Episode 57: How respecting people and planet leads to a profitable business with Elinor McInnes of Joslin
- Elinor McInnes
- What led to starting Joslin?
- The main driving force behind sustainability in the ethics
- Staying on track through the design and development process
- On quality
- On the effects of COVID
- Elinor's advice to business owners
- Elinor McInnes
- Lofft Fashion Agency
- Coco & Lola
- Joslin Studio
Welcome to the Fashion Unearthed podcast. If you need help navigating the fashion industry sustainably, you have come to the right place. I'm your host Belinda Humphrey and my hope is to simplify the fashion industry so that businesses can make the best decisions for people, planet and product.
Welcome to episode 57 of the Fashion Unearthed Podcast. I'm your host, Belinda Humphrey, and today I'm thrilled to be talking to Elinor McInnes, creative director and founder of the Women's Wear Label Joslin. If you're a new listener, you might not know that I've started to invite some business owners onto the podcast and highlight some of the amazing work being done locally. When I thought of who was doing a great job of sustainability, Elinor from Joslin of course, came to mind, and the judges of the National Designer Award agree. But we'll get to that later. Joslin is a women's wear brand that caters to sizes four to 18. In today's chat, Elinor talks us through the meteoric rise of the brand, how she's built sustainability into all of the product categories, as well as what it's like to be a new business owner, steering a brand through a pandemic, all the while being in the most locked-down city in the world. Elinor has such a clear vision when it comes to what she's willing to put her name to, and her determination and commitment to keep doing the right thing for people and the planet shines through. I'm in awe of what she has achieved so far, and I can't wait to see what's next. So please join me in welcoming Elinor McInnes.
Welcome to the podcast, Elinor. Thanks for taking the time to come in and chat today. How are you feeling and where are you speaking to us from?
Thank you for having me, Belinda. It's great to be here. This is my first podcast, so I'm very excited.
How exciting. I'm thrilled that you've chosen me.
Thank you. I'm always gonna go with Melbourne before anything. I'm really well, just very busy with the daily runnings of the business, and we have a collection showing overseas in New York and Paris at the moment. Day in, day out at the moment, but very, very good.
Awesome. I wanted to just actually just jump right in. I’ve got a lot of questions for you today, if you could just give a bit of background about what you did before starting Joslin and what led to starting the label?
Sure. I've always been based here in Melbourne. I trained at RMIT University in the city back when the fashion degree, Bachelor of Design, was still in the CBD. I've also always worked in the Melbourne fashion industry, and I've worked across quite a few different business types. I've worked at a boutique and small business level. I worked for a Melbourne-based womenswear brand for about seven years. And then I worked for a major department store, worked for a plus size brand, and then I also went and worked for a designer-based wholesale agency where they owned brands, and we worked on design product development internally. I've kind of done a bit of everything, which has given me definitely a broader perspective not just designer-focused. That's what I've done.
Wow. Sounds like a really good rounding out of getting insight into a lot of different businesses.
Definitely a good rounding out. I, for a long time never thought I'd start my own brand. I think deep down inside I always wanted that. I never thought particularly after starting to work in the industry experiencing it. I wasn't sure if I would start one, but then it just came out of the blue really quickly. I finished working for someone and took some time out. I actually thought, “No, I don't wanna be a designer anymore.” I'm gonna go and be a buyer. Had a few interviews, did a bit more research, thought, “No, don't wanna do this either,” and out of nowhere. I just started Joslin and it just took off so quickly.
What do you think led to that kind of early success where you said it took off really quickly?
I think Joslin found a gap in the market, and it was there and it was ready to be bought into. Five years ago there wasn't as much linen, just linen dresses, and linen event wear around, and I'm not talking event wear for night time, we're talking day wear. We did our first collection just a really small capsule of black navy and white linen and ramie pieces with a bit of cotton as well. We hit that market for the woman or the young woman who wants to wear a hens dress, or wedding dress, for a casual event or she wants to buy into something, but she also wants to not wear it once. It just took off and it was wonderful. I didn't expect it to take off so quickly. I very quickly became quite overwhelmed running the business but very quickly became overwhelmed. Overwhelmed before I launched, launched officially in October 2018. But it was great.
