During London Fashion Week in September British fashion designer Sarah Ratty talked to TreeHugger about Ciel, her critically acclaimed ethical fashion label. Ciel has had an amazingly successful year, winning the first ever UK 'Fashion Export Award for Ethical Fashion' and being shortlisted for 'Fashion Product of The Year' at The Observer Ethical Awards 2007.
In part one of this interview I talked to Sarah about how the creation of Ciel helped her recover from a terrible car accident, the struggle to get ethical clothing on the fashion industry's agenda, the challenges of eco-textiles and what it's like to work with Top Shop. In part two, below, I ask Sarah about the benefits of having an agent in the US, how she keeps things sustainable as the business grows and what the future holds in store for her brand.Ciel has seen amazing success this year and things are developing fast for you. What is the most important new aspect of the company from your point of view? We’ve just been taken on by an agent in America. I am so excited about that.
What does that mean for Ciel and how did they find you? Online I think. They headhunted us, which was very flattering. They were looking specifically for eco-fashion brands for their showroom: The Namaste Greenhouse project. They also represent Edun and Katharine Hamnett in America. They are really enthusiastic and are as excited about ethical fashion as I and you are. It’s great to work with passionate people. They have a really great reputation because they’ve been working in the industry for years.
We’ve got a few boutiques in the US that we’re selling to now.
You’re in Kaight in New York right? Yes and we’re also in Nordstrom, they’ve been really interested and supportive. We’re in their store in Boston and we’re in Pivot in Chicago. There’s a handful of stores now in America which is what made me think we’ve got to go into this market, because people are interested in it over there and they’re ready for it.
Do you think that it's the UK or the US that's leading the way in ethical fashion? It’s hard to say really isn’t it? It’s all about the effects of the collective consciousness; that’s what we’re experiencing now, people are waking up everywhere. It’s a very exciting time to be alive and to be able to make a difference.
That’s our big challenge really, other generations have had huge wars as their challenges. In some parts of the world there are certain people who believe that’s what we still have to do, but there are also more enlightened people who are realising that it is bigger than wars; it’s about us surviving as a species.
We really do have to do something urgently. Every single tiny thing that you do is important. Everybody can play their part. Whether it’s down to switching your light bulbs off or getting an energy saving bulb or getting on of those power bank sockets which you can switch off at night. Those are the sorts of things that everybody can do.
How do you find working in a business that’s so transient, when you are dealing with slow fashion? You have to be very patient! Don't let yourself get wrapped up in the panic. You have to stop and say enough is enough now, we’ve done as much as we can and that shape will carry over for next season. Sometimes you can be so far ahead of yourself that you can meet yourself coming back.
Certainly with my old label (Conscious Earthwear) there’d be something that I’d be doing far too early and then we’d have to do them again the next season, because we’d panicked ourselves into doing something really futuristic and people weren’t ready for it yet. I am learning to let things breathe, that’s been my big design lesson, give it the weekend and see how you feel about it on Monday.
Before I held on to an idea so tightly that no energy could come to it and then suddenly I’d crushed it. That’s the difference I am giving to this business compared to the previous one.
How do you approach designing for Ciel in the context of the traditional fashion industry and seasonal trends? This season I’ve been thinking about what women actually buy and what they want. I am thinking more about lifestyles. I think Ciel is developing more into a lifestyle brand. It’s about how we live our lives and what we have to do as social beings. What we’re looking for in our clothing. That’s been my starting point.
I am trying to create classic pieces. The thing about a classic is that it has to be a little bit innovative and original to start with in order to become a classic. Making something really simple is actually the hardest thing to do. It's much easier to make something over the top with every single idea chucked on it.
Is there anyone or anything in particular that that inspires you? I have some muses that I look to. I see who they are and how they live their lives.
Are these friends of yours or celebrity muses? No, I am talking about friends who have a unique style. I love the way they put things together and pull out the things that make them shine.
Do you have to worry about trends in the way that other designers might concerned about what is ‘this season’ or ‘next season’? We still have to be aware of what’s going on. Fashion is about experimenting with style and creating a unique statement and that’s what we’ve always done, throughout history. It’s about taking the temperature of what’s going on. Now we’re looking back to things that emphasise the waist again and I do look at that.
I think about what I am doing in quite a holistic way. I'm thinking about coastal living, what we do when we’re on holiday, what kind of things we need for that. It’s all about letting your guard down, being a bit more relaxed and enjoying your life, hanging out with your family or loved ones; having some fun.
As Ciel grows and you sell more in the US and more in Europe what are the biggest challenges for you in keeping it all sustainable? It’s the supply chain and the manufacturing. We’ve worked really hard this season on getting our orders in on time, working with our suppliers, setting deadlines and really sticking to them. I’ve taken on someone to help me manage that, because I can’t cope with doing it all on my own. Natalie's really good at keeping us on track and not letting anything slip through the net.
Can you give us an example? Well I am quite flexible and will often say, well we can get something done by Monday, but she’ll be like, no we have to do that by Thursday because we need to ship it. Nat is also really great because she is technical and understands every process of clothes design and making. The factories love working with her because she can explain everything in a very simple way.
We’ve now also started doing two deliveries instead of just one. Before when latecomers put orders we would add that to the existing production which would make everyone else’s late. Now first buyers will get their order on time and those that come late will be in the second drop 4 to 6 weeks later.
We’re also working with more stitching units, so we’re not relying on one manufacturer to do everything for us and then being overloaded. We identify which units are most suited to which products and have them deal with one fabric. We’ve learned a lot about managing the supply chain. I already knew quite a lot of course, but the last time I was working with a manufacturer who also distributed it for me, so I didn’t have worry about any of that, now I am a bit more grass roots with it.
Which system do you prefer? I don’t know. I guess at some stage we will have to work with a producer/supplier who will also be able to do those sorts of things for us again, but at the moment, whilst we’re building the business, this is how we’re doing it. Even if we do work with another supplier in that way it’s still nice to have smaller units that you can work with, that can produce the small specialist pieces.
I’m happy. I feel like we’re building good strong foundations.
What are your plans for Ciel during the year ahead? I am excited because we’ve had a big quantum leap in terms of working with agents and the potential of that is really going to impact out business. That’s the next stage for us: selling to more stores in America, in the UK and in Scandinavia. That is our focus. I think that’s enough for now. We’ve been approached to open up in other markets, but I think it’s wise just to deal with this and not over stretch ourselves.
Thank you for talking to TreeHugger Sarah. Congratulations for being so influential in the development of the UK ethical fashion movement. We wish Ciel all the best for the future and of course we're looking forward to seeing next season's beautiful creations.