Madara Freimane, co-founder of What’s Your Legacy, chats about her career, where it all started, and what’s exciting her about the sustainable fashion movement in our February interview.
What did you study at London College of Fashion?
I did fashion styling and photography—I think it’s now called fashion production—it focussed on styling and producing shoots. As I was studying, I got interested in sustainability, so although it was a visual course—everyone else had very visual research—mine ended up being text-based, heavy books of paper, in which I was figuring out what’s happening in the fashion industry. The first project I did was about how we emotionally connect and disconnect to things that are happening around us. I was looking at war photography and how the photographers would absorb what was going on around them, but weren’t able to do anything about it. They just had to record it. It’s the same disconnect people feel when something really bad happens and they shut it out. We all know what’s happening in the fashion industry, but its too much to take in and you get overwhelmed. You start to realise that if you give people little things that they can accomplish, they’re more able to understand they can change things. Otherwise, you just think, “I’m not one of those big massive retailers, so I don’t have power”.
Did the movement towards transparency happen while you were at fashion college?
Definitely, and my first thought about it all was that I didn’t want to shop on the high street anymore, so what can I do? All I knew were the high street and luxury stores. I couldn’t afford the luxury ones and no longer wanted to shop on the high street. I’d research brands and it was confusing, one researcher might say they’re ok, but other sites would say they weren’t. I’d committed myself to shopping sustainably, so I googled it, which was actually really funny because the first things I found were paper dresses and I’m like “what even is this?!” [laughs]. I’d committed myself though, so I kept on searching and I did end up finding a lot of beautiful brands. Sustainability is confusing though, it can be approached from so many angles. That’s why we created What’s Your Legacy. It allows us to go to brands and be like, “Hey, I heard you do something sustainable, what is it?” From doing this I started to learn about all these different approaches, the fabrics and the technology side too.
Was there a particular event that switched you on to sustainable fashion?
I come from Latvia and grew up in nature. I did orienteering (which is basically just running through forests!) and traveled around the world doing competitions with it, so I was always in the forest rather than the city. Nature was something I was really connected to. I do remember my sister going to Sweden in her last year at high school and coming back with sustainable jeans and I said, “are they made from paper?” [laughs]
How things have changed!
Exactly! But then I came to study in London, which has so many high streets shops, and shopping became overwhelming. Back home it would be fun—you’d go and try to find something that other people didn’t have. You come here and have everything available, but nothing satisfies you. It’s too much and it’s missing something—that uniqueness. I remember going to and interning at fashion weeks (where I did street style photography) and I’d ask people “what are you wearing?” I’d imagine all these luxury brands and it was three things: H&M, Topshop and Zara. It’s boring! It made me think about what’s in my wardrobe and I was just the same. As I researched and thought about that emotional connection, I had this realisation about the the industry I was going into—I’d always known fashion was bad, but it’s really bad! That’s how it progressed, it was slow initially but when I began researching the industry I decided to change my habits.
I love the sense of the humour at What’s Your Legacy, was it a conscious decision to approach fashion with humour?
I often joke that I’m going to go into stand up if everything else fails! It has to be fun, especially with sustainability as it’s so serious. People want to shop because they want to look good and have a good time. Also, it’s a part of me. I always call myself an introvert extrovert, so when you get to know me I can be funny, and What's Your Legacy should reflect that.
What’s Your Legacy has such a strong visual style, do you have any particular influences?
We always knew that we wanted to do the visuals ourselves because there’s so much out there that we didn’t like. Sometimes it wouldn’t even be the design of a garment that we didn’t like, it was just how it was photographed. My background was photography, so we didn’t have to compromise, and we slowly fell into a visual style. We definitely looked at different brands that we liked, like Glossier and all the millennial pink! I’ve always loved art too: Matisse and Alexander Calder. It’s funny, but I think social media drove our visual style as well. We wanted to create something that would catch your eye and make you think of our brand. If you see tonnes of images all of the time, how could we make ours recognisable?
It must be a lot of pressure to make all the content yourself! How do you cope with that?
