December 2011

Clothes That Care

By Casey Hall

In an era of fast fashion and disposable trends, there is an evolving movement of people who want their purchases to mean a little more

Claire Theaker-Brown
Founder of Flatter:Me

Canadian entrepreneur Claire Theaker-Brown had lived in Shanghai for three years and was interested in exploring a whole new concept of “Made in China” for her product – a “no bump belt” that would solve the problems she had with unsightly belt bulges since high school.

“Knowing that I wasn’t the only one whose jeans never seemed to sit right, I wanted a belt that would fit all the women I know and love, no matter what their shape. I wouldn’t have launched Flatter:Me if I didn’t know I could produce the belts in a way that respects the skills of the workers behind them. For me, that has meant paying fair wages and maintaining a Canadian work schedule – 9 to 5, with no overtime or weekends. The most difficult aspect of establishing a ‘socially conscious’ business is balancing my values as a Canadian entrepreneur with an understanding that the individuals who work for me may not have the same expectations. For example, when I told my tailors that they wouldn’t be working overtime hours, they were disappointed to lose the earning opportunity. I had to show them how their daily rate would compensate for their ‘lost hours.’

“I think the success of the locally-made and handmade movements show that consumers care more and more about the origin of what they buy. When I went home to Canada this past summer, I brought 300 Flatter:Me’s in my suitcase and crossed my fingers. I ended up selling out – and I discovered that although the belts do fill a product niche, it’s the ethos behind Flatter:Me that has encouraged people to help spread the word about the product.”

Eleonore Yard
Founder of Sukuma China

This African-inspired store in Shanghai sells handcrafts and fashion designed by French owner, Eleonore Yard. A proportion of the proceeds are invested in the Sukuma trust, a foundation created to support local projects in Kenya.

“The idea came from living and working for many years in Africa and falling in love with the culture. I started by designing clothes with African fabrics, mixing Asian and Western designs. And little by little, I started importing products from Africa.

“Before this I worked for NGO’s in the micro-credit field, so it is important to me to have an impact on the communities in Africa, first by buying handicrafts at a reasonable price from local artisans and second by donating a part of the profits towards certian projects.

“It is difficult for me as a foreigner to communicate and explain what I am trying to do to Chinese people. Most people are interested in the discount they can get on the price without taking any notice of the social aspect, but some are quite curious about it. The best thing about this job is being able to do what I enjoy and do something that has real meaning. It’s interesting to meet people with different nationalities, backgrounds and experiences with Africa. I feel good about educating people about Africa and dispelling some misconceptions about African people and nations.

“The worst is of course when the business is not working as you wished. It’s hard work, even more so when you’re alone in a foreign country, and sometimes I feel it’s a lot of effort for little result. You have to be motivated and positive with new ideas all the time.”

Sherry Poon
Founder of Wobabybasics and Shanghai's Eco Design Fair

Healthy and sustainable living has been a life-long “habit” for this architect-turned-designer, who only sells products that she would feel comfortable putting on her own children.

“Wobabybasics started after the birth of my first daughter as an exploration of three of my passions – design, sustainability and community development – applied to baby clothes. As a new mother in Shanghai, I soon realized that it was difficult to find baby basics that were organic and attractive. As a designer, I came across many details in conventional baby clothes that with a few tweaks would make the item more functional or comfortable for babies and parents. As a volunteer for several community groups, I realized that there were great programs in Shanghai that needed extra support and exposure. I set about designing and producing my own line of organic baby basics. The result was a small collection of functional yet stylish organic cotton children's wear that is ethically made in China and supports the local community.

“A baby's skin is about five times thinner than that of an adult, making it much easier for toxins to enter their bodies. Certified organic cotton is free from toxic residues and is thicker, softer and lasts longer than conventional cotton clothing that has been chemically processed. Organic methods of agriculture are inherently better for farmers, our bodies, our homes, our planet and future generations – using organics is win-win!”

Itee Soni
Co-Founder of FINCH

FINCH is a women's wear clothing brand dedicated to maintaining supply chain transparency and creating environmentally and socially sustainable products in the process. Co-founders Itee Soni and Heather Kaye started the brand in 2010 after working for retail giants in North America and Europe.

“The best part of the job is definitely being part of the sustainability community in Shanghai. I didn’t meet as many people in the first three years that I was here, as I have since we got started on FINCH, and especially since we moved into our collective studio space. The energy there is just refreshing. Somebody wise once told me, ‘If you don’t feel like going to work every morning, then it’s time to change.’ Well, FINCH is the change I had always hoped for. The worst part is endless working weekends during the busy season, as there are many fairs and exhibitions back-to-back.

“Our immediate plans include retail expansion outside of Shanghai. First stops are Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore. Eventually FINCH aims to build a global design collective, bringing together designers, suppliers, artisans and consumers dedicated to small-scale, sustainable apparel, home and accessory production. By 2012, we will have a dedicated, carbon neutral Design Collective facility near Shanghai complete with sewers, pattern and print makers. To ensure sustainability and transparency in every step of manufacture, the FINCH Design Collective will collaborate with only the most reliable, transparent suppliers and will be open to domestic and foreign designers with small-scale apparel, home or accessory manufacturing interests.””