If the COVID-19 pandemic had not happened, Brussels-based Marion Schoutteten and Gauthier Prouvost might have stayed content with the bases they had laid down for Orta, their affordable and responsibly produced contemporary line.
Instead, the pair spent the past 18 months building a whole viscose production chain to create “100 percent European” garments, from fiber to finished product — and they aren’t planning on keeping it to themselves.
Launched in 2017, Orta, which stands for “Objectif Responsable Tendance Abordable” (or target responsible trendy affordable, in English), was meant as “proof you can make more sustainable clothes for middle-class [budgets], in Europe and with great materials, in an environmentally and socially responsible framework,” said Prouvost.
In Schoutteten’s opinion, fashion’s move toward sustainability is derailed by pricing out an overwhelming majority of consumers with high-end offerings. By contrast, Orta has prices going from 30 euros for GOTS-certified T-shirts and up to 240 euros for coats. Turnover still grew steadily from 65,000 euros in the first year to 723,000 euros by the end of 2019, with an 88 percent repurchasing rate, according to the company.
But in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Prouvost was diagnosed with leukemia. Within days, he found himself, “hospitalized during lockdown, with nothing but time to ponder the kind of existential question you ask yourself aged 80,” he recalled. “I told myself I wanted to leave something positive behind.”
That’s when he started picking at the labels that the brand prided itself on. What he found was that even amid the profusion of stringent regulations and environmental norms in the European bloc, there wasn’t a textile equivalent to the “farm-to-table” approach within Europe for most materials.
“It struck me that Western Europe has the highest standards environmentally and socially, but we weren’t in a position to leverage that [especially when wanting to stay at affordable prices],” he said.
Once in remission, Prouvost set about creating those fully European production chains. The first material he considered was viscose, a man-made textile derived from wood in a water-intensive, solvent-heavy process, often produced in China, Pakistan or India.
He explained that the biggest challenge had involved getting existing structures to link up. “It sounds straightforward but things like fabric width from the production chain to, say, the printing facility had to be reworked to be compatible from one factory to the next one in the process,” he said.
As of spring 2022, Orta now offers clothes made from sustainable fibers sourced through viscose producers Lenzing, in Austria, and Enka, in Germany; goes through printing specialists in Italy, and are made by factories in France and Portugal.
The Belgian company has paid for a six-month exclusivity, but after that, it’s a free-for-all. In fact, that’s the best-case scenario as far as Schoutteten and Prouvost.
“If anyone wants to use this production chain, I’m happy to give contacts. Because all things considered, [Orta is] still a speck in the fashion industry, but if other brands start to [follow this path], it could have a huge impact,” Prouvost said, already eyeing other materials like denim.
Meanwhile, the brand is continuing on its upward trajectory, enjoying three-figure growth that saw its annual turnover hit the 4-million-euro mark for 2021. This brings another challenge: how to go global without transport-related carbon emissions leaping.
For now, the impact of adding an extra 8,000 kilometers to serve their still-nascent U.S. consumer base to the 6,000 kilometers an Orta garment travels is still acceptable compared to the 50,000 a fast-fashion garment is estimated to travel.
But Prouvost already has a long-term solution. “We’re going to have to invest in the U.S. and apply the same method to create a production chain there,” he said.