Interview: Fashion Capital
August 24, 2015 at 11:42 AM
Ramnation: Do Humans Dream of Ethical Sheep?
Paul Markevicius discusses industry ethics with Talia Hussain, founder of Ramnation, a dyed-in-the wool traditionalist for sourcing and making knitwear entirely in Britain…
“Have we ever had more access to wealth and goods and are people any more happy as a result?” Sounding a bit like the famous Harold Macmillan quote “Britons have never had it so good…” it’s the opening to a discussion with Talia Hussain, founder of Ramnation, with her own inimitable ideas about how.
A supporter of Meet the Manufacturer and Best of Britannia, exhibiting her outerwear woolen knitwear range designs at the latter, Talia isn’t supporting brand UK for nostalgia reasons. Talia grew up in Winnipeg, returning to the UK fifteen years ago to her mother’s country, ostensibly just to look around – and stayed. She’s making here, because she vehemently believes in the ideal it represents and the qualities it provides. And frustrated with the fallacies and inadequacies of a model of constant consumption or as she calls it “a race to the bottom.”
To her credit she isn’t simply railing against short-termism or the production ethics of a UK garment industry that has seen most of its manufacturing go offshore, with producers chasing margins to Asia and perpetuating what many, Talia included, regard as exploitative practices almost wherever it ends up. After all, she reminds us, “The ‘consumption model’ was designed by people and isn’t irreversible, just feels like it. We need to learn how to distribute resources. Truth is, we as people should get to decide – we are living in a democracy.”
For Talia it’s about giving people genuine choice and transparency about what they are buying. She cites an example of a film showing exploitation in cotton picking and child labor in the making of an ordinary T-shirt, (Fashion Revolution’s euro T-shirt vending machine film) and how when these facts were made clear in the purchasing, their social conscience prevailed and a donation to the same value was made instead of the purchase. “When people know they do the right thing,” she says.
In Talia’s mouth, the wool-making production process sounds illuminating, exciting and worthy. “Don’t you think it’s fascinating – we take a raw commodity, adding value to it along the supply chain. The race to the bottom just doesn’t make sense.” When evangelizing for a belief, it’s sometimes hard not to sound a little like a complainant with no end to the roots of the complaint. And with today’s entrenched global practices in the garment industry these are resolutely stubborn re-generative roots. But effecting change in consumer behavior and manufacturing practices requires its own variety of stoic stubbornness. “When we discovered the factory farming of chickens people stopped buying chickens from those sources.” And what about the press, I asked – do they not have a role to play in highlighting exploitative practices to the consumer? “Vested interest is with the advertisers who pay for the fashion magazine’s existence. It’s not going to happen. It’s not the fault of the consumer. Most it has to be said are not going to be spectacularly sophisticated in their purchasing decisions – particularly when they are spoon-fed a diet of misinformation.”
I mentioned how with certain ethical products – local schools are often brought in to study how it has been achieved with the subject worked into the curriculum. Perhaps ethical sourcing should be on the curriculum as mandatory? This resonated with Talia, confessing that she would love to do more talks – but it is “just me trying to do everything.” A common characteristic of companies operating in the ethical garment industry - they are often micro-businesses with a natural antithesis to the scale-by-necessity logic of the consumption model. Not happy bedfellows with capitalism but not averse to sound business growth either.
Talia likes the crafting awareness and knowledge-based values the ‘Sewing Bee’ programme yields, (arguably responsible for the increase in sewing machine sales from 100,000 to 400,000 per annum in the UK, suggests Patrick Grant). As is often the case, the key example for making clothes is set by the parents and the culture you grow up in. Her mother and mother’s mother made their own clothes, “It was just something you did back then.”
Without trying to make it seem like a single-handed quest, I asked how she thought she could make a difference? She went back to how it all starts for her. “Not having a background in fashion, I start from a completely different place and point. I am really interested in materials. In the how to make something interesting from the same source, and how to make ‘my crazy’ be ethically sourced and from the UK.” Within seconds, Talia is referencing the modern world to illustrate her point via manufactured fabrics. “How do you degrade a material that lasts forever, full of persistent environmental toxins?”
