and a small group of knitters making sweaters in a remote village. We saw the women working so hard, for so many hours, and earning so little, less than a €1 per day. Speaking with the women, they felt hopeless about their employment situation. We quickly discovered that by marrying our own skills in fashion and sustainability, we could create a long-term solution for these women in underprivileged communities.
MWG: What field was each of you in before you decided to start your own ethical fashion label?
AA: I come from a background in fashion, and after graduating from Parsons New York I worked for five years in New York on the business side of luxury brands, including Michael Kors, Elie Tahari and Dior. I got to be involved in so many sides of the industry, from planning fashion shows and photoshoots, working with magazine editors to selling to buyers from several of the most influential retailers in the US. My bosses were tough but they always pushed me to be my best, and I couldn’t have asked for a better training. To this day, I adore working in fashion but it wasn’t until I made a career move after leaving New York for Vancouver that I found my sustainable calling. I got an opportunity to work for a social enterprise called G Adventures. This company found a way to be environmentally and socially responsible, while creating opportunities in developing communities, and also touching the lives of its customers and employees on a scale that a charity or NGO could not achieve. After this experience I knew that I could not go back to work for a “regular” company. I was hooked on making a difference.
KH: With a Masters degree in Sustainability from Sciences Po Paris, I began a career as a sustainable consultant, as I had always wished. In my role I developed sustainable strategies and road maps for public organisations and private firms on numerous innovative social and environmental subjects. During those seven years, I witnessed how innovative businesses were integrating sustainability into their strategies, leading the way within their respective industries. The idea of developing a sustainable brand was slowly but surely taking hold of me.
During this time, sustainable values were also merging into my personal life. As a millennial and well-informed consumer, I was starting a journey towards leading a more conscious lifestyle. I prefer to eat local and organic foods, use natural cleaning products, and furnish my apartment with flea market finds. But my wardrobe was another story. Sustainable fashion didn’t even seem to be on anyone’s radar yet, and the options available mirrored this. My intuition was telling me that there was a huge opportunity, not to mention a genuine need, for clothing that would inspire shoppers to adopt a more conscious wardrobe.
MWG: You promote your “responsible brand” that sells “beautiful wardrobe essentials without the compromise”. What do you actually mean by that?
AA: Sustainability is the heart of everything we do at Les Sublimes. We prefer to call ourselves a responsible brand because we feel that the word sustainability can mean a lot of things and gets overused quite a lot today. As a responsible company, we integrate ethics and transparency into every element of our business, from design and production, to corporate culture and customer service. Les Sublimes shoppers don’t have to compromise. We understood early on that people are sick of having to choose between price, quality, integrity and style. They want ethical products, but don’t sacrifice style, quality, comfort or affordability and there’s no reason why they can’t have it all. It’s not true that a sustainable product needs to be much more expensive, or that organic must feel rough, or that affordable fashion can’t be produced at a fair wage.
MWG: What do you think is the perception of ethical fashion in France now?
AA: The French care a lot about the quality of their foods, and eating organic has become really big here but as far as that expands into fashion and other health trends France is definitely behind other markets, such as Canada, Germany or Scandinavia. On the flip side however, French women naturally shop with a philosophy of quality over quantity. So in terms of consuming less, they trump North Americans any day. They prefer to invest in high quality pieces from brands they trust, and take care of those items so that they will last for years to come.
KH: It is definitely shifting, but I do think that ethical fashion is still perceived by many people as being unglamorous. You know unattractive, avant garde, hippie-esque, or super ethnic. Products are rough, poorly packaged and overpriced because they are labeled organic. But this is all changing. There are so many incredible brands emerging that are disrupting this old attitude towards sustainable products.
MWG: Why have you chosen to produce the clothes in France?
KH: France is our headquarters so it was really important to us to support home first. Since the early 90s, almost all of France’s manufacturing has moved abroad - mostly to Eastern Europe and Asia, where wages for garment workers are much cheaper and clothes can be produced at a fraction of the cost. As a result, almost all of the local ateliers and factories here in France have since gone out of business. For example, in Renaison, the small town where we are producing our Made in France collection, there were 100 ateliers and factories in 2005. Today there are only 9. We really want to support the skilled workers and craftspeople still practicing in France. We wish to preserve this rich side of France’s cultural identity. Our plan is to expand our manufacturing model internationally so that we can create good jobs all over the world, but France will always remain a major production site for Les Sublimes.
MWG: How do you develop a line of products?
AA: We offer a permanent collection of essential items, rather than products that change with each season. We will add throughout the year new styles and fabrics, all of which remain available on an ongoing basis on our website. To develop the line, we think of the natural progression of our offering, what we would like to create that is missing from our wardrobes, especially in terms of sustainable options. Then of course, we look at the seasons, launching sweaters when it’s getting cold or linen for spring. Basically, we want to encourage people to invest in quality over quantity pieces – items that provide long-term satisfaction over temporary gratification. Pieces that you love to wear all the time, and want to replace when you’ve finally worn them through, or that you want to gift to a friend, or buy in an additional colour.
MWG: How did you decide to make girls' education your focal point for giving back? Why is this particular issue close to your heart?
KH: We genuinely believe that women are the solution to world poverty. We were both struck by stories about how millions of girls around the world drop out of school or are shunned by their communities when they get their periods. Girls lose their opportunity to advance in life because they don't have access to clean sanitary supplies or reproductive health education. Once we learned more about these problems, we knew we had to use Les Sublimes to help. By supporting them as adolescents in school, and then later on at work, they have the ability to transform the lives of their families and their communities. We have launched an initiative called “One Piece. One Girl. One Month.” For every piece of Les Sublimes clothing sold, we will donate one month of education to a girl in need. So that she can stay in school long enough to get the skills needed for a good job.
