A couple of months ago I went to visit The Place, Simon Burstein’s new concept store, which is home to innovative English brands such as designer Alice Archer. Whilst I was there primarily to see Archer’s work – which is a main feature of the store – next to one of her digitally embroidered dresses, hung a beautiful honeycomb cashmere sweater. Intrigued, as Simon is renowned for his eye for a brand, I kept a note of the brand’s name, ELWIN, and went to find out more…
ELWIN, where does the name come from?
“There’s a street just around the corner from where we live called Elwin Street. I wanted something connected to us but not our actual names. It’s a Welsh name and we liked it because it’s not too feminine or masculine.”
The name – British, traditional yet modern – really captures the essence of what the brand is about. ELWIN, launched in 2015, is a British premium knitwear brand with a philosophy to create timeless, yet distinctive design that is sustainably made and long lasting.
This philosophy is clearly echoed in the clean lines and subtle geometric shapes of the garments, which give the brand a contemporary feel. The founders, Deanne Morgan Wallace and Daleen Eloff, are both fascinated by architecture, and it’s easy to see where they get their inspiration from.
The pair met at their children’s primary school, where they got chatting about their desire to start their own business, and decided they could combine their skills to work together.
Deanne is a Central Saint Martins Womenswear graduate who worked for designers in London including Hussein Chalayan and Shelley Fox. Daleen, originally from South Africa, has a background in luxury product development and design, having worked with nightwear brand Derek Rose.
Daleen’s time at Derek Rose gave her an extensive understanding of the cashmere industry, meeting suppliers and manufacturers, which, married with Deanne’s design experience, created a strong skillset for a luxury womenswear cashmere brand.
In recent years there has been a popularisation of cashmere, as it is offered at increasingly lower prices. ELWIN don’t shy away from the fact they are a luxury brand; cashmere is a luxury fibre and should not come cheap. Deanne explains why the low prices are concerning:
“The issue with cashmere is that because it’s become more popular as a yarn to use, many of the cashmere goat herds are being overgrazed in China and Mongolia.”
Transitioning into a free market economy has seen the Mongolian cashmere industry grow rapidly, with the number of cashmere goats in the country doubling between 1992 to 1999 from 5½ million to 11 million, and doubling again to around 22 million in 2010.
The sheer number of animals grazing is putting huge strain on the limited pastureland and has led to increasing desertification in the region.
However, ELWIN work with Italian spinner Loro Piana, one of the most renowned cashmere spinners in the world. Loro Piana adopt ‘sustainable herding’ practices meaning that they have their own herds of goats, and guarantee prices from the farmers to help make sure that they don’t overgraze.
“They also focus on producing the highest quality yarns” Daleen adds. Loro Piana “pick the best hairs from the cashmere goats – the underhairs which are longer and finer. Because there are less of these hairs, the high quality yarns are of course more expensive. A lot of the cashmere on the market comes from the goat’s coarser hairs which are lower quality and therefore cheaper.”
“It’s easier for us to tell the difference because we’re looking at knitwear all the time, but still, you can really feel the difference between high street cashmere and something like Loro Piana. Unfortunately labels don’t really distinguish between higher and lower grade cashmere, which is an issue.”
Most garment labels have very limited information, only specifying what the garment is made out of and one of the countries in which it was made. However, in the case of ELWIN, and for many other ethically minded, high-quality brands, it would really benefit them if the consumer was given more information.
The amount of cashmere jumpers we’re seeing on the high street at the moment raises concerns about where this cashmere has come from, how the goat herds are managed and the sorts of prices being paid to farmers. Should there not be some kind of limit on the production of cashmere?
“Personally I think the whole concept of fast fashion is concerning – on a number of levels.” Deanne admits.
“Cashmere is just one example. Setting up the idea that you can just buy things really cheaply and there’s no cost to anybody is very damaging. You don’t really think about what you’re buying or trying to make it last.”
“People used to buy fewer clothes because they were more expensive and look after them for longer. I think the proliferation of cheap clothes has created a throw away culture. I hope that things will turn around and go back the other way.”