I try to focus myself, although it’s not always easy! I go through periods where I’m really good at making content and then I’ll make something I’m not satisfied with. I try to know that you have to move forward, instead of spending too much time on something that you’re not convinced by. When we started, I watched a video called The Gap, which is about how you’ve an idea in your head about how you want things to look, but in the beginning you can’t always achieve that. You need to push yourself to keep creating until you get there. You have to believe you’ll get there. That it’s fine in the beginning if your work doesn’t look exactly as you want it to. It’s easy to be judgemental about what you do, sometimes I’ll look back and I think, “oh ok, we really put that out there…”, but it’s fine!
As you’ve worked with so many different brands, do you have any tips for sustainable start ups?
I think that all sustainable brands should understand that being sustainable is just how you produce, and that with the designs you’re competing with every other brand out there. A customer wants to wear something that they like visually, so if you’re not the best at design you should get someone in who is. Also, you need to figure out how you’re going to reach your customer. The amazing thing that we now have is social media, which allows smaller start-up brands to get exposure, but you have to commit yourself to putting out content. I struggle with that too! You have to do it though because there’s no other way that people will find out about you. Whilst you’re a fashion brand, you’re also a media company—everyone with an online presence is! You have to understand how important it is in getting your business to grow and to actually succeed in reaching customers. So I would say think about those two things—design and marketing—and how important they are. Sustainable fashion isn’t just this magical place where people jump to buy your product because it’s sustainable! You have to create the most beautiful product out there and have it sustainably made.
Are there any particularly innovative companies that incorporate sustainability into their business models that you admire?
MUD Jeans are really interesting. They lease jeans, so you can rent them and when you’re done you can send them back. They’ll sell them on as vintage jeans or take them apart and recycle them. You can also buy jeans from them and when you’re finished wearing them, you can again send them back. They’ll grind them down, re-spin the fabric, take all the parts off, and it all goes into new fabrics and jeans. They use the idea of a circular economy, which I think is brilliant. I think more and more brands should think about not just how they make their products, but what happens afterwards. This idea of re-thinking ownership—that as a customer you’re just renting everything you have instead of buying it is very interesting. I’m very excited about the whole circular economy. You know how in the world you sometimes think that there are smart people that can figure everything out? But, if you get ten people who are innovative—can think outside the box and forget how things were done before—and you ask them to reinvent it all, what could they do? You could come up with some great ideas about how to change things. Anyone who’s changed anything is a human being too. We can all do it. Change will take time, but if you put your mind to it you can do it too.
It’s not just companies that can be innovative, it’s everyone.
Yeah, that’s why we hold events where people can come together and brainstorm ideas. We give them a model of how to do it and let their imaginations go wild. It’s difficult to get your mind out of how things usually happen, so at What’s Your Legacy, we try not to think about how to persuade people not to shop or to do things that restrict their lives, but about how we can make sustainability convenient. For example, recycling facilities should be easy to get to, maybe on the way to work, so you can just drop things off. People don’t know what to do with their old clothing, so instead of saying “do your research”, why don’t I give you a tool to do that? I’m a vegan and I find it’s the easiest way to eat because it keeps you healthy, by limiting all the things that are maybe not the best for you, it makes you feel good. That makes it easy. Sustainability allows me to be unique in the way I dress. High street fashion made me feel like I always needed the next thing and then, when I bought it, it fell apart. I’d grown up dreaming about wearing these beautiful brands and, when I finally could, it didn’t give me a lot of satisfaction. Sustainable fashion makes me feel better and be unique. It’s easy because of that, and that’s the key.
Whose responsibility do you think it is to make fashion more sustainable?
I think it’s everyones. If the government would step in and make laws then things would change, but that’s not realistic. As a consumer you should do your part, as a retailer you should do yours. Everyone needs to work together but not in the sense of being restrictive—you should think about other approaches. Brands should create beautiful garments that are more innovative or longer lasting. From the research I’ve done our generation [millennial] and the younger generation do want to be more environmentally conscious, but they don’t want to compromise on what they want, or on a good aesthetic. Brands need to understand that.
I recently watched an interview with Patrick Finnegan, a 21 year old venture capitalist who’s working with Generation Z. He said they’re environmentally conscious, but they want something in exchange like online exposure. They wouldn’t buy into it just for the sake of it, but they would if they get a good rep online [laughs]. I think that’s very interesting—I get excited about these things! That’s something we should keep in mind, how can we make them invest, would it be a repost or mention if they purchase this environmentally friendly product? It’s very interesting from a marketing perspective.
