The TH Interview: Sarah Ratty of Ciel - Part 1
During London Fashion Week in September I got the chance to steal the British fashion designer Sarah Ratty away from the Ciel stand to talk to TreeHugger about her critically acclaimed ethical fashion label. Ciel have had an amazingly successful year winning the first ever UK 'Fashion Export Award for Ethical Fashion' and they were shortlisted for 'Fashion Product of The Year' at The Observer Ethical Awards 2007.
The story of Ciel's birth is quite remarkable. Sarah had to overcome a horrific car accident and a painfully slow recovery process, not to mention the demise of her pioneering fashion label Conscious Earthwear, to arrive at where she is at today. Ciel is considered by many to be one of the leading ethical fashion brands which combines effortless style with beautiful eco-friendly fabrics and strong fair trade policies. These key elements have made Ciel very popular with women on both sides of The Atlantic.In part one of this interview I talk to Sarah about the inspirations behind Ciel, the struggle to get ethical clothing firmly on the fashion industry's agenda, the challenges of eco-textiles and what it's like to work with Top Shop.
In part two I ask Sarah about the amazing year Ciel's has had, the benefits of having an agent in The States and what the future holds in store for her brand.
Can you tell us about the evolution of Ciel and how the business has developed over the last couple of years? I would say that it's only really been since February last year (2006) that I've been doing it full time, before that I was really ill. Whilst recovering (from the car accident) I was able to build a press portfolio, I was just doing it as a hobby really, but in February I was lucky because I got a consultancy job and that enabled me to go on to doing it full time. It's been quite interesting because having done all once before with Conscious Earthwear, I've learnt some things that I can apply.
How is Ciel different from Conscious Earthwear? To begin with I wanted to do everything differently, just because I was scared that what I had done before lead me to the path that I had taken and having the accident, which completely devastated my life in all areas. I was scared that if I did exactly the same again I'd just end up with a worse catastrophe later on.
Do you think that was a superstition or a practical choice? Well soon I realised that what I'd done before was actually quite good. My thinking was fear based because of all the post-traumatic stress. So when I got over that hurdle I started to get back on the horse, as it were, and that was it really. I'd had a successful brand and I realised that I could just call up people who I used to work with and they would be interested in talking to me.
What happened to your Conscious Earthwear label? I couldn't carry on with it. I was flat on my back (after the accident) and I couldn't possibly do it. I did try with the stuff that I had, but it put everybody under enormous pressure and eventually I wasn't getting any better, so I had to draw a line under it after a year and a half of being so ill. It was going to be a long haul getting better. In fact it took six years, nearly seven.
So when you started again you didn't even think of using the same brand name?
No I decided to let it go. There are things about it that were great and that I loved doing and then there were some things that I had outgrown. I remember thinking why did I choose such a long name? Four syllables is very long winded when you answer the phone! I thought it would be better to have just a short sound bite that had a lighter ring to it.
I chose Conscious Earthwear originally to keep me focused and make me have to do it (ethical fashion), so I wouldn't be able to deviate or have a little flight of fancy! Then I realised well I've been doing this a long time and it was my mission. So I'd learnt that I could trust myself and I didn't need that constant reminder anymore.
I wanted it to be a 'blue sky project', something that didn't have any limits, that could become itself and I didn't necessarily have to know where it was going to end at the beginning of its journey. I had the name a few years before I started working on it actually, it was just a pipe dream, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
It must have been good to have something to focus on while in recovery? Yes I was thinking maybe one day I'll be better and I'll be able to walk. So I started making a little press portfolio to encourage me until I was able to take it to a point where it could sustain itself. It was like occupational therapy and it networked me into other things like working with the Soil Association, I helped them with their Textile Committee. I helped Pesticide Action Network and got involved with the Organic Exchange and with the Ethical Fashion Forum. I just decided that I would do what ever I could that was using my knowledge and use my networking skills to make something happen.
It must have been motivating to discover the work of those organisations? I really liked the fact that having stepped away for a while I could come back to find more people doing it (sustainable work). I had felt like a lone voice in the wilderness because whilst there were other clothing companies, who were making basic pieces, they didn't have much fashion content. I did feel that I was alone there.
