INTERVIEW | Jocelyn Whipple: A Joss of All Trades

22.1.13

JOCELYN WHIPPLE might not be someone you may have heard of, but if you are in the ethical fashion business you would have certainly been exposed to her hand at some point. Heard of a little something called "The Green Carpet Challenge" with Livia Firth? Well Jocelyn is one of the key experts behind this initiative, and possesses an array of roles--ethical stylist, ethical fashion buyer and consultant, blogger, and the list goes on. With her ethical fashion agency, ELEMENT 23, it seemed as though there was nothing Jocelyn didn't know about the sometimes confusing world of ethical and 'eco' fashion. Going by this alone, you can imagine why someone so petite would leave such a large impression on The Conscience Collective. So, we sat down with Jocelyn at one of her events--this was part of another ethical initiative she is involved in called PureThread--and spoke with her about the 'eco' fashion industry in the UK, how it all came to be, and advice she has for small ethical brands as we get 2013 rolling.



TCC: There always seems to be a bit of confusion when people hear the term 'ethical fashion' coupled with that of eco fashion...
JW: Yes, we tend to hear both the terms eco-fashion and ethical fashion used [interchangeably]. Eco-fashion was very much centred around the environmental impacts of fibres and sources. Whereas, ethical fashion came about as there was a new focus on labour standards in the garment industry and that came out of California. Then there is also the Vegan movement, which addresses the use of animal products. Further down the line you have people like Becky Early and Kate Fletcher working on slow fashion—a more academic way of approaching fashion and slowing it down. 
There are definitely quite a few diverse layers to it, but the one that has stuck is the 'ethical' thing, but I know that most of us who have been working with this for such a long time are desperate for someone to come up with a different term, as it is quite a heavy and righteous, and not everyone’s ethics are the same. I like the terms slow fashion and 'conscious', but conscious is also so vague and broad. I think we should run a global competition for someone to rebrand ethical fashion. 

TCC: So what is the history behind this dichotomy?
JW: It all started in the very late 80s, early 90s, as a progression from the organic and sustainable food movements. This is based in agriculture, as the very first fashion moments were based around cotton and the realisation by designers, such as Katherine Hamnett and Stewart + Brown (e.g.), who started to see the [negative] social impacts of that industry. Cotton became the very first thing that people started to address, which caused new organic certifications for cotton; it sprouted from there. Soon other people started to look at other fibres like wool, and alternative fibres like hemp and very very early versions of recycled polyester, such as companies like Patagonia who were the first to use recycled plastic bottle polyesters. 

TCC: How did your sustainable fashion career start?
JW: I studied textile design and metal in Liverpool and it was at this time that I started to think about the materials I was using: where they came from and their connection to the whole process of design. That was when I started experimenting with new fibres, such as hemp, which only very few people in the UK were doing as well. People like Katharine Hamnett, who focused on organic cotton, were just starting off . I then moved to California [where her father is from], and lived in the Bay Area for about three (3) years, where I met a group of designers who were taking on this new ethical approach to fashion. And it started from there.

TCC: How did this shape the rest of your career?
JW: This was an exciting time for me as in California there was manufacturing, so people were able to produce locally, and experience the design and production happening quickly. At the time, big brands like Nike were already looking at sustainability. It was an inspiring time! Whilst there I started making hand-dyed pieces and worked with friends to create the first ever eco-fashion show in 2001 with a big expo company called The Whole Life Expo--a large alternative lifestyle consumer expo--where we sourced 10 casual-wear ethical designers.
I moved from the Bay Area to LA and took up a position at an eco-brand as a production manager, which gave me further insight into ethical fashion brands from a completely different perspective.  This is where I had to wrap my head around managing time-frames, dying, price range. Throughout this time more eco-brands were popping up and people were starting eco-mills and actually investing in sustainability and social justice. I later moved back to the UK as a wholesaler of fabrics, which led me to start up my sales agency, Element 23.
 
TCC: Tell us more about Element 23.
JW: Element 23 is my sales agency which I set up in 2005, and it was the first ever specialist sustainable fashion sales agency in the UK. I started Element 23 because I felt that there were some really fantastic brands that were not reaching the independent market. I represent brands from Europe, in particular France & Germany, from California and the UK, as well Kenya. I market these brands to the independent market, and not just to ethical shops.
 
TCC: Which brands do you represent?
JW: So I have Stewart+ Brown from California, which is one of the well-known pioneers in ethical fashion. I've been working with two brands from France—Les Racines du Ciel and Kami Organic—and then I have Privatsachen and a wonderful rainwear brand called RaffAuf from Germany, Still from the UK, and I recently took on a third French brand called Sweet Blossom. It does change per season as well, as I represent LaLesso, which is a Kenyan brand, but they only create for spring/summer, so I don’t have them both seasons. I represent a certain section of the market, that includes mid- to high-end brands.  

