Sublime: What are your thoughts on the ethical fashion movement?
Eleanor O’Neill: It’s exciting! It’s challenging, sure, and will continue to be. But the goal of a fairer and less harmful industry is worth pursuing.
When you work in a niche part of the industry, getting a feel for how much awareness and action around ethics and sustainability has actually changed, can be difficult. When you try to keep up with every development – every new fibre being discovered, every recycling technique perfected, each more efficient manufacturing process being developed – it can seem as if change is happening quite fast. But pan out a little, and the overall impact is small.
That said, last month saw the first roll-out of the Green Carpet Fashion Awards, with many heavyweights from the industry present – an indication, perhaps, that things are on the move. As journalist Lucy Siegel pointed out on BBC radio 4’s Costing the Earth: ‘The Future of Fashion’ last week, trends from high fashion filter down to the high street. If that can happen with concepts like ethics and sustainability, it will create a big impact.
S: Tell us more about the STUDY 34 knitwear line. What’s different about it?
EO: STUDY 34’s Alpaca Crew is lightweight, versatile and luxurious. I don’t think there is an alpaca jumper on the market with such a modern yet classic shape, and made of such high-quality fibre, for the same price. So it’s an original and winning combination aesthetically.
There are a few key things: first, the combination of fibre and style. While it’s certainly present in the UK womenswear market, given its versatility and quality, alpaca fibre remains fairly under-represented, and when you do find it, the shapes, designs and colours can be chunky and rather old-fashioned.
Second is the exclusive use of natural colours – the Alpaca Crew comes in light grey and camel. The former is a very useful and versatile colour: it’s easy to wear, luxurious and beautiful. The camel is an incredibly rich colour, and the depth of the shade and its ability to change in different lights is quite remarkable, amazing.
Thirdly, the uncomplicated, short, efficient supply chain that allows everyone involved in the making of these jumpers the space to do their best work – both designers and makers alike – is very special. It’s what I think of as a truly modern supply chain, built on genuine craftsmanship, trust and mutual respect.
S: STUDY 34 knitwear is ‘designed and made by women, for women’. What’s the philosophy behind it?
EO: There are several aspects to the STUDY 34 philosophy, but the one you’ve picked up on is particularly important.
According to Fashion Revolution (fashionrevolution.org), approximately 75 million people work to make our clothes, and 80% of them are women between the ages of 18 and 35. As a woman, and a consumer of fashion in that age bracket, I feel a certain responsibility towards the women involved in making my clothes.
Women are at the centre of STUDY 34 and The Alpaca Crew. I’m a woman, as is Teresa, the production manager at Incalpaca, where the crew is made, as is Vanesa, who deals with all the labelling and the finishing touches at the factory. A huge majority of the craftspeople who make the jumper, who put it together, are women. I certainly feel the end product, The Alpaca Crew, has a very strong female energy to it.
In comparison to previous collections, it’s been a delight to make. Our relationships are based on openness, trust and courtesy. Of course that doesn’t mean everything has gone a hundred per cent smoothly all of the time, but when there has been a problem, we have come together and discussed it. I value that kind of relationship, because running your own label is hard work, but being able to open up and trust everyone you work with makes the challenge more of a pleasure.
On an aesthetic level, I often prefer the simple, modern, unfussy shapes of menswear. I get very disappointed when women’s jumpers have a little pocket here or a fold there or an unexpected keyhole fastening at the back. I just want something versatile, smart and at the same time comfortable, and I think lots of women want that too. And that’s what The Alpaca Crew is: modern, sustainable luxury for women.
S: Who are the trusted fibre retailers of STUDY 34 knitwear?
EO: The fibre used in The Alpaca Crew is sourced and spun by Incatops – a sister company to Incalpaca. They are one of the largest and most respected alpaca fibre mills in Peru. They carry out some incredible initiatives, such as Pacomarca (a project working on the sustainable development of alpaca farming), Tejiendo Oportunidades (a programme providing coaching and help for small knitting businesses and entrepreneurs based in Peru) and Patrulla Ecologica (a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to protecting the environment in Arequipa city where they are based, and where The Alpaca Crew has been made). Incatops and Incalpaca also do a lot to raise the profile of alpaca fibre worldwide.
S: What inspires you, as a fashion designer?
EO: I just love making things. I always have. But making things with a real use and purpose is what I like most. Efficiency, sustainability and luxury are a combination that really excites me, so I guess clothing is an obvious fit in some respects.
I’m hugely interested in fit, style and fibre, and my designs are often very simple because the work is concentrated on these aspects. Coming up with the perfect shape, tracing the fibre back to its roots and understanding its natural characteristics and how they work with the body inspires me much more than trends do.
The story and process of how an item of clothing has come to be is a fascinating one, to me. If I think about what I’m wearing right now, for example – raw denim made by the most incredible craftsmen in Wales, shoes from one of the most forward-thinking brands I know in terms of raw materials sourcing, manufacturing and community preservation. A t-shirt from a local label working with the longest-established organic cotton supplier in the world and finally, of course, The Alpaca Crew . . . there’s so much skill, history and talent contained in each item!
That’s pretty damn inspiring. Wearing items like these can have a hugely positive effect on how you interpret yourself and the world around you – they certainly do for me.
S: Why did you choose alpaca fibre over others?
EO: To start with, it was a bit of a coincidence. I was on the lookout for a ‘new’ fibre to develop my knitwear with (until recently I used end-of-line luxury yarns from the industry that were, of course, only available in limited quantities, so not scalable).
I knew a little about alpaca, but not much, and one day, out of the blue, it seemed to me, I was invited to go out to Peru to learn about the fibre first-hand, and to meet some of the manufacturers who had been making clothes with it for years.
I found it fascinating – there are so many advantages to designing with alpaca as well as wearing it. In fact, I recently published a post all about it called ’10 Things to Know and Love About Alpaca’, which highlights some of the reasons why it should be part of every woman’s wardrobe.
S: What’s been your biggest achievement so far?
EO: The answer to that will always be the latest item I have produced. Every time I design and make something new, I try to bring all the knowledge and experience I have gained up to that point into its creation. This approach means everything I make is like a project with the goal of always improving on the last item. That’s what drives the creation of new products at STUDY 34: not new trends, but rather new knowledge and skills to be explored.
So the answer to that is The Alpaca Crew! It’s certainly my biggest achievement so far, and I am enormously proud of it.
S: Do you think social media has been effective in bringing more awareness about eco fashion?
EO: Yes. The whole point of social media is to start conversations, ask questions, find things out, and being able to do that in a public way that platforms such as Twitter and Facebook allow, means there are fewer places to hide. What’s interesting is that people can follow a conversation without necessarily having to be involved in it, and also, that information is so easily distributed (a good thing for fashion, but detrimental and intrusive in other respects).
S: What can we expect from the brand in future?
EO: I’m not sure if I will ever want to work in a way that is regimented and planned; it often takes the spontaneity and excitement out of things. It may encourage retail growth in a traditional sense, but it can often be the enemy of a different kind of growth – one centred on improving skills and new knowledge, and which I am more interested in.
I approach the development of my business and its products in a very organic way. As a small label, though, it’s important to stay focused, so I can certainly say that I will be concentrating on women’s knitwear and alpaca fibre!
In addition to that, I will be looking further into ways in which I can connect with my customer base. One of the exciting things about selling directly to your customers is that you can have a real relationship with them, get their thoughts and opinions on the product directly and understand better what they want, and that is immensely valuable.