Ethical fashion is a phrase commonly thrown around in the fashion world. You may have heard it from American Apparel or your local vintage store. What exactly is ethical fashion and is there a way to be ethical without being labelled as a “hipster”?
The answer is YES! Ethical fashion is an approach to the design, sourcing and manufacture of clothing which maximises benefits to people and communities while minimising impact on the environment. Encircled founder Kristi Soomer believes that one great way to minimise the impact of your closet is to actually wear all of the clothes you own most of the time. Encircled embodies the idea of minimalism and designs with the intention of being able to wear one piece multiple ways. Not only is that great for the environment but it’s fantastic for your wallet as well!
This month, we got to chat with Kristi on her upcoming runway show at Startup Fashion Week, Toronto-made fashion and what it’s like to owning your own business!
Tell us about yourself. How did you come to hold the values you’ve built into your brand?
I’m the founder and CEO of Encircled, a sustainable women’s fashion brand on a mission to help you build a minimalist wardrobe full of clothing you love, and actually wear. We make our clothing 100% in Toronto, Canada using eco-friendly materials.
I actually have no formal fashion training. I’m a former strategic management consultant with an undergraduate and master’s degree in business.
I’ve always been passionate about travel. When I was a consultant, I averaged 100,000 miles a year to client sites. As a result of travelling often, I was able to see the world and I picked up a hobby that’s rare in Canadians – surfing.
Spending time in the ocean made me realize how truly precious our environment is and how deeply it is suffering from our direct impact. The more I educated myself through documentaries and research, I learned that the fashion industry is a huge contributor to pollution – in fact, it’s the second most polluting industry in the world (after oil).
I knew that I couldn’t create a clothing line that was just like everyone else’s. I wanted to do something that I knew could have a positive impact not only on the planet but also challenged some of the industry conventions around labour, trends and lack of transparency. As a result, our clothing is relatively seasonless, focused on quality over quantity and we’re extremely transparent with where everything is made and how.
The fashion industry is arguably one of the most competitive industries. What motivated you to enter the fashion world? Was it from interest or was there a need that was missing in the market?
Originally, Encircled was created because of a need – for stylish, comfortable and versatile travel clothing. I was packing for a yoga retreat and my suitcase zipper broke – I had to fit everything into a way smaller bag, and started questioning why I didn’t have more multipurpose clothing. I decided a great place to start would be to have a cardigan that could transform into a scarf and a dress (without looking like you tied a sac into a dress). I started designing it when I got back from my yoga retreat and launched my online store about 6 months after that. We had a keen focus on helping women travel light, and stylishly.
As the company grew, I increasingly noticed that our customers were focused not only on traveling light but living light. The idea that you can live with a smaller closet, full only of things you love, that you actually wear. Quality over quantity. Since then, we’ve focused on this aspect: how can we enable women to get the most wear out of their closet?
As a startup, what are the biggest struggles you (have or currently) face and how do you plan to overcome them? Is there anything that motivates you to keep going when you are faced with these challenges?
Our biggest challenge so far has been keeping product in stock. This is a good-bad problem. We generate long waitlists for our designs, but it also means we can’t serve all customers and do miss out on some sales. The production infrastructure in Canada can be challenging to maneuver, as well the sustainable fabrics we use have a limited supply. To overcome this, in the future, I want to bring some of our production in house so that we can truly become an agile fashion brand – produce to demand and ensure fair treatment of workers, while keeping a close eye on quality.
What motivates me the most has been the growth we’ve been able to achieve over the past few years. We’re doubling, sometimes tripling our business year after year which is inspiring. Our team has gone from just me, to twelve people in just two years. Another motivator is definitely our amazing customers – I feel so lucky when I see how passionate they are about the brand!
What is your favourite piece in your collection? (and why)
My favourite piece is our Retrograde Kimono Dress. This piece transforms from an open kimono-style jacket to a little black dress. Its versatility is unique – you won’t find anything else like it out there, which is why product development took so long for this design. The fabric and the garment are 100% made in Toronto.
I love this piece because it truly surprises people that it’s the same piece. I love the element of delight in designing, and when you see this styled side by side, it’s hard to tell that all of the looks come from one garment.
In the fashion industry, clothes are always changing based on weather, trend or even from pop culture influence. Your clothes are the opposite – minimalist and meant to be closet staples. In your own words, you champion “slow and mindful design”. How do you choose the piece in your collection?
Slow and mindful design means to us taking the time to create pieces that are well-made, perfectly fitted, and truly serve a purpose in a customer’s closet.
Choosing what to design next takes many forms. Part of it is looking at our overall collection for opportunities, and definitely, a big part of it is customer feedback. We have a continuous loop of feedback with our customers and they are often our greatest source of inspiration.
For example, our Reversible Bandeau Bra came directly from a customer idea. She wanted something to wear under her Chrysalis Cardi when styling it as a dress. Using leftover production cuttings, and an innovative 2-in-1 reversible design, we created the bandeau bra. It sold out in less than 24 hours after launching.
When researching your company, one thing that I found really fascinating about Encircled is that all the clothes are made in Toronto! Was this always the plan when you started Encircled and why do you feel it is important to keep the supply local?
Externally, bringing apparel manufacturing back to Canada, or even North America in general, is really important to us. In the past, apparel manufacturing was a craft that was an immensely important part of the economy but that has definitely changed over time. Less than 2% of apparel worn in Canada, was made in Canada. About 20 years ago, it was more like 80%. I love being able to help revive our apparel industry and contribute to our economy by supporting made in Canada.
From an internal standpoint, keeping the supply local helps us develop close relationships with our sewing studios. It gives us the added benefit of keeping an eye on quality and working conditions as well so we can ensure that our clothes are being ethically made.
On Friday, we will be seeing your S/S’18 line on the Startup Fashion Week runway – is there anything you want to tell us about it beforehand?
We’ll be showing a selection of our most versatile designs – each of them styled two different ways, one after the other on the runway.
It will be a very different runway show than you’re likely used to as it won’t feel as cohesive, and that’s the point. To show the true depth and breadth of outfits you can create with just a few pieces from our collection.
What is your favourite dessert?
Anyone that knows me will tell you I actually don’t have a sweet tooth. If I could, I’d have potato chips for dessert. 🙂