A permaculture farm isn't the usual setting for a fashion photo shoot but in her brief, Kelli Donovan, fashion designer and founder of eco fashion label Pure Pod, is clear about what she wants: she wants the shoot to be relaxed and fun, qualities that resemble her brand.
I figure it's only natural that the photo shoot takes place at my country property. After all, nothing screams "relaxed lifestyle" as much as a farm, right?
On the phone Kelli tells me that she really enjoyed my last shoot, and that she wants to inject a similar down-to-earth vibe in hers. Too easy, I know down-to-earth. Down-to-earth is my thing I assure her.
It's nice talking with someone who as passionate about sustainable fashion as I. I have known Kelli for a while now, since 2010 to be precise. I should be clear, I knew of her. I didn't know her back then like I know her now. With a reputation for being a pioneer of Australian sustainable fashion, Kelli seemed daunting on paper. But as I've gotten to know her, I like that she doesn't behave like a hoity toity fashion diva.
"I have an inner battle with this huge industry and a driving passion to make consumers, future fashion students [she also teaches design students at TAFE] and people more aware of what they buy and the enormous love of making beautiful clothing," enthuses Kelli. "We only have one planet and if it is too polluted nothing will be healthy, not us or the environment or anything we can pass on to the next generation. It is a much bigger dream for me than just making some pretty clothes. This is a life long dream and my path of life."
Byron Bay beginnings.
After 15 years working as a designer in the fast paced fashion industry in Melbourne, focussing on children's wear and men's wear, Kelli found solace in yoga, an interest which helped to spark her passion for holistic health and is one of the reasons she moved to the Australian 'alternative' beachside community, Byron Bay. "When we started in Byron Bay in 2006-7, there was only a small handful of us designing and making ethical or eco fashion in Australia," recalls Kelli. "Most people, including our families, had no idea what we were trying to do but we saw the problems early on and the impact it was having on people and planet back then. Many consumers and friends we talked to had no idea what was happening and how bad fashion was on our environment and for the people making it."
Kelli was right to be worried about the industry early on. In her estimations, "the fast fashion industry has probably tripled in size" since Pure Pod launched. With the democratising power of the internet in which just about any person can set up an e-commerce shop and where businesses battle over the consumer dollar, it is little wonder fashion brands are waging price wars at the cost of the environment and the farmers and workers involved.
"Sadly there is still is a growing fast fashion industry but everyday I see light at the end of the tunnel with consumers telling me they are sick of cheap crappy goods that don't last," says Kelli. "I believe eventually many people will slow their buying habits down and only buy what they need and hopefully only buy better produced goods and ethical products. Just like our grandparents and great grandparents did."
The Awaken Collection.
What I admire about Kelli, aside from her fierce determination to drive positive change in the fashion industry, is the way in which she approaches her brand - like a true artist, tapping into her inner muse and unafraid to explore where it takes her. Fast track to the recent debut of her current collection 'Awaken' and it's obvious that almost a decade later, Kelli is still a designer possessed by a conscious fashion approach that is anything but basic.
"[The collection] is inspired by a few things," Kelli explains. "One being that we will have our 10th Pure Pod birthday next year from our humble beginnings in the Hinterland of Byron Bay to being recognised as an ethical fashion pioneer in Australia and around the globe. Another being that we have changed our direction by producing a part of our collection off shore with a fully certified Fairtrade FLO Certified company and GOTS Certified organic cotton."
"It is an important awakening into a new direction... Many of our beloved makers are retiring or have retired in Australia taking with them years old skilled knowledge. It is a tough industry to be in and the everyday tasks of running a business, organising manufacturing, juggling money and working with suppliers can reduce your drive and creativity. By renewing 'why we do what we do' enlightens our path and creative spirit."
It's not just the decision to move some of the manufacturing offshore that ignited the vision for the Awaken collection. Kelli was also inspired by a botanical artist friend - Lauren Anderson who owns Field and Coppice. "She created a stunning botanical art installation here in Canberra which we fell in love with. She photographed it and we turned it into the print seen on our Awaken collection. For us it symbolises nature, art and new beginnings."
Sustainable fashion seems paradoxical given that the modern fashion industry encourages wastefulness but knowing just how meticulous Kelli is with incorporating sustainability practices into her label is reassuring. She is leading the way. From sourcing sustainable fabrics such as organic cotton through to ethical manufacturing the finished garment, there is a strong emphasis on supporting farmers and workers, hiring local skilled professionals where possible and minimising environmental impact throughout the supply chain.
"We have a vision for a fashion industry that holds planet, people and passion at its core. We’re creating a cleaner fashion industry, we’re protecting the people working in it and using our passion for design to create beautiful products that have a strong identity and story behind them."
