16 September 2019
Inside an ethical fashion business
Our Project Manager for the Business & IP Centre's scale-up programme, Innovating for Growth, Vanesa, not only manages the programme by day, but also runs her own sustainable fashion business by night, weekend and everything in between. Here she discusses why she started her side hustle and what values are important to her business.
Vanesa Vinhas is a sustainable fashion brand for women, the idea starting when Vanesa couldn’t find ethical clothing in her style below the £500 price mark. “My designs are aimed at women who are looking for elegant and chic sustainable clothes at reasonable prices. Our style takes classic cuts and gives them a contemporary twist, using good quality organic or recycled fabrics. Most of our outfits are the sort of thing you could wear for work or pleasure.” After launching in July 2018 her products have been selling online through her Vanesa Vinhas website, online sustainable fashion marketplaces like MAMOQ and pop-up shops around London.
Starting a business seemed inevitable as Vanesa explains, “It’s definitely something in the blood. I took the name ‘Vinhas’ from my grandma - it means ‘vineyard’ in Spanish. She built two highly successful food shops after becoming widowed in post-Civil War Spain and had to provide for her children. Back then Spain was very much a ‘man’s world’ and life was very hard. But she was a really brave lady and a strong character. She also helped a lot of people in her local area who were in need. My dad followed in her footsteps, starting his own factory and helping a lot of people to start their own businesses. So ‘business talk’ has always been familiar to me from early childhood - but rooted as well in a very strong set of values.”
Seeing first-hand the amount of determination and energy it takes to start and run a business didn’t deter her. “I always had doubts about starting a business myself. My career choice at the start was to support other entrepreneurs. And for over a decade, here in London and also New York, I have done that, helping people at all stages of growing small businesses. But several years’ back I took an evening course in fashion design at St Martins’ and the idea of starting my own line of clothes took root.”
If it wasn’t making dresses for her dolls as a child, or getting hooked on clothes through her three sisters (and the hand-me-downs), which sparked her love of clothes, her career starting in the fashion industry, working for the fashion designer Antonio Miró did. “I can spend hours looking at clothes and never get bored! Last year I finally decided to go part-time at the British Library’s Business & IP Centre so I could set up my clothing brand. In the end the ‘bug’ got me!”
Vanesa started with a simple principle, “our customers shouldn’t have to make a choice between looking good and wearing clothes that have been made responsibly. Sadly most of the clothes on sale today are made in a way that creates so much waste and damage, often in the poorest parts of the world”. From there the creative part begins, “I usually start with a mood board where I play around with ideas, before I start to draw concept designs. The history of the garment itself and the people who’ve made it iconic is a big part of my inspiration. Like Elizabeth Taylor wearing a kaftan in the Palm Springs desert. What interests me is how garments can be identified with a certain place. The jumpsuit collection is inspired by London. The jumpsuit is an outfit with a lot of history, but also very 21st Century. It's something you can wear for work or play. A bit like Londoners, it’s very versatile and constantly reinventing itself.” She then works with a freelance seamstress who works from her home in East London with hourly rates well over the London Living Wage. The outfits are made from GOTS certified organic cotton and TENCEL and are delivered to the customer in recycled packaging by Royal Mail. 10% of the profits go to charities that empower women facing injustice, violence and poverty.
Waste is something Vanesa is very cautious of, “I don’t want to make clothes that end up in landfill, so we make small batches and repeat orders in response to demand. Most importantly, I design my clothes for customers who want to feel stylish wearing something day in and day out until it is literally beyond repair”.
Other social causes impact the way Vanesa Vinhas is run, making sure those who make the clothes get a fair salary and work in safe conditions, all values Vanesa grew up with. “My family always took being an employer as an important responsibility. I come from a small town and as a child it was easy to see the role that our businesses had in the community. Buying organic isn’t just about the environment, it also means workers, often in developing countries, aren’t exposed to dangerous chemicals and have basic workplace rights. I couldn’t imagine having a partner in my business who isn’t treated fairly - it’s out of the equation.”
The customer is also an important consideration, “the end product has got to be an essential component of someone’s wardrobe. For me that’s something you can wear day in day out, and feel comfortable in, at work or with friends. The process of making this takes time and a lot of team work, but it’s where the magic happens. It involves sourcing the right fabric, getting the design right with my pattern maker and then figuring out how to construct the clothing with the seamstress or manufacturer. Everything needs to come together - the style, the quality of the fabric, the sustainability of the product and at an affordable price.”
Looking ahead, Vanesa’s looking at future growth and where she sees the business in the future, “the brand is very new and I am still learning. What I’m working towards is that by the end of 2020 I can be profitable enough to take a part-time salary. It seems small, but the reality is that businesses take time to be profitable. It would be a big achievement as a micro-entrepreneur!”
Vanesa is currently investing everything she gets back from sales into the business. “I have chosen to grow organically instead of looking for external funding. I would like to continue designing a few new pieces each year and bringing back my most popular garments. My key focus is to increase direct sales through my website and be listed on more online platforms, pop-up shops and boutiques. I am very excited that I am soon going to be joining Gather & See an online sustainable fashion marketplace.”
Working at the British Library’s Business & IP Centre has also been beneficial, “It’s a fantastic place to work and I get to help some amazing entrepreneurs who come through the Innovating for Growth programme, so the business needs to fit around this.” Vanesa has also taken advantage of the market research reports, such as Mintel to access consumer trends, specialist sector-specific workshops which take place at the Business & IP Centre with Fashion Angel, as well as other workshops such as PR with Jessica Huie.
As with any business, there are highs, lows and lightbulb moments, “one of my most memorable moments was doing the first ever shoot for Vanesa Vinhas. The collection was inspired by a trip to the California desert earlier that year when I had my lightbulb moment and realised I wanted to start a ‘slow fashion’ brand, but I didn’t have the budget to go back so soon, so I had to find a creative solution.
“One evening I’d been joking with my husband about using the Tabernas desert in South Spain where the Sergio Leone ‘spaghetti westerns’ and Lawrence of Arabia were filmed. Then we realised it wasn’t such a bad idea after all. And could be combined with our summer holiday!
“On the day, everything started to go very badly - the model cancelled, some of the samples were delayed and I fell down a marble staircase at the hotel and hurt my arm. But then it all started to go back on track. The photographer Michael knew the desert and the light by the back of his hand, and he found our model Cristina. Together they really captured the mood I wanted the clothes to evoke. It’s moments like this, putting yourself out of your comfort zone, that are the most rewarding!”