Mary Lou Ryan
Mary Lou—pictured with business partner Deborah Sams—is the co-founder of Australian fashion brand, bassike. This interview is part of the LEGACY Summit 2019 Intent editorial partnership.
How have your personal values and life experience shaped your work? And how did you meet your now business partner, Deborah Sams?
I grew up in Melbourne, Victoria, and am the youngest of five children. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I truly understood my mother, and the incredible values she instilled in me. Life was pretty simple then. You learned to co-exist in a busy house, find your place and be flexible. You learned to share and listen, and from the mistakes of your’s and your siblings’. These are all values that I consider to be part of me today, and I feel are all valuable attributes in running a successful business. I think it is wise to be mindful that there is more than one person in the room and that working together is paramount. I met Deb when I moved to Sydney early in my career, we were both buyers at the time.
What does the term ‘ethical fashion’ mean to you?
Ethical fashion, to me, is how you conduct yourself in business as a whole. This is not just about the manufacturing process and the environment; it is more than that. It is how you treat your team, external partners and customers.
“The bassike philosophy centres on high quality design and construction with a commitment to sustainable manufacturing.” Can you elaborate on this approach to business? How has the bassike ethos evolved over time?
Our philosophy of being centered on high quality design, construction and a commitment to sustainability has always been at the core of the bassike brand ethos. We launched bassike with a range of organic cotton jersey staples, which overtime has expanded into denim, mainline womenswear and menswear collections and more recently footwear and accessories. As our company continues to grow, we have greater resources to achieve our big vision goals. Our current focus is to expand the brand in the US and European markets. With this evolution, we have strengthened our design knowledge, broadened our supply chain contacts, and continued to proactively research new sustainability initiatives in the industry.
bassike has been using certified organic cotton since it launched its first collection in 2006. Why did you decide to opt for organic? And what have been the benefits and/or challenges of this?
At bassike, we focus on best practice. The decision to select organic jersey was an easy choice at the time, it just felt right and presented us with a unique opportunity in the market. Organic cotton cares for our health and environment through the ban of insecticides and pesticides. It cares for the future of our land through farming traditionally rather than conventionally. This is part of our sustainability ethos and continues to this day.
We use exclusive organic cotton jersey which has been developed by us and made in Melbourne, Australia. Because the yarn is Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified, it contains a minimum of 95% certified organic fibres. We also pre-shrink all of our cotton jersey, making it easy to care for over time and able to be worn for many years.
Mary Lou Ryan
“Organic cotton cares for our health and environment through the ban of insecticides and pesticides. It cares for the future of our land through farming traditionally rather than conventionally. This is part of our sustainability ethos and continues to this day.”
bassike produces more than 90% of its garments in Australia. Talk us through the process of developing a collection; how interconnected are the design and manufacturing processes? What do you learn from those who bring your designs to life?
Our design and manufacturing process is highly interconnected. We work very closely with our supply chain, as we do not buy finished products but instead design and create them via sourcing and developing our own fabrics, trims, wash houses, cutters and garment factories. We work very closely with our fabric mills, patternmakers and factories, many of whom we have worked with for years. This is part of our creative process and design ethos and definitely influences our design choices. We continually learn and challenge each other, pushing ourselves to be more innovative and creative.
When designing or envisioning your next collection, what is your main focus? Do you consider garment lifecycle and what might happen to your clothes at the end of life stage?
There are many layers of thought that go into designing each collection. You are thinking about available fabrications, new season colours and shapes and what will appeal to both current and new customers. We want to continually inspire our customers with fresh pieces for their wardrobe, but make sure it is still true to bassike—clean design with a twist.
We also consider the garment lifecycle and as such approach our collections with a focus on garment durability, longevity and timeless design. Our organic jersey tee shirts are a great example of product durability, as they are created with a fabric that is anti-pill and will maintain fit and quality over many years of wash and wear.
In regards to end of life initiatives, one successful project for us has been the ‘take back’ incentive at our annual warehouse sale, where we encourage customers to bring along their pre-loved bassike jersey pieces that we then repurpose into cleaning rags by donating to a local supplier. We are constantly researching new initiatives and exploring new partnerships in this space.
The ‘ethical fashion’ movement is often labelled elitist and inaccessible for the everyday customer. What are your thoughts on this?
