Interview with Trace Collective: not just another fashion brand

London-based brand oriented in sustainable and endless fashion, radically transparent and designed for longevity and circularity. Trace Collective creates a movement that uses fashion as a tool for environmental regeneration and social cohesion. The clothing made with natural and regenerative fabrics, handmade in Europe, supporting social factories.

We talked to Aroa Alvarez Fernandez, the co-founder of Trace Collective.

Wanna know more about Trace Collective? Keep reading!

Describe your brand in a few sentences.

Trace Collective is reshaping the interaction of the fashion industry with the planet and society. At our core a social business, we wanted to re-imagine what it means to be sustainable in today’s world, and to show that beautiful design can be responsibly undertaken. 

We use carefully sourced natural materials and innovative design techniques to promote a more effective circular supply chain that contributes to environmental regeneration. Longevity and traceability sit at the core of each of our unique pieces, creating collections of timeless wardrobe staples.

 What is the story of Trace Collective? How did it all start? 

Both of us (Antonia and Aroa) were incredibly passionate about environmental preservation, and particularly about the power of consumers to create change through their purchasing decisions. Taking decisions that align with our values is uniquely empowering. And if you look at industries where consumers hold immense power, fashion stands out like no other – except food perhaps. Every day, people wear clothes. We have an emotional connection with them, and we use them to express our personality on a daily basis.

Antonia comes from the fashion industry, and I (Aroa) come from the social impact sector. It became clear to both of us that fashion had an incredible power to mobilize citizens and that it was an ideal industry to develop a blueprint for what market economies can – and should – evolve to be in the future.

Initially we did not want to create a fashion brand because we didn’t want to replicate what others were doing. So we talked extensively about the existing models and the most leveraged ways of creating impact. At the end we decided to create Trace Collective because we couldn’t find anybody that was using demand for clothes to drive environmental regeneration through their supply chain, and we felt that this had to be tried on a large scale. So we started Trace Collective based on three principles: promoting environmental regeneration, adhering to circularity, and a radical transparency policy to reconnect communities with the stories behind the products that they buy.

Can you tell us more about the production process of your products?

Sure! We love to talk about the production process of our products – that’s why we’re sharing our whole supply chain, production costs, and production impact in our website, in line with our radical transparency policy. Information has the power to start important conversations about the impact behind the products that we buy. 

Let’s start with our design process, which is where it all begins. Interestingly, we don’t first design and then find fabrics that work with our designs, like most brands do, but we approach it the other way around. We first find the fabrics with least negative impact and most regenerative properties, and then create designs that work with their properties.

Our supply chain is fully sitting in Europe, from the fields that grow our natural, organic fabrics, to our mills and factories. Our products follow one of the three following journeys:

  1. All our weaved linen grows in Normandie, France. Then it travels to a yarn in Gdansk (Poland) and finally returns to our fabric mill in Belgium, where it’s finished and dyed under the rigorous standards that our supplier there has been following for more than 150 years. 
  2. Our hemp comes from Romania and it’s weaved at a local mill by our trusted partner there. All hemp and weaved linen then travel to Barcelona, where our workshop manufactures the clothes. They’re a social business whose mission is to help women at risk and in social exclusion enter the workforce, focusing primarily on women in the penitentiary system. Every penny that they make is reinvested into impact, be it through training or through counselling services, and we’re so incredibly proud to work with them.
  3. The last product journey is that of our knit fabrics, which we use for our beautifully soft and breathable t-shits. The fabric is organic linen originating from Italy, which then travels to our yarn mill in Tunisia and is then knit and dyed by our supply partner in Portugal. Once ready, it comes to London, where our factory here produces them. We have an incredibly close relationship with all the workers there, and visit every few weeks.

In order to cut our emissions and environmental impact we make our products on pre-order, which means that an item is only produced once somebody has bought it, and ship directly from our factories to the customer. 

You can visit our transparency website to learn more about the journeys of our products and visit the profiles of each our suppliers. 

Personally, what does sustainability mean to you?

Sustainability in its most basic definition is the ability to sustain something in the long term. To us it is really important to come back to this principle. With the word “sustainable” being so overused today, very few are asking: “how do entire industries and sectors of the economy need to change to enable us to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming?”. When it comes to the fashion industry, it is clear to us that modest commitments of choosing slightly better fabrics are not enough. 

