Dalbir Bains knows a thing or two about fast fashion – and about its downfall.
Having worked with brands including BHS and House of Fraser back in their pre-digital High Street heydays, she’s more than familiar with the machinations of mass market style. More recently, she’s also helped international online names such as Zalando claim huge swathes of the customer base that once stepped into those brick and mortar stores. She is, in short, a style stalwart. She has also, she believes, assembled a crack team able to answer fashion’s biggest quandary – can ethics and sustainability ever co-exist with affordability at scale?
In short, yes, says Bain – and it’s really not as difficult as many fashion bosses would have us believe. Her new online-only brand, Aligne, launched its first collection last February – hitting the ground running, she laughs wryly, before sprinting straight into a pandemic.
Its mission is simple: to make affordable, desirable clothes that focus equally heavily on style and sustainability. Is that even feasible, I ask?
“I think the reality is, people think it’s a bigger problem than it actually is,” she smiles. “If you’re an existing traditional business, and you’ve always bought goods that are not sustainable, sometimes the thought of moving this big juggernaut around to become a sustainable business seems huge. People think it’s going to be so problematic, and so expensive, and the customers aren’t going to want to pay.
“Every business looking forward at trends and direction is also looking backwards at its sales history, and at what its customers have wanted to buy historically. People get very nervous about whether they’ll be able to retain business at higher price points.
“I think what’s been happening is some people have tried to market sustainability in a really exaggerated way from a price point perspective. I think that’s wrong, and I think that’s also not fair. Because it leaves people really scared to get into sustainability because they think it will be really expensive.”
The digital takeover
Given Bains’ CV, her take on fashion’s future has arguably never been more pertinent. With the news that ASOS plans to take Topshop wholly digital, the High Street’s death knell is increasingly sounding like a ringing till to the online giants.
More concerning to many is that super-fast fashion giant Boohoo is now in late stage talks to take over Debenhams, despite its very recent involvement in the Leicester labour scandal. Behind the brouhaha of big money buyouts, the question on many minds is, will ethics even get a look in?
“I think that when [the Boohoo scandal] happened in March, I was just disappointed it had taken so long,” Bains says, thoughtfully. “Because I used to always say to people that, when you are producing garments out of the UK at low price points, it doesn’t take a genius to do the math. You work out the cost of the fabric, the cost of the production, and the minimum wage, and then the market that you need to sell the goods, and you automatically can work out that one thing in that equation doesn’t make sense. You can’t get the fabric or the cost of logistics down, so in the end it must be the minimum wage being impacted. So, I think a lot of people have turned a blind eye to this for a really long time, because the information has been right in front of us for the ages.
“I did think in March that there would be an investigation that would be so thorough, that this whole idea of the industry operating in this way would be questioned. I thought that there would be a bigger impact, and I feel there was a lot of noise. What I’m a bit sad about now was it feels like it was only amplified because of the COVID situation. People only became interested in the story because their community may have been impacted by Leicester’s problems. So, it’s like everybody engaged because life was very emotional at that stage. The minute the panic flattened out and COVID came down a bit, albeit temporarily, so too did the story, in a way.”
Now, she says, it’s the job of the industry at large to ensure such scandals can’t be repeated. “The way I see it, I think it’s really important for every retailer, including those carrying brands on their website such as ASOS and Zalando, to question where product comes from. I don’t think you need to delve too deep to see which partners actually have a fair and sustainable strategy and which ones don’t. It’s not only on the brands to do the right thing, but also the people that carry those brands to make sure that they set standards and don’t let brands doing the wrong thing onto their platforms.”
When it comes to Aligne, Bains’ outlook is optimistic, despite the twin threats of Brexit and COVID making futureproofing nigh on impossible. The reception from consumers, she says, has been tremendous, while even factories who initially balked at the firm’s sustainability requirements have come back within the year to rethink.
“What we did is just said from the get-go, let’s just start off with certain principles. Let’s just go from the very first day and say, we’re just never going to consider anything below a certain level of sustainability. We went into factories and said, ‘Look, we’re only interested in sustainable merchandise.’ And yes, there is a surcharge, there is a little bit more that you pay, but it’s not as much as people think, and actually a lot of those factories are happy to work with us to produce in smaller numbers, as they look at us as the type of brand that can show bigger brands it’s totally doable, completely possible.
“Our customer remembers the High Street when it was full of good quality merchandise. Now, that customer can come and say, ‘Do you know what? I’m in this environment, and actually I don’t have to do the work. I don’t have to work out whether this item is sustainable or not. Aligne has done everything for me. They’ve done all of the work.’ Frankly, if the garment isn’t sustainable, we just say no from the beginning. Every single garment has to meet our standards.”
Those standards, Bains is keen to stress, go well beyond fabric selection, encompassing everything from waterless and low energy production to digital fit processes that avoid the environmentally costly process of shipping samples back and forth, to working primarily with factories in Europe and Turkey to reduce product miles to market. Packaging is sourced in the countries of production, always recycled, and even the cotton for swing tags is organic.
It is all of these little, behind the scenes processes which add up at scale, Bains says – and ultimately dictate whether a company is truly putting sustainability first or merely paying lip service through greenwashing.
Ethics, too, goes hand in hand. “What we try to do is find the factories that really care about sustainability and already are starting a journey. Some of them are doing great things, like trying to create energy for their local community. Some are creating vegetable patches for the staff to take food home at the end of the day. Some have got recycling units and plants where they can help to create matting that goes underneath roads…”
All of this is fine and well, of course, but consumers will only engage if the product is also desirable – something Bains is acutely aware of. “No one should ever buy anything from our range because they felt like they should, because it was sustainable. If they did, I would consider us having failed, right? Because it can only be sustainable if you wear it repeatedly, and you will only wear it if you love it, and it makes you feel good.
“It needs to be interesting”, she smiles. “It needs to be something that you want to pick up and you want to buy. That’s what fashion is all about.”
All clothing featured is by Aligne. Find out more, or shop the range, here