I am a writer and executive administrator for Trusted Clothes, which is an ethical and sustainable fashion organization. The following is a series devoted in honor of the work done in collaboration with the Schroeckers and the Trusted Clothes team. Here is part 2. Part 1 here.
Fiona Armstrong-Gibbs has worked in the fashion and footwear industry for nearly 20 years. She is a fashion lecturer, writer, currently researching social enterprise in the fashion industry and is involved with Oka-B footwear as their UK distributor. Her co-authored book is Marketing Fashion Footwear: The Business of Shoes.
You have been in the fashion and footwear industry for about 20 years. What are the major lessons that can be passed on to people new to that industry?
Know what are your values and beliefs when you enter into the industry. Make sure you take full advantage of the knowledge that is offered to you in internships, university etc – this is your chance to build your ethical foundations. If you say you are anti-fur and then take a design internship at a company that uses fur in their collections then ask yourself are you really anti-fur? How much do you know and understand your values? Most people are appalled at the working conditions in factories in places such as Bangladesh but as a junior designers or PR for a fast fashion company do you really know how transparent your supply chain is. If you are too scared to ask the question for fear of being sacked – a) is this really the career you want and b) – imagine how scared a machinist in Bangladesh is? She can’t afford to ask the same uncomfortable questions and probably has much more to lose than you –so, ask the question.
You lecture and write on fashion. What is the general content of the written and spoken work?
I write about the business of fashion particularly from an educational perspective. As an academic I do try to keep my own personal bias and beliefs about ethics to one side but prompt students to think for themselves, offering facts and issues for them to explore themselves. I see huge potential in the next generation to make a change, many students know that there is so much in the fashion industry that is wrong but are overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. Hence the know your own values above.
You research social enterprise in the fashion industry. What is the specific content and purpose of this research?
The term ‘social enterprises’ is very broad and in various forms they have been around for years – such as co-ops. For the most part they are a type of business that has a dual return on investment – meaning that the time and money invested must return benefits that are both financial (i.e it should be sustainable) and social – so people must also benefit in a wider sense. My current research is based in the UK and looks specifically at a new legal structure called a Community Interest Company. There are now over 12,000 CICs registered in the UK representing a variety of sectors from music production and childcare to arts organisations and housing providers, all agreeing with the fundamental principle of asset locking any financial surpluses and using them to benefit their community rather than paying out to shareholders or personal investors. I am exploring the role that this type of business model could take in the Creative sector and hope to focus on new and existing fashion companies who want to use this structure.
You are involved with Oka-B footwear as well. What tasks and responsibilities come with this collaboration?
I really believe that you should practice what you preach and the fashion industry is changing so rapidly that sometimes the only way to do this is to continue to work in the industry as it evolves. My company imports and re sells Oka-B in the UK. We are responsible for the brands distribution and marketing here. I talk to my customers both retail and wholesale and am involved with all the day to day challenges this brings. It has been a brilliant experience – as someone who started out communicating with clients via fax and phone seeing the shift to email and then online sales and now social media – there is no better way to learn than by doing it. How customers engage with social media and the amount of quantitative data about customers is at the touch of a button now – years ago you would be lucky to see it updated and faxed on a weekly basis. It’s hard work and I have a huge empathy for any fashion start-up today, even though we are based in the UK we are subject to so many global challenges.
You co-authored Marketing Fashion Footwear: The Business of Footwear. What is the argument and evidence for the narrative and content of the text?
The footwear industry is one of the fastest growing sectors in apparel over the last 15 years or so, fuelled by fast fashion and our avaricious consumer appetite, students are now looking for specific texts about this sector and how it works. Footwear has responded to fashions cycles and trends but it is still a different industry in terms of its design, construction and manufacturing processes. How we consumer and use footwear is also different in terms of motivations and emotions. We hope that it will be a text that supports both students and new entrants to the footwear market and gives them confidence to find a fulfilling job in a very exciting industry.
What other work are you involved in at this point in time?
I love supporting and spreading the word about new ways of doing business and companies that challenge the status quo – always on the lookout for a new or better way of doing things in the fashion industry.
What meaning or personal fulfilment does all of this work bring for you?
I get huge satisfaction in seeing people connect and collaborate and prosper and if I can intervene to make that happen I will.
With regard to ethical and sustainable fashion companies, what’s the importance of them now?
There is no future for the fashion industry as it is today if there is not a paradigm shift to a better way of doing things for everyone in the supply chain. China has an aging population and will run out of cheap labour, if it hasn’t already. We can’t keep ‘racing to the bottom’ of the labour pool and squeezing profit margins. The next generation of businesses have to believe that profit can be measured in other ways such as healthy people and a healthy environment. We have to be better and we all have a huge responsibility to create the confidence to do it.
Any, feelings or thoughts in conclusion?
Don’t make ethical fashion niche – it should underpin every element of the industry and become the norm. To do this we need to keep raising the profile of what the good people do, find your allies and get on with it. Every single retweet, like and blog article discussion can add together to make a very loud noise.
All images courtesy of www.trustedclothes.com.