Chapter 18. Designer as entrepreneur – Fashion & Sustainability

Chapter 18: Designer as entrepreneur

‘The best way to promote a good cause is to provide a good example.’

Arne Naess

As designers, we create products for corporations, for our own companies or for clients. In any of these cases, our designs feed into an economic system that depends on people buying our products. The business model in all cases is based on volume of product throughput. As Bob Adams of the design firm IDEO states: ‘Businesses need more things because that’s the business model they are working with.’16

Though we may do our bit to change product materials and processes to make them more environmentally friendly, each of us knows that ‘green’ products (and ‘green’ consumption) change things only superficially. For they, like all products, are totally dependent upon a consumer market. And when the market wanes, so does ‘green’ production. This is evidenced by a recent report from Organic Exchange, an organization supporting organic agriculture, which recommends that farmers only grow organic cotton when they have a secure commitment from a brand to purchase it.17

Designers continue to work within the current business models even though we know that they inhibit the most progressive ideas for sustainability. The dissonance between what designers know and what we do creates a tension – a ‘dis-ease’ – in our daily practice. Yet as a growing number of economists begin to recognize the shortcomings of the market as a capable mechanism for achieving change, then designers too will develop confidence to act on these issues to prototype new products and establish new models of commercial practice, using our ability to make leaps of imagination. Joanna Macy calls this systemic innovation.18

Changing ways of thinking and acting

Systemic innovation around sustainability begins with a change of thought patterns and behaviours, which leads to the building of structures and practices defining and describing economic activity by ecological limits. Here, designers ask how new businesses will be built and how they will differ from what has gone before; what new roles design will play in them; and what sort of aesthetic will emerge when the products and services of the fashion sector are built on a fundamentally different set of values. They explore the creative potential of what economist Tim Jackson calls ‘bounded capabilities’, which help us prosper and live well within clearly defined limits.19 Several established designers have already carved out their own niches and practice within a bounded capabilities model. Their businesses present a variety and pluralism that sits in stark contrast to the usual industry design function.

Nathalie Chanin, for example, has been building business opportunity around prosperity and community capability for the last decade. Her fashion business Alabama Chanin offers an enterprise model where quality products are made by hand by artisans who live and work in and around Florence, Alabama. Chanin’s business model is not fixed on growth but rather on a commitment to the local community and the traditional skills normally used for quilting, which she applies to exquisitely crafted cut-and-sew knitted garments. This central purpose directs all Chanin’s business decisions, including the target market (up-market, retailing at such stores as Barneys New York or through special showings). Since the clothing line is limited by the speed of hand-crafting, so is the volume of material throughput also limited. Chanin supplements product sales with those of her books (The Alabama Stitch Book, Alabama Studio Style and Alabama Studio Design), in which pattern and making instructions for best-selling pieces are disclosed. She also conducts stitching workshops to train people in DIY, using the techniques employed on Alabama Chanin garments; and the company web site also offers a wide range of fabric, thread and beads as well as notions for home use. Besides providing additional income streams, these sidelines build community, connect wearer to maker and re-skill individuals. It is a fundamentally different model of business than in the conventional fashion industry, where a focus on economic growth alone might typically drive production to India, where the Alabama techniques could be copied at lower cost. Chanin’s model supports a local economy and changes the relationships and experiences between wearers, makers and community.

Crafted embroidery and appliqué on a wedding gown by Alabama Chanin.

Christina Kim of Dosa has also found a way to support her own creative activities as well as communities in India and China, working with the same groups of women for more than a decade. Garments are beautifully hand-crafted, with new lines offered just twice a year and featuring pieces that champion the traditional skills and local materials of the producer communities. Presenting only two seasons of clothing a year affords Kim the time to pursue other lines of creative interest, including jewellery, furniture design (Herman Miller), ceramics (Heath Pottery), art installations and working with Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California.

Also working at the high end of the industry, Dutch designer Claudy Jongstra creates felted fabrics for a range of uses, with her most important projects involving embellishments for interiors, wall coverings and rugs. She is based in the far and remote north of The Netherlands, where she tends her own sheep, a rare breed called Drenthe Heath, native to the region. Jongstra has also established her own dyeworks on site, and grows many of the plants she uses to colour her felt pieces. Since she controls the entire process, from raw materials to end product, Jongstra is subject to none of the usual confines of industrial minimums, speed and waste. This sense of freedom rolls over into her client list; Jongstra selectively chooses the number of people for whom she creates work.

Artist and designer Claudy Jongstra creates felt pieces from wool from a breed of sheep indigenous to her area of Holland.

Garments from Dosa’s Spring 2010 line, shown in gallery setting.

The entrepreneurial approach of Jongstra, Kim and Chanin takes the opposite track to conventional industry, which narrowly focuses the mode of production to maximize efficiencies and aims to open as many markets as possible with the same garments, competing primarily on price. In contrast, these designers work within the limits of slowness and hand-work, natural processing and a small scale, and their markets seek them out for their uniqueness. Yet entrepreneurial work is not exclusively high-end. For Bedlam Boudoir, the model of fashion production is shaped by ecological limits and utilized to generate enough income to support four families based in the UK. Bedlam Boudoir’s operations are powered by 12V batteries charged by wind generators and solar panels. This deliberate low-impact solution complements its factory set-up (a yurt) and its products – sassy, burlesque-inspired ‘recycled couture’ available for sale or hire at festivals or online.

Shirt by Bedlam Boudoir, created in a low-impact operation that generates enough income to support four families.

Using new media

Much design entrepreneurial activity has found a home online, where alternative business models and new channels of communication and networking bring a wealth of opportunities for sustainability innovation. The online company Betabrand (see page 129), for example, is driven by the pull of ‘crowdsourcing’ rather than the traditional high-volume push to market, and uses images of customers wearing its pieces (dubbed ‘model citizens’) as the main source of its web imagery. And SANS (see page 105) supplements its garment sales by selling downloadable patterns online. Its web site includes videos to support customers in making the garment and adapting it from instructions given. Online initiatives such as these are gaining further ground and momentum as ‘digital natives’ come of age and new possibilities are found in combining skills, information and fashion products together in novel and valuable ways. New designer-entrepreneurs will no longer simply create companies to make innovative products for the existing industry: rather, they will engage in innovative and generative thinking that changes the industry itself.