There is a big misconception that ethical fashion is expensive. While there are some ethical brands with high price tags that only luxury-conscious shoppers can afford, there are others who aim to make stylish ethical fashion accessible to all conscious consumers. Cue, Dorsu.
This small business designs and ethically produces men’s and women’s collections of timeless, versatile pieces and everyday basics in their very own production studio in Kampot, Cambodia. What began as a humble two-person operation has grown to a team of 25.
“Dorsu started as a small local business to raise funds for a local community school,” shares cofounder Hannah Guy. “My business partner Kunthear, and I soon realised that we had great potential to build an approachable, progressive clothing company and were determined to not only be a part of the fashion industry but to be a voice in changing it.”
The pair revamped their business model several years ago and focussed on growing the company to provide reliable ethical alternatives at affordable price points and haven’t looked back.
Dorsu stands out in the ethical fashion marketplace for a number of reasons. Here’s why we’re singing praises:
In-house production team
For starters, the brand doesn’t outsource any of its production. Its team designs, pattern makes, cuts, sews, packages and sells their clothes all under the one roof (and online of course!) in Cambodia. As one expects of an ethical brand, each employee is valued, treated with dignity and respect and is fairly compensated for their work.
In keeping with their slow fashion ethos, Dorsu also commits to small batch production runs to minimise waste and escape the fashion cycle of ordering massive volumes that will only need to be cleared via excessive discounts and sales at season’s end. That the brand doesn’t conform to the fast fashion calendar gets a big tick.
“We literally show people where their clothes have been made. It’s a unique offer in the fashion industry,” explains Hannah. “Our collections are released in small batches, 2-3 items every eight weeks based on fabric availability and design feedback. Every design is intentional.”
Factories in Cambodia over-purchase textiles for their garment production contracts and sell the unused or unwanted leftovers to independent sellers. Dorsu purchases these fabric remnants to use in their collections, such as soft cotton jersey which features in all their collections.
While the brand can’t be certain where the materials were sourced and originated from, they learn as much as they can at the buying stage and share this with the customer where possible.
From the outset, cofounders Hannah and Kunthear understood that price is a barrier that many people face when transforming their consumption habits. When launching Dorsu, they didn’t want to “price people out”. Dorsu’s pricing strategy makes the brand highly accessible to shoppers, encouraging shoppers who had never considered ethically produced fashion before to make the shift. For example, Dorsu’s tees are priced from $30, mid-length skirts from $60, classic shift dresses from $60 and pants from $70.
So how exactly does Dorsu keep its prices affordable? There are a few key factors driving accessibility: producing in-house rather than contracting to third parties which keeps costs low; using remnant fabrics that is cheaper to buy than new textiles, and having diverse sales channels where they can sell direct to consumer and cut out any middlemen.
“There are still difficult elements and as we expand our range of fabrics our pricing will shift, but longevity of garment life will always be at the forefront of our decision-making,” says Hannah.
Diversity and inclusivity
With diversity, inclusion and representation hot topics of discussion in the fashion community, it seems every brand is including a token person of colour in its marketing and advertising. These inauthentic and tokenistic gestures are easily weeded out when one scrutinises the brand’s messaging all the way through to its website and organisation structure. Dorsu is a breath of fresh air in this department, namely because they are genuine in their approach. Its cofounder Kunthea is Cambodian (not just a white saviour yay!), its employees are Cambodian and the brand embraces diverse models of various shapes, featuring them throughout their social media and website.
The business also has a flat structure, encourages interaction and knowledge sharing between its team members, listens to its staff, and listens to its customers. From the very beginning, Dorsu was created to be inclusive.
Ethical capsule collections
Dorsu’s collections are also timeless and versatile. The brand doesn’t follow trends; instead it creates clothing that will never go out of style and can be worn from season to season, year on year. If you’ve got a preference for classic silhouettes, uncomplicated forms, or have a minimalist and monochromatic aesthetic, Dorsu is the brand for you.
Speaking from personal experience, the pieces are comfortable, stylish and can transition from weekend to office; farm to travel seamlessly. Each piece makes a great building block for a sustainable wardrobe.
Now as part of our collaboration, we conducted a Q&A with Dorsu’s wonderful cofounder Hannah Guy to deep dive further into the brand’s business model and learn the highs and lows of entrepreneurial life.
EWP: Highlights of running your business? What are you most proud of?
Hannah Guy: It truly is a dream to work daily on something I’m passionate about. The garment industry affects every country on the planet, so I believe we’ve managed to find a way to contribute to something at a large scale through our everyday actions.
I get the most excited about the projects we create. We renovated an old warehouse into a beautiful, airy, design-focused workspace – definitely not standard for the garment industry in Cambodia. We just ‘do things’ like photographing models in a natural state because we feel that it’s the right thing to do and we created our own design cycle process because the “norm” just wasn’t right for us.
Mostly, I’m proud that we’ve built an amazing local and global team, and collaborated with inspirational partners. It is humbling to work with, be encouraged by and build true relationships with such creative people all determined to change the fashion industry.