MWG: What trends do you see happening in your field?
AA: Sustainability in all sectors is growing like crazy, it’s the new way, not a trend because everyone has to have it in some way. I would also say things are going more and more online which allows you to cut out the middle man and provide instant service. Nowadays customers might want to talk to you over Facebook messenger or Instagram instead of emailing you; communication is adapting to where customers are at and their needs. I see that as a big trend.
MWG: Is sustainable fashion the new luxury fashion?
KH: A piece of clothing can’t be of high quality when the work that goes into it is not of high quality. And high quality involves treating your workers right and offer the best fabrics available on the market. Sustainable fashion is not only the new luxury but it’s the future. Nature has no voice and we are running out of time.
MWG: What do you find most challenging when working in ethical fashion?
KH: It’s been extremely challenging sourcing fabrics that are high quality, comfortable, and also both eco-friendly and socially fair in terms of wages and workers rights. This is in addition to finding mills with affordable pricing for new brands and small enough minimums to meet our needs as a young company. We were shocked to discover at Premiere Vision in February, the largest fabric show in Europe, that there were almost no sustainable fabrics offered at all. They remain such a small portion of the fabric market. But that doesn’t mean that they are impossible to find. We’ve just had to get more creative. For example, as we start out, we can’t produce using a wide variety of fabrics. We have had to start with just a few, and make all of our styles out of those same materials.
MWG: What are the most difficult problems and decisions you have ever faced?
AA: Picking a name!
KH: Well, making Alexis giving up the name she initially wanted took me three months. I couldn't even spell “Luftmensch” (laughs).
AA: Also finding eco-friendly, socially fair manufacturing was super challenging. Everything is a little bit harder when it’s sustainable because there are just fewer options and it is hard to find what they are and to educate yourself. Another problem is knowing your customer exists and where you find her and how you convince her.
KH: Production was quite new for us. So we had to learn a lot. It’s a sector you really have to know very well; learning and building a good relation to our supplier was a long journey.
MWG: Are there any civic or social obligations that go with your position?
AA: I am not sure if it’s an obligation but being ethical is just part of everything we do. Everything needs to be social, fair to people.
KH: I don’t see it as an obligation. For us it is more our conviction. We think it is the right way to do things. We see it as normal to care about the environment, care about the people who produce our clothes.
MWG: In your opinion, what is the best thing about running your own business?
AA: It is very rewarding when it is your baby. It is not just about money but about empowering, about changing the world. That is what pushes you when it gets tough. One of our biggest challenges is managing our time. Working seven days a week, not having any days off, sacrificing seeing your friends and family. You don't get to do a lot for a while. Like when I see my friends have their weekends off and go to the gym… I don't have time to go to the gym. And also financial sacrifices, being poor (laughs).
KH: The good thing about having our own business is to be able to make our own choices. I really enjoy it very much but it can also be scary sometimes. We are always asking ourselves if we are making the right decisions or not but that pushes us to have a real vision of the business and drives us towards a larger goal.
MWG: What do you wish you had known when you began your career?
AA: We are still learning. I think it is good that we didn't know how it’s going to be like. Because you always think you do know and then it turns out to be totally different. It is always harder than you think. It is like having a baby (laughs). Until you are in it, you just can’t know. And I think it is a good thing when you don’t always know what you are getting into. Because then you might be too scared to ever do it. I am always trying to be perfect but what you rather want is action over achieving perfection. After knowing that even when you are spending many hours on something and you will probably redo it three times in the next two years, I would say: just get it out there. Don't do crap, but try to find a balance, be 90% good and get it out there.
AA: Something like that (laughs). But you know, just go. As soon as you find the money for things just invest it wisely. You only have a certain amount of time and I wasted so much of it on certain things that someone else could have done so much better.
KH: I think being in HEC Incubateur helps a lot. I wished we were here when we started crowdfunding. Last week for example, someone needed information about shipping and logistics so I just send him all the information. It took me two months to research it all, and he just got it in one email. So I think support from other people, other start-ups is great and something we didn't have when we started.
MWG: What is one fashion advise you would give to anyone?
AA: The first step to living sustainably is to reduce our consumption. I’ve always taken a position of quality over quantity, investing in well-made classics that I can wear for years. My mom always took me along to second-hand stores growing up, showing me how to find hidden gems at bargain prices. Nowadays, I have taken my values a step further by actively seeking out brands that are environmentally or socially fair.
KH: I totally agree. For my daughter Alma, I actually never bought any new clothes. We exchanged most of them with friends that still had some from their own kids. Another advice is to do your research. I am this kind of person that reads every tag of an item, even the super small copy you almost need glasses for. Most importantly, I buy as less as possible and if I do, I try to buyGOTS certified pieces.
MWG: Where do you see Les Sublimes going in the next five years?
AA: We want to come up with some more styles and fabrics and can’t wait to expand our network of production partners abroad. We have already begun the sourcing process for cruelty-free cashmere from nomad herders in Mongolia. A major goal of ours is to set up our own Les Sublimes production ateliers in Peru and Nepal. Our vision with the ateliers is to create a new manufacturing model that offers living wages and high workplace standards, health care, child care, education, career mobility and female empowerment.
MWG: Will there be a physical store too?
AA & KH: We don’t have a physical store yet, but we may consider opening experiential concept locations in the future. Less a store, more a gathering place for like-minded women, that combine shopping, a place to unwind, grab a relaxing drink and connect with others.
MWG: Last but not least: who inspires you in terms of fashion?
AA & KH: Yvon Chouinard is our superhero. His book “Let my people go surfing” is absolutely amazing. Stella McCartney is obviously doing a great job and we adore Livia Firth. She really makes a difference.