In 2012, Melbourne fashion designer Jade Sarita Arnott was exhausted, out of pocket and fed up with the relentless fashion cycle. So she closed her label Arnsdorf and walked away. “It was a big decision, but it also felt like the right decision at the time,” she says.
A year later, as she watched the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh unfold, she knew she had done the right thing. Although none of her garments had been manufactured in the region, the collapse of the factory building in April 2013 that killed more than 1,100 people, as well as the harsh conditions and low wages paid to the garment makers, made her question everything about the industry that she had once been a part of.
“It really struck an emotional chord with me,” she says.
Now Arnott has returned to the fashion industry. And she’s promising a different way of doing business.
Arnott was tipped for success right from the start. The young Melbourne designer launched her label in 2006, two years after graduating from RMIT. Fashion pundits were soon swooning over her quietly edgy but elegant designs, and Cate Blanchett, Róisín Murphy and Garance Dore were spotted wearing them.
She was off and running: designing a collection each season, rushing it into stores, watching it go on sale, then repeat, and repeat again. “You put all this effort in, you put it out there and then it’s marked down or put on sale,” she says, “It loses a lot of value because it’s last season. It’s this constant push for the new.”
The label was stocked in many top Australian boutiques, but retail conditions were tough and she was out of pocket when some closed down without paying up. The system was broken and Arnott was burnt out. “I needed to press pause and reassess whether this was really what I wanted to be doing.”
So she quit, and went back to studying, first photography at the International Center of Photography, then industrial design at the Pratt Institute, both in New York. And she focused on her family, becoming a mother to two children. “I had put everything into my career and it was nice to step back and not be all consumed by my work.”
Often she thought she was done with fashion but sometimes she considered a return.
Then, while she was in New York, she was approached by US brand Apiece Apart to work on a denim range. There, in their lofty offices surrounded by a team of women, with all the joy of design and little responsibility, she rediscovered her creativity.
Freed from the demands of designing seasonal collections, she also started to think about what she really needed in her own wardrobe as a working woman. Even with an abundance of choices at hand, she felt she had nothing to wear on a daily basis. “I don’t know if it’s just because I am a designer but I’m hopeless at shopping,” she says with a laugh. “I find it much easier to design a collection than to know where to start with shopping.”
And so, determined to do things differently and to create clothes that women really want to wear, she decided to return to Melbourne and the world of fashion. For the last year she has been quietly working on a new collection – and a more sustainable fashion business model.
When we speak, on the eve of the relaunch of her brand in time for Australian fashion week, she sounds excited and nervous. The collection, dubbed Release 1, is inspired by “strong women who forge their own paths”, particularly architect Eileen Gray. With 52 pieces, the large collection is filled with wearable tailored pieces, including the wear-anywhere black Roanne dress, the forest green Kate skirt, the ivory silk shell Jane jacket and a flattering pair of black wool suit trousers with “jet pockets that are placed in the perfect position to flatter your behind.” These are pieces that will be worn again and again.
But the real change lies in the way Arnott is selling her range. She designs them, they are run up by her machinist, Gemma Cahill, manufactured in the in-house factory in Collingwood and then distributed directly to the customers via the website.
Arnott has also done away with the idea of releasing a collection every season, and will instead release up to 15 items every eight to 10 weeks in small batches. That means keeping all the manufacturing in Melbourne and no wholesaling, no mark-ups, no wasteful overflowing inventory and no end-of-season sales.
The items are reasonably priced and customers can see a breakdown of costs including labor, material, and logistics online, so the supply chain is transparent. There are no synthetic fabrics made from petroleum and non-biodegradable materials; instead the focus is on organic cottons, linens, hemp, wool, silk and bamboo. And finally customers can visit the factory showroom to have garments tailored and fitted.
It’s small, and even perhaps a little old-fashioned, but it’s a significant break away from the endless fashion cycle, mass production and waste of many clothing brands. Arnott says online shopping and social media have changed the way that customers interact with fashion brands, and offered an alternative to traditional retail or department store business models.
She says even if the big department stores do come knocking on her door, she’ll say no thank you. “The whole business has been designed around this model, so we’re taking different margins than if we were wholesaling, investing a lot of our resources into the highest quality sustainable fabrics [and] really well paid local wages.”