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Independent Brands Must Change Their Business Strategies

Post-pandemic, bootstrapping young brands will have to adopt a model that is less bloated and wasteful in order to survive.
Inside the Cecilie Bahnsen studio as the team prepared its first upcycled collection | Source: courtesy, collage by BoF
  • Zoe Suen,
  • Rachel Deeley

LONDON, United Kingdom — Cecilie Bahnsen has a habit of holding onto the remnants of past collections. "Every scrap, every fabric roll, every toile… we've always kept everything we've made," the Danish womenswear designer told BoF over a Zoom call.

Only recently, when Bahnsen began working on an entirely upcycled Pre-Spring 2021 collection, did she delve into her archives. Fall/Winter 2020’s cable knits were reimagined in canary yellow. Beading from Spring/Summer 2019 made its way onto a signature puff-sleeved gown in black. Quilted silk, embroidered poplin, organza and tulle were patchworked into bustiers and voluminous skirts.

The June release was Cecilie Bahnsen's last Pre-Spring release and the first of many upcycled releases to come as part of a new repurposing concept. It feeds into Bahnsen and Managing Director Kristine Lobner's wider business revamp: one that aims to make less, more responsibly, and with no waste.

Kristine Lobner and Cecilie Bahnsen in their studio | Source: Courtesy

Bahnsen is among a host of young designers both inspired and compelled to change the way they operate as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Even before the crisis, small brands were often at the forefront of efforts to operate more sustainably. Now, many see it as the only way to survive.

For cash-strapped companies, dipping into deadstock and upcycling is a cost-effective way to create something new and ease any glut of unsold inventory; digitising elements of design and marketing can reduce waste and cost; and the promise of ethical and environmentally responsible products is an increasingly important selling point for independent brands who often target a relatively affluent and engaged consumer base.

“What we're looking to do as a business as a whole is... doing less and doing it better,” said London-based designer Christopher Raeburn.

The challenge: unprecedented uncertainty
The sustainable solution: get lean and digital

The pandemic has plunged the fashion industry into its worst crisis since the 2008 recession, creating a Darwinian landscape where only those who can adapt quickly and smartly will survive. For many, that means operating more efficiently and switching to new technologies that help reduce waste in the system.

While obviously restricted by limited resources and a short cash runway, small independent brands are often better positioned to experiment and are more nimble than bigger players.

“The last four months for us have been obviously challenging, but because we’re relatively small and incredibly agile we’ve moved to innovation digitally,” said Raeburn. His brand has been working on offering sophisticated customisation tools on its website, a bid to bolster a made-to-order model that makes up a portion of the company’s sales.

“Making billions of garments every year, putting them in static places around the world [in case the] right person comes in and you've got her or his size, colour preference in that place. The level of risk is phenomenal,” Raeburn said.

Lockdowns have also compelled designers to embrace cost-saving and waste-reducing digital tools to enable virtual samples. It's a shift in mentality that's opened up opportunities for a more flexible, and sustainable, working schedule, said Pedro Lourenço, creative director of Zilver.

Like Bahnsen, Lourenço is pivoting his brand in a less wasteful direction: for Zilver’s Spring/Summer 2021 collection buyers will receive a book of hyper-realistic illustrations and swatches rather than physical samples. Fabrics will be ordered only after receiving wholesale orders and factoring in direct-to-consumer demand to reduce waste.

The challenge: excess inventory
The sustainable solution: make the old new again

The glut of unsold dresses, bags and shoes flooding the sales this Summer is a very visible reminder of the wasteful and costly fallout of the pandemic. But more and more independent brands are looking for ways to reimagine old items and give them fresh value.

“Post-covid, we're going to have a bigger environmental inventory crisis than ever before, so the answer for me isn't making more stuff,” said Raeburn. “It's actually really looking intelligently about what we already have and what we can remake and what we can essentially reuse as well.”

Raeburn, who started his namesake line with a series of pieces made from a single parachute in 2009, is no stranger to turning deadstock into garments. He has taken this approach one step further with Raefound, which he launched about three months ago and comprises a line of unissued military clothing and accessories sold in their original form, save for “branded embellishments” such as labels and zip tags.

