Jade Sarita Arnott
Jade is the remarkable woman behind Arnsdorf – a fashion label that embraces radical transparency throughout every corner of its supply chain.
Arnsdorf decided to put the label on hold in 2012 due to a growing unease with how the fashion system operated. Can you tell us more about this moral dilemma?
The label had been operating under the traditional fashion wholesaling model since its inception in 2006. As the years went on, both in Australia and when we relocated to New York, it became more and more apparent that the system was fundamentally broken. We were outsourcing production in the traditional way to other factories, but there was little transparency around the conditions under which the factory machinists were working. Although we had great relationships with the factory managers, it always felt like there was a barrier between us.
We were wholesaling and producing orders for stores with the hope that there would be a good sell-through, and there usually was. Unfortunately there there was also the unavoidable end of season leftover stock that immediately lost its value once the season was deemed ‘over’. It was a time when a downturn in retail was sweeping across Australia, leaving many designers out of pocket. And on a personal level, I had just had my first child and thought I’d rather spend my time with him and my family than feed the global fashion machine.
At what point did you realise you could build a business that adopted a different, healthier model? And in what ways has the business changed since then?
It all started to unfold gradually. I was involved with my husband and his business partners’ luxury mens subscription service, Svbscription. It was exciting to be a part of conversations about new ways of interacting directly with customers, and providing the best possible service and experiences for them. It was a thrilling time in New York, where it felt like startups could transform and innovate the way we interact with each other and the world.
I enrolled in Industrial Design at The Pratt Institute and was inspired when learning about the way companies like IDEO created its products. They had innovative ideas around quick prototyping and iteration, and I wondered how this could be applied to designing useful, long-lasting and well-designed clothes. I liked this idea of being completely in control of the entire manufacturing supply chain, and that this environment would mean samples could be made in-house. I wanted to ensure that the work life of all the people involved in executing my vision was meaningful and positive.
The second key area in which the business has changed is transparency. The wholesaling model and its associated mark-ups really skews the sustainability of fashion all the way down the supply chain. We had always wholesaled in the past to stores across Australia and the USA, but this time we took a significant leap and decided not to wholesale. This means we can spend extra resources on the highest quality sustainable materials and local wages. As a result, we are completely transparent regarding pricing. We break down the exact cost of labour, materials, design, logistics, operations and retailing for every item listed for sale. In order for the industry to move in a sustainable direction, consumers need to better understand the costs of making clothes—both financially and ethically.
The next piece was about being as conscious as I could about my fabric choices, ensuring that they have the lowest negative impact on the environment, as well as on the lives of the people producing and wearing them. These are issues I have always had in the back of my mind, and acted as best I could within the traditional fashion system framework.
I studied sustainability as an elective during my Bachelor of Fashion at RMIT University over a decade ago—when the issues were less visible and discussed in the mainstream—so I was always aware of it and wanted to incorporate sustainable practices into my work. This time around I wanted to put them front and centre of all the brand-related decision-making. We’ve been working directly with a fabric mill in Pakistan to develop an organic cotton denim fabric dyed with natural indigo dye after I was unable to source it; I could only find organic cotton with synthetic dye, or conventionally grown cotton with natural indigo dye. I’m really interested in ways we can implement change within the industry to nurture nature and all benefit from things like the Ayurvedic qualities of natural pigments.
How would you define your ‘moral compass’?
At a really basic level, it’s about following my gut. During the whole process of relaunching Arnsdorf we have followed what has felt right, and moved away from decisions that didn’t sit comfortably with us. I suppose it’s about making the most positive impact on the people connected to the brand, whether they’re the end wearer of the garments or one of the skilled craftspeople making the garments. It’s about being responsible and conscious with all of our actions and decisions, and being aware of the far reaching impact they can have.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of setting up your own local factory in Collingwood? Talk us through Arnsdorf’s production process.
It’s been a really empowering experience. The most rewarding aspect has been developing direct relationships which my machinists—getting to know these women, and the experience and skills they bring in-house to the production process.
The process begins and is led by design. We pattern make and cut calico toiles for the initial prototypes, then fit them, make adjustments and sample in our chosen fabrics. Having our sample machinist right there means there is an ongoing dialogue between us about the best way to finish seams and the most efficient and pleasing ways to construct things. It’s a circular process, with one thing informing the next as the following garments evolve, inspired by a previous process.
We also have an in-house showroom where we conduct appointments with our clients. We take their measurements, and get to know them and the wardrobe they are trying to create. This provides additional feedback to the rest of the design and production processes.
Jade Sarita Arnott
“I believe knowledge is power. Once a person gains this understanding, it gives greater depth to the things they invest in, creating a more meaningful relationship between the wearer and garment and contributing to the longevity and usefulness of the piece in their life.”
You have a much more personal relationship with garment construction than most brands; what would you say to other brands who may be disillusioned with their current model but are unsure of how to evolve?
