Having a business not only makes you a living, but it’s also your way to make an impact to the world. Our interview with Courtney Holms, Founder of A.BCH and one of the speakers at Rocketeers of Retail, gave us an mind opening view on how to grow a business while being mindful of sustainable practices along the way.
SEJ: How did you get into fashion?
CH: I’ve always been quite a creative person. I did quite a few things before settling on studying fashion. Starting a business came after.
I was a store manager at Starbucks, which was my job throughout university. I was a store manager by 19 and I learned a lot about what I know about retail, customer service and company culture in my work there. It was a great company to work for and they really look after their people. This is an ethos I’ve tried to work from – start by looking after your people and they will look after their customers. I worked there for 10 years and it became really ingrained in me.
I studied in Sydney in UTS. I finished my degree and I thought ‘I want to start my own business’, but I didn’t know how to finance that. So, I moved to Melbourne to do a Pilates course then eventually started working in the fashion space.
SEJ: Your journey into retail is quite an interesting one – tell us why you started your label and the impact on the fashion space?
CH: I got accepted into the NEIS programme – this is a small business support to help you grow and get started. I started my first label with this, which was a menswear label, and an idealistically creative venture. It wasn’t a viable business, but I also started events where I brought men’s designers together from all over Australia to do a three-day retail event specifically for men. I wanted to create place where my product fitted in. ‘Menske’ was really successful – we did four events over two years and this is how I grew my networks in Melbourne. This is what helped me when it came time to start A.BCH and had a lot of support in cross-disciplinary businesses to help me grow.
After this, I stopped, took some time out and did some soul searching. I wanted to go back to fashion and do it in a really different way. I was unimpressed with the wastage, environmental crises and human slavery aspects of fashion in our world. I wanted to create a company that had strong values and was sustainable. I wrote the brand values and mission statement before I knew what the label was going to be. Then I decided to start the brand. ABCH launched two years ago.
SEJ: Sustainability is a key part of your brand – what have you done to ensure an ethical and sustainable product?
CH: Sustainability is one of the biggest things for us – it’s all about transparency. One of our mottos is: full transparency from fibre to finish. I don’t think anyone is perfect, but we’re on a constant process of continuous improvement. One thing we decided in the beginning is that we would always be better and try to increase. Not the cheapest solution, but the best solution balancing the finances, planet and people involved.
This is something I’m personally really passionate about. It’s part of my life and something I’m acutely aware of in my everyday life, so it’s ingrained in me
SEJ: What does a sustainable supply chain look like in practice?
CH: First of all, it’s the mindset. Everything we design is about circularity. This is the beginning of all our sourcing; everything can be broken down at the end of its life, or it can be recycled. This guides the types of materials we’re using. We look for products that are already being made, rather than reinvent the wheel (because we’re too small) – so, we source materials that are already certified.
One of the key certifications we use is the Global Organic Textile (GOTS) Standard. There are a lot of products with different certifications, but this one is particularly strict with water usage, social standards and products sourced. They go through the entire supply chain and every single step needs to be certified, so there is a traceability to ensure that the product is truly sustainable. GOTS is only for organic, but some things aren’t certified like hemp. We had to work harder to find traceability for the hemp products to extract information to ensure it’s sustainable, so we tend to go with GOTS certified.
We make everything in Melbourne. Everything we made is by the Ethical Clothing Australia certification body. It’s one extra step of ensuring social compliance to make sure that our workers have all the steps required for social sustainability.
I try to visit as many suppliers as we can to ensure that they’re sustainable.
SEJ: Moving into the physical world of retail from online is challenging – what steps did you take to ensure it was done correctly?
CH: We would still call ourselves an online business and it was purely by chance that we were able to get the store that we have now. Pretty much since we launched, we were in some sort of pop-up. This was important for us to get a sense of what the customer was thinking when they saw the product, how they reacted to it and we wouldn’t have been able to see this being online only.
We haven’t really come of age with our store – the studio and the shop are one. People can come in and see the product being made: it’s not a traditional retail experience. Our dream for retail in the future is to create lots of experiences for people, but not in a traditional sense. What we really want to do is to be able to have flagship stores around the world. They can get a standard range of products online, but they would be able to buy bespoke, one-off pieces in a store. We want to have tailors in store to be able to customise and refit products. We want to create a small, boutique style of clothing.
We’re really a community focused as well where we bring customers in to customise their clothing and learn how to repair. We have a dye workshop coming up – this is important because the customer loves it and gets them thinking about sustainability and thinking about extending the life of their products. It’s all part of the values that have.
SEJ: What have been the biggest lessons learned in your journey so far and what would you do differently if you had your time over?
CH: I’m still learning really! I think one of the things that I love and hate (both equally) is the luxury of growing slowly and steadily. We’re not blowing up overnight, but this gives us the ability to go through stages of growth. We can make mistakes early on and learn from them properly. We have the opportunity to be quite quick and fast because we’re close to our supply chain, but we’re not pumping out hundreds of garments because we don’t wholesale, and we’re focused on what will sell. Growing slowly enables me to learn and to become a better leader while I have the time to think about it.
About Courtney Holms
Courtney is the Founder of A.BCH, a circular fashion label that redefines sustainable and ethical fashion. She’s also one of the leaders who gave a talk at the Rocketeers of Retail networker for start ups in Australia.