TCC: What advice do you have for small ethical fashion brands?
JW: It is important that small ethical fashion brands to be extremely passionate about their own product, and to be able to identify, on as many levels as possible, whether this will be marketable and desirable. Ethical brands must also be clear about their branding, and must be true it. What we find is alot of 'green washing,' which  The consumer is very saavy to these things, and they are looking for something that is unique and conscious on just as many levels.

TCC: And what about sales? 
JW: In a way 'sales' is the hardest thing in the independent boutique market, and not just within the ethical shops. When I first set up my agency in 2006, the market was quite buoyant and buyers were excited about new things and there were a lot of new designers springing up. Then after 2008, when everything started going array and the financial markets had taken a downturn, there was a decrease in uptake of new products and not just in the ethical market, but in the independent market in the UK.



TCC: So, how does an ethical brand hope to survive coming out of the recession? 
JW: I think it is the same as any brand. There is a misconception that eco/ethical fashion is a separate industry, and actually its absolutely not. It is very much a part of the fashion industry, which is a global industry, which is incredibly diverse and complex, and I think eco-fashion is a movement within that and a way of working with the existing systems. So, I say an ethical brand is going to survive the sane way as any other brand would. You have to have great product, you’ve got to be able to deliver on time, you have to have a strong presence somehow, and you’ve got to get yourself out there and understand your customer, just the same as anyone else really.

TCC: As a stylist, how do you work with clients who are new to ethical fashion?
JW: First and foremost, what I try to do when I am working directly with someone’s wardrobe--especially, with how they think about how they dress, what they are buying and how they are buying--is to guide people a little bit away from this trend-led, hyper fashion, hyper-consumption way of viewing materials that we have been inundated with, and help people come back to their own sense of true style. This in itself stimulates that sense of slow fashion. Investing in pieces based on the quality of the fabric and because you love the way it feels, fits and looks, allows you to have a different relationship with your clothing.

TCC: What would you consider to be the last-frontier of sustainable fashion?
JW: Sustainable is another word to consider, by the way. Personally, the last frontier of sustainable fashion are incredibly savvy people, who do want to buy sustainable fashion and are willing to seek it out and are seeking it out. These people are in the know about labeling, certifications and the designers. The designers have done all the hard work with their supply chains and creating the industry, but at the end of the day if the retail buyers are not making these choices then it will all grind to a halt.

TCC: You mentioned “labeling”, do you think there should be a unified labeling system?
JW: It is very much a stumbling block for consumers and manufacturers and what it comes down to is the complexity of textiles and garment production, and the global sourcing systems that are in place, that we kind of rely on. There is no one-stop stamp for 'eco'/ethical fashion and that’s kind of frustrating in some ways, but on the other hand it is also kind of impossible, because it is so far reaching, and the labeling and certifications speak to each individual fibre category. They also address finishing and waste, water waste and chemical use, and then they also are looking at social values and labour standards. So when you start assessing all those categories—within one label you might be working with five different fibres from 5 – 10 different parts of the world, and each of these carry a story and a supply chain which also have to be considered. It would be fantastic if somehow, someway there could be a unifying standard, but in my opinion they would have to take into consideration all those different aspects. What’s in place are the most recognisable ones—the Fairtrade stamp, and  the GOTS stamp for cotton (e.g). Something within the industry that is talked about but has not been cracked.


L-R: Emma J wearing Beeswax Coat she bought by RaffAuf ; Leah Borromeo of Dirty White Gold wearing a Still jacket
TCC: What parting words do you have for our readers? 
JW: There is a myth that you can’t buy ethical on the high street and at every level of the market. You can buy organic from H&M, or recycled fashion from Topshop or Ethical Fashion from ASOS. The Brands I’ve chosen to work with are a section of the market which is the mid-high-end range. Its not really different. You find the same price points as you would with conventional brands.
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Jocelyn is also the sustainable sourcing director for the Green Carpet Challenge led by Livia Firth. We will be covering her experiences behind this and The Green Carpet Challenge in a future post, so stay tuned.
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Jocelyn is wearing: Hand-dyed Scarf by Privatsachen | Sustainable Cashmere Caridgan (sourced from nomadic herders from Outer-Mongolia) and Long-Sleeved T-Shirt by Stewart + Brown | Mud-dyed Silk Dress (which she crinkled herself) by Les Racines du Ciel | Socks from American Apparel | Boots from Joseph | Jewellery by Anna Loucah

(c) All Photos taken by Emma J. (with the exception of the one featuring her and Joss, of course)

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