When Allison Hayes made her first trip to India in 2012 for a friend’s wedding, she was fascinated by the exquisitely handcrafted fabrics and textiles she found there. Four years later, the associate creative director at agency Venables Bell and Partners and that same friend, Jayshri Chakraborty, a former finance professional, teamed up to launch their own fair-trade clothing line.
“The &Collection” is direct-to-consumer fashion brand launched two weeks ago. It sources traditional textiles and prints directly from artisans across India.
“We’re committed to developing local businesses by promoting entrepreneurship in these areas,” said Hayes, adding that 20 percent of the proceeds from each item go back to the artisan community that embroidered or printed it.
The “&” in the name is a connector, she said, and each collection is named with an “&” attached to the part of India that collection is from. For example, the “&Santiniketan” collection is from the eastern state of West Bengal and predominantly features the “Katha” technique — an elaborately embroidered running stitch technique that artisans in the region have been practicing for centuries. There are two more collections, “&Udaipur” and “&Jaisalmer,” from two cities in the northwestern state of Rajasthan.
It helps that the company has come up at a time when more consumers are clamoring for increased sustainability in fashion. The & Collection is the latest fair-trade clothing brand that is part of a growing brigade of brands that are responding to consumer calls for increased sustainability and transparency in fashion. Producing ethical fashion and being transparent is becoming more of a priority for brands across the board from luxe cashmere brand Naadam to designers Diane Von Furstenberg and alice + olivia.
“It’s not just about showcasing the textiles, but also the communities,” said Hayes. “We want to be able to tell a story, which would be lost if we were to outsource our clothes to another retailer.”
Being direct to consumer also makes sense, because the company can constantly interact with its customers to make informed decisions on product and sizing. Depending on what our customers like and don’t like, we’d know what to focus on for future collections,” said Hayes.
The textiles may be coming directly from the artisans, but that does not necessarily mean they are cheap. Clothes from “The &Collection” range from scarves priced at $75 to skirts that go up as high as $365 — almost four times the price artisan collective groups in India would sell it for. Hayes admits that the clothes are marked up by approximately two-and-a-half times to factor in costs of production, tailoring and shipping. She said she was hopeful of bringing that down, however, as the company evolves a more efficient business model and begins to control more of its supply chain.
“We’re not turning a profit yet,” she said. “But current sales will immediately be invested back into the company for additional sourcing in the future.”
To grow, the company is focusing on building social followers primarily on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest — places where people often find fashion inspiration. The sustainability aspect is played up in its posts on these platforms — a smart move to draw more customers, said Nathalie Huni, creative director at Huge. Its Instagram feed, for example, proudly showcases members and snippets of daily life from the community it sources its textiles from. It is also looking to partner with influencers and considering dabbling in paid social advertising on Facebook and Instagram.
“A career in advertising uniquely prepares you for a lot of the hard stuff that comes with starting just about anything,” she said. “With ‘The & Collection,’ I didn’t just come up with the concept and design the clothes, I also designed the identity and website as well as shot, styled and retouched all photographs, wrote the copy and developed the brand voice.”
Two weeks since its launch, the company has sold over 10 percent of its inventory. It continues to take a page from the playbooks of other brands prioritizing sustainability and working with similar models, said Hayes, such as Maiyet.
“The biggest challenge is that coming from advertising, I am used to having big budgets,” Hayes, who leads all creative for brands like 76, Phillips 66 and Massage Envy at her agency job, said. “It’ll remain a side business for a while I think.”
*This story first appeared on Glossy