“My business is going to fold. I’m going to have to file for bankruptcy. This is a business that is supporting me, my husband and our daughter. What are we going to do?”
Spring was not a lot of fun for anyone, but for Georgia Larsen, it was downright terrifying. Having built her lingerie brand, Dora Larsen, from the ground up over the course of four years, by April, it was at risk of closure.
While much has been written about the bad behaviour of our multinational, high street brands and the impact of their cancelled orders on manufacturers in developing nations, the effects of their decisions on smaller independent firms has somehow remained largely under wraps. It was, Larsen says, devastating. Having stood by her own fabric and stock commitments, the cancellation of orders from her stockists suddenly left her staring, overnight, down a financial black hole.
“We had so many cancellations from our retailers, we had no income. We were so scared, because we had all this stock that we had made and paid for, for them. I think we were very lucky that we were able to sell it all direct to consumer – the lingerie market has been buoyant. But I know a lot of businesses have gone bust because of having no cash flow.”
While keeping the business afloat was a relief, Larsen says it left her with a conundrum. No longer able to square her growth strategy with the industry realities she’d witnessed during lockdown, she decided the time was ripe for a whole new approach. “I think reaching such a scary point in my life basically made me realise what’s important, what actually matters.”
Now, as the brand shifts its focus away from wholesale and onto building direct consumer relationships, sustainability has become the mission. And, refreshingly, she’s committed herself to being fully transparent about the process.
“Whereas I think in the past, I was very much focused on winning new wholesale accounts and growing business,” Larsen admits, “now I’m like, what’s the point unless you’re making a positive impact?
“We don’t have a positive environmental impact at the moment because, to be completely frank, it’s impossible to have a positive environmental impact when you’re creating new product. But we’re doing everything that we can, and I really hope the business becomes a bit of an education platform for others to be inspired and to take more of an interest in sustainability.”
Over recent weeks, the practices of brands that purport to be ethical, and the anger consumers feel over greenwashing and wokewashing, has come to the fore. It’s a shift in attitude that Larsen says she’s undergone alongside consumers.
“The coronavirus crisis made so many of us realise that we don’t live in a world that is set up perfectly, where everything runs smoothly and we’re all happy. I’d always been passionate about sustainability, but for me it took it to the next level.
“I had to be really honest about why it hadn’t always been my focus and I think my attitude was always that I’m not, as an individual, going to have an impact. It’s just me. The world is massive. But what this year has shown is that we all have this massive impact, often without even realising it. Lockdown proved that, when everyone acts at the same time, suddenly overnight, there can be huge change.”
For Larsen, that meant going back to basics. Not taking an easy route, but instead unpicking every aspect of the business, weighing up the pros and cons of every fabric, every dye, every freighting and delivery option. And speaking openly about the challenges it entails.
Having previously worked, unhappily, for high street giant Topshop, Larsen says the shift towards rental and second-hand shopping in the wider fashion industry is to be welcomed. But with lingerie, new will always win – meaning that her product has to find the balance between sustainability and longevity, ensuring customers invest in products built to last. This, she says, is the tricky part.
“We looked into natural dyes, but often the colour is lost after a few washes, at which point the customer would probably throw the item away. That doesn’t work. Your organic cotton has to transport itself from outside of the UK – that doesn’t work. We are trying to move as many fabrics over to being at least recycled or from natural organic fabrics, but the problem with recycled is that you have to knit it from scratch, then you have to reach a minimum, and the minimums are always huge. And there’s a lot of already made fabric that needs to be used.
“So it’s about engaging with every part of the process and trying to make these decisions to do as much as you can at that point. And then setting yourself targets to see how you can adapt and evolve in the future. And I think that’s the thing that frustrates me about brands that claim to be really sustainable, but are likely facing the same issues. It’s great that you’re doing the best that you can do, but you’re not totally sustainable when you’re still producing stuff. The main sustainable thing all of us can do is to stop consuming so much.
“I’ve seen a lot of greenwashing by brands thinking that they can just say, ‘Oh, this fabric was going to go to waste. We’ve done a small collection. Look. Now we are sustainable.’ And it’s not enough. We need customers to call the shots, to challenge brands. What are you doing with your logistics? What are you doing with your house process, your factory processes, your dying? That’s why it’s important for me to feel like we educate our customers as much as we possibly can, and hold our hands up to areas where we could be better.”
Growing in confidence
From a personal perspective, this learning curve is proving enlightening to Larsen, who admits she has struggled with self-doubt and imposter syndrome.
“To be honest, the reason I set up was because I was so unhappy at Topshop. I left and I didn’t know what to do. I was thinking, shall I be a florist? I literally had no idea. And then I suppose I reached the conclusion that the one thing that I really know the most about and I’m the most passionate about is lingerie. I remember thinking that I would be very happy if I was able to earn myself a salary where I could still get by, and being really scared when we employed our first person.
“My confidence had taken such a battering over five years of essentially being made to feel like my ideas weren’t good. I wasn’t creative enough. I wasn’t this, that, or the other. And I think that it had knocked me down to such a level that I didn’t think I was capable of making a success out of the business. So, it was great to realise that was wrong and actually, once you put your heart to something and you’re given the freedom, you can achieve more than you might be told in whatever institution you come from.”
While her success might have taken her by surprise, the love that customers feel for the brand is clear. Why does she think it has connected so well with the women it serves? By combining comfort with aesthetics, she says. “I think, traditionally, this idea that bras should be these kind of corsets, where your boobs are literally shoved up, that’s outdated now. Actually, they don’t need to be like that. I think innately, I also thought it was completely mad that nobody was going above the D-cup. Our bigger cup sizes sell really well for us.
“Basically, I think we’re making women feel good about themselves, and not like they have to be sex objects, or that they have to be just consumers and nothing else.”
Today, while a looming second lockdown is a worry, Larsen is confident that her new approach will stand the brand in good stead to weather the storm. The juggle of combining running the business with caring for her 22-month-old daughter has also, she said, helped her to maintain some perspective and hope.
“We don’t have childcare. My mum does help out, but obviously through lockdown we didn’t have any help and we were trying to save the business, while putting on a smile every day with her. It’s been an insane ride. But when you’ve got a child around the place, it makes you realise what’s important. Changing the direction of our business, trying to see the bright side of it all while whole world is changing at the same time, it’s a challenge. But it’s also making the future really interesting.”
Read more about Dora Larsen’s journey to sustainability, and shop the range, here.