When cult shoe brand Bionda Castana re-launched last November after a two-year hiatus, its founders felt they needed a new business model. “We wanted to take a more sustainable approach to fashion,” designer Jennifer Portman explains. “Customers are becoming more conscious in how they spend their money; they want to know that it’s ethical, that the product is being made somewhere people get a fair wage.”
Portman and co-founder Natalia Barbieri, who split from their investors in 2016, decided a direct-to-consumer approach was the best way to achieve this. The London-based brand, first founded in 2007, uses leftover fabric in its archive to create four, limited-edition designs each month, which customers pre-order. The result? Zero waste. “We make to demand, so the collections don’t end up in landfill,” explains Barbieri. Every month, customers only have a five-day window to purchase the collection, which—along with the amount of fabric available—limits the run of each design.
Bionda Castana has managed to streamline its production process at its factory in Milan, meaning it only takes three weeks for orders to be fulfilled. “[Customers] really don’t mind the wait for a luxury pair of shoes handmade in Italy,” Portman says. “We support artisan manufacturers; I think that means a lot to them.” Once the materials from the archive have been used up, the brand will turn to unused fabrics from other fashion houses in order to maintain its zero-waste policy.
Along with its sustainable approach, the focus for the shoe brand – whose celebrity fans include Kate Bosworth, Alexa Chung and Olivia Palermo—is offering “trendless luxury”, with current designs drawn from their archive. Old favourites, including the Lana, are back in refreshing new prints and starting at a lower price point of £375 thanks to the new direct-to-consumer model. “We can use the silhouettes we’ve had for so long and bring them back to life,” Barbieri explains. “It’s not fast fashion; it doesn’t always have to be about new designs.”
Trendless fashion is also central to the ethos of Misha Nonoo, who switched to a direct-to-consumer model in 2016. Her New York-based brand—whose fans include Nonoo’s long-time friend, the Duchess of Sussex—allows customers to “simplify [their] wardrobe and fill it with timeless staples”, the designer tells Vogue. This is encapsulated by The Easy 8 collection, consisting of eight wardrobe basics—ranging from the Husband shirt, famously worn by Markle, to a black blazer dress—that can be styled to create 22 different looks.
Nonoo explains how her brand, like Bionda Castana, makes its products (starting from around £55) on demand, not only because it is more sustainable, but also because it is good for business. “It makes a world of a difference to our bottom line because we don’t have excess inventory at the end of each season,” she says. “We’re reducing overheads for the company and drastically reducing resource consumption and environmental impact.” Her designs are made in a Hong Kong factory—which employs both ethical and sustainable practices, including recycling programmes—within just five days of an order being placed.
The label’s made-to-order approach has allowed it to stand out from its competitors, Nonoo says, as it is still “fairly rare among non-luxury brands”. She continues, “Our combined philosophy and product offering attracts the kind of consumer who is willing to wait those few extra days to receive the piece that will give them years of use.”
A direct-to-consumer strategy also allows new talent to get their designs out there. British designer Olivia Rose Havelock, who launched Olivia Rose The Label in 2017, saw her business grow rapidly after her puffed sleeved blouses and dresses (priced from £45) proved to be an Instagram hit. “Handmade brands are starting to get noticed now,” the designer tells Vogue. “I started making everything from the beginning, and that’s how I’ve kept it.”
Working in this way also allows Havelock to tailor each design to her customers’ measurements. “Direct-to-consumer is better for customers if they want something specifically for them,” she says. However, the designer admits it will be difficult to scale up her brand, considering she currently spends four to five hours hand-making each piece herself. “That’s something I’m working on now; I’m trying to decide whether I’m going to be wholesale in the future,” explains Havelock.
The challenges of moving towards a more sustainable model is one the fashion industry is facing as a whole, alongside shoppers who are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental impact of their spending habits. “Consumers have an exceptional power to shift demand away from fast-fashion retailers,” Nonoo comments. “The tide is slowly but surely starting to turn.”
At the moment, however, independent brands adopting a direct-to-consumer, made-to-order strategy are leading the way. “It’s a far more modern approach,” says Barbieri. “We’re producing really beautiful things while being conscious about it. We’re creating a better earth.”
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