I mean, it's a good thing to be overwhelmed by early success, I suppose.
I think that's a good problem to have.
I hope so.
As part of the label, I know transparency and traceability sort of really come to the fore in fashion in the last 12 months or so, but you already seem to have this embedded within your sustainability commitments. I know that an immense amount of research goes into that and the due diligence around it. Was that something that you did before you even launched product? OR did it evolve along the way?
It has mostly evolved along the way. When I first launched Joslin, we just had one maker. They were of course, W.R.A.P accredited, and we only use European flax linen, but it was such a small capsule range that as I added in more product categories, fully fashion knitwear, denim, silks, the whole shebang. It definitely has been a big evolvement for Joslin. As I've grown the business and I've got more captains taking care of different departments, I've found myself with a lot more time to look into things. And now I've become so fussy and I can't look back. Once you've seen it, you can't unsee it. That's the biggest thing for me. And of course, before starting Joslin, I'd already been overseas and seen, I've seen it at all. I already knew, not gonna say the bare minimum, but I already knew I had to be well above that bare minimum to start Joslin knowing what I already knew. And then now, being in lockdown for so long, I had a lot of spare time researching, and you can't go backwards once you know.
The more I look into it, the more like I get, I'm quite a psycho about certain things now.
What was sort of the main driving force behind making sure that was embedded, the sustainability and the ethics? Why was that so important to you?
Because more than anything, the industry needs a lot of change, and it's such a fabulous, beautiful, wonderfully exciting industry. But we have such a blanket up and such a wall up in terms of how products are actually made and what it takes to create a garment. And especially in the last 20 years with mass production of clothing, people have forgotten, the integrity behind true design and true workmanship and the long time it takes to manufacture a garment from the seeding that goes into the earth, the agricultural side of creating natural fabrics and textiles through to the person making the garment, the person finishing the garment, packing the garment, selling the garment, designing the garment, producing the garment. There is so much work and it's all forgotten. I had already seen the wrong side of things and I just wanna see it fixed. It doesn't need to be the way it has to be. You can run a business in this industry making a profit whilst also respecting people, respecting the planet, and respecting our animals. It is not that hard. It's expensive. It's a more expensive way to work, but it's absolutely not impossible. I can't comprehend why there isn't enough change out there already. Don't get me started.
I did a little bit of reading on your website because I wanted to get this right, but Joslin is described as being romantic styling for a minimalist woman. How do you make sure you stick to this within your design process? Do you have a customer or persona that you always think of when you're designing? How do you stay on track through the design and development process?
This is a really good question. I do actually have a couple of customers that I design for. I have a customer that could be of any age. She could be 20, she could be 70, and she's buying into the brand and she wants beautiful feminine style product but doesn't want to look O.T.T. or doesn't wanna look extra. I don't know how else to describe it. But she wants to be feminine and beautiful and she wants ruffles and bows and all of those beautiful, traditionally feminine pieces without looking…she still wants to look cool, she still wants to look effortless. We've tried to grow Joslin to be that nice in between brand and aesthetic that meets both.
Yes. I think, does that make that really well?
Did I? Because I always write it. I'm never saying it, did I say that correctly?
I think summarized it really well. I guess to tag onto that sustainable fashion sometimes gets a bit of a bad rap of being beige and boring, but obviously, you do a beautiful job of creating desirable pieces that are backed up with provenance. Are there things that you can't do or don't design because of the lack of transparency?
Yes, definitely. I think as the brands have grown, I've done less of what I launched the brand with. I, of course, launched the brand pre-pandemic and definitely did a bit more party wear. And now we don't do so much. And it's not because I don't love designing it, it's because I can't see the longevity in it. I'm hands down, I still love doing it, and we still do a small amount of it, but I can't keep putting that into the planet knowing that it's gonna be worn only a few times. But in terms of just overall, we use a very small amount of fabrics. We use linen, we use ramie, we use silk, organic cotton, merino wool, and traceable cashmere. We're pretty much limited to that. We don't explore a lot of different fibers and compositions purely because I need to know where they come from.
