The Stories That Matter

Lessons from a failed sustainable fashion brand

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Disabled women sewing accessories in Phnom Penh. Photo by Kate Larsen.

Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.” Coco Chanel.

It can be overwhelming to think about all the different touchpoints that the production of clothing and fashion accessories has on the environment. Even more so are the decisions we have to make as a fashion designer when it comes to the people we employ, and the cultural and economic barriers that arise can seem insurmountable.

So where do you start?

It all starts with one voice.

One message.

One story.


What stories can you, and only you individually, bestow on the world with the tools that you have?

In 2007 I co-founded a social impact fashion company in Hong Kong with a friend, both of us graduates from Central St Martins’ School of Art. She and I grew up in Malaysia and Singapore respectively giving us a unique background in the clothing industry’s backyard. Back in 2007, the sustainable fashion movement, as we know it today was in its infancy, without any real guidelines or systems in place.

However, these obstacles didn’t hinder us from following our dream to prove to the world that ethically conscious fashion can have style. And so we set out to do everything sustainably – from fair trade labor to eco-friendly and organic material selection, to recycling waste material from garment factories.

In the spirit of ‘Just Do It,’ we set about experimenting with recycling factory waste materials and commenced sample making with a small group of women in the Sham Shui Po area, an aging neighborhood of Hong Kong, with much-hidden poverty. We learned that after the mass exodus of garment factories to China, a skilled workforce was left behind, mostly in this area, struggling to pay the bills.

After this small group grew along with our orders, we expanded our network to include other groups of individuals in Hong Kong, as well as in Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and China.

Our brand story featured our recycled esthetic, as well as the stories of the various producer groups we worked with across the continent.

And all of it got lost in the overwhelm of information.

Lessons Learned

Environmental considerations and labor costs are the usual places where companies cut corners. For sustainable fashion startups to succeed with limited capital, it is essential to be aware of the many choices in front of you, and be selective.

Focus on People

Of all the sustainability issues present in the fashion industry, we decided to focus on people. When all is said and done, people stories are the most potent stories your brand can tell because they resonate.

One of our most moving people stories involved a social enterprise in Guangzhou (China) that employed disabled women. One employee, Fang Fang, had little use of her legs, but a lovely smile. The workshop collaborated with another workshop in the area on our orders. She met her husband this way, and they now have a family, a dream she had not thought was possible in her condition.

Keep The Story Simple

Nowadays, brand stories need to be communicated in bite-size photos and video clips, or we lose our audience’s short attention spans. We wanted to talk about everything: our designs, our sustainable principles, and our producer groups. However, too many topics were overwhelming and confusing. At a glance, your audience needs to understand the main idea of your brand. Focus on your why story, and then reveal the layers about how you do it once you capture your audience.

Organic Growth For Quality

Grow organically, building quality consistency. Most people are tired of the poorly made “sympathy product” by now. Sales only grow consistently with quality. Besides, it’s with consistent sales that we can indeed make an impact in our producer groups’ lives, producing a growing tree of more success stories.

What is the meaning of our life if we don’t try to create something extraordinary? Failure is a necessary stepping-stone to success and our dreams.

Our failures make us stronger people with impactful stories to share.

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