There is an increasing base of people who do want more than just a cheap price tag. They want the story behind their clothes, they want to know about the ethics, the environmental and human cost. With social media as a platform, the younger generation is much more questioning.
In this social landscape having smaller brands with more conscious concerns about the environment and ethics will only become more relevant, as they can more easily offer transparency and take due diligence.
“We are only a small company but it means we can monitor our supply chain more easily than a large operation.” Deanne acknowledges.
This is exemplified by the fact that almost all their production is carried out within a single factory in Mauritius, which they visit themselves, in order to ensure standards are met.
They have also started working with London based manufacturer Albion, which will give them even greater control and enable them to support British manufacturing.
But manufacturing – and designing – in London is far from straightforward, with high property prices and business rates. Does London work as a base for a young, independent brand?
“It has a good spirit and people have that entrepreneurial attitude, but there is not enough government support for the industry. There’s more support than there was, with BFC and NEWGEN, there’s more money and mentoring, but I still think we don’t do enough – on both the design and manufacturing side. In Italy the government gives more support to manufacturers and the industry in general, and in turn that supports the designers” Deanne says.
The cost of living and working in London is so high, it makes it difficult for the retail industry, particularly the smaller boutiques to thrive.
Daleen adds: “This affects how they operate as business, taking less risks than they used to take. As a result, it makes it harder for small businesses like us to find a way into boutiques, which is a good way to start off. A few years back I think there were more boutiques and opportunities to start selling in London.”
Despite this, ELWIN are already stocked in a handful of stores, KJS Laundry in Marylebone Lane and Diverse in Tufnell Park, both small independent womenswear boutiques. Because of their price – around the £350 mark – they operate in the more luxury end of the market.
“The rise of fast fashion retailers has shifted people’s perception of how much a garment should cost. We’re in this throwaway culture which affects how people see a garment’s quality and price.”
In this difficult retail climate, the importance of a strong online presence is only growing. They balance their wholesaling to retail stores, with an online shop – part of a smartly designed website. They are also focussing on growing their Instagram following:
“Not only for potential consumers, but also for the interactions and connections you make with other brands, stores, influencers or people who are interesting, it’s such a great tool” says Deanne.
They also hold occasional sale events at their studio in East London.
“It’s really nice to actually meet customers and see so many different people trying things on, different shapes, different sizes, and different ages.
“We didn’t want to make the brand for one particular kind of person, only for super skinny or super young people. We’ve found all different ages from someone’s grandma buying a top, to someone buying a top for their daughter in their 20s.
“It’s also fun to see how different people wear our knits. A blogger bought a jumper and she wears with it with dungarees and big earrings, and a grandma will wear it with a smart skirt and heels. It’s nice how people can interpret our clothes and wear them how they want.”
Deanne explains how they would like to meet more of their customers, but balancing their sale events, with all the other commitments that running your own business involves is not easy.
“The challenge when you’re really small and there’s just the two of you is that you have to do literally everything, so you have to try and work out how to best use your time on a daily, weekly basis, because you’re designing, selling, doing accounts, social media, branding, lookbooks and the website. There’s always a million and one things to do!”
“It’s a school time rather than full time job! We are both parents with young children and both worked full time quite intensively and didn’t want to do that again. Starting your own business gives you the opportunity to have more flexibility about how and when you work. You don’t necessarily work less, but you can at least be a bit more in control.”
Sometimes, from the outside looking in, having your own brand or business can seem like the ideal scenario, being able to be your own boss and dictating your own hours, but the reality for many is actually very different.
“There are pros and cons. It’s a challenge to make sure you’re not working or thinking about work all the time. Even my daughter has started pointing out jumpers to me!”
Deanne gets her ideas, not only from her daughter, but from old sewing and knitting books she collects. They experiment with interesting textures and patterns, which accentuate the simple shapes – the geometric honeycomb of a ‘Jessie’ sweater that caught my eye back in The Place for example.
In a saturated cashmere market, it can be difficult to stand out, but ELWIN, with their commitment to high quality cashmere, transparent supply chain and distinctly modern aesthetic do just that.