Sustainability | “We cannot continue to produce and sell fashion the way it has been done so far.” - Q&A with Soumountha Keophilavong
Sustainability is part of our lives in many ways now. As for fashion, customers express a desire to consume less, or even better!
We talked to Soumountha Keophilavong, the cofounder of Another Garde, with Celine Chaleat Zito. A timeless brand of chic and comfortable clothings, with a little "I don’t know what" (in a 360° concept). This brand is built for a new generation of women who do not apologize for being there as they are and made by designers who conceive fashion differently.
French Wink : How was the concept of your brand born?
Soumountha K. : When I moved to NYC in 2010, I got pregnant pretty quickly with twins. Then I went on to my third surprise pregnancy. It was a period of huge changes. I am 5’05 feet and I gained 66-88 pounds. I was struggling as a mother to take care of my 3 babies. I changed 24 diapers a day, it was just horrific. Our whole family was in France, so it was very complicated at this time.
My perception of myself has changed enormously and I was losing the essence of who I was. I was in crisis. I thought “Nothing fits me anymore. I’m not myself anymore”. And I was looking around and I could not find anything that fit me. So I started looking for independent brands, made more likely by female designers. I have noticed that it is mostly women who understand the best women’s bodies. The need to be feminine, classy and kick ass, but not wearing heels. I was not in fashion but I was always interested in making it. I always looked at second hand.
So I created my multi-brand shop, Another Garde, and developed my collection as well. I use my body to create patterns, because it is a real body, having already its own story. It is totally a part of Another Garde’s DNA. Then I realized there was a need of personal styling services. Because our clients are often women who are in transition, as I was when I created my company, with their body and career, or even hormonal transition.
Some of our clients’ children have gone to college. The mothers have more time for themselves. So we have to understand where they are, what they want to show. These women of 45-65 years have no obvious models, in terms of representation. So we developed a clothing styling service for them.
There is a great sustainable side to Another Garde…
Yes, indeed. While I was doing all of this, I realized that I could no longer run after the fashion calendar. It was not what I wanted knowing that garments are thrown away roughly after being worn less than 7 times. That is too much. It makes my heart ache.
We do not make discounts and slash prices, because we have chosen to be on the long term. But on the other hand, we offer a personalized styling service. When a client buys one of our tunics, she can wear it to her sister-in-law’s wedding, at work, on weekends with good jeans... We are trying to make sure that this outfit is used as much as possible.
At the end of January 2020, we have launched a clothing upcycling service, which is currently being paused due to Covid19 confinement. The idea is that I am going to the client’s home with a seamstress. I look at all the pieces that the client does not use and we offer from simple to extensive retouching: turning a skirt into a short pants when the skirt does not work or a pair of pants that kind of secretary style when you start your career at 25 and is no longer suiting you when you are 45. It allows you to reuse the clothes to avoid them going to the trash or staying unused in the closet.
What are consumers' expectations about upcycling? What have you noticed?
I think the mentality is changing… In 2020, NYC made for the second year a Refashion Week, dedicated to upcycling.
But we still have to train customers to understand the value of keeping clothes longer. We are talking about repurposing. Because when you buy an item 200 or 300 dollars, if you wear it once a week, the cost of wearing the garment will be less than the clothes that you bought 30 dollars but that you wore twice before throwing it away.
We know that fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world, because of all the chemicals that are used.
This point of view has emerged for me over the years. That is real now. We cannot continue to produce and sell fashion the way it has been done so far.
At Another Garde we have a sustainable approach, which is also linked to the personalized and custom made clothing we offer to our clients. They are our two pillars.
My typical clientele invested in beautiful clothes, in beautiful fabric (this is the most expensive). It is a waste to throw that away and I cannot bear it. There is a reason why she keeps this garment. Often she cannot explain why but it could be there for a sentimental reason, or perhaps she has saved a lot to buy it or it was a gift. So we bring it up to date, we redesign it. And we mix it with new clothes that the customer buys from us.
What is your customer profile?
We call them “rebel hearts”. They are women who, whatever their position, have always had a non-conforming side. It could be the «tomboy boy» of 40 years ago or the woman who is a banker now but who was in a rock band when she was 20.
In that case, the uniform she wears on a day-to-day basis may not correspond to who she is truly.
For example, I have a client who wears suits, she is a business partner of her company. But she feels a little off because she has not gone through Ivy League schools like everyone else around her. If so she could have a little offbeat side but she does not necessarily show it in everyday life, even though craving to do it. So I advised her to try to wear suits very well cut, but ivory-colored. The client looked at me with round eyes and said, “Are you kidding?”. But in the end, it worked very well for her.
How is it to do business in New York?
What is good about New York is that there is a complete eco-system when it comes to business creation, as more or less free resources, support, networking. People are quite generous with their contacts.
And about fashion projects, you can do almost anything in the city. Because you have factories in the Garnement District. You have a lot of agents that deal with fabric imports.
You can produce very fast, in one or two weeks, small quantities.
What is harder in New York is that there are many entrepreneurs and brands which makes it very competitive. It is not easy to stand out. You have to have a solid mindset. You are so exposed that if you do not know basically what you believe in and the reason you get up in the morning as an entrepreneur, do not even try.
It requires you to adjust quite a bit too. It means that you have an idea at the very beginning, which you have to adapt according to the feedbacks you will receive. For example, I started with a multi-brand shop and then we evolved by adding our own clothing line and now a styling and tailoring service. So we need this agility, while being very solid in terms of our DNA, our added value.
In New York, there is such a buzz around you all the time, a lot of noise, that your vision can quickly drift away.
So there is a balance to be found.
I launched my company at the end of 2015, and I had to readjust things several times. Here, people are always very positive. In difficult times, they will tend to say “Don’t give up, it’s great what you do. It’s normal that it takes time.” They also have a certain realism about success.
What would be your feedback as a female CEO?
Maybe because I have worked with a lot of feminist organizations, I never thought it was a burden to be a woman in general.
However, I can see that there are still fewer companies created by women, with external funding. Statistics are there to remind us it. And when you are a woman of color, it is even worse. It is less than 2%. Because there is still a misconception that a company created by a woman is the little local shop that will never be profitable. There is a somewhat unhealthy systemic aspect. I know that many organizations are trying to change that. It takes time.
I had to learn to stop apologizing for nothing and for everything. I did it before and I do not do it anymore. I have the feeling that women often apologize too much. With sentences that start with: “Well, it’s not perfect, but that’s what I’m proposing...” I have learned for the last four years not to do it anymore. Because men do not do it, even when their suggestion is totally bad. Women deserve to be here in the room.
On a day-to-day basis, when I empirically compare the male and female entrepreneurs around me, I find that more often in female entrepreneurship, there are no barriers between private, family and professional lives. I am a typical example of that. So it has both positive and negative aspects, but it remains a challenge.
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