Esse the Label: Curiosity in Sustainability

On the surface it seems as if the general Singaporean doesn’t hold sustainability in high regard, alternatively looking to support local, homegrown brands. However, conscious events and social enterprises are popping up more rapidly than usual and it seems that sustainable fashion almost has a cult following in Singapore. Alicia from Esse the Label sees education as the answer to making consumers more conscious. She has noticed with her customers that when she started to bring to light the process behind the garments, they started to get curious and ask more questions. In this discussion with Alicia we find out more about supporting local skills and communities and building a connection with our clothes.

How and why did you end up starting your own brand?

I think it was for multiple reasons, so when I first started it was because I was very passionate about fashion, and I really wanted to kind of have my own label. As I delved deeper, as I started working with all the suppliers and seeing how I guess the fashion industry actually works from the supply chain end. It really kind of inspired me to look at the processes and see how I can actually really find them and improve on them. I guess it’s multiple things, so like personally as well I was quite jaded with the fast fashion industry and the fact that people had kind of lost that connection and meaning of their clothes. I myself also kind of went through that period where you know I was like looking at my clothes and just buying them for trend related reasons as opposed to buying them because I had a special connection with them. That was one of the reasons, so I kind of wanted to merge all of that together, like the process and how it can be improved and I guess from the consumer’s end, how they can find meaning and develop relationships with their clothes. It kind of led me to building Esse.

Do you do any pattern cutting yourself?

I just do the design. I do know pattern cutting and how to construct clothes. I learned it in university for about three years, but personally I’m still not very confident that I can actually do it yet. My tailor in Vietnam and Malaysia manage that, and I just work with actually doing the designing and coming up with the technical drawings and the measuremen

What are some of your business core values?

I would say it’s four main things, one would be thoughtful designs, where basically I look at the design from a more user centric point of view, rather than working based on trends. I look at how the clothes can be very functional, and can fit into people’s lives. So for example the two piece suit that we have, I wanted to make it look like a jumpsuit, because a lot of my customers always say that they want a jumpsuit but it was really troublesome to get into one or get out of one. I have conversations with customers and see how that can be translated into design. The next one would be sustainable fabrics, I guess that area touches on the aspect of lowering our impact on the environment. By using sustainable fabrics, it either has less carbon footprint, or the methods used to produce it are less polluting, as opposed to normal fabrics like polyester and cotton. And then the third one would be transparency or respecting the people ho actually make the clothes. I think they’re always the most, they’re probably the people who always get forgotten when people buy the clothes because it’s, people think it’s really easy to make them or machines make them. Actually every piece of clothing goes through so many pairs of hands. I guess showcasing these people and putting them in the spotlight. Lastly I think it would be reducing waste and improving processes. I think by bringing these three other points together, it’s really looking at the entire supply chain and seeing how I can reduce waste, create the best product so that it actually has a longer life cycle and it stays in the closet for a longer time.

How did you come to use tailors in Vietnam and Malaysia?

So in Vietnam it was pretty organic, my friend owns a lingerie business and she found the lady and recommended me to her. I visited her space which is in a shophouse, and I thought it was really nice. It’s not a mass production line, and you kind of know everyone who makes the clothes. I felt like that was the right fit and we just started working together. For my tailor in Malaysia it was also through word of mouth. He actually makes shoe bags. The first time I met my supplier in Malaysia, we spoke for like 6 hours, it was from like tea all the way to supper, so it was a really long conversation. I really liked him, he’s been in the fashion industry for like 30 years so he knows the ins and outs and he’s much older so he has a lot of experience, he’s very traditional in terms of tailoring, he believes in quality as opposed to churning out fast fashion, so he’s very meticulous. That was one of the qualities that really drew me to working with him.

What do you think about the sustainable fashion scene in Singapore, do you have any thoughts? 