There are no polyesters used unless there isn't an alternative. With that, that's 50% of the fabric options kind of gone. We've got your viscose and everything like that but unless I can make the MOQ, I'm not going to use them. Or unless I can absolutely trace every little bit, I'm not going to use it. Also, just in terms of like beading, sequins, all of those little things, like there's nothing sustainable about a sequin. So as much as I love them and I love some sparkle, I am not gonna do that purely for the environment. I could go on again. I really could. It's we are quite limited. I guess in terms of an event wear in general I only do use natural fibers in composition, so a lot of event wear has synthetics in or has blended in and I'm just not gonna do that.
So in terms of what I could do at an event wear level, and we are getting better at it as the brand grows and I have more opportunities to explore, and fabrics come with very high MOQs. So you can't do that when you're first launching your brand, but as your brand grows and you get bigger orders from stockists, et cetera, you can expand. We are getting better and we can do silk, a few more silks and everything like that. But in terms of the fabrics that I do choose to use, they don't usually fit into event wear, so you have to be very specific to how you design those pieces, making sure that the garment is gonna get longevity. It is still gonna be worn to an event and it's not gonna look, we have a lot of linen, so I have to be very particular where I put that linen if I'm doing into an entire range of event wear, she can't wear the linen for an event on and on, she's gonna be creased. It's quite limiting in that sense. But we still have a market that buys into it and she loves it, so it's there.
Just waiting for the innovation.
I guess it is. Who would've thought a bride would walk down the aisle wearing a full 100% linen maxi dress that she does? So it's there.
Absolutely. And obviously, you've got a real passion for garments and how they're put together and quality is a core part of your pieces. Sometimes I wonder if the customer finds it hard to understand what quality is, maybe because of, I think the variety and spectrum of brands and options available. I think the idea of quality from my perspective might have been a bit muddied from a customer's point of view, but what does quality mean to you?
That's such a good question. Quality to me and to Joslin is respecting traditional workmanship and craft and also respecting the design and the manufacturing process that takes to create a garment. I think I said that just earlier before. We have lost that. The consumer out there, not necessarily every consumer, but overall with mass-produced brands, you can get a dress for $20. There is nothing quality about a dress for $20. I'm not putting it down if that's all you can buy, I'm just, where do I start? You've gotta design and create a garment, and it takes a year to get that product to where it is. There has got to be some respect for that process in there and what’s involved. And you've gotta understand why it may cost what it costs. I've read somewhere that it could be 80 to a hundred hands of touch, one garment.
Well, I guess you are talking about the longevity of pieces and the craftmanship, which enables a customer to wear something for longer. I guess some of that gets taken out for cost and price, like for the bigger retailers to meet those low margins. That's not even getting into the wages of the people. That's not a reflection of the level of skill that the people have when they're manufacturing those garments. That's more a reflection of the orders that they have to produce.
I definitely use this one, there is skill all the way through, there is skill of the designer who's designing that garment, the skill from the pattern maker. There is a skill from the production manager and the quality assurance manager, anyone in that team, there is skill and training there. And that's before the garments are even cut and manufactured. Then the person who is sewing the garment, that's a craft alone. And that is such a hard craft. That's the hardest part of it all. People forget that you can only make a garment out of woven fabrics by hand. It's not run through a machine. It's made by hand. That's a craft. And just respecting all of those traditional elements to sew a garment together is also so beautiful. Hand sewn button, that's what we do. That's my little take on that, all of my buttons are still hand sewn. Not a machine sewn.
Amazing. Just to touch on your point as well, just the people that are involved, like the level of a pattern maker and the skill that's involved to actually bring something to life. You could bring five different shirts and hang them up against the wall, and some will be a good fit, and some will be a bad fit. I think that plays such a big part in the longevity and quality of pieces is the execution.