But after the millennium everyone had a sort of light bulb moment and it was really great to find out that there were other people trying to do this as well. I wasn't on my own anymore, which was really brilliant.
What about someone like Katharine Hamnett? I think it's exciting to see her new collections coming out now, but for a long time she didn't take any collections into production. She's doing some really cool stuff.
So there was no one for you to look towards? No, I had to carve my own niche. There wasn't really anyone else and some people thought we were bonkers! But we persevered and we obviously weren't that bonkers because we sold some amazing accounts internationally. People did buy it (Conscious Earthwear) and it sold really well.
So you had a head start? I suppose so. Things I'd been saying for years like why doesn't Marks and Spencers put their buying power behind this (organic cotton + recycled polyesters) and that will have a trickle down effect and help everybody else. That has now really begun to happen. I was talking to them about that years ago saying why don't you do this?
What did they say back then? They were looking into it. I think it took them a long time, but yeah they have finally got it sorted. Being a huge prime leader they've encouraged everyone else, which is really great. It brings the price down and makes it more affordable for everybody.
It's really important to get the big brands involved. Definitely, I've always said that and I'm really excited that it's happening. A lot of people have said oooh aren't you worried about that? And I said no, I'm not worried about it at all!
Is that because people think it's competition for you and that will affect your business? Well it doesn't because I am a boutique business; it's a niche market business and they're a mainstream business. There are always going to be people who need cheaper products and there will always be people who need more specialist things, which we're providing. Ciel is going down the Slow Fashion route, working with crafts people and things that only boutiques can do. Big companies couldn't possibly do hand blocked prints on that scale, it's practically impossible.
But there are other things that they can do and it's good to see them doing that? Yes, and that makes it better for everybody else because it makes it easier. I am really excited about that; it's made a big difference.
What else has made a difference this time around? For us as a brand starting again, new shows have come up, there are big trade fairs are taking notice and saying we believe in this, let's make something happen. Let's put all the people who are doing something really interesting together and show people that it's not just small nutters in corners who eat yoghurt!
For example Estethica? Well, the first one was actually in L.A. called Magic. It was a big showcase of organic fashion. Then Pret a Porter took it on and they did So Ethic. The Estethica show came as a result of that. Now every trade fair is considering having an area that showcases eco-fashion and it's all coming together at the same time. That's made a huge difference because buyers can understand it, it's easier for them, along with the education that's been happening. Everyone is doing their part. Lobby groups like the Environmental Justice Foundation and the Ethical Fashion Forum are doing their part, Labour behind the label are doing their part. They are educating people, going into schools and fashion colleges and teaching people about what it all means.
It's happening at every stage of the process? Yes, Every single part that needed to happen is happening. That's what's created this boom and it's really exciting to be part of it. I'm just so pleased that they're so many people doing it and there's such diversity, I think there's space for everyone.
And boutiques are getting excited about it as well. We get loads of people coming to us saying our customers want us to have an ethical section they're asking us, their customers are coming in and asking what is this made of? How is that made? What about these dyes? It's being lead by the people. And it's becoming fashionable to be like this. This is a dream come true for me.
We're not trying to reinvent the wheel, we're just trying to make dresses for women to feel good in, but using interesting fabrics. We're still challenged with fabrics and we have to develop a lot more, but every step of the way more is becoming available.
Is that an area you'd like to work on specifically — developing new fabrics? Yeah, that's what I am interested in definitely. We need better fabrication, there are so many times when I think oh it'd be lovely in that and then I think well we haven't got that so I can't use it; so then I am challenged.
Can you think of an example? Oh you know all those beautiful silks I'd love to be able to use those. I have found some people who we are going to do some development with.
What's the biggest issue for you about silk? It's interesting because a lot of our customers they care a lot and they want it (the brand) to be streamed all the way through with the same ethical credentials. Some of them don't like the way the silk worms are gased so they want it to be done in a more humane way. There is a more humane silk which you can get, but it's not mass produced.
