This week have an exclusive interview with the designer behind the Ally Bee knitwear brand, Alison Baker. With the winter chill already settled in we felt our hearts warmed by this inspiring brand that didn’t take NO for an answer. As with anything in life, there are often hurdles that we need to get through and with the can do attitude and perseverance we can scale the mountains if we try hard enough. Sink in and enjoy the story behind the luxury knitwear brand Ally Bee.
What was you “aha” moment? What made you decide to create your amazing brand?
I discovered the special qualities of alpaca by chance after a friend introduced me to the agent of a Peruvian alpaca label. I was so amazed at the softness of alpaca fibre I wondered what was being made using home-grown British alpaca. I discovered a lot of talk about the luxurious quality of British alpaca fibre but very little was finding its way into high-end ready-to-wear knitwear. Then I had an epiphany – here was a locally grown, renewable natural fibre with enormous potential for producing beautiful knitwear as a more sustainable alternative to imported fibres like cashmere and merino. I confess I knew little about the fashion industry, and even less about knitwear, but this initial idea soon because an obsession. Fuelled with this passion, and a fair bit of naivety, I was determined to bring all the elements together to turn the idea into a reality.
What were your biggest hurdles when starting your business? Did you simply pole vault over the issues or knock over a bunch of hurdles along the way?
My biggest hurdles in starting my label was being a total outsider. My background is in law, and I confess I do not even know how to knit. I needed to bring suppliers and a designer to the table to make my vision a reality. At the beginning I had no connections in knitwear design, yarn production or the manufacturing supply chain. I cold-called a lot of people and asked plenty of stupid questions before I had an inkling of where to begin. And it was not smooth sailing. Someone sold me substandard fleece that was thrown back at me by a spinning mill who told me not to waste their time. After this false start I found a new spinning mill prepared to make the right specification yarn for me, and who sourced the fibre for me, and its been a pleasure to work with that supplier ever since.
It was very difficult finding a UK manufacturer prepared to work with an unknown bespoke yarn that was not from a standard stock service – a major hurdle – and again I had to cold-call every knitwear factory in Scotland. I finally found a small factory prepared to test it out for me. They’ve done all my production ever since and think the yarn is beautiful.
On the design side, I had knitwear experts tell me it was simply not possible to work with British alpaca yarn. Then I had a lucky introduction to Jess Gaydon, a freelance knitwear designer who’d just moved back to London after working as senior knitwear designer at Diane von Fürstenberg in New York. She looked at my yarn, decided it was one of the most scrumptious yarns she has ever worked with and took on the design of my AW15 collection. We are now working on next season and a homewares project. I consider myself very lucky!
Where are you based and which countries/cities globally do you partner with to manufacture or sell your product?
My label is based in London and I work from my home office currently, and all sourcing and manufacturing is in the UK. My knitwear manufacturer has a small factory in Hawick in the Scottish Borders and he employs a tight knit (excuse the pun) team who knit my designs the old-fashioned way on hand-operated industrial knitting machines.
I have put on hold the pursuit of wholesale for the moment to focus on selling direct to my retail customers – there are only so many plates you can spin at once as a start-up and I want to get it right. I retail online at ally-bee.com so my reach is global. My pieces have been sold and shown on a charity catwalk collection in the US in support of an animal conservation charity, and my label is to be part of an Australian ethical fashion campaign kicking off in Sydney in October. Ally Bee is also a member of the Ethical Fashion Forum, an organisation growing serious momentum in promoting ethical fashion and sustainable sourcing, and the connections I have made with other like-minded labels along the way has been invaluable. Ally Bee is also starting to sell at the Rosewood Hotel Slow Food and Living Market in London from October – I feel very lucky to be placed among brands committed to sustainable, thoughtful, British production.
Do you think people actually care about ethical fashion and/or responsible consuming?
Yes, I think there certainly is more interest in ‘ethical’ fashion than just a couple of years ago. The eco-credentials of British alpaca motivated me to keep going during the difficult set-up stage a few years ago, but I took the view that sustainability would remain a secondary branding feature as I felt there was a prevailing view eco-fashion equated to substandard, home-made, ill-fitting clothing. But, this is quickly changing. Fashion Revolution Day has helped highlight the darker side of fashion and environmental harm, and has boosted the profile of quality ethical fashion labels. This has coincided with climate change finally getting the serious mainstream airtime it vitally needs, and a growing social movement that sees the interconnectedness of social injustice and environmental destruction. So – all things being equal – the ‘ethical’ aspects of a garment are now generally seen as giving it a positive intrinsic quality.
On the matter of responsible consuming however, I think there is a danger sustainable fashion models based on slower, more considered production, may be dismissed by mass-market apparel manufacturers as exclusively the domain of high-end collections. For all of H&M’s talk about promoting recycling, the fundamental profit model fuelling its expansion is quick turnaround collections, the use of oil guzzling and cheap fabrics and repeat over-consumption. As long as people buy clothes to wear only a couple of times with the intention of soon replacing with more of the same, H & M can continue to thrive on its current model. This is what they promote and this is the elephant in the room every time they boast sustainability. They provide a valuable cheap source of clothes for those on a tight budget, but their big success story is the repeat customer buying too much and too often. That is what needs to change. Buying cheap is a false economy. Buy less and choose well!