Absolutely. And also just like the design, if you've done a design that someone can keep wearing for five years time. Wow.
That's the true test of quality.
The true test of quality. Not just the design, being a design that hasn't very quickly gone out of date, but it's also lasted. More than anything, If it's lasted that is quality. Because it is quite rare now.
Just to change the topic a little bit, you've got such an impressive list of global stockists. I was having a bit of a stalk on your website and include names like Net-A-Porter, Intermix, Harvey Nichols, and not to mention the list of so many local stockists you've got and your own retail store. How do you manage all of that?
I have a team. I have a really beautiful team that supports me with all of that, particularly my sales director that helps me oversee all sales, whether it be our retail store, our local Australian and New Zealand stockists, and then our international stockists lists. But of course, those are managed by our sales agencies, The Known Agency up in Sydney, who do all of our global sales, and Loftjet agency here in Australia. There's a big team behind-the-scenes looking after it all, no day is boring. There's no single day that goes by where you're not putting out some sort of fire or 50 fires. I'm running a business more than anything, and I've still got to design collections for 60 pieces. It can be quite challenging at times, but I absolutely love it. I wouldn't change it for the world, but I've gotta say it is more than anything when you're in this industry, particularly designer, before you're a designer, you're a business owner, and it is quite challenging at times, particularly the last three years.
Linking back into that quick growth that you experienced early on, at that stage, were you direct to consumer, or how did you kind of land those first accounts? Was it through the agents?
No, I launched Joslin. We started off with the Lofft Fashion Agency,based here in Melbourne and Sydney straight off. We sold the collection and then I went to market at the same time as delivering to those stockists for the first time. We had beautiful stockist, Coco & Lola that bought into my first collection. She really did help grow the brand on social media, et cetera, quite quickly too. I gotta say it was a very different time in the world looking back, it feels like a decade ago now, because of the pandemic. We launch straight off the bat with stockists and wholesale and all of those elements.
As you mentioned, it's been a tough, probably three years in business. Has this been the most challenging or were there others?
Without a doubt, the whole pandemic. I mean, one thing I've going to say about Joslin is so many people think we're a Sydney-based brand, and I don’t know why or how, but they think we're Sydney based. We're Melbourne based. We've been in lockdown for two years, and I've been operating a team working from home for two years. It has not been easy. It's definitely the hardest thing I've ever experienced in my life. It's still very challenging. This year definitely has eased off in terms of lockdowns, but then of course we've had the horrible floods earlier this year. The horrible war between Ukraine and Russia. My beautiful suppliers in Shanghai were locked down. That was pretty much my fifth major business disruption, in a period of two years. So it's been very challenging. I mean, my mom says, I have gotten a high distinction in business management within the first week of the pandemic.
What else do you say? Never managed a business before andone year in, I've aced it, Covid came along. It's been very challenging. Where do you even start being a Melbourne-based brand?
Not a lot of other people would understand being locked down for so long. I didn't have my team physically in the same room for nine months. So just the operational challenges of not having face-to-face conversations, bouncing ideas off each other, quick communication of a task. I didn't even have that let alone…It's been tough.
I mean, you're dealing with fabric. You're meant to be able to touch and feel fabric and look at constructions.
We did fittings on Zoom for three months straight, that was tough. You can't do fittings on Zoom. We managed to do it, but my gosh, the challenges. My production manager, Sharon, who does all the technical side with me, I'm trying it on, I've got it on the mannequin next to me. She's looking at it on Zoom. That was challenging. That was one of the thousand challenges we had.
I can imagine. Well, if it's anything you, you've got your high distinction in managing a business in a pandemic, and you've come out the other side, maybe not unscathed, but you are still here.
Not unscathed at all.
It's a testament to having steered that ship.
My sales director, Bonnie, she's got this hilarious video of me, I think it was one of the 10th lockdowns that they threw at us. And she's filmed me literally banging my head against a wall. It's one of the funniest things to come out. She always shows it, just to remind me.
This is where you were and look at us now. That's so funny. I guess as well, most recently you received the honorable mention for sustainability as part of the National Designer Award. How did you feel getting that level of recognition within the industry, particularly as we've said after the last three years?
