Before the launch of Esse (www.essethelabel.com) last August, Alicia Tsi, 29, was, in her own words, a “trend-chasing fashion victim, who once owned a wardrobe full of poor-quality fast fashion”. She was also co-founder and designer of the now-defunct women’s work wear brand Al et Clar, where she had to create as many designs as possible.
“Until I had a deeper understanding from reports and documentaries about the human rights and environmental issues behind the garment industry – one of which was the 2015 documentary The True Cost – and became disappointed in the quality of fast fashion, being sustainable was not on my radar,” says Tsi.
Photo: Tan Wei Te / Art Direction: Li Hwee Shan
After her eyes were opened to the problems in the industry, Tsi took courses on supply chain management and managing overseas suppliers at the University of the Arts London. Using her new knowledge, and the experience she had gained at Al et Clar, Tsi started Esse (say “s-see”), a line of sustainably made and made-to-last “elevated classics” to inspire women to consider the purpose and life cycle of their garments.
It starts with natural or organic fabrics, recycled or upcycled materials
Tsi uses mostly organic cotton, or natural-fibre materials such as bamboo and lyocell. The former is grown without the use of synthetic fertilisers or pesticides, while the latter is biodegradable; both minimise pollution.
“A small selection of our range uses non-organic fabrics – mainly because organic cotton isn’t suitable for certain designs, and not a lot of organic fabric options are available, or the minimum quantity for ordering these fabrics is extremely high,” she says.
These non-organic fabrics are either natural (produced in a sustainable way with a smaller environmental footprint than synthetic fabrics because they are biodegradable) or salvaged from dead stock or leftover fabrics (some synthetic) that may have been destined for the landfill.
Tsi also vets her textile suppliers and manufacturers, noting the types of dyes they use and the fibres that go into their fabrics, to ensure that are certified for producing organic materials.
Then, she says no to wasteful manufacturing and sweatshop labour
“Manufacturers in China and India require high minimum orders, which leads to surplus inventory. But we found a factory in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, that’s open to manufacturing in small batches. This allows us to make only what we need, not large amounts that we have to offload through sales and discounts. Offering markdowns ultimately leads to brands devaluing their products and creates an expectation that clothing should be cheap,” says Tsi.
As it is relatively close to Singapore, Tsi is able to meet her supplier once a month to maintain a face-to-face relationship and understand its operations first-hand, so they can work closely together to improve production processes.
Tsi also chose the factory because it has a fair, safe, healthy and clean working environment with no forced or child labour. “Employees get basic benefits, engage in positive environmental policies, and have free access to clean toilets, potable water, suitable spaces for meal breaks, and sanitary facilities for food storage. Proper quality-control procedures are in place: Employed seamstresses work nine-to-five, with weekends and public holidays off, and earn wages that meet minimum industry standards.”
And there’s transparency
“The fashion business is not transparent – or not as transparent as it should be. At Esse, it’s all on our website. We feature the people and factory that make our clothes, and we tell our customers where and how each product is made, from the source of the materials to the composition of each fabric used. This encourages customers to be more curious about their clothes and helps them become aware of what goes into making each garment.”
Esse’s prices range from $59 for tops to $129 for dresses. A premium range made of silk will be launched in April, and will be priced at $150-$250.
Tsi gives us tips on shopping consciously:
Video: Shannon Ang / Art Direction: Li Hwee Shan
This story first appeared in the March 2018 issue of Her World.