How to Create a Successful Sustainable Knitwear Brand
Starting a business is one of the toughest things you can do. And when your goal is to work as ethically as you can, suddenly your workload doubles: additional hours researching accredited production, visiting your factories, hounding companies for certifications - it's undoubtedly a must, but no one can deny that it adds to an already full workload. So who better than Bronwyn Lowenthal, founder and design director of Lowie, to tell us about how she went about setting up and sustaining this hugely successful and beautiful knitwear brand.
Since 2003, Bronwyn has been building Lowie, a knitwear brand based on social and environmental kindness. She describes the brand as "heritage inspired but with a fashion edge", making conventionally non-knitted products into knitted ones and incorporating hand-knitting, including crochet, macramé and embroidery into her designs. As a business woman myself, the thought of incorporating hand-knitting into a fashion brand is intimidating - the logistical, operational nightmare of sourcing, lead times, cost and quality control would be enormous. So you can see why I was particularly keen to see just how Bronwyn manages it. Building a brand is difficult enough, but in my book, a brand based on knitwear, particularly hand knitting, adds a whole new level.
But enough from me, here's my interview with Bronwyn, with some incredible tips on building a successful, sustainable knitwear brand.
What makes Lowie different?
We’re heritage inspired but with a fashion edge. We often try to make items out of knit that wouldn’t traditionally be knitted and we use lots of handknitting as well as other hand crafts like crochet, embroidery and macramé. For next winter we have a focus on plaits! Watch this space.
What drives your desire to be ethical?
I grew up in Tasmania which is a big island state in the south of Australia. Most of the island is covered by incredible wilderness and so I’ve always been conscious that we need to preserve the natural beauty of the world. And of course looking after other people is just a nice thing to do. We’re all in this together so we may as well make (keep) it as good as possible. It makes sense.
Sourcing raw materials and production ethically is a huge task. Where do you start with sourcing your raw materials and production?
I’m lucky in that my knitwear manufacturers have contacts to source organic cotton and it’s now much more available than it was when I started 12 years ago. Good quality organic wool can be quite expensive and we’re still searching for one that’s affordable. Ethical production can be a minefield but as long as you can go and visit the people who are making your product you will soon see if they seem happy in their environment and if there’s enough light, good sanitation. If the workers seem unhappy then there’s something wrong.
How did you start your label?
I started selling at Portobello and Spitalfields markets and took my first wholesale orders from shops coming to the market. At first I was selling traditional Turkish knitwear and sold into Topshop and House of Fraser and then the next year I started to design my own collections and got them hand knitted in Turkish villages.
How did you go about raising capital to start out and to grow?
I received a £3000 low interest business loan from The Princes Trust which helped to fund buying a market stall at Portobello. Learn more from Sunwise Capital about low interest loans.
From a business perspective, handmade can be risky. Do you ever have any problems with this?
Sometimes quality ‘mistakes’ can actually be good but one does need to be vigilant. My current producers of hand knits make beautiful quality pieces but it doesn’t go according to plan every time. As with all knitwear the lead times are a lot longer than with woven pieces where you can just cut and sew and hand knits take even longer of course.
On a day-to-day basis what’s the most challenging thing about running a business?
Keeping the momentum up and realising the need to change when you might get attached to an idea. It’s important to have other people around to bounce off and test ideas. We share our studio with a few other creative businesses: a fashion PR, another fashion brand, a graphic designer and a photographer. It helps all of us to keep creative and push ourselves.
What has been the biggest lesson you have you learnt?
Keep doing what works and know who you are as a brand. There is no point trying to chase the high street. You need to offer something different.
If you started it all again, what would you do differently?
I would most likely have given up the markets earlier to concentrate on my wholesale business. But I think everything happens for a reason and the way I’ve done it worked for me at the time.
What final piece of advice would you give other designers trying to start and maintain a successful sustainable knitwear brand like Lowie?
A brand is only sustainable if it sustains you. If at first you don’t succeed then keep trying. A determined and enthusiastic person who believes in themselves will be an inspiration to everyone around and customers will buy into that.
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