Where does that silk come from? Well China and India are major sources for silk worms.
What's the difference? How is it more humane? Well they just wait for them to die, rather than gassing them. They wait for them to vacate the cocoon and then that's it. In India there is also something called fallen leather which means the animal has died and then they use the skin, but I still feel a little strange about that. I am still not prepared to use leather products, because I think my customer wants an alternative. That's what Ciel is about, providing an alternative for them. We don't work with real fur, we work with fake fur and we work with fake leather, but we don't use PVC or any of that, we use a plastic that is environmentally produced.
So we are just trying to stream things through. We work with hemp silk which is a really interesting blended fabric. It's mainly hemp with a small percentage of silk that gives it its lovely handle. That's a very exciting fabric to use because hemp gives back so much nitrogen to the soil and it really oxygenates our world. That's really important. For me that's the most exciting fabric I've found.
It's from China though and we were buying though the States, but now we are starting to buy direct. It seems crazy for me to be banging on about environmental clothing and not be thinking about our carbon footprint. We've got to think about that too. Now we're getting it direct it's not such a round a bout route. That's why we're manufacturing in the UK as well.
As Ciel grows is it difficult to keep the manufacturing in the UK? I think that's the way forward at the moment. We've got three new stitching units that we're working with. They're all in London and they all work with Designer labels and are very small companies themselves. It's all about working with individuals for me.
And knowing the people you work with? Yes that's what my business is, you know I am not a huge multinational company, so we can only do what we can do. We do the boutique side of it and that I think is our strength really. I like selling to small shops although I am not saying I wouldn't sell to department stores, I would and we are, but in boutique areas within the store. We couldn't for example become a supplier for a big high street chain.
There was a stage where you talked about having your underwear in Top Shop, how did that go? It was very difficult because we wanted to be able to do a nice showcase for it, but we were blocked from doing that. The buyer wanted us to be able to do it, but when it actually came down to the logistics they couldn't do it.
So it would have gone in with the rest of the underwear? Yes, and then, of course, it gets lost. My underwear competing against a pair of pants that's a pound doesn't make sense. So while I loved the idea of it getting out to a lot of people, and that's why I wanted to do it, in reality to make it work there we would have had to bring the price unit right down. We just didn't have the backing to do that. Until we get huge backing we can't do that kind of thing. So it's best to concentrate on us being a small boutique.
Well it's sounds like a good experience, not necessarily a positive outcome, but something you must have learned from? It was good and it wasn't that negative at all. I think it was quite positive. I mean I learnt a lot from them about how their business works and what they can and can't do. If we were to do it again with then we would have to come in with a competitive price point.
Next time we shouldn't rush it so much, but sit down and really look into how we can maximise the potential and make it work. It was an interesting experience and I certainly don't regret it at all. It was a great thing to have done and as a result of that we are now selling to some stores in America and we now understand about how they buy things and what they want to do, that's been really helpful.
Some purists would be disapproving of any relationship with a high street chains such as Top Shop, but I think it's really important to engage and include them in what you are trying to do. Yes it's important not to exclude them. It is key. That's what's so great about being at Estethica, there is such a spirit of cooperation. It's very different, when you walk around the rest of the exhibition it doesn't have the same vibe. Ooh that sounds a bit hippyish! I mean it doesn't have the same mood or atmosphere. We're all in cooperation with each other, no one is competing and there isn't that fear factor. It makes such a difference and everyone who comes to that area feels really relaxed. It's the same in Paris and the same in L.A.
That's what makes this movement so unique, because it's come from this place of people asking, "How can I help?" Not "What's in it for me?" It's like a whole new generation of entrepreneurs who have watched Anita Roddick as an absolute icon. I've got nothing but respect for her and I can't believe she is not here anymore. It's a real shock. She was such an inspiration.
Yes, I guess that although you didn't have anyone to look to in your industry there was always Anita Roddick and the work she did. Yes that's right. I read all her books and when I was a child I grew up in Brighton and I went to her first shop.
Look out for the upcoming PART TWO of this interview.