I was absolutely wrapped, sustainability and I don't usually use the word sustainability because in many cases, particularly in this industry, gets taken out of context or isn't true to what it should mean, which is keeping resources afloat for future generations whilst also using them at the same time. Absolutely thrilled. It's been the biggest part of growing the Joslin business. It's been everything we do. In the first collections, we even use a compostable polybag. We have soft plastic recycling. We have our paper recycling, our cardboard recycling, and our general waste. We're very particular in our office as well. But just in terms of design, forever design, safety for women, ethical manufacturing, that's always been at the heart of the Joslin brand and the business inside and out, face value of the brand, but also internally with our team. And just to have that recognized at such a high level in the industry, is probably one of my biggest achievements in my career, and absolutely thrilled. I was absolutely thrilled. Also, just the designer lineup they had this year for the National Designer Award. Every brand had it embedded into its brand. It very much is the future of design. It's such an important award to have received. Given the context of where every single retailer brand and designer should be heading.
I couldn't agree more, that the more we embed sustainability, and I kind of don't really love using that word either.
It just gets taken so out of context.
It's great that there are brands like yours leading the way and showing how to build a sustainable business, that's also beautiful.
Just to wrap things up a little bit, what's one piece of advice for business owners wanting to have more transparency and traceability within their labels? Whether they're starting out or maybe they've been going for five years and they've got some product lines and they're thinking, actually we need to be able to do this better. What advice would you give?
This is a really good question, and I need to remind myself of my own advice here. Don't try and do it all at once. You need to be really realistic with your approach to this because at the end of the day, you are running a business and you need to start small and work your way up because you will get there, but you can't do it all at once. It's actually impossible to do all at once. And if you are trying to do it all at once, you are gonna hit many walls, whether it be an MOQ wall or a costing wall where you just can't do the margins or anything like that. Start small work your way up. Try and allocate time throughout your week where you can solely focus on it as well because you are running a business at the end of the day and you don't wanna lose your time capacity to focus on this as well.
But just remember you are running a business. You have responsibilities and you can't do it all at once. Be realistic about it. We, at Joslin, we've been really realistic. We are still selling dresses, selling outfits to women. We still need to make a margin to run a business and pay all our bills. We still want to sell through for the customer and do all of these things and do it right. So start small, work your way up. Every season can be better as well. Every season we probably introduce something new or something better. And just enjoy it and don't overwhelm yourself or go down that rabbit hole where you can't, you can never achieve it all.
That's such good advice. I think just trying to think about what the next best step is because I think to get overwhelmed with what you want to do and actually what you have the time for.
I also see some brands out there doing so much better than Joslin, and sometimes I just go, “I wish I could do that too.” I don't have a spare $20,000 a month to put towards tracing every single thing, doing my carbon footprint, or anything like that. It's a very expensive process to do. It is in the works for Joslin, but again you can't do it all at once. You need to be really realistic. And what is realistic? traceable, natural fabrications, trying to sea freight more than air freight. Eliminating plastics, eliminating polyesters, start there and work your way down to everything else. Because you can't do it all at once.
Because you can get into that a little bit of paralysis as well, where you just feel so overwhelmed, you don't know.
And limited. And then you become overly limited. I'm already limited when I'm not limited.
Where can listeners connect with you and find your beautiful brand?
We have our beautiful website, www.joslinstudio.com. We've got our Instagram account, which is @joslin_studio, and then we have just started our TikTok, so we've Joslin Studio there, and then our Facebook as well.
Awesome. Well, thanks so much for your time. I know that the listeners are going to love getting an insight into your beautiful brand, and I've really loved having a chat with you as well, and just the honesty and candour that you've brought to today’s chat. So thank you so much.
Thank you, Belinda. It was lovely to chat. It's just nice to have a chat with someone else in the industry that is just having a nice honest conversation.
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort is made to ensure that information is accurate at the time of recording, much like the fashion industry itself, this information may change.