What would you say is the ‘Ethical’ element of your brand? (I.e sustainable, organic, handmade, vegan etc.)
Environmental sustainability is the key ethical element behind my brand. Apart from a small amount of British Bluefaced Leicester yarn, the new AW15 range is all made entirely of British alpaca yarn.
Compared to sheep and goats, alpacas have a gentle touch on the earth. Alpacas are grazed non-intensively on green pasture and eat a whole lot less than sheep and goats. They are a low impact grazers, they do not rip up grass from the roots like sheep and goats. They need to be sheared every Spring for their wellbeing and produce a thick fleece of between 1-3 kg. The AW15 colours are made from a blend of alpaca fleece shades – no dyes are used in any of my alpaca threads. This saves on water and chemical consumption, and at the end of its life an undyed alpaca garment is fully biodegradable and does not leach dye. Alpaca fleece also needs less washing than greasy wool – and it is hypoallergenic because it does not contain lanolin – resulting in less water, detergents and chemicals in the yarn processing cycle. Most of my pieces in the AW15 collection are made on hand-operated industrial knitwear machines, and my garments are fully-fashioned – this means there is minimal wastage in the knitting process.
It seemed to me like the natural choice to keep all production within the UK because this is where the raw materials for my pieces are derived, and there are skilled knitwear manufacturers who are struggling after years of off-shore production. I wanted to limit carbon emissions in transportation during production and I also wanted to show a local supply chain is possible within British fashion.
What keeps you inspired or what inspires you to jump out of bed in the morning and do a handstand (or whatever rocks your boat)?
What my label produces is a drop in the ocean, but I feel that my tiny label is part of a bigger movement to fight the conventional, carbon-heavy method of fashion production – and that floats my boat! Most big fashion labels default to maximising shareholder value at the expense of environmental concerns and will only compromise profit for the sake of legal compliance – and that is such a slow moving beast. So, complex supply chains get blamed when things go wrong because they are ‘complex’ rather than downing tools and demanding utter transparency. Millions of barrels of oil are consumed in mass-producing polyester, scarce water sources are depleted to irrigate cotton fields to feed a ‘bottom line’ fuelled by mass over-consumption. Just because it is within the parameters of current laws does not mean it is morally right. It does not need to be like this and some big labels are taking up the challenge to write their own set of higher standards. Eileen Fisher, Patagonia and G-Star Raw are names that immediately spring to mind, but there are so many small, focused labels committed to this too – accepting longer production cycles, investing in the whole supply chain and committing to stricter auditing in sourcing. The more fashion labels refuse to accept environmental harm and social injustice as ‘just business’ and the more they take a considered approach to what goes in and what comes out of each product, the conventional model of doing business will become increasingly unpalatable and outdated.
Have you collaborated with bigger brands/designers?
My photoshoot for my first mens accessories collection for AW15 was a styling collaboration with cool surf brand Finisterre. Surfing is close to my heart, having grown up by the beach in Australia, and I’ve been interested in their story to promote cold-water surfing and they have been using a British-grown merino cross yarn called Bowmont in a range of their men’s jumpers. I was thrilled to use their top menswear threads from their AW15 collection in my shoot on Watergate Bay. The Ally Bee mens scarves were the perfect match for Finisterre, if I do say so myself.
I’ve also worked closely with two other start-up alpaca labels – Caroline Roberts and Lucy Cox Knitwear – we’ve shared notes, suppliers and bought yarn together. A problem shared, like they say. I’m open to collaborations in the future with brands or bloggers – it is an exciting time to be producing collections in the UK as so many designers and brands recognise once more the wealth of talent in specialist manufacturing on our small island.
Is there any exciting news for your brand that you would love to tell us about?
Ally Bee’s Autumn Winter collection has now launched – including men’s accessories for the first time, all in pure British alpaca. Also, there are some exciting homewares on the horizon for Ally Bee. I’m also excited that Ally Bee has been invited to be part of a big ethical fashion initiative in Australia launching in Sydney very soon. Watch this space!
So there you have it folks, be sure to pop our to Ally Bee to see their new collection and get your christmas orders in before the stock runs out. They will also be at the Rosewood Hotel Slow Food and Living Market from October onwards. Happy shopping.
Enjoying what we have to say about this brand and others? Then share this page with your friends and spread the word about our journey towards ethical and sustainable fashion and lifestyle via our twitter, instragram and facebook accounts! Even better, sign up to our newsletter so you are always up to date with our awesome FEEL GOOD brands we are reviewing!
Wishing you a beautiful week ahead, lots of love, the Saiint Sisters xxx