Outland Denim Stripe Jeans

The denim industry is a competitive, heavily saturated market — and in the era of sustainability, standing out means standing behind a cause.

And that’s why Outland Denim, a premium denim company based in Australia, has gained a lot of traction of late, with the likes of Meghan Markle spotted wearing the brand. Its noble cause — fighting or even eradicating human trafficking — is more than a passion project; it’s an initiative for enduring, requisite change.

Here, James Bartle, founder and chief executive officer of Outland Denim, talks to WWD about the brand’s unique business model, sustainability and love of denim.

WWD: Tell us about your jean-making journey. What inspired you to found Outland Denim?

James Bartle: I was aware of the issue of human trafficking in terms of it being a very lucrative global business. I’d seen the movie “Taken,” and had learned more through an NGO doing work in the field. But what really inspired me to begin laying the foundations for what’s now Outland Denim was a trip to South-East Asia in 2010. I saw a very young girl being prostituted on the streets, so the issue became very real.

It still haunts me, and I often wonder what happened to her. Where were her parents? Were they wondering where she was? It really angered me that this was happening.

WWD: What is the “Denim Project”?

J.B.: We found out that poverty was one of the root causes making young people vulnerable to being trafficked, and that employment would act as a protective measure against young women being re-trafficked or forced back into prostitution. So we decided on a business model that would do three things: first, provide training in a skill set that the young woman could utilize no matter her stage of life and to complement that skill set with soft skills, education and a pathway for career progression; second, employment with a living wage and benefits to give her financial security, and, lastly, applying her tailoring skills to a product that was universal in nature, premium in value and also sustainable.

We started with a very small group of aspiring seamstresses who had been recommended to us by an NGO. These women had all undergone different levels of trauma and exploitation, and needed a safe harbor for employment. Over time we’ve widened our doors to accept people for employment from varying backgrounds of vulnerability, including women with physical disabilities and those who’ve been trafficked for labor or who’ve experienced precarious unemployment.

Since then the majority of our time has been devoted to patiently perfecting our seamstresses’ skill sets, our product quality, range and design, our supply chain, social policies and our pathway to true sustainability. We have upgraded our production facility to accommodate nearly 100 seamstresses, and we’ve acquired our own denim laundry where we employ our own wash technicians.

Unlike a standard garment factory, our seamstresses are trained in every element of the jean-making process. Over a period of approximately two years, our trainee staff enrolls in a program of cross-training and up-skilling to gain a deep knowledge in the areas of cutting, finishing and sewing. With demonstrated proficiency, our seamstresses are given the opportunity to progress their careers to managerial roles.

A living wage ensures that they have enough income to afford a decent standard of living; to cover their necessary expenses, such as food, housing, health care, education and discretionary items, and save for unexpected events. For many of our staff, this level of financial security is freedom in itself. Freedom from worry. Our staff can send their children to school, provide for extended family and plan for the future.

Outland Denim's New Washhouse

Outland Denim’s new washhouse in Cambodia. Photo Credit: Jeremiah Overman, Turren Films. 

WWD: Why did you select denim as the cornerstone of your brand? 

J.B.: We needed a product that could confidently carry our story and reach a wide demographic of people to create change, and Toms had already aligned shoes with a social mission. So we landed on denim, the most wildly celebrated and probably globally competitive product on the market. We decided on a premium-level product because it would reflect the dignity of the garment and the dignity of the maker while giving us enough margin to execute on our social mission.

People are passionate about their denim and loyal to their favorite denim labels, so we knew we were up against that from the outset. But the universal, egalitarian appeal of denim speaks to our core as a humanitarian brand seeking to create lasting social change for vulnerable people.

WWD: How does Outland Denim prioritize sustainability? 

J.B.: We made the link between social and environmental sustainability pretty early on in our business development, so incorporating organic cotton was one of our first priorities. From there we have built on our sustainability mandate as new information and technology have come to hand. We have invested heavily on this side of our business.

Our designers and social and environmental impact team work collaboratively with suppliers who share our social and environmental values and are regarded as leaders in sustainability in their field. Our new wash and finishing facility is equipped with laser, “E-Flow” and ozone technology, which brings with it the opportunity to have further control over our environmental impact, which we believe is quite unique to the industry. Our fall 2019 Alchemy collection is the first to come out of our new facility.

WWD: Are there any particular influences in Outland Denim’s style and aesthetic? How would you describe your customer?

J.B.: Our customer has really high expectations on a product level, from the fit through to the fabric; they want something that marries function with fashion with that feel-good element of being aligned with an ethical, sustainable brand. Their Outland piece has to earn its keep in their denim wardrobe beyond the initial euphoric rush of spending on something meaningful. So we create everyday denim on an elevated level; it’s all about the detail.

Our core range features the tried and true skinny through straight fits in a number of different washes, while we get more experimental with the statement pieces that feature in our seasonal collections but are designed to be with the customer for years. We’re about timeless style and shopping with intention.

WWD: What’s next for Outland Denim?

J.B.: We have two large research and development projects in the works; one on the environmental side, and one on the social side, which are quite exciting. On the design side, we have a really nice collaboration forthcoming that should thrill our more high-end fashion customer.

For more business news from WWD, see:

Fashion Brand Vida ‘Redefines Growth,’ Addresses Consumption

At the Source: Peruvian Manufacturing in Focus

Change Agents: Denim Brands Working to Transform the Industry

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