Melbourne brand Elk is a bit of rare find in the fashion world. They manage to balance super cool aesthetics with ethical production and a reasonable price point. It’s not easy to get all those things right so I’m really happy to be writing about them.
The other reason I’m excited to write about them is because they are truly transparent - they are just as open about what they aren’t doing “right” as what they are. That gives me confidence in a business, it’s really refreshing.
Although they don’t necessarily put their ethical and sustainability practices front and centre, this brand has a lot going on including working towards full traceability from farm to garment by 2025. Elk’s head of design is currently living overseas for three months on a mission to source more sustainable fabrics, materials and manufacturing techniques.
They are now stocked in several countries around the world, enjoying success in Scandinavia, the states and the UK. For our New Zealand readers, shipping from Melbourne isn’t a massive deal, but if you like trying on in person there are a bunch of local independent stockists.
ELK’s Co-owner and Creative Director, Marnie Goding was kind enough to chat with us about who Elk is, what their relationships with factories around the world look like and whether or not she’s feeling optimistic about the current state of the fashion world.
How did you guys get started and what was your vision?
Elk was founded in 2004 on the principal of creating a business that would in turn create opportunities for others and a positive impact on our community. We had a very particular idea of what we wanted to represent which was an independent, small Melbourne business.
We are passionate about Australian design and are focused on keeping our aesthetic clean, well designed and cleverly crafted.
We chose from the beginning to only work with small manufacturers where we could really be a part of the production process. Having access to these makers and their workshops gave us a more intimate understanding of traditional crafts, we could experiment more with them and we could discover materials and processes that we were previously unaware of.
Knowing too that we could see our products being made and know the conditions they were made in was really important. It also taught us the fundamental lesson of respecting other cultures. Our Western ideals and sentiments are just that - quite Western.
So we learnt to appreciate and gain a new perspective for what it means to work within other countries and other cultures; which is to open ourselves learning and appreciation for centuries old crafts, non mechanised production and a more handmade look.
Supply chain transparency is obviously important to you. Can you tell us a bit about your relationships with the companies/factories who make your garments, footwear and accessories?
Elk is like most brands where we know our tier one manufacturers and suppliers. We have great relationships with all of them and visit each of them anywhere from once up to four or five times a year. We have a trusting relationship where we have a mutual understanding for the way we design and work and for the value we place on knowing each other as well as possible.
Interestingly when we started to dive into the tier two and three suppliers we found that despite best intentions that it has been a struggle to really get the transparency we desire. This is the same for all brands.
The issue does not lie with suppliers trying to cover up bad practice, at the heart of the issue is trust. Regardless of the relationship you have with a supplier – their web of contacts and suppliers they have providing them with materials, trims and services are in most cases decades old relationships and they are based on a long standing history of business.
For some of our products we have good transparency right back to materials but for others we still have a way to go.
So what we are working through now is trying to gently break down cultural barriers and have our suppliers understand that we are asking them to reveal their sources not because we don’t trust them but because we want to make sure that right along the line, every link to our product is sourced and produced ethically.
This is the challenge of working offshore in so many different countries. But, its important to us and so we are pushing on.
All of our suppliers either have or are signing up to Sedex or have a BSCI certification which helps with supply chain transparency. In a few cases where we don’t think we are going to be able to ever get the information we need we are sourcing our own suppliers of fabrics etc and having the factories import for us.
So its more work for our team in Melbourne but it will be worth it in the long run.
What does a year of travel look like for you guys to visit these factories? You work with quite a few across a few countries, the travel must keep you busy!
We work mostly in India, the Philippines, China and Korea. In each country we have our key first tier manufacturers and so we visit each of them a minimum of once a year. Others with the lions share of the work are visited more often but we have to divide and conquer.
So our head designer, myself and our agents all take it in turns to visit. Adding onto these trips are visits to new suppliers, material sourcing and then tier two and three suppliers like dye houses, mills and tanneries.
So in a year there are at least six to eight trips between us – we certainly keep our travel agent busy particularly because some of our makers are in unusual, out of the way places.
Would transparency/traceability be more straight forward if you were using local factories? What drove the decision to move manufacturing offshore?
For the first couple of years we made everything we designed ourselves. Then when we started moving into leather goods our first port of call was Australian manufacturers. We travelled to Sydney and met with a few companies but the answer was always the same wherever we went – that the quantities that we wanted to order were too high and that supply of hides was difficult.