I think there is room for everyone to do their part in contributing to the ethical fashion movement, even if as a start it is just being more conscious in how much we buy and making sure garments have a longer life span in our wardrobes.
As a brand, our focus has always been to remain fashion first. We are cautious not to isolate anyone by preaching our ethical stance, but rather it is weaved throughout our product range and brand DNA. Our values ensure we are committed to sustainable manufacturing, but it is still important that our product is fashion led, with our original vision to create luxurious and wearable everyday pieces. Sustainable manufacturing is considered across our entire product range at all price points, with an aim to make good quality and ethical clothing accessible to a broad range of customers.
How can we encourage people to redefine their sense of value, look beyond an immediate price tag and consider longer term cost-per-wear?
We focus on quality, not quantity. We want our bassike customers to have a garment in their wardrobe that they look forward to wearing again and again. This is considered in the durability and quality of the garment, as well as a design that is still fashion forward, season after season. Collections are designed with the intention to work with the next, and back with previous pieces in our customers’ wardrobes.
We encourage our customers to define value over time by purchasing staple pieces and versatile quality-made pieces, as opposed to seeking purely trend-driven fashion that leaves customers feeling unfulfilled after only a short period of time.
In the end, we retain our customers by providing good service and products that last over time—proving that quality, ethical fashion is worth a higher price tag in the long run.
Mary Lou Ryan
“This period of social and environmental change is pushing the slow fashion movement forward and forcing the industry to innovate once again, after decades of mass-production and consumption led by technological advances.”
Generally speaking, bassike’s environmental/social credentials aren’t front and centre of brand storytelling. Why have you chosen to keep this aspect of the brand reasonably quiet?
We have always considered ourselves a fashion brand, with sustainable attributes, as opposed to an ethical or eco-friendly focused brand. Product and design may drive our storytelling, but the environmental and social credentials are still embedded in, and important to our brand.
The industry and consumers have been on a sustainability discovery journey over the last few years, and it is only in recent years that this environmental messaging has really made an impact. But as this has become a trending topic, I also think customers are becoming wearier of strident claims of ethical production and sustainability. We know we’ve done the right thing for people and our planet since we launched bassike in 2006, so we don’t feel it necessary to shout this from the rooftops.
People often view ‘sustainability’ as a hindrance to growth. How do you encourage people to reassess their understanding of ‘sustainable fashion’ and focus on the opportunities posed by the world’s current environmental and social challenges?
Sustainability is not a hindrance to growth; it is increasingly becoming a non-negotiable for large segments of the market. This period of social and environmental change is pushing the slow fashion movement forward and forcing the industry to innovate once again, after decades of mass-production and consumption led by technological advances.
As a brand, we have a responsibility to keep up with consumer demands and expectations, as in the end a positive consumer response is going to be what is at the heart of meaningful and viable growth as a business.
Do you see scope for fast fashion businesses to drive positive change in the garment industry without changing their core business model?
Fast fashion businesses are going to have to find ways of evolving to meet both consumer and industry demands. Obviously, it would be a poor business decision to flip their model on its head overnight—leaving both local retail workers and overseas manufacturing workers vulnerable and potentially out of work—but by the sheer scale of a fast fashion brand, even a simple and small change to their current business model would deliver impactful results. It has become very clear that the time for this is now; there is great opportunity for fast fashion brands to deliver positive change.
With an ageing workforce, do you worry about the future viability of manufacturing in Australia? What support do you believe you need moving forward in order to future proof your commitment to producing locally?
We are continually focused on the future and forward planning our collections, which are designed up to a year ahead of launching in stores. We have built long-term partnerships with our local suppliers, as we understand that this is key to sustaining a local business for the long-term. We have an ongoing feedback loop cycle with our factories, where we communicate capacity and workforce needs in advance, so together we have enough time to find solutions to fulfil orders for forthcoming collections. Producing locally certainly does present greater difficulties with an ageing workforce; however, we believe it is achievable with open communication and the right planning and processes in place.
Looking at the fashion system as a whole, what do you believe needs to be addressed in order for meaningful change to occur? And what excites and/or daunts you most about the industry’s future?
Starting the conversation has been a great first step in creating awareness across all levels of the fashion industry. It has only recently become a non-negotiable for brands to consider people, the product we create and our planet while operating. Times like this create new ways of thinking that lead to innovation, so I’m excited for the disruption of our industry and to see what the future may hold.