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Can Organic Fashion Be More Than A Buzzword?

From organic things, good things grow. That’s the impression I was left with after spending a late summer afternoon (i.e. February in the northern hemisphere) in a stylish neighborhood in Sydney, Australia with Mary Lou Ryan, one half of the founding duo behind the Australian ethical brand, bassike.   

Ryan launched bassike in 2006 with Deborah Sams as a collection of women’s luxury, organic cotton jersey basics: t-shirts, tanks, and track pants. In 14 years, bassike has expanded its design ethos to include men’s and childrenswear, stockists around the globe, and ten physical stores across Australia and one in California. 

However, each moment for expansion takes into consideration the needs and well-being of the people who buy the clothes and those that make it. That, and quality without compromise. 

We discussed how ethics are embedded in the DNA of bassike, their latest strides towards sustainability and reducing their carbon footprint, and how respect and collaboration for the people who make their clothes is one of their brand’s greatest strengths.

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Frontlash: So I wanted to start with the very beginning, what were you doing before bassike?

Mary Lou: I grew up in Melbourne, and I moved to Sydney and was working for a big retailer, General Pants and Deb [co-founder, Deborah Sams] was working there as well. We started a couple of months apart from each other,and were the new kids on the block. I guess Deb and I being the newbies, we just found each other and became friends. Deb was a womenswear buyer and I worked in menswear and developed all their in-house brands. 

Deb went across to Ksubi as the general manager, and I followed her there and was the product manager—about 12 months into that I was ready to do something on my own and Deb was too, so we started [bassike]. We used to travel a lot for work, and would buy our cotton t-shirts in America or buy designer jersey, whether it was Dries [Van Noten] or Ann Demeulemeester. We were always like, "It would be such a great opportunity to establish an Australian jersey brand."

Then, an opportunity just presented itself at the time where we could develop our own jersey, so we spent time with a knitting mill that was on its last legs. We worked with these really old technicians that had actually developed a lot of fabric over the years. At the time organic cotton was starting to be spoken about, but it wasn't really used. So at that point we were like, "Okay well, we've already spoken about doing this and there's the opportunity now to do it and make it locally in Australia using organic cotton." It felt right.

 

So, the fabric came first?

Yeah. It started because we wanted to produce locally in Australia. Our first port of call was more around ethical manufacturing. There was so much stuff being produced out of China, there were a lot of people that were producing locally in Australia that, I don't think they were doing the right things by the makers. The industry was starting to collapse and it was a great opportunity for us to actually go into these factories and rebuild them and work with them to develop a product locally.

 

And when you were launching it, was it a point of pride or was it a selling point that it was organic fabric and locally made? 

We definitely spoke about it and it was something that we felt really good about. At the time, I would say [for] the buyers and the customers, they didn't really care about that. It’s very different now. What probably set us apart was the handle of the garment, the look and feel of the garment, we didn't have a cookie cut approach to it. We never really spoke about [using locally-manufactured, organic cotton] until a couple of years ago. 

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I was going to ask about that….

People wanted to know more about what the brand was [about], where it was from. Customers were asking questions, wanting to know more. So we were like, "Do you know what? I think it's time that we start to talk about it."

And there were other brands coming to the market that were starting to do similar products and so we were like, "I think it's time that we start to share our story." 

 

Sounds very organic. How did you find that shift? How do you find talking about it?

I'm really proud of it. It feels like it comes from an authentic place, it's a very comfortable space, and it's something that we work on a lot in our business. We've been doing Green Fleet since we started the business, which offsets carbon. 

It also opens up a lot of challenges because at the end of the day we're a fashion brand, we're a design-led brand. I think [being] ethical is much easier to manage, but sustainability is something that…. You're constantly challenged, and you're constantly looking at ways to do things better.

I think the industry's got a long way to go, but I think the nice thing is that everyone's talking and even on the brand side, sharing information.You'll have someone talking about a delivery bag which is biodegradable and the next minute you'll be sharing that knowledge to somebody else that's DM'd you from another brand. I've found that really quite lovely.

 

What about internally within the company, is a culture of sustainability something that you talk about and cultivate?

Our business has so many approaches. About six months ago, we appointed a sustainability manager in the business. She sits across a lot of our production and manufacturing and we work very closely on it. We've set up a code of conduct. We've done due diligence with all our factories. Because we develop a lot of fabrics out of Italy, and bring them into Australia, we've pretty much done the full circuit. We've gone to all our fabric suppliers, our denim factory. We do our knitwear out of China because we can't produce knitwear here and so we've done a lot of work making sure that fair [wages are] paid, that the sustainable practices are there with water consumption, all that kind of stuff. 

So we've done a whole lot from a manufacturing side, and that's something we're reporting on every month.We're setting up this ranking system at the moment, where we're ranking all our products to understand the hotspots of product, "Oh maybe that's ethical, but it's not as sustainable as we want it to be."

