Sustainable fashion barely registered in the public consciousness when designer Lora Petrova set about creating her own brand over a decade ago. How times change.
The label, which initially worked with wholesalers and was set on a track for exponential growth, could have been so very different. For Petrova, though, who grew up immersed in Bulgaria’s natural silk industry, wholesale just never really sat well.
“We grew in terms of the number of pieces we were selling, and in terms of turnover and revenue, but it was awful. It leaves you lacking control of the brand and what you can do, because it’s dictated by the market and you’ve very little room to change. I just felt it was wrong, because the only way you can win is to make more. And that’s the exact opposite of what I wanted to do. I needed my brand to be more conscious.”
The resulting brand, Lora Gene, specialises in customisable, chicly simple basics – think silk shifts and tees, suiting and knitwear, designed using excess and deadstock fabrics as much as possible, and created to order to minimise waste. More recently, a capsule, created in partnership with ethical fashion activist and writer Aja Barber, has been putting the brand more firmly on the map of ethically-inclined consumers and the shift, Petrova says, has felt like a resurrection.
Today, she sits down with The Flock to discuss changing direction, following your gut, and connecting with customers who really understand the change-making power of the pounds they spend…
Sustainability is such a focus right now, but you’ve been producing in this way for years now. How have you seen the market shift in that time?
When I started, nobody talked about sustainability. It wasn’t a thing. It wasn’t trendy and I don’t think people really cared that much, to be honest. That shift is possibly the biggest change I’ve seen in the industry since I started working in it.
I think, when you’re a small brand, you’re almost sustainable by default in that you’re not as damaging as the big brands. Your consumption levels and everything you do are automatically limited by your resources. But for us, full sustainability became a real thing for the public a couple of years ago and, from the perspective of the consumer, it’s changed massively since then. Awareness is growing, but I think it’s also become a big trend.
When I was wholesaling, I’d try to convince sales agents that quality was important – doing something in a good organic cotton rather than a cotton-poly that won’t last, for example – but they always argued that the product needs to fit the price, and that means you need to go down on quality, so you’re limited in what you want to create. I don’t know if many sustainable brands can be wholesale brands, because that market still demands very low prices, and at those prices, it’s very hard to accomplish a sustainable business model. And I think that’s a very important facet of the whole sustainability movement.
So, how does a small brand like yours find that balance between pricing and sustainability?
To be honest, it’s not easy. I think it comes down to the offering itself. We have a couple of dresses that are very special, dresses that you could even use as an alternative to bridal wear, and those can be priced over £300. But we couple that with some very simple tops that cost £60 or £70, and we’ve a small range of silk accessories too, so we’re tapping into those categories which are more sustainable by default, and can work from a waste utilisation point of view. I think having your mind led by sustainability as a general concept is the only way of making a sustainable business. And then the key is to not compromise on the quality or sustainability of the garments themselves. It’s about finding a balance, and to be honest, I don’t think many small sustainable brands can claim to be really successful yet, because it’s still a small bubble, a small community. But I think we’re on the way, and finding the balance between pricing and offering right now is the key to survive and grow.
You collaborated on a capsule collection with the ethical fashion writer Aja Barber, with a focus on both sustainability and size inclusivity. How did that come about?
I’d found Aja’s account online and I ended up involved in a discussion that was quite fiery, about representation and diversity. I was making the point that for small brands, achieving diversity can be very difficult because they don’t have the money to get five models so they’re working under limitation. Aja and I started talking one-on-one and I really liked what she was talking about. I also really liked her honesty – something that’s been a major missing factor in fashion for such a long time – and I suggested that perhaps we collaborate.
I didn’t want to go down that usual route of sending her a garment, but rather I wanted to do something together that would serve the audience she was talking about. I have no idea what clothes feel like on a bigger body – I think a lot of designers make the mistake or designing and making stuff from only their own point of view, but that’s starting to change. So, we worked together to create three simple pieces that are inclusive for everybody, from size zero to size 28. And if you’re bigger than that, we can make these items custom too. And we’re still going and planning to do a bit more within that same remit.
I imagine offering custom options can be quite costly. How complex is that to manage?
The important thing to clarify is that when we say custom, we’re not doing made-to-measure. It’s more that we can alter standard sizing to fit. For example, I’m tall, and I’ve always had issues finding long pants, or tops with longer sleeves. When I started, I wanted to create something that will fit every woman, without having specific tall, petite or plus size ranges. So, because we create our product in house and we’re not creating thousands of items, we can tweak our designs for people. Yes, it’s a bit more work, but it can be accounted for in the price and if you sell direct to customers you can still maintain a sustainable business model. It’s about balance again, and ultimately, it comes down to why you’re doing what you do. I’m not someone who is ever going to want to have a brand purely to make money. I’d rather find the balance between how much we make and how much we charge and it works – most people don’t have a problem paying a bit more for something that’s going to stay with them for a very long time.
Tell us a little about the fabrics you use and how they’re selected…
We use predominantly natural fibres, and mainly dead stock and surplus fabrics. Basically, all of our procurement from the fabric perspective is based on waste utilisation, because I think that’s the major problem we need to solve. It does make it a bit more complicated when it comes to growing the range, but it also makes it more interesting for the customer, because you’re changing fabrics and styles more often. In our case, silk is the major fabric that we use, because it’s not just natural but it fits the brand’s core style. I’m involved in a project that’s aiming to revive silk production in Europe – I’m from Bulgaria, which was one of the biggest exporters of silk fabrics in the world up until the ‘90s. We’re trying to revive that and create a closed loop manufacturing facility for that. We’re on the way.
You also manufacture some of your items there. Tell me about that process, and how you ensure ethical working practices.
Bulgaria has always been one of the biggest garment manufacturers in Europe, so I’ve sort of been born and bred with a respect for that labour. My grandmother worked in a silk factory all of her life, and most of my friends had a family member who worked in production because it’s always been one of the biggest sectors in our country. When I started the brand, I had my own team there doing custom work, and then we grew to having our own facility with around 15 people working in it. It’s not really a factory so much as a sampling unit. The other part of the range, I work with local factories who have been my partners for years and years, and we ensure the conditions are good the only way you can – by being with them. I visit and check everything regularly, and because Bulgaria is in the EU, there are good regulations to ensure that’s easy. It’s really not very complicated to do this correctly, and we help other small brands do the same. We also pay ten per cent more than the industry standard in that country, up to 30 per cent more on some garments.
You had plans for a physical store before the coronavirus crisis hit. How do you now see your brand evolving and who do you want it to reach?
Women have been very limited in what fashion offers them for a very long time. Since the era of Yves Saint Laurent or Dior, the golden age of fashion where everything was custom, we’ve been pushed to a system that women themselves need to fit into – standards we’re expected to fit in, seasons that we need to fit in, trends that we need to follow. I always felt that was very limiting, and my message has always been about choosing clothes you’ll feel comfortable in, that allow you to be who you are, not who you are supposed to be. Comfort is a very personal concept, but I think there are some common things that crossover for all the women my brand appeals to – they’re intelligent women, who don’t shop for the sake of it, but are always interested in the story behind an item.
Ultimately, I want to cater to everybody who wants to shop in this way, to show that we can provide comfort and style without the confinement of the fashion framework that feeds consumerism. To my mind, the only way we can defeat that consumerist model is to come up with alternative models that work for both the business and the consumer.
For more information on Lora’s work, or to shop the brand, visit the website here