Would it be rude if I asked which pants you’re wearing today? There’s over a one in four chance that they’re from M&S. They’re probably black, cotton bikinis, part of a pack of five for around £7. Sound familiar?
How much do you know about where those pants were made? Who made them? The fibre that they are made from? There’s a much higher than one in four chance that you don’t know a thing.
A company set out to challenge our ignorance of where our pants come from are PICO, who have created ethical, organic, Fairtrade, pants that are fully traceable from crop to shop.
The brand was founded by Phoebe Hunter-McIlveen and Isobel Williams-Ellis, after whose names the brand are named (PICO = Phoebe and Isobel’s Company), in October 2016.
The pair have known each other since the age of 12, and became close friends when they both went to University in London; Phoebe going to Goldsmiths to read History and Isobel to London College of Fashion to study Tailoring.
It was at this point that they started to talk about the idea of creating a clothing business that would allow the consumer to understand exactly how their clothes are made – from the sowing of seeds to the sewing of fabric.
Phoebe explains: “We started talking about it years ago, not necessarily pants, but about the provenance of our clothes. When Isobel was doing her tailoring degree, we started to discuss the importance of working with natural dyes and sustainable fibres. I think we became increasingly aware of how little we know about where our clothes come from – especially with basics.”
Dissatisfied with the lack of traceable, everyday clothing, the pair set about creating their own company. But what made them decide to start with pants?
Isobel: “The concept of what we are doing is to provide the everyday essentials, rather than anything too affected by fashion, and pants are as essential as it gets.”
They also spotted an opening in the market. There are a number of companies creating sustainably made denim or knitwear, but very few have tackled underwear.
Surely if you want to make a more conscious decision of what you wear, it makes sense to start at the bottom (no pun intended) with the things you first put on in the morning.
Phoebe: “I think if you can start thinking more deeply about your underwear then you can make a more holistic lifestyle change because they are something you definitely need and wear all the time. If you can make a conscious change with your pants, hopefully that will feed into other parts of your life too.”
One of PICO’s strengths is its informative and engaging website, which features a whole series of pages outlining each step in the creation of the pants. These “stories” sections are becoming increasingly common across young, ethically-minded brands, but even so, PICO’s stands out for its level of detail and clarity of explanation.
Phoebe explains why they chose to put so much effort into this part of the brand: “I think that’s the key reason why we created PICO really, we wanted to learn ourselves how our clothes were made and make that knowledge accessible to everyone else, so that it becomes an expected element of all brands.”
Isobel adds: “We also felt it needed an explanation. It’s really difficult to engage with just how many processes are involved in making a pair of pants.
“Our price is also higher than what people may have come to expect to pay for a pair of pants. We want to explain why this is a fair price, whilst still being affordable. The amount of effort and the number of hands that have handled the cotton just to get it to the fabric stage, let alone the manufacturing, is just vast.”
The UK’s underwear market is dominated by Marks & Spencer, which holds a huge 26 percent market share, and offers pants at just over £1 per pair.
Phoebe: “It’s quite interesting getting people who have traditionally bought a pack of five for £7 from M&S, to then think about buying one pair for £10. It’s quite a shift. But, when you break down the cost to someone, which we are very happy to do, people begin to wonder how other items of clothing are so cheap. In the future we would like to have that price breakdown on our website, so people can understand exactly how we got to the price we have.”
This commitment is reminiscent of Elizabeth Suzann’s blog post which thoroughly articulated all the costs involved in her business and how she gets to the prices she does. After reading, it seems obvious why clothes should cost this much.
Isobel: “Also, if you compare it to food, the price we expect clothes to be is really disproportionate. You may be able to pick up a pair of pants for £1 somewhere, but you’re prepared to pay double that for a coffee. When you think of all the time and work that goes into pants, it just doesn’t make sense to pay so little.”
As a society we have become more engaged with the provenance of the food we eat. Because we consume food into our bodies and its journey from the farm to the plate is more direct, it’s relatively straight forward for people to question its origins. The link between the earth and our clothes is less tangible, and thus easier to overlook.
Phoebe: “For a lot of people it’s easy to forget that our clothes even come from natural fibres. You don’t see a cotton t shirt and think of a cotton plant. The link is less direct, but it still exists.”
It does seem that the slow fashion concept follows the slow food movement. If people have concerns about what they put in their mouth, it’s a logical progression to also be more engaged with what they put next to their skin.
Isobel adds: “That’s also why pants are good, because they are directly next to the skin.”
Linked to this, whilst PICO do most of their sales through their website and pop ups, they see their retail future as potentially lying in health food stores, with the thinking being that those who chose to buy fair trade, organic food, may also want to make the same choices with their clothes. A sentiment that was echoed by Blackhorse Lane Ateliers, who I visited a year ago.
All three styles of the pants are made from Fairtrade, organic cotton. Whilst cotton is a natural fibre, it’s known to be a very intensive plant to grow.
Phoebe: “Cotton is very complex, it’s the most used natural fibre in the world, it uses more pesticides than any other crop, and a lot of water. We explored other fibres, but we decided that organic cotton is a lot better than standard cotton for the farmers producing it, it uses 91% less water than conventional cotton and obviously you’re not using the expensive and harmful pesticides.”
Isobel adds: “Once you go into any industrial fibre things get complicated. Lots of people say why don’t you use bamboo, actually when you look into it, bamboo is not necessarily that sustainable. With cotton, we feel that there are millions of farmers, and if we can support the alternative (organic), that’s a good thing.”
The cotton is supplied to the factory by two large organic cotton cooperatives, who are based in the North of India – one of which they visited in April last year. Working as a cooperative with a fair trade mark ensures that the farmers get a fair and stable price for their cotton crop. In addition, the Fairtrade fund supports various projects within local communities, such as creating safe drinking water sources, funding further education and organising women’s self-help groups.
The pair hope to continue to build on their relationship with these organic farming communities by expanding their range. Sticking with the essentials, they are currently in the process of designing a simple bra/crop top and a vest – long johns are also in the pipeline!
However, for now they are focussing on refining the pants, which leads me to wonder, what makes the perfect pair of pants?
Phoebe: “Super soft, comfortable, durable. For us it was little things like not having a label on the back, so it’s printed. The cotton is really soft and has a nice weight to it, so it doesn’t feel too flimsy.”
Isobel: “Simplicity for us was also a big thing. We wanted something that didn’t have any adornment or embellishment. Just for it to be what it is.”
The pants are what they are, understated but smart. And that is also true of PICO, which although based on a very simple concept of creating a fully traceable garment, it is a concept that is executed brilliantly with real attention to detail.
PICO for me are the modern clothing business, ethical, fully traceable with a strong but simple design aesthetic.
It’s important for us all to start asking deeper questions about where our clothes actually come from, not just where they are made, particularly with our pants, and brands like PICO are pivotal in leading this shift in public mindset.