Once Was has been on my radar for some time now. They ‘once were’ Spencer Lacy; a boutique label that has kept it’s wearable philosophy, but upped the approach to luxury and versatility. And as you’ll find out, this is very intentional. I spoke to Belinda Glynn, the Designer for Once Was, and she is someone that I can tell walks her talk. Having been the Designer of this brand for 3 years now, with plans already in motion to design a new label, she brings a delightful combination of grace and grit to her work. Her insights into the frank reality of bringing sustainability into a business was a surprise ending to our conversation, and one that will open your perspective on how complex it really is.
For me, demystifying what really goes on behind the glamour photos of a label is in part why I started this blog. Designing is only ever 10% of the job, even though it’s perceived as 90%. The planning, analysis and problem-solving are where the real design decisions are made. And Belinda brings great first hand experience of how this translates into the retail landscape.
LOUISE: How would you describe the Once Was design philosophy?
BELINDA: My aim is to create investment pieces that are on trend, without being seasonally defined. I design the collections to flow from one season into the next, with the real focus being on versatility. This means customers can wear the same pieces in different ways. I also aim to lighten the footprint on the environment by making pieces that last. My designs don’t really date. With every collection I highlight what the latest trends are, while the core is quite classic and timeless.
LOUISE: I can vouch for that continuity & versatility. I have a couple of pieces from your range, and I love that they still work from season to season.
BELINDA: It’s really wonderful to hear from customers who tell us how they continue to use their favourites season after season. It’s important for me that it just makes them feel really comfortable and really good about themselves when they put that piece on. That’s what drives me to design I think.
LOUISE: In starting your own label, what drew you to do this. Did you work in industry prior to starting?
BELINDA: I am in fact working for someone else, so strictly speaking it’s not my own label, but I do treat it as my own. It really is my baby. We re-branded about 3 years ago, and that’s when I had the opportunity to take the brand where I really wanted to take it. It was really about offering women everyday luxury, and versatile investment pieces.
We were also keen to span a wide-ranging age demographic, which I think a lot of brands struggle to do. We’ve got a lot of mothers and daughters who like to shop together, so we find there can be pieces that are appealing to both, but they choose to wear them in different ways.
LOUISE: That’s interesting. It’s a clever long-term strategy. It can be a struggle to attract new customers if the brand doesn’t evolve.
BELINDA: Yes, it’s always a challenge to come up with something new, that’s still keeping true to the brand for a long period of time. I’ve found we have to evolve and the fashion industry changes so rapidly, you have to be very agile.
LOUISE: So are there any particular techniques or materials you like to use, that align with your philosophy to carry over pieces from season to season.
BELINDA: Well, one of the main fabrications I use all year round is Cupro. It’s derived from a natural fibre, being cotton, and has a beautiful drape to it. I actually find it’s a better fibre than silk in terms of wearability and easy-care. It has a breathable quality for Summer and a warmer hand-feel for Winter.
So, I’ve really tried to stick to my guns and incorporate as many natural fibres into the collection as possible, compared to some of the mainstream competition. So many brands lately have used polyester in a big way with their range, which is definitely being driven by an attempt to remain competitive with price. But that’s not the right direction for us.
LOUISE: So when it comes to sampling and taking your design beyond the sketch, do you find there are limitations on what you can do?
BELINDA: There’s always limitations, but there’s also a solution to many of them. I always start with my fabric sourcing, but quite often end up pushing the boundaries with production, which means pushing my factories beyond what they thought was possible.
The one thing I’m mindful of that’s limiting is fabric quantities. If the fabric minimum is high, I have to be clever with designs and use that fabric across a few styles.
It also means I need to be clear on what factory specialises in what, to ensure they’re working to their best efficiency. I start with design, but then I have to piece it altogether in terms of placing the right fabrics and garments with the right factory. It really is like solving a jigsaw puzzle sometimes.
LOUISE: Yes, that’s a conversation I’m very familiar with. Is your production only in China or spread across other parts of the world?
BELINDA: Mainly China. But I make all of the leather in Pakistan. I then have the challenge of transporting different components from China to Pakistan, in order to get the best hardware or trims or lining for the leather garments.
LOUISE: And you’ve got support staff around you on a local level to make all of this happen?
BELINDA: Yes, but it’s a small team. I design everything from scratch, so I really need my pattern-maker. I don’t go on buying trips for samples. I work closely with my pattern-maker to have her interpret my ideas and try to make them happen. I know I challenge her a lot. It’s a necessity for the collection to be able to push those boundaries.
With regards to our suppliers, I only have a small amount of factories I work with. We’ve got really great relationships with them, which allows us to negotiate ordering smaller quantities. They’re reliable and they’ll go above and beyond to figure out any challenges we have.
LOUISE: That’s great. It really does take time to establish the relationships with suppliers, or find the right ones in the first place that can do the specialisation you need.
BELINDA: Yes, the ideal combination brings together the skills, minimums, quality & price. It’s really hard to find sometimes.
LOUISE: Yes, and sometimes you might compromise on one, in order to get the other 3 as a priority. Or it could change, as a factory evolves, or their staff change, which means the skill level can change.
BELINDA: Yes, and as much as I’m always open to exploring new factories, I’m still quite loyal to my main factories. For me to move production, there has to be a significant reason for doing that.
LOUISE: How much involvement do you have around the biz side of things, as well as the creative. How do you flow with that juggle?
BELINDA: The biz side of things is really 90% of the job, and the creative is 10%. Sometimes the creative is done in the shower, or as I’m falling off to sleep. It really doesn’t stop I suppose. Whereas the biz side is easier in the sense that’s it’s black & white. You know the tasks are with spreadsheets and planning and ticking off the ‘to do’ list. The creative is just a constant because you can always see new possibilities, and you have to create newness for the next season.
