Boutique Focus – HereTodayHereTomorrow
As part of an on-going series looking at unique, inspiring London (and UK) based fashion industry initiatives, I had the distinct pleasure of catching up with Anna-Maria Hesse and Julia Crew of HereTodayHereTomorrow, (HTHT) a boutique in Dalston, east London that makes, showcases and sells sustainable, ethical fashion and accessories.
The business, magically sounding like something from Alice in Wonderland, and started by four London College of Fashion MA design students including Katelyn Toth-Fejel and Emma Rigby is a wonderful testament to following your fashion instinct and beliefs. As Julia commented, a resolve shared by all on graduating from LCF’s then newly launched ’Fashion and the Environment’ MA in 2008, was that “…we didn’t want to compromise on our values that working in the traditional commercially driven fashion industry represented…”
Julia Crew, Anna-Maria Hesse, Katelyn Toth-Fejel
The original intention was to do no more than find a shared studio space on graduating ”“ that was until Anna-Maria stumbled on a shop unit for rent locally, in 2010 costing not much more than a studio with a one-year lease. A simple agreement to jointly fund the set up costs between all four and manage the store, each providing a part time role while they continued with their own private projects, was proudly declared by Anna-Maria as “so far we have not taken out a loan to set up or grow the business…it’s an organic, self-funded model we have gone for.” They soon realised not only did they have a place to showcase their own work projects, they could also involve other designers they liked with a similar ethos and put on pop-up events and the business has indeed grown organically since.
Anna-Maria and Julia would be the first to admit that as a company they are still learning as they go, describing some pretty astonishing business advice they received on starting up, (of the local, free, one-size fits all advisory kind) completely out of sync with what their mission statement so patently suggested. Eschewing the so-called ’typical start-up costs’ and “obscene figures” in favour of their own ability to build and re-fit almost entirely from locally sourced materials ”“ e.g. the street at nearly zero cost, tells you that with a refreshingly down to earth approach to running their business, their instincts are clearly sharpened by an intuitive feel for what made and makes sense for them as a new business trying to develop a brand presence.
How many fashion start-ups fail because they slavishly follow bad advice? Retail is a particularly difficult footfall-revenue juggling act to manage today, including the unprecedented consumer behaviourisms of internet boomeranging challenging high street bricks and mortar business acumen. To a large extent, for HTHT, this growing trend to source online, investigate/ try on in the store, then exit to find the cheapest online option, is offset by the unique nature of what they do and provide: the type of customer is already most likely pre-disposed towards supporting and preferring to buy ethically sourced and made garments and accessories from them and what brought them to the boutique in the first place – they actually appreciate that there is nowhere else to go to! Customers can however also buy online from the HTHT shop.
“It doesn’t automatically have to be ethical means boring…we have our own signature look, which is not the typical fair trade look”
It was heartening to discover that within my own circle of designer, artisan producer contacts, HTHT is already known, partly for something that just happens to be an area of interest ”“ like dyeing using natural colours from local plants (HTHT runs occasional dyeing and craft workshops), or simply because when you’ve seen mass produced ad nauseum, and gone in search of something echoing the hand-made traditions of the past with a design flair in London, you might have come across this hard-working, collective. “It doesn’t automatically have to be ethical means boring…we have our own signature look, which is not the typical fair trade look”, says Anna-Maria, fully aware of the need to compete to attract customers for strong design reasons, not just because of their particular raison d’etre.
In 2011, they consolidated their business strategy to focus on knitwear, getting behind the Fair Trade label, identifying this as the area for growth. The business model employed by HTHT is an interesting mix of their ’take’ on ethical fashion from within a UK market perspective, cognisant of the (albeit slightly reluctant) need for them to deliver collections in tune with the seasonal cycle of fashion, yet willing to experiment with the geographic reach of products and with tran-seasonal ranges. And where possible, stick to the same shapes as a sustainable practice for producing samples.
Not only do they pride themselves on having innovative and fashionable designs, they are not afraid to follow their instincts. In January, Anna-Maria, originally from Germany is showcasing the AW15 knitwear collection which consists of hand knitted hats, gloves, scarves, tops and skirts at two events, an Ethical Fashion Show in Berlin and Innatex in Frankfurt, in order to attract and develop new wholesale partner relationships ”“ the next area of growth identified by the team. These business relationships and others are being nurtured with tried and tested methods using catalogue production, sending out samples, and leveraging opportunities where they know some of their competitors products are already sold. Julia said that they see “… hand-knitted garments as an integral part of their message, representing a movement against fast fashion, wanting the customer to see the benefits of having something that may have taken longer to make, understanding the processes involved, but will also last longer also.”
We discussed the practice prevalent in many industries, witnessed on their travels to Kathmandu, (where their ’producer group’ is located), as the appearance of me-too marketing tag lines to declare goods as Fair Trade ”“ clearly not the case. (Unless declared so by the WFTO, World Fair Trade Organisation, one should be suspicious). But their reputable credentials are so evident in everything HTHT do and say, rather than appear disillusioned by the fakery, they came across as just more determined to continue doing what they believe in, trusting this to make the better case for them and the customer to see. Interestingly and encouragingly, I was told of the positive outcome of their producer group – an established association of craft producers, operating as a sort of artisan hub, (including ceramics, felting, woodwork, dyeing and workshops for sampling and fitting) funded by an NGO.
Julia explained “…a band of knitters, typically, women from different villages around Kathmandu that collect wool and design specs HTHT have produced, not only avoid back-breaking work as the only means for generating income, but also derive status as net financial contributors to the family, able to work from home at the same time, looking after their children…empowering them.” Anna-Maria added “…our products are all hand knitted with 100% wool, which is mulesing free. The wool is Azo free dyed by the producer group who also have a water treatment system on site.” Regular group visits from HTHT with the artisans in their homes and working spaces in Nepal, ensuring good working conditions, makes for a very positive, sustainable relationship. Plus, the factories are also regularly audited for best practices.