I think it’s important to know that there are other options available to them, and that sometimes it’s just about breaking out of the cycle you are in. There is so much more access to information now than there previously was. When I first began Arnsdorf, finding manufacturers was like finding a needle in a haystack. You really needed to know someone working in the industry that would share a contact with you. You then needed to convince the factory to work with you because you knew the person who shared their contact details. It was a secretive and closed industry to break into. People held their contacts tightly to their chests, not wanting another brand’s work to tie up their factory’s production schedule. This was part of my frustration with the industry and its overall lack of transparency and sharing.
Having access to so many resources on the web and to organisations like Ethical Clothing Australia is a huge help. There seems to be more connectivity within the industry and communities through social media. Even a simple idea of knowing you can advertise to find machinists to work with can be eye-opening. As long as you know how to operate ethically and within the fair work guidelines you can potentially start your own factory, provided you have a space and invest in machinery, most of which you can buy secondhand.
“Sustainability means living and working conditions are just, safe and dignified. We believe that knowledge and transparency are the greatest vehicles for systemic change within the fashion industry.” Looking at the fashion system itself, what in particular do you feel needs to change in order for meaningful change to occur?
It needs to be addressed as a whole system, rather than focusing on changing one small part of the whole. I believe in education and information: transparency allows consumers to understand the complexity of the processes involved in producing things. I believe knowledge is power. Once a person gains this understanding, it gives greater depth to the things they invest in, creating a more meaningful relationship between the wearer and garment and contributing to the longevity and usefulness of the piece in their life. This knowledge of the true cost of a garment allows them to then question the items that fall below what it costs to ethically and sustainably make them.
Which initiatives / organisations / individuals in the fashion industry, if any, have influenced you to embrace lower impact practices and why?
It was during my time away from the industry that the Rana Plaza collapse happened in Bangladesh—a devastating event that has since been a huge catalyst for increased transparency and better working conditions across the global garment industry. I love the work that Fashion Revolution are doing to advocate for systemic change. Bruno Pieters from Honest by. has also been a leader in the transparency and sustainability space. Locally, Ethical Clothing Australia are doing really important work; we are working on getting accreditation with them, and are also working towards becoming a B Corp company.
A few years back, my friend Soraya Darabi in New York created an online platform—in the style of Net-a-porter—called Zady.com, which is dedicated to sustainable and ethically produced products. I think it’s great that even people like Emma Watson are shining a light on the issues and supporting ethical and sustainable clothing. We need people with high profiles in order to reach the masses, and to elicit fundamental change in the world. I feel like there are real shifts happening, and that people are becoming much more aware of the impact they have each time they purchase something.
Jade Sarita Arnott
“Sometimes the issues can feel incredibly vast and complex but I think it’s important to take it one step at a time, and to continue to question why things are done in a certain way. Do they still make sense for us as a society, or is it just the way we’ve always done them?”
Increasingly, fast fashion companies are engaging with the term ‘sustainable fashion’ and launching ‘ethical’ capsule collections without necessarily considering the overall environmental and social impact of their business model / production methods. What are your thoughts on this, do you see scope for fast fashion businesses to drive positive change in the garment industry?
It’s a really complex issue. I don’t like the ‘green-washing’ some of these fast fashion companies partake in. I support any measures they take that can contribute positively to the problems we face, and on such a massive scale I think the impact could be significant. However, it doesn’t address the immense waste and cheap culture these companies perpetuate.
As an example of an alternative approach, I think Reformation is a more conscious brand in that space. They are addressing ethical and sustainable practices across their whole collection, not simply a tiny capsule collection. I’m an optimist, and part of me really feels that soon more people will associate fast fashion with the same negativity as they do with fast food: that it’s not good for them or the environment. I believe there will be a move away from this type of chain. While fast food chains still exist, eating at them has become much less socially acceptable. I hope there is a similar shift for healthier alternatives on the fashion fronts as there has been in the food industry.
Has there been any progress over the past few years (throughout the fashion industry or society as a whole) that has been heartening to you on both a business and personal level?
The overwhelming response to the relaunch of the brand and our focus on these issues has been really heartening. I’ve received such wonderful emails from so many people. I always love receiving this feedback, as it affirms my confidence in the path we are taking, the future, and about our collective consciousness.
In what ways would you like to improve or evolve going forward? Are you curious about any particular innovation or technology developments?
I’m really interested in the next technological developments we will see. I’m particularly interested in machinery that can create garments with zero waste. That is an area I’m working towards improving in: utilising the scraps of fabrics into constructing new garments. At the moment we donate our fabric waste to an art school, but I think we can go further and make new garments from them. I’d love to have a modern knitting machine that fully fashions items.
I’m also really interested in the technological developments that reduce water consumption and the need for harmful chemicals, and that utilise new un-thought of sustainable raw materials.
When looking to the future of the fashion industry, what excites and/or daunts you most?
I’m excited about the growing interest in and awareness around sustainable and ethical practices. I’m both excited and slightly daunted by my role in disrupting the status quo of the fashion industry. Sometimes the issues can feel incredibly vast and complex but I think it’s important to take it one step at a time, and to continue to question why things are done in a certain way. Do they still make sense for us as a society, or is it just the way we’ve always done them? I’m also very excited to have a more direct relationship with the women who wear my clothes.
Photography: Amelia J Dowd
Production Sigrid McCarthy
Sub Editor Reb Mery