And a reminder that ‘modern’ and ‘technological’ applied to sportswear doesn’t always provide positive bi-products “lots of petrochemical toxins, a high turnover of designs, not easily reparable in the landscape.” A big fan of Dame Helen Mcarthur’s circular economy ethos, that advocates the manufacture of goods that are re-cyclable, Talia adds that products need to be biodegradable also. “Especially with synthetics, where it is one-way chemistry. Why not focus on materials that aren’t going to have life-cycle issues. Wool will always be available.”
“My customers are over 30 and will have a reasonably well paid job and don’t need to wear a suit. There’s so much more scope for things that aren’t suits. If you are dressed permanently in a hoodie, well you probably have to up your game.” Where does this person reside? “The English consumer is not entirely there yet – sadly, they don’t understand the clothing cycle.” This is contrasted with Germany. A market that Talia has visited and exhibited at, The Green Showroom/ Ethical fashion Show in Berlin and intends showing at again in January. Does this make Germany an easier target market? Possibly, says Talia, with the idea of an agent specializing in ethically produced garments based in Germany helping to position her brand, also under consideration.
The fact that Ramnation’s garments may be high quality, well made and beautiful – being British-made is not an important (enough) or interesting feature for the UK buyer to actively seek it out. The reason is still hard to find, other than the references to British Empire legacy behavior and attitudes stymieing curiosity in source and craftsmanship, when it ‘just arrived’ via the colonies. Technology advanced labor saving devices has given the individual back a lot of time and a digitally obsessed world has provided its own cerebral preoccupation – but what has been lost as a result? It seems the requisite knowledge and desire to make and be curious about sourcing has not automatically passed down consecutive generations. It just became too easy to buy what was wanted on demand and the path of least resistance now welded to today’s comfortable lifestyle and conscience.
Talia is keen to do a lot more online-based promotion and sees it as a great opportunity to talk to consumers. “I need to blog more, visit more sheep, more sheep-shearing competitions – they provide great video clips.” I asked about the tendency of brands to inspire their own blog followings. “If I had a team of minions – yes, I would love to have lots of bloggers. Would just be great to create simple countryside stories. Just look at the success of James Rebanks’ Shepherds Diary – now a bestseller.” We joked about the need for and ‘Ethical Supply-Chain Transparency Guide Book’ a subject we had visited a few times during our chat. This, as is Talia’s won’t sparks off a conversation on the many, many underrated qualities of hemp. But one simple theme is never far away from all the discussions: Talia’s fondness for Ovis aries. In almost reverent tones she revealed:
“Being outside and seeing sheep everywhere influenced me. Different sheep, different colours and properties in the fleece. North Ronaldsay sheep, who live on a diet of seaweed, Herdwicks with their interesting territorial grazing, the Scottish Hebredian.” Talia inspires you to want to research and love sheep the way she does.
So why aren’t more folk following in Talia’s footsteps? Perhaps she wouldn’t want you to – less sheep for her! Patrick Grant will tell you - home grown UK sheep have a coarser fleece – 18-21 microns, contrasted with the Australian Merino’s 14 microns producing a softer feel. And just to re-balance this fact she adds, “There’s what I believe to be a cult of softness – overplayed, so that somehow luxury equates with soft.” That’s right, we need to toughen up – just look at our weather. Even if it is a little tongue-in-cheek. And then she’s off again, extolling the virtues of Ovis aries. “Because of the thermo-genetic properties of wool, when it gets wet it generates heat. And it doesn’t smell. Fine fibres from the softer variety, break more easily.” And so there you have it. Outstanding, virtuous, practical arguments for.
And Talia’s single biggest problem at present? “Getting the samples wrung out of the manufacturers to help realize my pattern designs.” Which sounds a bit daft, when you consider that she and other designers committed to their ethics are more likely to work with and respond to the manufacturers who are interested in working with them. So the sense of an ethical supply chain seems to be one that is also based on genuine collaborative, innovative ambitions. Go find your ideal genuine ethical partners it says to me. And work in some well-made British clothing into your wardrobe for all the right reasons.