LOUISE: So what do you go to for inspiration. How do you start to get the creativity going?
BELINDA: Quite often I start with fabrics. With every collection, I have a complete creative block and it’s like I have to wait until the panic sets in and then something clicks and it starts to organically evolve. I have to get my commercial hat on and look at past season best sellers, and how they can be re-invented. Analysing why they sold, trying to understand what the customer liked and giving them a new reason to buy is problem solving on a very detailed level.
LOUISE: Do you ever conduct focus groups or interviews with your customers to know the specifics of what they like?
BELINDA: Well, the challenge is the variety of customers we have by way of our selling channels. We have online customers, boutique customers & wholesale customers. We get reports & feedback from our agency regarding our stockists across all of Australia and then there’s regions such as NZ and the USA. Different things sell in different ways in all the various locations. So I have to filter all of that feedback, but not become distracted by it. I do try and filter it more now compared to when I first started. I know I took it on a little too much when I was in the early stages of starting the label. It can sometimes just be that customer’s opinion on that day, or just be the flavour of the week.
LOUISE: Yes, having worked with many Australian brands over the years, I’ve noticed the most consistent brands have the conviction in their own aesthetic based on their belief, not others. If it’s clear from the beginning, this translates to a cohesive collection.
So what’s next for the label, what’s the next step for Once Was?
BELINDA: Having had Once Was going for 3 years now, we’ve been able to identify a few gaps in the market. We’re really concentrating on growth and expansion into the USA & potentially Europe. We’re also looking to bring out a sister label later in the year or early next year.
LOUISE: Would Once Was grow with more boutique stores, or not?
BELINDA: We did open two boutiques last year with retail spaces, but wholesale is our strength. We found the extra responsibility that comes with having retail stores, in managing people & inventory, was stretching our capacity. We’re still only a small label. So we decided to pull back & focus where the sales were stronger & where our experience lies – which is wholesale. Retail is hard enough for the big guys, let alone a small label like ours. We don’t have the infrastructure or management to look after the retail side of the business. And in some ways, wholesale is a little less risky in getting the orders before going into production. Whereas with retail, it’s much higher risk, as you’ve got to take a punt on quantities that you might not sell. And then you’re left with dead stock.
LOUISE: Is there anything else that is significant or different about the label that’s worth sharing?
BELINDA: I think trying to come up with versatile pieces is so important but also challenging. Everyone is talking about sustainability these days, but it’s really hard for a small brand like ours. When you’re dealing with small quantities you can’t really dictate where each trim’s come from or where the fabric’s sourced. You have to compromise on that side.
The one thing I can control though is the design of it. And designing pieces that aren’t throw away fashion, that are investment pieces that can be worn season after season is really important to me. That’s my small way of lightening the footprint.
I’m a frequent traveller to China and it makes me very aware of the impact the fashion industry has on the environment. And it’s good to see it’s changing. Consumers are becoming more aware and China’s becoming more aware.
LOUISE: Do you find your factories are pro-active about it. Or it’s driven from your end to instigate the conversation around sustainability.
BELINDA: Yes, it’s probably more from our end. But the Chinese government is also cracking down. Whether they’re going about it in the right way, is another thing. We get adhoc feedback from the factories they’re going to cut down to 3 days production in any given week in a bid to preserve power. There is the awareness but quite often it can be a knee jerk reaction that’s too severe and haphazard.
Some bigger volume brands are pushing more for sustainable fabrics. Which in turn, helps smaller labels like ours, as it filters down. We have to use a lot of end of line or off the shelf fabrics, which in a way is encouraging sustainability because they’d otherwise be thrown away. We do use a lot of stock fabrics where we can.
With the factories I work with, I know the workers are paid well & treated well. They stop 3 times a day for a good meal in the canteen, and have nap times. They do work long hours and have deadlines, but their working conditions are good.
And they have to be, because China are finding a lot of the younger generation aren’t interested in going into the workforce in fashion. They’ve got the deadlines to meet and skills to constantly keep updating. It’s a hard industry and other industries are booming. So they’ve got to make the conditions more attractive.
LOUISE: Would sustainability practises be something you’d continue to pursue for Once Was?
BELINDA: I definitely want it to become a focus, but that is somewhat of a job in itself. It’s very time consuming & would mean more trips to China. At times it’s very hard to get a clear & straight answer on where things come from. It’s only as China becomes more aware and understands the complete impact of manufacturing, that it will change. It hasn’t really been part of their culture until now. As they become more aware, hopefully it will become easier to get the answers we’re after and open up the transparency on where and how things are produced
And to a degree it’s also governed by the suppliers. With the suppliers I use, they also make for the majors. So as the majors start pushing for it, those answers will be more readily available. There’s a big expense involved in getting to the bottom of the sustainability question. It’s really hard for brands like ours to build in those costs. And the customer wouldn’t be prepared to pay for it. But the big guys ordering thousands of units have more leverage to be asking those questions.
It’s interesting, it’s really starting to get on people’s radar. In the last 6 months in particular, we’ve had people asking about it and I would imagine it’ll gather more and more momentum from here.
You can find out more about Once Was through these channels:
Website: Once Was
Taking an idea from sketch to a physical and tangible thing is incredibly rewarding and challenging all at the same time. If this story has you curious about the process behind the product, and you’re in the early stages of developing an apparel idea, I can help. New workshop just announced – Start Up Essentials for Apparel Product Creation. Follow the link for tickets and I hope to see you there.