LONDON — It would be easy to assume that the contemporary label Ssōne — a business that offers seasonless, ethically produced clothing — was created in response to the conversations around the current state of the fashion industry.
But the company has been going since 2018 and, despite its disciplined budgeting and strategies, has faced many a challenge during the COVID-19 crisis, with its London store having to shut just a few weeks after making its debut, orders canceled and investors pulling out.
“We paused the business to reorganize and work out whether we should wind down, or move forward,” said Christopher Suarez, a serial entrepreneur and the cofounder and former chief executive officer of Nicholas Kirkwood, who conceived Ssōne with Caroline Smithson.
He and Smithson, the cofounder and creative director of Ssōne, decided to forge ahead and look at every step of the value chain.
“We are taking the harder route, we are thinking about developing product from the ground up, not reverse engineering, or just having a marketing position,” Suarez said.
“The center of the business plan for this company is to look at the values around the product first, at seasonal cadence and how you deliver product. It’s everything being discussed right now,” he added. Suarez said he believes Ssōne is different because in fashion, marketing is still the priority and values are not at the core of big brands’ strategies.
As Ssōne rebuilds itself in the new world that is unfurling post-lockdown, the company plans to put even more focus on the brick-and-mortar experience, and find new ways to work with retailers — starting with a new collaborative project with Matchesfashion, which launches this week.
Ssōne got together with Matches to create re-Ssōne, an upcycled collection that’s been made using unsold Matches inventory. The aim is to help pave the way toward zero waste fashion.
“When you repurpose and re-sew offcut fabric, there are business and financial benefits, too. Instead of marking down product, retailers can celebrate that product again, which now becomes a limited, scarce offering,” Suarez said.
“Most of the product was re-sewn, or embroidered at home. It’s not about leftovers on a plate. We want to repurpose [old stock] to have more value and to create a new experience for the customer. At the same time, we are delivering a scarcity model that has a positive impact on our margins, as we are not investing in quantities,” he added.
Prices for re-Ssōne range from 565 pounds for the Oak skirt to 995 pounds for the Kantha jacket.
Smithson, who has spent the past 20 years working as a designer and creative director at companies including Alexander McQueen, Louis Vuitton, Roksanda, Chloé and Calvin Klein, said that “sustainability, or rather consciousness of material production,” is at the core of Ssōne.
“Fabric fibers are researched to achieve the best possible standards of environmental excellence, dye processes are considered, botanical and natural dyeing is preferred, where possible. We also consider the manufacturing chain, the human costs and environment in which people work on our products.”
Smithson, who produces the collections from her London studio with a small team, said when the garments are finished, the work to reuse the garment again through re-Ssōne begins. “These values are constant targets for us and each season we are able to better ourselves as options improve and others recognize the need for change.”
When it comes to the business’ core ready-to-wear offer, the focus is on seasonless, trendless clothing that’s delivered when the customer needs it.
“The idea was to turn the system on its head and create a demand-led supply model, which creates less waste,” Suarez said.
This model has allowed the company to work more flexibly and build a craft-based supply chain instead of an industrial one, with cooperatives in Peru creating its knitwear, for instance, or Moroccan artisans producing fair trade rugs. “It’s not so much about building a team of people. Team organization is changing, ownership of people and their productivity makes no sense,” said Suarez, adding that the physical store and in-person experience are a crucial pillar to this way of working.
“When I started businesses before, the barrier to entry had been removed with social media, allowing you to directly connect with your customer. But now that those channels are so stuffed and noisy with the big brands, the breakthrough is harder. The more responsible way to go global, rather than with big campaigns, is to go local,” Suarez said.
He pointed to the importance of having a physical manifestation of a brand in a global city like London, and attracting customers to come visit from all over the world via word of mouth, just like great restaurants have been doing.
“I wouldn’t have done this business without opening the store. We found a cost-efficient location and it’s really allowed us to dive more into our own principles, which are all about qualitative growth. Even if that’s one customer at a time, at least we’ll really know our customers.”
Despite the challenging climate, Suarez believes that slow and steady growth is possible with such value-centric business models, especially as consumer behavior appears to be moving toward sustainability in more meaningful ways.
“We had been preaching activism but not necessarily practicing it. Now shoppers are practicing it holistically across their lives, as opposed to being on the treadmill of consuming,” said Suarez, adding this moment also presents an opportunity to create change from the bottom up.
“Grassroots change will impact the top. Big brands will be losing business so they will have to listen, also for the sake of p.r.”