The face of fashion is drastically changing. In recent years, we’ve been witness to the demise of iconic British brands like Topshop, Oasis and Warehouse, all of which went into administration during the pandemic.
While these names continue to live on digitally since being taken over by fast fashion giants ASOS and Boohoo, those who prefer to shop from small businesses have been thrilled with the emergence of independent and sustainable fashion brands, including Albaray.
The sustainable fashion brand was created in 2020, when founders Paula Stewart, Karen Peacock and Kirstie Di Stazio found themselves on a ‘forced pause’ in their careers after more than 25 years in the industry.
Albaray recently celebrated its first birthday, and what a year it’s been. The brand’s considered, timeless and stylish designs are now stocked in John Lewis, M&S and Next, and have gained countless style-conscious fans – including none other than Holly Willoughby.
Wear Next met Chief Creative Officer & Founder Karen to find out what’s in-store for the brand in year two…
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Hi Karen! Let’s start at the beginning…
“Paula, Kirstie and I all knew each other from working at Warehouse in our previous roles. At the start of the pandemic, Warehouse very suddenly went into administration, which took us all by surprise. We found ourselves right at the start of lockdown thinking, ‘Okay, what’s next?’ We each took a bit of time out and explored what what we wanted to do next.
We floated the idea about doing our own thing and realised that we had joint skills that would work together really well. We wanted to seize the opportunity to do something on our own terms and build something from scratch. It felt like we’d be crazy not to do it.
Sustainability seems to be at the core of the brand.
I’m very vocal and very passionate about sustainability in fashion and believe that everybody should do what they can within the power that they have in their role at whatever level to push sustainability forward. At Warehouse, we had brought on a Sustainability Manager and we’d compiled a sustainability journey, which we never got to deliver.
When it came to coming up with a concept for a new brand, it was like, ‘Well, it has to be sustainable.’ The brilliant thing about starting a brand is that it’s a blank piece of paper, so you can shape it how you want it. We choose to work with factories that we trust and we know look after their workforce, treat them with respect and pay fairly.
Launching a brand in a pandemic is no easy feat. How did it change your way of working?
I’m sitting in my living room, my back room is absolutely full of rails and it’s got the whole spring summer collection and press samples coming in and out. Paula has got the autumn winter collection at her house, and Kirstie lives in the Cotswolds we didn’t even see her in person for about the first six months of getting the business off the ground. Everything was done over Teams meetings. We started this in lockdown as well, so we were having to stick to all the rules.
We don’t actually have a plan to get an office and we’ve got a really flexible work ethic with our team, with lots of people who work part-time around childcare and who don’t live in London. We want to keep that way of working and make it so that our workforce has got that flexibility.
In terms of design, what are you aiming to do differently with Albaray?
What I love about Albaray is that it’s very personal. I was in senior position in my last role where I had a team of designers and I’ve had to strip it right back to sharpening my pencil and really getting back into design. I designed the first collection completely on my own. The essence is a little bit more personal; it very much comes from the heart and transcends trends.
We can really lead on how we do things, so we can set out to make each garment as sustainable or responsible as we possibly can. When I first started out, [sustainability] just wasn’t ever talked about. There were some eco-brands around then, whereas now it should just be baked into everything.
When did you first start learning about sustainability?
During my time at M&S. They’ve got a huge department working on their sustainability pledge and I learnt a lot about fabrics. There’s so much that you can learn just by researching on the Internet and looking at reports. I learnt that a huge part of the CO2 emissions produced by the fashion industry comes through the processing of raw materials to fibre and then into fabric, and then turning that fabric into clothes.
How do you tackle that at Albaray?
The three main fabrics we use are cotton, viscose and polyester. We’d love to use organic cotton throughout, but sometimes it’s just not possible. We work with the BCI (Better Cotton Initiative), which is a fantastic organisation that works to create a better working environment and process in the cotton industry.
We’ve asked all of our suppliers to sign our code of conduct, and part of that is to not source cotton from certain areas of the globe that have been shown not to produce cotton in the best way.
We also use a really fantastic eco Viscose from a company called Lenzing and we use as much recycled polyester as we can.
On the flip side of that, we want to get to a certain price point as we want it to be broadly available. We’re not affordable to everybody, so it’s marrying the two together and that’s sometimes a challenge for us.
What’s next for the brand?
We’ve done quite a lot already and we’ve got some fantastic retail partners, so I think really it’s about making sure everything continues to work well and maximising what we’ve got.
We’re not adding in any new categories for this autumn, but we’re really excited. The coat collection has got bigger and knitwear has moved on. We’ve got the balance between some really fantastic statement pieces, but also some really gorgeous basics that are really lovely quality.
How do you see the Albaray woman?
She is many women. I definitely get a sense that the Albaray woman has got a sense of joy, confidence and exuberance when it comes to fashion.
We’re not afraid to say we’re a fashion brand, but we do believe very much in doing things the right way and lessening the impact [on the environment].
Do you have plans to increase your size range?
“We’ve certainly been asked by customers to increase our sizing. We really want to and it’s definitely on our roadmap. However we’re still very small; we’re only a year old and our quantity is quite small, so it’s quite a challenge for us to get that size stretch across a small order. So I don’t have a definitive date, but it’s something we’ll continue to work on.”
Shop SS22 at Albaray
Green Stripe Smocked Waist Dress, £99 – buy now
Woodblock Shorts, £45 – buy now
Organic Cotton Animal V Neck Midi Dress, £95 – buy now
Linen Shirred Dress, £120 – buy now
Organic Cotton Yellow Stripe Midi Dress, £89 – buy now
Stripe Cotton Tank Tee, £29 – buy now
Pink Ornate Floral Blouse, £59 – buy now