I’m really interested in how it’s growing and how people are reacting to it. I would say it’s still a pretty young, small community and group of people here, but in the past two to three years it’s definitely been growing. There’s Green Is The New Black now, Fashion Revolution is so much more active in terms of the number of events. I think it’s slowly growing. In terms of the consumer, I think there is still a lot of education still to be done. I actually did a survey with my customers in terms of what they would rank as the most important, that affects the buying decision, and price and design are top and sustainability is right at the bottom. So I was like “okay, fair enough” I think when we shop, we definitely have to look at price and design as well. I felt that even though many of my customers think that price and design are at the top it’s good that I’m approaching it from a sustainable angle so it helps to educate people and make them aware. There’s a lot more brands now, I think Matter Prints was leading the way, but there are a lot of small local brands coming up and I think Singaporeans in general are a bit more supportive of local brands, which even though they may not be sustainable it’s always a good thing to support local. Definitely, I think it’s a step towards the right direction.

You kind of get people to start making it a habit, including it in their thought process.

Is it an important for your customers to know about the process and where everything is made?

Yep, I try to include that message in the product description. Initially a lot of customers buy based on design, but what I realised is when I actually talk where the products are made or what it’s made of, then they get more curious and start asking me questions. What I’m seeing now is that most of my regular customers they will usually ask me ‘where’s this made’ or ‘what’s this made of’. I think it’s quite interesting, you kind of get people to start making it a habit, including it in their thought process.

What made you decide to use reclaimed fabrics?

To be honest half of it was a business decision because it’s really hard to actually get sustainable fabrics and usually the MOQ (minimum order quantity) is pretty high. So for a small brand sometimes it’s like impossible to get a hold of these fabrics. When I was in Vietnam I was actually walking around the fabric markets and I saw that there were a lot of small fabric suppliers who were selling fabrics, so I asked my tailor and she said these people are actually buy or collect the fabrics from the bigger factories and then they sell them. So I thought why not use these fabrics because if it doesn’t get used, it might end up in a landfill. It’s also about supporting the local community there.

Is this studio space an important part of your business, so customers to be able to come and see the clothes?

It’s actually still a very new idea, I think I’ve had three sessions so I open it up only on the weekends. It’s been good because people have been coming by and trying the pieces and it allows me to tell them a bit more about the pieces and they can really feel and touch the fabrics and see what the differences are. So I guess I’ll keep trying this out until the point where I see that I can actually have a physical retail space.

Was there a specific thing that made you lean towards looking for handmade fabrics, and organisations that support artisans?

Part of it was because I wanted to work with women who are in the industry, and support and artisan trade because handloom fabrics are quite rare now and I think it’s probably a dying trade. That was one of the reasons I wanted to use it, to showcase how it can be used in clothes, how it can be made modern again. I guess traditionally if you look at handloom fabrics they look a bit more traditionally woven and handmade so they don’t really get used in modern and classic designs, so I wanted to incorporate that. The other reason is to support the artisan community and women who are trying to make a living and move away from farming and fishing practices and pick up the skill. It’s a win win so you get to showcase the fabric in a different way, but at the same time you get to give back to the community. Hopefully keep the trade alive.

Could you share a bit more about the manufacturing practices in Vietnam and in Malaysia? 

What have they been doing previously, have they been working with small brands before or worked with slow fashion?So for Vietnam she works mainly with small, local Vietnamese brands and she has a couple of international brands. I think in terms of supporting slow fashion, they don’t say it because they are a small studio, but they don’t really use machinery so everything is really by hand, other than using a sewing machine. Cutting up fabrics, pattern grading and everything is by hand and using very traditional tailoring techniques. In that sense production is a bit slower and it really is handmade which is a part of the slow fashion movement. Sustainability wise for them it’s hard to track because there are so many big companies with certifications, because they are a small outfit it’s not really possible and profitable to go after these certifications. Because they source the fabrics locally, they only have a team of 5 who actually sew, so in terms of carbon impact it’s not as much as a huge factory. That is how I see that they are sustainable.

For Malaysia, it’s pretty similar, it’s a slightly bigger outfit so they do have machines and computers to help to the pattern grading. For sustainability one thing is true so quality assurance, my supplier was like ‘I don’t like doing samples more than once’. He is quite meticulous, so he’s like I wanna just do it once, get it right, reduce the wastage. In terms of fabrics, he has these systems where he can lay out the patterns so he reduces fabric off cuts. It’s a team of thirty, so they are not at a level where they want to or can apply for all these certifications.

I have conversations with customers and see how that can be translated into design

written and photographed by Jennie Barck