Before the interview we were chatting about different ways of production, like block chain and circular, I wondered if you could tell us a little about these and your thoughts on them?
The thing with sustainability is that when I speak to a brand who says that their product is made sustainably, I don’t completely trust it. Especially if it’s a high street store that hasn’t worked like that before and now they suddenly do. It’s that idea of greenwashing. Block chain production would allow you to have transparency, as it could be encrypted that every step of the chain would have to be transparent. It’d also allow you to tell the story of a garment, which helps from a marketing perspective. I think in the future you’ll be able to go into a store and scan a tag and you’d have visuals of how it’s made and where it’s come from. It’ll allow people to connect with your garment. I think that’s what block chain will do.
From the circular and sharing economy perspective, it’s about re-thinking ownership. As a customer you may barely use a garment, so rental services, (which seems like an obvious idea, but how do you make them convenient for people?) could be an alternative. I love Higher Studios. They do a subscription service because they figured out that when people rent a garment, there’s an issue of how much it’ll cost them to buy verses renting it. When you do the subscription, you maybe pay £100 a month (which might seem like a lot, but in certain cases it’s not) and you get access to garments that you can change as often as you like. It’s an alternative to fast fashion where you feel you have to have new things all the time. You can show off by wearing these crazy designs, instead of wearing black and white. You can change what you have more often, but the garment is of higher quality because it’s rented, and you get the feeling of having something new without the environmental damage. The founder, Sara Arnold, told me that when she was experimenting with it to see how people would react, there was one girl who said that each month she started to become more and more creative in how she dressed—I loved that. She didn’t need to buy the black garment because she’d have it all her life. She could wear these more creative designs instead. It also allows a designer to be more creative. Usually, as a designer, you have to think about what is sellable, but if you have a rental service where people only keep your garment for a short amount of time, you can move away from that.
For the circular economy, you think about how the garment can be altered so that, once it’s used, it can be made into the same product again or can go through more cycles. It’s not thrown out and left in a landfill somewhere. That’s another thing you need to think about as a designer when you create a product, what fabrics do you use? There’s a lot of different technologies available now and how you make recycled fabrics is improving, so it’s not the worst choice anymore. I’ve seen amazing recycled fabrics and you could never tell. I think that’s another super exciting thing.
Are there any particular brands you know that are incorporating this at the moment?
One brand I really love is Swedish Stockings. I met them a year and a half ago and they told me how they started their brand because they knew that most stockings were purposefully made to rip. They were like, “that’s crazy, why would you do that?!” The first thing they did was make stockings that’d last a long time. Now they’re trying to close the loop, so that they’re able to recycle the stockings and make new fabric. They’re not currently able to do that, so at the moment they down-cycle them (you can send any brand of stockings back to them for that). Also, their factories are solar-panelled and their production is great. It’s super exciting. When I talked to them, it felt like I was talking to a tech company. They have so much research behind what they do. It’s not just design, it’s both of those things.
Do you have any tips for shoppers who want to invest in more sustainable and ethical fashion?
Yeah, come to What’s Your Legacy! [laughs] There are a lot of amazing brands out there, and we want to give them exposure. I would say start slowly, because otherwise it’ll just be overwhelming. Start with one thing. The easiest things are your t-shirts and underwear, as it’s easy to find styles made sustainably with organic cotton and ethical production. Start with those things and don’t feel that you suddenly have to change everything! Don’t throw out all your high street things! I still wear some things that I bought on the high street seven years ago. I approach shopping by trying to find a sustainable alternative every time I need something new. At What’s Your Legacy we have a list of different brands that have one or another thing that’s sustainable about their products and have a unique style. It’s fun to go out in something and if people ask where it’s from, you’re able to tell them about a brand they don’t know. It gives you a good feeling. Do that, take it slowly, one thing at a time, and you’ll get there. In this world it’s easy to focus on all of the problems and to want this crazy big solution for everything, but it’s actually small steps that get you there and you just have to be patient. Do the best you can at the point that you’re at—if you’re a student then buying some of these sustainable brands may be way too expensive for you, so just figure out what you can afford. When you have more capital, do something better and go on like that!