We are fortunate that most of our friends work in the fashion industry and so an introduction to a manufacturer early on very quickly gave us a production solution. We were able to use left over leathers they already had and they allowed us to learn with them.
And so it has been the same since. We have been introduced to many, many different people and most of them we are still making with.
In order to control quality too we always wanted to work with manufacturers who are as vertically integrated as possible. So for example the jewellery we make is produced from raw material right through to finished product in one place. It minimises environmental impact with freighting etc and the reality is that the materials for this product just aren’t available in Australia.
Nearly fifteen years on though we would love to bring some production back on shore. So we are in discussion with a local maker to investigate the viability of producing some designs in Victoria and ideally using Australian grown fibres – this would be the ultimate. Its early stages but its been great to get stuck into this, it has been on our to do list for some time.
How else is Elk working ethically/sustainably?
We have a lot going on! We have goals in place which are guiding us to an objective where by 2025 all ELK products will be made with recycled or certified sustainable materials, with full traceability back to the farm and total consideration for reducing production waste and end of life impacts.
Our operation in Melbourne has been totally over hauled in a plan to become zero waste. We have made huge leaps in this area and have solutions for almost everything we output. We are now focused on energy use etc and are working with our local council to achieve some of our objectives.
We have a permanent ethics and sustainability staff member on team who’s sole charge is to analyse what we do now and how we can improve in the future. It is an amazing resource to have her on staff and quite unique for a business of our size. She pushes us and is an incredible researcher which is what a role like this needs because none of the answers are obvious, it takes a lot of time.
We are working on an end-of-life or next use concept for vintage garments which we hope to implement in 2019.
Our head of design is currently living overseas for three months on a massive mission to source more sustainable fabrics, materials and manufacturing techniques which is a huge project. So our products from Summer 19 will made up of almost 70% products with sustainable materials.
We are working closely with our whole team and running training sessions on circular fashion, sustainability and ethics because like most experienced staff this is a new area for them and it is our responsibility to teach them and bring them along with us on our journey
We’re also involved in lots of local community work and we always have a charitable partner/s that we work with. Our work continues with Unicef too.
Do you have a sense of how much customers are purchasing Elk pieces because of your socially responsible production versus just loving the Elk aesthetic?
At the moment we don’t have full understanding of this. We are finding there are more people asking us what we are doing and the questions are becoming more in depth which is great. Our audience is still building and so far we haven’t shared a lot of our journey so most of our customers are existing Elk followers who are enjoying learning more about what and who is behind our products.
As we do open up and take the time to tell people about what we are doing we are certainly getting a better picture of how important this is to people.
Is there anything exciting in development in terms of fabrics for your apparel? It seems like this is an area that is evolving very quickly and providing exciting new options.
Yes we are currently researching many new fabrics both offshore and in Australia. We are making connections with mills, spinners and material suppliers. There is a lot more recycled fibres coming through, organic cottons and then some other less common materials (but it’s still too early to share the specifics).
We are still in the costing and trial phases to make sure that we can produce items that are affordable/achievable and durable enough for their purpose. We are trialling a vegetable based fibre for shoes which we are all really keen to see how this works out. However as previously mentioned we will have a lot more coming through from Summer 19 as we work around 18 months ahead.
What are your thoughts on the ethical fashion movement currently? Are you feeling optimistic about how consumer habits are changing?
When you completely immerse yourself in this topic and open yourself to learning it is exciting, daunting and totally overwhelming at the same time. We have to remind ourselves that at Elk we are at the forefront really. There are so many brands that I hear of who haven’t even raised the subject of sustainability and that scares me.
We are still a small fish in a big pond which means that we don’t provide much in terms of percentage of product into the market but it does also mean that we are more nimble.We are able to change and adapt faster than most.
So I think that it is wonderful that the topic of sustainable, ethical fashion is on the table and this makes me optimistic, but no I don’t think anyone who has any level of understanding about this would agree that change is happening on a global scale fast enough because it is not just consumers who need to change their habits but the factories, raw material suppliers and some farmers too.
It’s a group effort and whilst it will take longer than I or anyone would like, we will get there – we have to, it is not a choice.
Marnie you are a seriously inspiring babe, thank you so much, we’re massive fans!