London-based shoe designer Ancuta Sarca has made an unconventional name for herself by fusing unwanted Nike sneakers with vintage kitten heels. Her signature accessories have taken Instagram by storm and sell out in stores like Browns and LN-CC as quickly as they arrive. Her problem is fulfilling reorders: there isn’t enough Nike deadstock in the UK to work with.
Ancuta Sarca is just one of a number of emerging sustainable brands struggling to maintain their original vision as their businesses grow in size and scale. A complex web of trade-offs is necessary.
That’s why Sarca’s footwear for Spring/Summer 2021 and onwards will be made from fabrics upcycled from UK shoe factories instead of from Nike. Sarca has also ramped up production by working with UK factories rather than producing them all by hand, as she did in her first season in Spring/Summer 2020. And the heels of her shoes are now made from scratch, using new materials rather than deadstock.
Ancuta Sarca’s upcycled footwear.
© Ancuta Sarca
Sarca acknowledges it’s a compromise solution. “Every season we have to compromise on something, but I try to improve and find a different solution for the next season,” she says. “If you’re a ‘normal’ brand, you have unlimited resources. Creating sustainably is much more limiting because you have these restrictions.”
Losing the Nike association was a risk for her brand, but Sarca was willing to take it. “I know that some people only buy my brand because of Nike, but I have to listen to my creative instinct first,” she says. Retailers responded positively, with stores like Selfridges ordering for the first time for Spring/Summer 2021. Existing wholesale partners have also placed bigger orders.
Waste has been fundamental to how the industry operates. That can change. “Deadstock only exists because the larger brands have excess fabric or products,” says Maxine Bédat, founder of the New York-based New Standard Institute (NSI), a research and advocacy group focused on the relationship between fashion and climate change. Deadstock ultimately comes down to inaccurate projections, short deadlines and low-cost demands, adds Anika Kozlowski, a fashion and sustainability professor at Ryerson’s School of Fashion.
Duran Lantink, a 2019 LVMH Prize finalist, hopes to provide a solution by turning unsold inventory into new designs. The Amsterdam-based designer has long-term partnerships with retailers like Browns, Joyce and H Lorenzo, which invite him to “look at all the damaged items or pieces that can’t be sold. From there I make a selection and combine them to create a new collection”, he explains. That ensures his designs are always created from 100 per cent deadstock. Lantink works with wholesale partners on smaller, more frequent drops rather than seasonal collections.
Duran Lantink’s upcycled designs.
© Duran Lantink
This has resulted in a Louis Vuitton and Gucci-spliced shopping bag, hybrid shoes from Dr Martens and Dries Van Noten, and Celine, Marni, Valentino and Gucci combined in a single coat. The retailers secure approval from the brands before Lantink sets to work, occasionally encountering resistance. But it makes sense, he says, for big brands to consider a more circular approach. “What I’m doing is out of respect for the brands, you know. I’m not destroying their pieces; I’m trying to uplift them and make sure that they don’t end up at TK Maxx, or worse yet, a landfill.”
Keeping up with demand
Menswear label Bode won plaudits for its launch collection of designs 100 per cent upcycled. Founder Emily Adams Bode was the first female designer to show at New York Fashion Week: Men’s back in 2017, and today the brand’s 120 stockists include Mr Porter, MatchesFashion and Ssense. But a fast growth rate, with sales up 300 per cent in 2019/20 alone, meant change. About 40 per cent of Bode’s collections are now made from vintage or deadstock fabrics. “We’re very transparent about this and state on our hang tags whether seven pieces of a design were made, or a hundred,” says Bode. “We’re not a volume-based business.”
Kozlowski notes how many designers struggle to keep up with 100 per cent upcycling. “They might not be well funded and rely on department stores. They might eventually struggle to fulfil orders that are required in certain quantities, colourways or styles. This is when they start making new products to sustain the upcycled deadstock line,” she says.
Kozlowski highlights how hard French designer Marine Serre, LVMH Prize winner in 2017, has worked to keep to her principles. She sells to 90 doors worldwide after three years in business. With sales doubling every season, Serre was still in a position to ensure 50 per cent of her Spring/Summer 2020 collection was upcycled. Serre intends to keep focusing on “end-of-life products as a base to produce new desirable garments”. She is currently developing a 100 per cent recycled and biodegradable fabric.
Fashion companies operating with a sustainable ethos need to work with investors who are patient. In 2014, Maxine Bédat co-founded Zady, an apparel brand and e-commerce site championing ethically produced products. Zady was backed by the same VC firm that invested in Moda Operandi and Goop. “When companies take on investment, there is enormous pressure from those to grow at a very rapid scale. It’s that tension and expectation of growth that ends up with companies cutting corners,” says Bédat. She shuttered Zady after four years.
Finding the right investment partner is a tough call, says Rachel Faller, founder of Tonlé, the San Francisco-based womenswear brand that bills itself as zero waste. “When you take investment from venture capital or private equity, there is where you run into a lot of problems because they will require you to grow at an unsustainable rate. They have more control of your company and end up fundamentally changing the mission.”
Investors often don’t understand the importance of maintaining quality, particularly in the luxury sector. “They won’t understand why I want to pay for the most expensive fabric or packaging, since most of the decisions for the company will be driven by margins,” says Clarissa Egaña, founder of Port de Bras, a sustainable athleisure brand which has shied away from raising investment. “To me, it’s not about paying for the most expensive thing; it’s about quality. I would never want to jeopardise the quality or sustainable aspect of my products.”
None of this means emerging sustainable businesses have to stay small. Sneaker brand Veja, for example, grew over a decade to a business with a turnover of €65 million in 2019. “It took years to build their business because they built it all on their own,” says Bédat. “They didn’t take on unnecessary risks and have been able to manage their whole supply chain the entire time. If you have the patience, there isn’t a limit to the scale that one’s business can be.”
But most sustainably focused designers don’t aspire to be global brands — the concept is antithetical to their very existence, observes Kozlowski. They see too many compromises ahead. As Kozlowski puts it, “If you have to pivot or change what you’re doing in order to scale, that’s where the problems begin.”
To receive the Vogue Business newsletter, sign up here.
Comments, questions or feedback? Email us at email@example.com.
More from this author:
Why luxury fashion is funny now
Why luxury fashion brands should offer resale
The next frontier in influencer marketing: Live shopping videos