Formal interview session was conducted with Sarah-Jayne Smith, the founder of the Magpies & Peacocks project, via Skype. The interviewee was approached on LinkedIn and asked to discuss the business idea of the project, the process of getting started with the venture and some personal points of point with getting into the business of sustainable fashion. To start with, Magpies & Peacocks is a nonprofit venture focused on sustainable fashion design and promoting ethical approach within the fashion industry. Key activities of the social enterprise are concentrated in Houston area and include collaborations with local businesses, artists and educators to promote social responsibility and create awareness on the issue of sustainable fashion, design and production of up-cycled clothing and fashion accessories, educating and mentoring market participants on new innovative approaches in sustainable fashion, and investing into creative entrepreneurs with sustainable business ethics.
Prior to establishing the sustainable fashion venture, the interviewee had had a significant experience in design, both fashion and interior. Sarah-Jayne Smith has noted that living in different cultural environments, precisely in London and Houston, while working in design industry, has made the strongest influence on her vision as a creative artist and entrepreneur. Smith has mentioned that Rei Kawakubo, the founder of Japanese avant-garde brand Comme des Garcons, was one of her greatest role models due to her unique vision on how the fashion garments may look like, will to success and ability to overcome negative criticism.
Just like Rei Kawakubo, the interviewee has established her own brand with the deep industry expertise and innovative vision on how the things could be improved. However, Smith agreed that during the first years of her newly-formed venture she has suffered from the lack of managerial experience and she had to grasp many essential skills, from the business communication with suppliers to the basics of accounting. Lack of marketing or sales experience had also slowed down the business growth in the first year of operations. In 2012, a year since the launch of the start-up, Sarah-Jayne Smith has met Ahshia Berry, who became her business partner and took marketing and PR functions of the organization.
The venture has distinct ethical approach and was established as a social enterprise to facilitate positive changes in fashion market through collaboration with artists, educators and other market participants, as well as to create sustainable fashion collections. In the last decade, the fashion retail market has gained the reputation of not very ethical behavior, with the majority of market players embracing uncontrolled outsourcing practices and fast fashion business models. As a result of this behavior, the industry embraces a ‘disposable’ attitude towards clothing making consumers throw away more garments. At this moment, the fashion industry became the second largest source of pollution and waste, conceding only to the oil products. Therefore, the enterprise targets very distinct social issue by the means of thought leadership and creative production.
Sarah-Jayne Smith have realized the existing market niche and the possibility to make a significant change that would benefit Houston community in 2011, when sustainability fashion brands became popular in Europe, but still were quite uncommon for the Houston area. Typically, upcycling and recycling fashion brands are opposed to fast fashion giants and unsustainable practices that currently dominate in the market. Among the sustainable brands themselves, however, there is rather a spirit of collaboration and mutual social goal shared by these ventures. The interviewee has noted that since 2011 many sustainable fashion brands have entered this market and they have supported, partnered and invested into their success. For example, they have launched the permanent program, Artist in Nesting, which helps emerging designers with raw materials, facilities and promotion to create a sustainable fashion collection.
The respondent also mentioned that prior to starting their enterprise they have tested the market. Back in 2011, Sarah-Jayne Smith has arranged the ‘Closet Deposit’ fair that asked community members to donate garments and accessories that cannot be worn any longer, but can be used in upcycle production. This event allowed to collect raw materials for creating new clothing items and accessories, connect people and create awareness on clothing waste, and test their interest in wearing the upcycled products.
Establishing a nonprofit venture, Sarah-Jayne Smith has raised the needed financing from the personal connections and friends. As the enterprise was deemed to pursue socially beneficial and nonprofit goals, no formal business plan was created at a time. However, the founder has developed and presented the approximate breakdown of future costs during the first year of operations and the list of planned activities for that period. Smith noted that it took about one year since conception of the idea to the first day of business and took considerable efforts to accomplish the fund raising campaign, although she had parallel interior design projects during this period.
Being a social entrepreneur, Sarah-Jayne Smith find personally rewarding and satisfying to make change in current situation with clothing waste, reunite community members and express her artist vision in the clothing line. She considers the passion for community in Houston area and upcycled fashion to be the most valuable asset that allowed her to engage partners, investors and employees with the entire idea, as well as overcome stresses of becoming an entrepreneur. Challenges that she encountered with in the first years of operation included lack of initial support, insufficient management expertise, as well as time management obstacles. Reflecting on the interview session, this conversation inspired me to be devoted to my own ideas. I also learnt that there are many possibilities to combine our core passions into a single venture. In this case, Sarah-Jayne Smith has integrated her devotion towards ethical approach in business, fashion and local community into the successful social enterprise.