Kelli Woo is the founder and designer of Basal, a Los Angeles-based underwear label, whose mission is to make their consciously sourced product affordable to everyone. Kelli is currently the women’s senior designer at the Add Black design agency.
Allie Cameron founded lingerie label HARA after traveling throughout Asia and experiencing firsthand the substantial environmental impact that the fashion industry has on the planet. With HARA, which means green in Hindi, Allie is creating a bridge between the design and sustainability worlds in order to address this shortcoming in the fashion industry.
Kyle Calian: So whoever wants to go first, just describe your path to how you ended up doing what you're doing with your respective brands.
Allie Cameron: Right now we are in Melbourne, Australia, creating a production house and a dye house. Six years ago, when I was in high school, I had an online clothing business where I was buying and selling recycled clothing. That was when I first became aware of the fashion industry and of the role that we play in it, as individuals and as consumers.
After school I stopped doing the business, but it was always in the back of my head that I was going to end up doing something with sustainable fashion. A few years after finishing high school, I watched the documentary “The True Cost.” I knew in that moment that there was something that I could be doing right now to positively impact this industry.
So I went to India for three months where I worked on cotton farms, talked to farmers, visited factories and broadly began to learn about what is really going on in this space. When I came back to Melbourne I did more research and decided to go to Bali, which produces a lot of bamboo, because I learned that bamboo was the most sustainable fabric in this moment. So I spent the year there creating the brand and the company.
Now we're back in Australia creating our own production house so that we can have full control and make sure that our growth is done in the most sustainable and ethical way possible.
That's awesome. And Kelli?
Kelli Woo: How did I get here? I started sewing when I was younger, beginning with making my own bikinis. I was always really into swimwear. I went to school for fashion, and then straight out of school I started working at Rukka. When I was there I started realizing how toxic and horrible the whole industry is to the environment.
The main thing for me was seeing the printing and dyeing processes and realizing how horrible all of that is for the people that are actually doing it. And then there’s also the waste from all of the things being shipped back and forth daily. The carbon footprint of even the smallest items was astounding to me, and it was so difficult to watch firsthand. So I planned to start this small underwear brand, because I knew how to sew. I started making all of my own samples and found a mill and a dye house that was in LA. Everything was within a 20-mile radius of my house. My main concern was making sure that everything was really close, within driving distance, so that I could be there when there were any issues and avoid any unnecessary transportation.
I was still working at Rukka when I started, and there was about one year of trial and error as I learned how to keep my business practices ethical and sustainable. Now, I work with a small, family-owned factory that's just a few miles from my house, where I am still learning the ins and outs of how to produce locally with minimal waste. That's where I'm at now.
Bouncing off of that, what would you say your mission is with Basal?
KW: My main concerns are the environmental impact of my products and keeping it all domestically made, as nontoxic and sustainable as possible, all while providing fair wages to workers. But I also want the product to be accessible, at a price point that is attainable for all consumers.
AC: Yeah, I was extremely similar. I guess all of us in this industry of sustainable fashion have this same kind of idea. But basically to have a clothing label that's designed with the earth in mind that creates pieces that are sustainable and ethical at their core. Having a clothing label that is from the seed and the cultivation of the fabric right to the end product is rejuvenating and empowering.
Perfect. Could you talk about your production process? And for you, Allie, what inspires your designs and fabric sourcing? What distinguishes you from the rest of the industry?
AC: The designs for me are inspired by how the body moves. I want to create an item that allows the body to move with comfort, one that is minimal but supportive. Because for me, I've never been into bras that have wires or are really restricting. I'd rather wear no bra. So when I was creating the two bras that we have now it was like, OK, how can we make this comfy and as minimalistic as possible? So that's what I've carried on when I'm designing, with the supposition that we should just let ourselves be ourselves and let our bodies move how they are meant to move. We have to wear clothes, because you can't go outside naked (though I wish we could). So why not make them look cool?
AC: That's where my inspiration comes from. I try not to overthink it. I just want the pieces to be easygoing and playful. Though I do really like Japanese fashion, so I think as we expand I'm gonna keep that feeling of simplicity that the Japanese do so well. I always think about ‘90s fashion, too, especially with the colors we have and the way we do our photos.
KW: Yeah, I think your colors are always amazing. I'm always inspired by your color pallet.
AC: Thank you.
Could you talk a little bit more about your production process?
AC: For our fabric we source from a company that creates lyocel, using a recycled loop process. So it uses one chemical to break the bamboo down into sludge, and then the sludge is processed into thread. Taking into account the whole process, I 100 percent believe that bamboo is the most sustainable fabric available now. Eventually, we are going to create our own fabric that we cultivate from the seed ourselves, but that's later down the track. We can never be 100 percent certain unless we're doing everything ourselves.
AC: Like Kelli was saying, dyeing in the fashion industry is one of the biggest environmental hurdles. The world's largest exporter of dyes is a city in China, where the water is no longer potable because of contamination from artificial dyes. For us having natural dyes is a no-brainer. We actually just created a dye house in Melbourne where we’re going to create our own natural dyes.
KW: Like I said, my main thing is keeping every step in the production process as geographically close as possible. Another huge thing that I have found is that the actual milling of fabric is really harmful to the environment, because shipping it back and forth uses tons of energy and tons of resources.
I found a mill in Long Beach that's like 5 miles away from my house, which is super lucky. They use an organic cotton spandex blend. I’m not a huge fan of spandex, but it fits well and lasts a long time, and it can be used for nearly every activity. I apply that same line of thinking to my design process. I’m always looking to create comfortable, timeless silhouettes that can be worn for any occasion at anytime.