You have to design into responsible fashion.

Upcycling can require a different way of working and more joined-up thinking across a company, with the designer having to work closely with those responsible for sourcing, materials and manufacturing. But the result can be very cost-effective.

"You have to design into responsible fashion," said Dio Kurazawa, founding partner of sustainable supply chain advisory The Bear Scouts. "Maybe I can use fabric for a lot of different parts of [a] collection that will be broken down again and then reused as, maybe, patchwork for the next collection… then [what] I could think about is: what am I getting a bigger yield from when I shred it down?"

Launching an entirely upcycled line might not be a feasible option for all companies. Lucy Shea, chief executive of sustainability consultancy Futerra, recommends brands experiment with deadstock — perhaps by releasing a few “emblematic” items made from leftover fabrics — while also examining their new material use and working on upgrading their supply chain. Where brands are experimenting with new materials and suppliers, Lourenço recommends they keep their selection small and do as many items as possible with those materials.

The challenge: lagging sales
The sustainable solution: give the people what they want

Covid-19 has accelerated demand for sustainable offerings from a vocal group of consumers. Many big retailers are looking for brands that can feed that demand.

Partnering with big-name stockists is still a helpful way to build brand awareness, and for many independent brands wholesale makes up the bulk of their business. With retailers including Selfridges, Zalando and Net-a-porter actively promoting sustainable edits, brands that can help fit those strategies may find new opportunities, said Futerra's Shea.

Brands also have an opportunity to use their own sales channels to boost business with new circular models like take-back schemes, lifetime repairs or resale.

For Zilver, Lourenço plans to launch a buy-back programme for old pieces that will be sold on a separate storefront on the brand’s site. Shoppers who send in items will receive store credit.

“I think it’s so oppressive, this idea that everything has to be new,” Lourenço said. “One thing we learned from the pandemic is that it makes sense for collections to remain online for a while, [and] to see the collection without this separation of new and old.”

The initiative is a major undertaking: he’s currently working out how its interface will be designed on the site and the logistics involved, in addition to how store credits will need to be factored into the brand’s financials.

For those who don't want to make the investment themselves, third party sites can also provide brands with exposure and open them up to a new audience. Christopher Raeburn, for example, set up an official Depop store in early July selling create-your-own bucket hat kits alongside a selection of archive pieces and never-before-worn military bucket hats from the "Raefound" collection.

The challenge: small, independent brands can't do everything in-house
The sustainable solution: connect and collaborate

As a small brand, navigating the myriad of sustainability initiatives and industry benchmarks can be a cost-, resource- and time-intensive endeavour (Christopher Raeburn, for example has been working towards B-Corp status for almost a year).

I think it's so oppressive, this idea that everything has to be new.

Kurazawa recommends working closely with existing suppliers and inviting them to find new innovative approaches to making clothes. “Quite often there are innovations just sitting on the shelves at manufacturers that just don't get attention because manufacturers are often ‘yes’ people; they don't want to let you down. They want your business and as soon as you walk in they want to please you.”

Other businesses can also help brands along their path and provide specialised support, if budgets allow it.

Most brands looking to kickstart a circularity project — like Zilver’s — will need help from a third party, said Shea. These can range from online second-hand marketplaces to distributors that handle pick-ups and deliveries. “If you’ve got a very loyal consumer base and can figure out a way of messaging that builds brand loyalty and engagement... build it yourself. If it’s going to be a side project for you, partner with an external.”

For brands that can afford it, there are plenty of businesses that make a pivot to a more responsible business model less onerous. Lourenço recommended Techstyle Solutions — the platform is currently working towards launching a crowdsourcing feature, which will aggregate smaller orders so smaller labels can collectively meet the high minimum order quantity.

While shifts were happening well before Covid-19, there has never been a more compelling time for a revamp. “Some of the changes made sense to us a long time ago, but sustainability wasn’t taken as seriously and I felt that the market wasn’t ready,” said Lourenço.

“The pandemic pushed that need to the forefront... but we’ll need to educate and remind consumers to keep up the momentum.”

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