Profile: Jade Sarita Arnott
Jade Sarita Arnott
Jade is the remarkable woman behind Arnsdorf – a fashion label that embraces radical transparency throughout every corner of its supply chain.
Arnsdorf decided to put the label on hold in 2012 due to a growing unease with how the fashion system operated. Can you tell us more about this moral dilemma?
The label had been operating under the traditional fashion wholesaling model since its inception in 2006. As the years went on, both in Australia and when we relocated to New York, it became more and more apparent that the system was fundamentally broken. We were outsourcing production in the traditional way to other factories, but there was little transparency around the conditions under which the factory machinists were working. Although we had great relationships with the factory managers, it always felt like there was a barrier between us.
We were wholesaling and producing orders for stores with the hope that there would be a good sell-through, and there usually was. Unfortunately there there was also the unavoidable end of season leftover stock that immediately lost its value once the season was deemed ‘over’. It was a time when a downturn in retail was sweeping across Australia, leaving many designers out of pocket. And on a personal level, I had just had my first child and thought I’d rather spend my time with him and my family than feed the global fashion machine.
At what point did you realise you could build a business that adopted a different, healthier model? And in what ways has the business changed since then?
It all started to unfold gradually. I was involved with my husband and his business partners’ luxury mens subscription service, Svbscription. It was exciting to be a part of conversations about new ways of interacting directly with customers, and providing the best possible service and experiences for them. It was a thrilling time in New York, where it felt like startups could transform and innovate the way we interact with each other and the world.
I enrolled in Industrial Design at The Pratt Institute and was inspired when learning about the way companies like IDEO created its products. They had innovative ideas around quick prototyping and iteration, and I wondered how this could be applied to designing useful, long-lasting and well-designed clothes. I liked this idea of being completely in control of the entire manufacturing supply chain, and that this environment would mean samples could be made in-house. I wanted to ensure that the work life of all the people involved in executing my vision was meaningful and positive.
The second key area in which the business has changed is transparency. The wholesaling model and its associated mark-ups really skews the sustainability of fashion all the way down the supply chain. We had always wholesaled in the past to stores across Australia and the USA, but this time we took a significant leap and decided not to wholesale. This means we can spend extra resources on the highest quality sustainable materials and local wages. As a result, we are completely transparent regarding pricing. We break down the exact cost of labour, materials, design, logistics, operations and retailing for every item listed for sale. In order for the industry to move in a sustainable direction, consumers need to better understand the costs of making clothes—both financially and ethically.
The next piece was about being as conscious as I could about my fabric choices, ensuring that they have the lowest negative impact on the environment, as well as on the lives of the people producing and wearing them. These are issues I have always had in the back of my mind, and acted as best I could within the traditional fashion system framework.
I studied sustainability as an elective during my Bachelor of Fashion at RMIT University over a decade ago—when the issues were less visible and discussed in the mainstream—so I was always aware of it and wanted to incorporate sustainable practices into my work. This time around I wanted to put them front and centre of all the brand-related decision-making. We’ve been working directly with a fabric mill in Pakistan to develop an organic cotton denim fabric dyed with natural indigo dye after I was unable to source it; I could only find organic cotton with synthetic dye, or conventionally grown cotton with natural indigo dye. I’m really interested in ways we can implement change within the industry to nurture nature and all benefit from things like the Ayurvedic qualities of natural pigments.
How would you define your ‘moral compass’?
At a really basic level, it’s about following my gut. During the whole process of relaunching Arnsdorf we have followed what has felt right, and moved away from decisions that didn’t sit comfortably with us. I suppose it’s about making the most positive impact on the people connected to the brand, whether they’re the end wearer of the garments or one of the skilled craftspeople making the garments. It’s about being responsible and conscious with all of our actions and decisions, and being aware of the far reaching impact they can have.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of setting up your own local factory in Collingwood? Talk us through Arnsdorf’s production process.
It’s been a really empowering experience. The most rewarding aspect has been developing direct relationships which my machinists—getting to know these women, and the experience and skills they bring in-house to the production process.
The process begins and is led by design. We pattern make and cut calico toiles for the initial prototypes, then fit them, make adjustments and sample in our chosen fabrics. Having our sample machinist right there means there is an ongoing dialogue between us about the best way to finish seams and the most efficient and pleasing ways to construct things. It’s a circular process, with one thing informing the next as the following garments evolve, inspired by a previous process.
We also have an in-house showroom where we conduct appointments with our clients. We take their measurements, and get to know them and the wardrobe they are trying to create. This provides additional feedback to the rest of the design and production processes.