EWP: What are your entrepreneurial challenges?
HG: The challenges are very clearly split into two sections, personal and business. Being an “entrepreneur” is such a “hot” thing and I don’t believe there is enough discussion about how personally difficult it is to run a business. You’re not only pouring every drop of energy into actually establishing the beast, sorry, business, but you’re simultaneously combating self-doubt, financial insecurity, and the immediate outcomes of tired decision-making. If you have staff, some months you’re working your heart out just to make sure they are paid. It’s a lot.
In addition, for Dorsu specifically, we’re operating in Cambodia. We face the implications and barriers of unestablished systems, corruption and unsupportive public services. Things are much slower, more arduous and can be very exhausting.
EWP: How do you measure impact?
HG: To be completely transparent, we don’t currently have a formal process to collate and report the impact created by our company. We have a combination of data comparing our employment conditions to other industry standards, ongoing team training plans and reporting, and staff evaluation and interview data. We measure our wastage, transport of goods and energy, water and resources consumption. One of our 2019 company goals is to collate and publish all of our information in a clear, transparent way. We’ll show people exactly what we do on our floor, within our supply chain and all the way through to our customer experience rather than reading generic statistics taken from global data and applied under assumption.
EWP: Best business compliment you’ve ever received?
HG: That we “walk the talk” by creating a space that breaks down the barrier between producer and consumer by literally having an open plan workshop and store; and that our entire team consistently welcome anyone and everyone to be a part of it.
We also have people come back two, three, four years later, walk into the store with their arms held high saying “look I’m still wearing my favourite dress that I bought here last time”. It’s hilarious and definitely makes me feel wonderful, but, what they are essentially saying is that their garment has held up under all sorts of experiences over time, it’s very important to me.
EWP: Books/films that have been influential in your life?
HG: There are so many! Reading Gloria Steinem’s ‘My Life on the Road‘ helped me articulate many of the feelings I have about working with my business partner, Kunthear. Steinem’s openness to the complexities of working for a common goal whilst coming from such different backgrounds really struck a chord with me. And she’s a graceful, powerful woman, so there was a lot of aspirational moments for me.
I also took incredible comfort in Yvon Chouinard’s ‘Let My People Go Surfing‘. The tagline alone, the education of a reluctant businessman, is an accurate summary of my personal story of establishing Dorsu. There are so many moments in the book that have inspired my decision-making, or made me laugh out loud relating so specifically to certain situations.
Both books brought me reassurance and inspiration. Reading of these pioneering greats who walked, and blazed, their own paths has helped a lot, as my confidence has so often wavered. They’re an amazing read for anyone who finds themselves looking in the mirror saying “look, it might be strange but you’ve totally got this”, repeatedly.
EWP: What are some things that you’d like customers to know that you rarely communicate or promote on social media?
HG: It’s difficult to capture complexity in an Insta caption especially with research showing that our collective attention span for consuming information is shrinking by the day.
I’d like to be able to sit down with each of our customers and explain just how many steps go into producing an item of clothing and discuss what went wrong decades ago when people stopped valuing slower, higher quality production, and started needing cheap, ’it’ items immediately.
It also seems very contradictory, but, I want to tell people to buy less clothes. Sure, buy transparent and ethical when you need to, but, it’s still “stuff” and we need to look at the full picture of changing our consumption behaviours.
I’d mostly like to talk to people about how complicated it is to offer employees “fair” wages and conditions. The greatest barrier to family wellness for garment workers in one country may be fair wages, while in another it may be unsafe transport to work or lack of regulation around treatment of workers. We read about wages, but are not exposed to social context. For example, in Cambodia there are alarming rates of family debt often as a result of poorly managed microfinance programs. There is no regulation around rental agreements, and gambling, substance abuse and family violence statistics are some of the greatest in the region. So, increasing a wage is obviously important, but, with each recent labour award change many workers have suffered from landlords immediately applying the same increase to their rent, or temporarily felt financial freedom without support of managing long-term family debt. In the worst cases, people have suffered an immediate increase in domestic abuse. We try to look at fair employment holistically and our process is complicated. “Fair” is often simplified through broad stroke statements, but, consumers aren’t asking the big questions. Context is vital, and I would like to see customers more often hold explorative conversations within the discomfort of complexity.
EWP: Quotes you live by.
HG: I don’t really live by any specific quotes. Different things inspire me at different times, often music lyrics and concepts from books. I do particularly like Truman’s “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t mind who gets the credit”. And most often lately, I’ve been inspired by the protest placards from the women’s marches in the US and the global climate action protests. Particularly the young people in Australia, I read their signs and am energised for weeks.
Credits: EWP editor-in-chief Jennifer Nini wears Dorsu tee, top, skirt, pants. All other accessories are model’s own. Photography by Ben McGuire.
Disclosure: This post was sponsored by Dorsu. Clothing was gifted as part of this partnership. Opinions expressed are the writer’s own. Specific product information is checked with the business. For more information about our policies, click here.
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