California has really crazy regulations — in a good way. There's a proposition called Prop 65 that basically prevents any chemicals from being leaked back into the groundwater and prohibits the use of toxic chemicals at any point during the manufacturing process.
My elastic also comes from the mill in LA. It’s undyed and as nontoxic as possible. And then my sewer is 15 miles away from my house, and my colorer is right next door, so I can keep everything super close. Ideally I would have a dye house of my own where I could create natural dyes, but it's difficult and there's no one here that offers that. So I love the fact that you're doing that, Allie. If I were in Australia, I would for sure utilize that service.
You can only do your best. That's a point we tried to highlight in The Regeneration's first issue. It doesn't happen overnight.
KW: Yeah. True.
On that note, what do you think will be your biggest challenge going forward, and what do you see on the horizon?
AC: As we grow, probably our biggest challenge will be to maintain our sustainable practices at a larger level.How can we mass produce at an ethical and sustainable level, and is that even possible? For us, that is the question of the time. In terms of where we're heading, the goal is to have HARA as a platform to be able to make projects in areas of the world that need environmental support. That's why we were created, to be able to create a safe, stable label and then use all the funding from that to go and actually rejuvenate the earth into what it's meant to be.
For sure. And Kelli, challenges going forward?
KW: Yeah, same as Allie. My biggest challenge will be maintaining sustainability as we grow. But then also, we all know fast fashion is a thing that is probably not going anywhere anytime soon. Shoppers buying habits aren’t going to change overnight. So it’s a challenge to balance staying relevant when it comes to design and product, with our mission to provide long-lasting, timeless pieces.
I also want to keep my prices as low as possible. At the same time, I'd like to eventually be in stores. So I need to figure out a model that allows me to make enough margin and still be able to sell in stores while staying true to my brand.
Related to that notion of scaling, what role has social media played in growing your business? You both have a very prominent presence there.
KW: It’s been really important. On a personal level, social media is not really my thing. The facade of it all is pretty hard for me to swallow. But when it's Basal I've tried to make it as authentic and true as possible and tried to put my own personality into it, which has helped a lot. It's definitely allowed me to grow and reach people that I otherwise wouldn't have reached. I've met a lot of people through it, too.
People are so awesome, and they hit you up and try to collaborate. You build so many relationships from having a presence on Instagram, especially, and that's something that's been really helpful. And everyone's always willing to lend a hand and talk about things and talk to like-minded people. It helps build a community.
AC: Yeah, same sort of thing. Social media for us is everything. It allows us every day to reach a large group of people in an instant. For me, it allows me to do that through creative imagery, which I just feel is the most amazing thing ever. I didn't create HARA just to be a sustainable clothing label. I created it to make a community and to empower men and women to love themselves and be themselves and to love the human body enough to care what we put on it.
For so long now we've been told the same story on what beauty looks like, how we should act and what we should say. That whole thought pattern is so old that it's tiring. It's amazing to be part of this new revolution, where we've come to this realization that beauty exists in everyone in different ways.
Kelli, you mentioned beauty and changing that paradigm. What trends are you seeing, and what are your customers demanding?
KW: Definitely a trend that is happening now, which is so awesome, is women empowerment. Not just women, but beautiful bodies and confidence in any type of form that you come in. That's definitely a huge trend and something that I also try to support by choosing a diverse group of models and celebrating every body shape and color. That's huge.
I think ethical and sustainable fashion is a trend in itself, but it's more of an evolution to what we're so used to seeing. I read some article that there's like a 40 percent market share missing in America of people who want to see that transparency and who would be purchasing it if there were transparent brands that explained where everything came from.
Hopefully, that's true. People are realizing how important it is to spend your money wisely and to know where everything comes from and to also not buy a million things. The notion that less is more is, I hope, a trend that’s here to stay.
Definitely. Allie, have anything else to add to that?
AC: Yeah, within the sustainable fashion industry I can definitely see a trend of younger girls getting on board. I think for a long time now sustainable fashion has been seen as expensive and lame. And now, because of social media, younger girls are making it super cool, and saying that they want to be a part of the fashion revolution.
I talk to young girls all the time that want to start their own clothing labels, and they want to start it sustainably. I see young girls all the time talking about how they can make more sustainable choices. So there's amazing conversations happening within the younger generation. And they're the ones that are gonna bring on this change. They're the ones that are going to really push it.
The fashion industry is gonna change like crazy this year. And I think that needs to happen, because this is what's going to make the larger corporations like H&M and Topshop not only make a change, but also prove that it's genuine. I feel like we're past the point of just accepting the label of organic at face value.
People want to peer behind the scenes. Because of social media, people can see people walking around in China with gas masks, and they can see the rivers getting blue and the dogs getting sick. We can now see that with our own eyes, so there's no shying away.
Totally. Since starting this project, I've felt a very strong reaction from everyone who has interacted with it. I'm sure you both feel the same. There's a feeling of connection that comes from interacting with something tangible, whether that's a person or material or idea.
KW: I have a question. So just when you look around, do you think places like Australia and England are a bit ahead of the curve on sustainable fashion?
AC: Yeah. I think Australia is so forward on the sustainable movement. I lived in Bali for a year, and when I was there I was surrounded by a lot of people that were environmentally conscious. And when I came back to Australia just recently, I was overwhelmed by the massive change that has happened here, like with supermarkets that are going to cut out all plastic bags. And all of my friends are like, “We don't use plastic anymore.” That's a thing of the past. It’s uncool. Like plastic's uncool. I feel really good being able to create Hara in a space where everyone's really supporting of it. Same goes for England.