How to start an ethical fashion brand? It is a question on every fashionable social entrepreneurs lips. The journey is often long, meandering and fraught with obstacles along the way. This is not, however, to say that starting an ethical fashion brand is an impossible endeavour!
I initially met Anna when I was waiting for my phone to be repaired and happened to come across the Bottle Tops store on Regents Street. I was already familiar with the brand and had seen images of the futuristic shop floor on Instagram, but I was not aware that Bottle Tops was located here in central London! Anna is a former lawyer, but she now works both as the Store Manager for Bottle Tops, an accessories brand utilising waste material and also as a Chartered Fashion Marketer for philanthropic fashion brand SEP Jordan, working with refugees primarily in the Jerash camp in Gaza. Today I was meeting with Anna over pistachio chocolate and Arabic Karak tea to learn more about her work with SEP.
SEP Jordan was founded on the idea of combining Middle Eastern craftsmanship with Italian heritage (where Anna and her cousin Roberta, the founder and CEO of SEP are from). The brand creating luxurious hand-embroidered scarves and clutch bags aims to help foster opportunities and enrich skills for some of those most hard hit by loss, suffering and brutality. SEP started out working with twenty refugees and now provides work opportunities and training for more than three hundred in the Jerash camp in Palestine. Anna laughs as she tells me about the initial struggle to build trust with the refugees only to have more and more women knocking at their door to ask, 'What is going on here?'
I was curious that Anna works both at a contemporary accessories brand with silver bottle tops making it to the front lines, as well as an artisanal brand specialising in traditional hand-embroidered Middle Eastern Kuffyieh scarves. This eclectic mix is crystallised in the two-years in the making SEP pop-up at the Bottle Tops store on Regents Street on Wednesday 20th June. As I met Anna in store, I witnessed the ladies draping delicately embroidered scarves on to protruding 3D printed walls, that along with the metal cans painting ethereal curves across the store ceiling define the futuristic aesthetic of Bottle Tops. For the three-day pop-up appropriately launching on World Refugee Day, the ladies have joined forces with the UNHCR to create a quintessentially SEP velvet hand-embroidered clutch (see below).
What amazed me about SEP is the scale of its impact. Ethical fashion is dubbed as niche, which is, for the most part, true, but hearing that SEP works with three-hundred refugees was truly inspiring. Just pause on that for a moment- three hundred people! SEP has now expanded to work with Syrian alongside Palestinian refugees in the Jerash camp. Anna laughs as she tells me about the time she proposed to the women at the Jerash camp that SEP started working with Syrian refugees. The women at Jerash responded with defiance arguing that 'We are SEP', but soon came to realise that working with Syrian refugees would be a great opportunity that would similarly benefit others. In fact, the women at the Jerash camp in Palestine now train Syrian refugees in the skills required to make the high-quality accessories designed by the brand. The SEP foundation created to foster the sharing of artisanal skills across cultural frontiers trains refugees and invests in the development of the women's skills, meaning that efforts can be transferred and utilised in other endeavours if the women happen to relocate. SEP thereby helps provide a future for those who have had their lives shattered by war and oppression.
Anna says that the biggest challenge when starting the brand was establishing trust with the refugees in the initial stages. The founders of SEP did not connect with refugees through an established collective or NGO but set out on foot to find skilled refugees who would be interested in working with the brand to create beautiful scarves and accessories. This was a challenge as refugees were often sceptical of Anna and Roberta, not natives of the area or officially affiliated with an organisation, but the relationship proved to be fruitful in the long-term. Anna and Roberta learned that when looking to form long-term relationships with manufacturers, you cannot put pressure on an already fragile living situation. For instance, when SEP sought to work with Syrian refugees, many told the brand that they cannot commit to the project as they hope to be back home in Syria a year from now. Anna informs me that it is important to accept peoples hopes and beliefs, even if these hopes are unlikely to be realised in such a short time frame.
Another challenge was working in a region that was defined by interpersonal relationships that diverge significantly from those that we experience in 'the west'. SEP has a project coordinator Mahmoud who was a refugee at the Jerash camp and purchases materials in the city. He is familiar with the culture and has no problems buying items or negotiating prices as a man. However, prior to Mahmoud's employment two ladies purchased supplies for SEP, but this led to organisational problems as unfortunately and unfairly the women were not taken seriously as buyers when it came to negotiating costs and lead times with suppliers. As obvious as it sounds it is important to take cultural differences into account when starting a new brand in a different part of the world. Anna advised me that connecting with a native of the area who can consult a brand throughout its operation is invaluable.
I was interested in how SEP manages to pay their workers living wages and create a strong support network, and still thrive as a business. To ensure that workers are getting paid fairly, the brand worked with NGO's to figure out living wages and assessed industry pay rates in the area. SEP, in fact, pays the refugees they employ 30-50% more than the current industry standards in Palestine. From more of a health and safety point of view, Anna informed me that the women are paid per-roll instead of hours worked as SEP realised that spending too many hours hand-embroidering close-up caused eye-sight problems for the women. Nawal, the project manager, knows how long it takes to make a specific item, so if women are going through rolls too quickly, they are told to slow down as not to damage their eyes.
Regarding organisational structure, Anna believes that the operation would be impossible were there not organisers based full time in the Jerash camp in Palestine. In fact, Nawal lives just above the workshop owned by the brand, meaning that monitoring the working conditions in the factory is not a problem. The women can choose to work from home and come to the workshop for quality control checks or work, laugh, socialise and bring their children to the workshop with them, giving the ladies flexibility and ease to take advantage of employment opportunities.
I was particularly curious about how SEP communicates the work they are doing to their stakeholders. When undertaking a development project, it is hard to escape the irony of presenting yourself as a western European 'coming to the rescue', when historically 'the west' has played a fundamental role in creating war and conflict that we see in the area that we call the Middle East today. Anna says it is a challenge as you have to show the products but at the same time demonstrate the socially positive impact that the brand is making. SEP tries to achieve a balance by including images of their products on their Instagram feed but showing the women who make the products on their stories as well as providing more detailed information on their website. The brand lenses in on the products and the refugees who make their accessories, instead of presenting themselves as figures at the forefront of the brand. I feel that this level of objectivity is what makes the narrative that SEP presents seem authentic and compels customers to invest in the brand.
Anna says that she has no regrets when starting SEP apart from maybe slowing things down and learning how to say no. She recalls that when setting up a fashion brand it is tempting to say yes to everything, but for efforts to be valuable, it is essential to consider that starting a successful brand is contingent on more than simply effort, quality and exposure. While it may be exciting to collaborate with that pop-up or take up a stand at a trade-show, other factors such as footfall and costs vs opportunities have to be factored into the equation.
I want to finish with a big thanks to Anna for sharing her insight with the ethical fashion community.