Is this the end of the road for ElementAll?

Posted on September 13 2016

This week I've discovered that it is not possible for me to continue making ElementAll clothing from New Zealand merino unless I order a minimum of 200 metres of fabric in a single colour, which will cost approximately $7000. To put that in perspective, at the moment I'm ordering in increments of a metre (in different colours) at approximately $38. This change makes continuing ElementAll with the current model and values impossible and brings to me to a crossroads.

The way ElementAll currently works is that a customer preorders a tunic or cardigan in their size and choice of colour (there are seventeen colours to choose from). I order the fabric from Auckland, it is shipped directly to Jan and Marilyn who make the clothing (in Wellington) and I pick it up from them.

Sustainability has been at the heart of ElementAll since its inception and keeping the supply chain as local as possible is a core value. To say that the apparel supply chain is complex is something of an understatement. It is not uncommon for a single piece of clothing to bounce through several countries as it moves through different stages of production (here’s an example of what’s involved in making a pair of jeans). So a key challenge for me, and with some frequency a highly frustrating one, has been ensuring that as many steps as possible in my supply chain are local.

I choose to work with merino for three primary reasons 1) we produce it in New Zealand 2) functionality i.e. it is a beautiful, durable fabric that wears well in cold and hot climates and 3) it requires washing less often which is important as laundering post-purchase is one of the highest sustainability costs of a piece of clothing.

In 2008 as I was looking for superfine merino to use for prototype development, both Designer Textiles in Auckland and Levana just north of Wellington were recommended as manufacturers. I chose Levana because they were within easy driving distance and I could order much smaller amounts of fabric through their stock service i.e. by the metre not by a roll of 80+ metres. By the time I made the decision to take ElementAll to market some years later, Levana been bought out by an Australian company and consequently even though the fabric was still knitted in Levin, to my disappointment they could no longer tell me whether the fibre in the their stock service was from New Zealand or Australia. However I chose to stay with Levana, as the minimum order remained financially viable, compared to Designer Textiles where the fibre was of New Zealand origin but minimum wasn’t viable without me radically changing my product.

Earlier this year, Levana chose to significantly restrict their stock service range of colours which meant I needed to look elsewhere. To my delight I discovered that I could buy Designer Textiles fabric, made from New Zealand fibre, by the metre through The Fabric Store. The cost was significantly higher than Levana but as my business model relies on customers preordering direct from me, and I operate with a reasonable margin, this wasn't too much of an issue. The additional cost was worth it to know that the fabric was made from New Zealand fibre.

But this was not to last. I have just discovered from Designer Textiles that the fabric I had previously understood to be made from New Zealand fibre may not be. The Fabric Store is currently investigating, but even if they confirm that their current stock is made from New Zealand fibre, it won’t continue to be, as Designer Textiles have relocated all their manufacturing to Vietnam.  From that point Levana is the only source of merino fabric made from New Zealand wool.

The essence of ElementAll's design concept is capsule wardrobe, a small number of pieces, that customers can order in a wide range of beautiful colours. ElementAll is also not intended to be my single stream of revenue. Adam (my husband) and I are determined to create a sustainable, resilient and enjoyable life with a number of small revenue streams. I have no desire to grow ElementAll into an empire. I do not want to grow it big and fast, making products for as little as possible and selling them to customers for as much as possible. My intention has always been to manufacture clothing as locally as I can from resources which are as local as possible. I need to earn a reasonable profit but it’s equally important that the prices are accessible to the women I love seeing wear my clothing.

So these are my choices:

  1. Gracefully admit defeat, stick to my values and wind up ElementAll acknowledging that economies of scale aren't the friends of boutique business.
  2. Change one of the core values of ElementAll and continue to buy fabric from The Fabric Store by the metre. Making it clear to my customers that the fabric is now made in Vietnam and I can no longer guarantee it is New Zealand fibre.
  3. Explore the possibility of buying 200 metres of New Zealand greige (the technical term for knitted, undyed wool) from Levana, and work with a bespoke dye house to dye the fabric or garments. I don't know, yet, if this is possible. It may be that if I do it this way, I can also source organic New Zealand wool (like hens teeth). I don’t yet know what this third option - if possible - will mean in terms of colours.

How am I feeling about this? In all honesty, a mixture of frustrated, curious and worn down. The latter because over and over again since the beginning of ElementAll I’ve been told that yet another part of the supply chain has been outsourced overseas and to engage with it requires operating at scale beyond my means and desire. Just this past week an agent for one of the merino knitting companies told me that many people continue to struggle with economies of scale.

Is this the end of the road for ElementAll or just a crossroads? We shall see, perhaps I’ll make an unexpected sharp turn, make this a crowd-funding campaign and run it as a project. Flip the bird at big industry and figure out if there is a way for a small boutique business to keep making local clothing.  If I can find a way than perhaps I can document the process and so other people can do this too…

Watch this space.

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