Going beyond sustainable fashion, this Australian brand is providing hope for women in Cambodia and beyond.
If you’ve ever watched the 2008 Liam Neeson film Taken, you probably remember the fight scenes and how that flick catapulted the Irish actor into action-star territory. You may also remember that at the end of the film, there were statistics related to women being sold into the sex trade.
So what does that have to do with a sustainable denim brand from Down Under? After seeing those numbers, James Bartle, a motorcross athlete, steered his career unto the unexpected path of fashion, but fashion for a purpose.
Bartle launched Outland Denim just over one year ago, after five-plus years of preparation, including setting up a factory in Cambodia that employs women who were trafficked, some as young as 11 or 12. The factory gives these women a living wage, it teaches them how to sew denim (a notoriously hard fabric to work with), as well as teaches them how to budget now that they are making their own money, and offers them information on women’s health issues.
The product, a super soft pair of jeans made from fabric sourced in Turkey, that are now available in Canada thanks to Holt Renfrew’s H Project and a .ca website, is a means to helping these women. The team from Outland, who were recently in Toronto for interviews, calls this new business model, profit for purpose.
I had the opportunity to talk to Bartle about why sustainable fashion is so important to him, as well as why this life-changing enterprise became his life purpose.
CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHY THIS BECAME SUCH A PASSION FOR YOU? WHERE DID THIS START?
I was made aware of human trafficking through the movie Taken and I was impacted fairly heavily by the reality of it.
DO YOU HAVE CHILDREN? DO YOU HAVE DAUGHTERS?
I have two little girls now. I didn’t at the time. I had two nieces. After watching [the film], I met with a rescue agency that worked in Asia. We went through Thailand, Cambodia. And while I was in Thailand, it was the first time I actually saw one of these kids that were stolen and sold for sex. And you know, it was a place full of Westerners, a place full of the local people that were just completely oblivious to what this was really doing to people. You know, this girl, she really stood out. And I asked the representative how old he thought she was and he thought she couldn’t be more than 13 years old and I could see in her eyes the fear and the uncertainty of what the future was. And I imagined if it was my niece in that situation, it was, you know, it was heartbreaking. We started the research phase and poverty just kept coming up as the thing that was at the root of the majority [why children were sold]. These predators prey on people in those positions either whether it be for labor or for sex or for, for anything, you know, in the mines and the garment industry. And it’s, it’s prolific.
WHAT WAS THE NEXT STEP FOR YOU?
For us to combat this, we started the journey of a five year period of employing people and trying to create a business model that brought about a genuine freedom from poverty, which means freedom from being vulnerable to these things, for themselves as well for their families. And so in generating and creating this business model, we discovered that there was some really key elements in them finding true freedom.
We’re training these women in an industry and we’re training them in one of the hardest garments to make, especially with stretch denim. They’re making something that’s artisanal and loved and cherished, and it’s in everybody’s wardrobe, across the globe. They have not earned that kind of money before. So how do they manage their money? We bring accountants in and they work with them to teach them how to budget, and [teach thema bout] good and bad debt. We provide them with English lessons and because it’s predominantly women that we hire, infant care and caring for yourself, women’s health issues, all sorts of things. And so we pay our staff to learn because we know that education is one of the keys in unlocking their freedom.
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But none of it’s ever sustainable without a beautiful product. You know, what I don’t like about charities is that it’s not sustainable unless you were not prepared to donate to it. And there’s so many [charities] and they’re all worthy. But because there’s so many of them, they’re competing.
This is why we’re not a charity. We’re actually a sustainable model. I feel like it’s a genuinely sustainable model, based on the fact that if you love our jeans, buy them, and if you don’t, don’t. But if you love them, you know, stay with us. We can look through our sales history now and we’re seeing customers who bought, a style that they love and then they’ve got every color. We’re seeing that people love our product, we want it sold that way, but then they find out the impact that they’re making, in someone else’s life and that’s what brings them back. So, I believe that we’re recession-proof.
AND WOMEN STILL WANT TO SHOP, ESPECIALLY IN THIS WORLD OF CONSUMPTION.
But you need an excuse because you do feel guilty. Well, we take that away. We give you a good reason to buy our jeans. But we’re slow fashion. We don’t want you to buy 10 pairs at a time. We want you to buy what you need and wear them out then buy some more, and wear them out and buy some more. It’s about genuine change in the industry. If you go to our website, you’ll see where we source everything. If you want to start a denim brand and you want to save hundreds of thousands of dollars, go to our website and look at where we make everything. You can go straight to the same place. And that’s because we genuinely want to see change. It is not about our own company. This is about creating change.
WHY WAS THE SUSTAINABILITY ASPECT SO IMPORTANT?
It wasn’t, to be honest—when I began, it wasn’t at all important to me. It wasn’t even something I considered or thought about as I started to deal with people and learn more about the industry. I discovered that the water streams were being polluted by the garment industry. That in fact, the women I was trying to help were feeding their infants water from these streams. So you cannot separate them. It’s not possible. And so for me it’s been a huge learning curve to where I’m actually now passionate about that. Whereas once upon a time I never was.
HOW DO YOU BRING AN ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY BUT ALSO ALTRUISTIC KIND OF ETHOS TO YOUR EVERYDAY LIFE? SO WHEN YOU’RE NOT WORKING, WHAT IS IT THAT YOU DO?
Yeah, that’s a challenge. It really is, you know. In our office, we’re not allowed to use plastic water bottles, that was hard for me to stop doing, you know? I’d walk in, I’d have our team going, 20 push ups! That was our punishment in our offices, 20 push ups. One of our biggest polluting problems today is our takeaway coffee, coffee cups. Drink it out of a mug. There’s just simple things every single day that you don’t realize the impact that you’re having.
WHAT WAS THE DESIGN PROCESS AND THE FIT PROCESS?
For us that was a really long process. We started with the Isabel jean. It’s named after my eldest daughter. That was the jean that we wanted to be our staple women’s jean, a fit that fitted a wide range of people. We went for a slightly higher mid-rise jean. A normal mid-rise jean is around eight and a half inches, we have gone for nine and a half. And, it’s a skinny jean. The fabric composition has really good recovery. So they don’t blow out, or look baggy in the knees, or anything like that, which was really, really important. We’re slow fashion. So getting these beautiful silhouettes done right before we launch was really important and we think we’ve done a good job with it. We’re really proud of it.
You have denim jackets as well—do you have plans to start working with cottons and make this label a lifestyle brand?
Absolutely. We want to be the core basics in your wardrobe. It might bring a fashion element to it. We’ve got jackets, and the tee shirts have already gone through the sampling processes and are ready to launch. Expansion is absolutely necessary, because if you’re going to buy a denim jacket, we want you to buy ours. If you want to buy a tee shirt, we want you to buy ours. We want to continue to grow and develop and bring beautiful basics to the market.