For us, sustainable today can only mean regenerative. We are well past the time of trying to reduce negative impacts and we need to start thinking big about how our economies will contribute to reversing climate change. That’s why our driving mission as brand is to produce positive social and environmental impacts. The word “positive” here means leaving things better than they were, as opposed to sustainability in its conventional meaning of creating less damage. This mission cuts across all of our supply chain: from choosing only fabrics that drive environmental regeneration and designing products for circularity, to choosing as a manufacturing partner a social workshop that provides training and access to jobs to women in the criminal justice system, our raison d’être as a brand is to use fashion to heal our planet and our economy.

As a sustainable brand, what are your biggest challenges?

In many ways, if somebody would come and look at how we manage our supply chain they would probably say that we’re deliberately making things very difficult for ourselves. We’ve set rigorous standards that guide all our company decisions, and this brings a unique set of challenges in every single area of the business. I would probably narrow them down to three different areas: design, production and pricing. 

First, our design process is way more complex because of our material restrictions – from fabrics to buttons, thread and interlining, we say no to most of the products available in the market today. This means that our designs need to be thought through to the very last detail, and that our sampling process is long and more exhaustive.

Second, our production partners and many of our suppliers are small, sustainable businesses where the main priority is not aggressive growth but worker development – their business success is measured in lives improved and not in revenue made. This means that sometimes things are slower and production is delayed, which is okay because – do we really need this piece of clothing so urgently?

Finally there’s pricing. Because of our material standards and our commitment to work with social workshops in Europe and to pay fair wages, our production costs are much higher than usual (more on this on our pricing transparency webpage). We had to decide between making our products luxury items, or deliberately reducing our markups compared to industry averages, so our pieces can be accessible to many. This has brought different market entry challenges, as we are unable to work with many retail partners because our product markup doesn’t enable us to give them the margin that they request.

While it may seem more difficult, we gladly take this on and have never had second thoughts about the model. For us, this should be the only way to make fashion for everybody – doubtless, it is the only acceptable way to make fashion for us. So when there’re challenges we come up with ideas to make things work differently and keep moving forward.

Where do you gain inspiration?

In nature. 

We go to nature to recharge our batteries regularly, to get back in touch with our creativity and to disconnect from the unavoidable stress of running a small business. And while hiking in a forest or surfing in the sea we’re reminded of how small our worries are, and of why we are doing what we are doing – to hopefully contribute to many generations more being able to enjoy the natural world in the same way as we can today.

What is your favorite item from your assortment and why?

So hard to choose! I’d probably go for our Organic Linen Wrap Jacket in natural flax colour. It’s made with GOTS certified organic linen of the most incredible quality, grown in northern France. The fabric is undyed, finished in the natural colour of the flax plant – and that creates a very special connection to the earth when you wear. The design fully embodies our ethos as a company: it is airy, incredibly comfortable, and can be worn in different ways, creating the illusion that you own two different pieces instead of one.

As with the rest of our collection, it was farmed following regenerative principles and its impact on the soil was rigorously measured. The farmers in France that grew the flax are helping increase soil biodiversity and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Additionally, compared to a conventional cotton jacket, this piece has saved the equivalent of 2 years of drinking water and 50 days of bulb energy, and 16% of the purchase price goes directly our social factory in Barcelona, where a brilliant team is providing women in the criminal justice system with sewing skills so they can re-enter the job market. Isn’t it a winner?

Linen Wrap Jacket – Beige. Also available in black.

What is the story behind your brand’s name?

Ha, that’s a funny one! We found it very difficult to choose a name. Long story short, Antonia eventually came up with Trace as a name that embodied very well our ethos. First, we wanted to remind ourselves that everything that we do leaves a trace, an impact, in the world, and so does every product that we buy. It’s in our hands to decide what kind of trace our lifestyle is leaving behind. 

Second, the name fit well with our radical transparency policy – we disclose our trace to our community so together we can both feel good about the good that we’re doing, and remind ourselves that there’s much more to do and strive to be better together. And this togetherness is the bit that we wanted to reflect in the second part of our name: Collective. 

What made you choose Eco Fashion Labels to sell your products?

The mission and values alignment. For us it’s fundamental to find partners that share our commitment to creating a positive impact in the world, and to clean up the act of the fashion industry. It feels amazing to be able to sell our products at a marketplace with so many other incredible fashion brands.

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