The price factor.
Selling Pure Pod pieces at a price point that makes some people gasp, Kelli understands the price dilemma people face, but is keen to educate them on the true cost of fashion created responsibly. "I suggest that [people] do a little exercise and make a piece of clothing themselves. They will see the skill, time and cost involved to make even a simple piece of clothing. By doing a simple exercise like this it might change they way they see our industry and the complicated supply chain we have to work with to produce clothing. So many hands have touched a garment before a consumer buys it off the shelf. By reducing the price of goods to be really cheap for a customer, it is not really paying a living wage to everyone along the supply chain, it is only making it cheaper for the end consumer." Pure Pod thus sells as at price where people can make living wages, enough to support their family and feel encouraged to flourish as individuals.
Being raised on a fast fashion diet, it's hard for consumers to understand this and it's up to sustainable fashion pioneers such as Kelli, and the entire conscious industry, to communicate the message in a way that people understand. "Fast fashion has devalued the industry giving consumers unrealistic ideas of making clothing and producing new collections," says Kelli. She knows only too well the struggles of being an independent designer. "Many small designers have to sell everything in their collections at full price for them to be able to produce another new line for their consumers but fast fashion has given the consumer an unrealistic price guide for clothing. Consumers often expect clothing to be as cheap as it is made in fast fashion factories. But it's the workers paying the price for this on low wages and unsafe working conditions. Fast fashion prices are cheap for this reason."
But on the flip side, the cost of ethical fashion can often be too high, sometimes out of reach for the average consumer. We explored the price issue in a recent article about affordability in ethical fashion. How can a family facing cost pressures from all areas of life afford to buy fair fashion? Kelli understands the dilemma. She has a family herself after all. Buying ethically on a budget is not easy, but is do-able she says.
"I would suggest buying less of the cheap crappy stuff from every area of your life and only buy what you need and then you might find you have a little more to buy a better produced product. Not just in fashion but in every house hold item. Buying better means choosing items that last longer which can actually save you money over the years."
Kelli doesn't need to convince her customers though. They are a loyal bunch who care about creative design, the ethics, the human story, and the level of craftmanship that is involved. Her team includes skilled professionals, from manufacturers, printers, machinists, pattern makers and cutters, who all help turn Kelli's artistic vision to reality. As a seasoned designer, paying highly skilled professionals what they are worth is a priority for her. Fair trade is not a token word slung around for the purposes of advertising and marketing. To Kelli, it is the foundation of her brand. And despite moving some of the production to India, she is as committed to living wages for the people over there as she was with Australian garment workers. "It is hard as a small designer to keep up with the huge fast fashion companies and consumer demand to change collections and come up with new things all the time," admits the designer. But she is determined to do fashion her way - a way that respects people and the planet.
Humility, a forgotten virtue.
Kelli is modest, a rare trait in a fashion designer. She openly admits that taking the sustainable fashion path hasn't been easy, even with an illustrious design career behind her. There are times, she tells me, when she wonders what the heck she is doing. The financial uncertainty, the huge work load, the pressures of running a business while raising a family. "But then in the morning I wake up and there's nothing else I'd rather being doing. I want to do it all over again. I just love what I do." That she's remained in business for this long means that customers too love Kelli's work.
It's refreshing to hear an experienced eco designer speak so candidly about the challenges of running a sustainable fashion brand, particularly as she and Pure Pod have helped to shape the sustainable fashion landscape in Australia. Fashion design seems so glitzy and glamorous, with industry and magazines collaborating to perpetuate this illusion. Kelli, however, doesn't buy into the pretentiousness of it. She knows from hard learned experience that running a fashion business is anything but a leisurely stroll in the park. "I wish I had been more aware of the impact of the constant stress of juggling money in a small business and the constant energy you need to run a fashion design and production studio," she admits.
Now it wouldn't be an interview with one of Australia's leading ethical fashion designers without asking for some sustainable shopping advice. After looking up to her for so long, I was eager to hear what she had to say. Kelli's response didn't disappoint and is as practical as the clothes she creates: "Buy less, choose well, only buy what you really need, spend a little more on better quality items that will last, swap and recycle and don't forget to say no to plastic and extra packaging." When it comes to sustainable fashion designers, Kelli Donovan certainly is the real deal.
To view Pure Pod's entire Awaken Collection, head to http://purepod.com.au
Photographer – Ben McGuire
Model/Stylist – Jennifer Nini
Disclosure: This post was sponsored by Pure Pod. All monies received go towards the running costs of this site and helps us pay fair wages to our core editorial team. For more information, click here.