A Conversation With Arnsdorf About How to Create Real Transparency in Fashion
Jade Sarita Arnott is the founder of Arnsdorf — an Australian womenswear brand that is committed to exceptional quality and ethical production. We met her for a factory visit and asked her to share her experiences from running a truly transparent fashion business.
In 2016, and after a period of pause and contemplation, Jade Sarita Arnott turned her back on traditional wholesaling and brought her vision for a responsible future of fashion to being: She creates perfect, long-lasting garments at a reasonable price by connecting and selling directly to her customers. She demonstrates a sincere commitment to transparency about Arnsdorf’s supply chain by setting up her own factory and running all production in-house. She champions understanding and respect by designing refined and empowering clothing for real women’s bodies and lives. We met the charismatic creative director for a conversation at her buzzing in-house factory in Collingwood, Melbourne, in the midst of getting ready for Melbourne Fashion Week.
You’ve started your brand in 2006 but decided to restructure the business in 2012. What led to your decision?
Jade: Initially, I was working in the traditional sense. I had a studio of my own in New York and I was manufacturing everything in New York, in Australia and in China. We had this global operation and everything was outsourced. I would visit my factory in New York, which was great, but there was this disconnect between me and the people actually making the garments. I would deal with the factory managers and I could never be fully certain whether the machinists were paid the right wages and if the conditions were up to scratch.
In 2012, there was a retail downturn, and in Australia a lot of boutiques that stocked Arnsdorf closed down and didn't pay. Around that time, I also had my son and I wanted to spend time with my him. I didn’t want to compromise that special time and I started to feel that the whole fashion system wasn’t working, or at least that I wasn’t feeling good about the way it was. So, I decided to take a season off, and to reassess what I wanted to do and put my energy into.
Where did you find the inspiration to rethink your brand and break away from the current fashion system?
I was thinking about whether to explore my creativity in another medium. So I studied photography in New York, I did some courses at ICP. And then I started doing industrial design, furniture design, just trying to create things that had more longevity. I didn’t like the idea of designing something, and putting so much energy into it, and then within a few months seeing it being marked down in sales. I just wanted to create meaningful products that served a purpose.
During that time, I worked freelance for Apiece Apart and helped them develop their denim range. I experienced the way they worked — they had a bigger staff base than I used to have, and I really enjoyed that collaboration and being part of a team. I suppose it was a beginning of sort wooing me back into the industry. When we returned to Australia after six years, everyone was asking me: “Does it mean that Arnsdorf is also back?” So I just started from there, there seemed to be a kind of demand.
How did you change your model of operation and what are the changes that you introduce?
I thought, if I’m going to come back, it needs to be on my own terms. We decided not to wholesale, which was a big step to take, because it had been our whole business model in the past. We decided to sell directly to the consumer, and to make everything in-house. I wanted to ensure that we know our whole supply chain and that everyone in our supply chain had meaningful work, that no one was being neglected or taken advantage of.
How did you set up your supply chain for materials?
I went to fabric fairs, and I did a lot of online research and reached out to companies that were doing great things. We formed relationships with new suppliers, and instead of dealing with a fabric agent, we developed relationships directly with the sustainable fabric mills. We also started using dead stock, and we now have an agent that supplies us with high end designer dead stock fabrics.
Could you tell me a bit about the experience of setting up your own factory in Melbourne?
We started off small. When setting up the factory in 2016, it was just me and Gemma, who is now the production manager. Gemma was my first hire, she was a machinist. Now we have three machinists and might soon need a fourth one, it’s getting busier and busier. Just before Christmas, we opened our first shop here in Melbourne and we’ve hired three new team members for the shop. So the team has grown quite rapidly. At the moment, we are in the process of getting an accreditation by Ethical Clothing Australia and by B Corporations.
What inspired you to offer personal fitting and styling appointments?
At Arnsdorf, we aim to avoid having too much stock and creating wastage. We don’t go on sale, and we just make what is wanted. If a customer places an order, we create the item directly in our factory and we offer lifetime repairs on our clothing.
Before we opened our own shop, we would offer a personal fitting and styling service on a weekend, as part of a showcase and experience. Our customers would come in, we would measure them and talk about what they’re looking for in their wardrobe. We love the showcase experience, and the intimacy of a 1-on-1 customer relationship, but we also wanted a more traditional retail space where people, who felt a little bit intimidated by that degree of attention, could browse the collection and try on a full size range of our most popular items.
How long do customers have to wait to receive their order?
We usually say 5-7 days. But we also have an express service, which is 2 days, if a customer needs to get their order fast.
What is your definition of mindful fashion that you want to express through Arnsdorf?
I view sustainability in a multifaceted way. It starts with the fibre, with the materials that you use, and with making sure that they come from a sustainable source. Then it’s really about the design, it’s the key process. We create samples with our machinists here at the factory. We wear and test our samples and we tweak them and perfect them. I am inspired by industrial design, by a company called IDEO, and their design process of rapid prototyping. It’s key to creating something that will last over the years.
What you wear has a direct impact on your wellbeing. If your clothing embodies your values and aesthetics, then you are presenting yourself as a whole to the world.
How do you hope the fashion industry can change for the future in a meaningful way?
I feel like there’s a huge awakening of people, of consumers. All the documentaries that have come in recent years, highlighting the labour conditions of big corporations in developing countries. Now there’s a lot more awareness, and I think that this is creating the shift that people are actually going to be looking for more sustainable, ethically made options.
I hope that this is where it evolves to a new normal, a new standard. I see it as being a little bit like with food and the fast-food culture. Now, there’s more awareness that fast-food isn’t the healthiest choice. It’s become more mainstream to have healthy food, there is more awareness about ingredients.
I think we would see real change if there was more transparency about what goes into each garment. And that’s where we are trying to inform, by having a transparent fashion model. By showing how much it actually costs to make a garment, the cost for the labour, the materials. We have it all on our website, and we also show where we source all of our materials. I think the first step is definitely transparency — so that people can make informed decisions, and also, so that we can educate the consumer about what it actually costs to make something ethically. If you’re going down the high street, and see a t-shirt for $5, then obviously something is a bit amiss because it costs more to produce that ethically. In the future, there will be more disclosure, like with food labels. I think transparency is key to this whole conversation.