 

And do you, in determining the criteria, do you differentiate what is ethical and what is sustainable? 

That's the next phase of our sustainability — we can identify any products that we either need to move away from or that we need to re-source. In all honesty, I feel pretty comfortable with our supply chain. I say that because we're not dealing in fast fashion, we're dealing in high quality. The factories that we work with, they're all bespoke, beautiful factories. We work with good people, we know them first hand, we're not having to compete on price. So it's a very different kind of experience, but it's also very important that we make sure that we dot our Is and cross our Ts.

From a business side, we compost all of the food [at the office]. We're a little bit isolated, so everyone brings their lunch and people cook up veggies and everyone sits down together as a team at lunchtime. We have the coffee people come and rather than getting a take away cup everyone brings mugs from the kitchen. We do a lot of recycling of all the plastic hangers. At the moment, all the plastic hangers that get transported to the factories go to the warehouse then go back out to store then they come back to the warehouse and we retain them, but we're looking at a recyclable option at the moment. We've got things like these cotton-kind of boomerang bags when we have deliveries from our factories, rather than doing all the big plastic bags [to cover clothing for transport], we've now changed them to cotton bags, they come to us from the warehouse, back to the factories.

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Do you have a carbon [emissions] goal?

We're working on it at the moment. We are in the process of engaging an expert based in Hong Kong to map the carbon hotspots of our iconic jersey t-shirt through every process; from growing the cotton, spinning the yarn, knitting the fabric and creating the finished garment here in Sydney. We’re hoping to eventually set this up across the wider business, which will allow us to rank all of our products based on their carbon footprint. 

 

So, how do you approach design?

Deb and I split the role. Deb's the creative director of womenswear, and I'm the creative director of menswear. My process really always starts with fabrics. We design four collections a year, which makes up three months. Each month has a capsule collection that I put together creating a bit of a story. It has evolved a lot, when I first started, it was items driven — so it was like a good pair of pants, a good sweatshirt, a good shirt. These kind of wardrobe essentials. But now what we're finding is that our male customer wants to buy more of a top to toe look. But even though it's a look, you can pull it apart and wear the t-shirt with a pair of track pants, or wear the shirt back with a pair of denim jeans. There's two or three products that I designed in the very first collection like 13 years ago, that are still part of our business today.

 

You're never allowed to stop producing the women's V tank top.

Deb always laughs at me because I'm a bit of an archive person. And she's like, "What are you wearing?" I'm like, "That's like from ten years ago and I've pulled it back out again." Our design has that longevity in mind. Obviously there's always a part of trends that plays into it because you're influenced by what's happening, but it's really more about products that last, stand the test of time. We have customers sending us emails like, “I bought this coat three years ago, it's threadbare, are you going to do this again?” So people really see the value in the products. And even though it's a high-price brand, I think people buy because the quality is there and the longevity.

 

What is the most surprising thing that you've learned running your own fashion company?

It's not so much a surprising thing, there's a lot of fashion brands that they're all about the front end, but you know, what's actually happening at the back end? I think the surprising thing and the nice thing about our business is there's such a link between our manufacturing partners and our business. We've been with the majority of them since we started our business. 

Our t-shirt factory had five machinists. We've now got three factories on their premises that we have built and grown over time and we've worked within our capacity and said, "Okay, our business is growing, we need to get x amount of machinists because we need to deliver our volume." So there's been this relationship that has been built on trust.

I think a lot of brands would compromise that relationship over price and be like, "Well, okay I could get that t-shirt for a dollar cheaper." And then next season I'm going to go to another maker because I can get it for a dollar fifty cheaper, where we've actually weathered this whole storm with all our factories. We've built their factories, we've established them. There's a huge amount of trust.

We started off with one factory, we now have four factories. We've got our jersey factory, we've got our casual factory that does our natural bottoms and pants, and then we've got our shirting factory and then our tailoring factory. When we started, a lot of them were starting to go out of business because the industry had dried up and everyone was going to China. So we saved a lot of those factories.

There has to be more of a connection between the back and the front end. There's a lot of creativity that comes out of there too. A lot of your design comes from fabric, so if you're working with these mills that are allowed to be creative and you've got this long term relationship, they'll be thinking of you. I think maintaining and sustaining relationships is critical. 

 

What do you hope for the future of bassike?

It's kind of an interesting one because we talk about sustainability versus commerce. As there's an appetite for growth, what does that actually mean for sustainability and carbon footprint? If we can develop and produce a product that is actually better for the environment than another brand, then I'm very happy to take market share.

We don't have to conquer the world. I think it's just step by step, I mean, it has to be organic. We've always run our business on organic growth. Deb and I, we're the shareholders of the business, we don't have any investment. So for us too, organic growth is really important because we can't afford to grow too quickly. Which is kind of a good thing.

 

 

*this conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity

Images: Courtesy bassike

Interview told to: Laura Jones

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