Welcome back to Shanahan Studio Session. This session we have the incredible Rachel Sheila Kan. Rachel has been in the fashion industry for 22 years as a fashion designer and manager. Rachel has created events to bring eco brands together with talks and workshops. She has also lectured in sustainability and ethics in the business school at UCA. Rachel helps brands by consulting and coaching brands on how to be more sustainable. We speak about everything sustainable fashion, regenerative fashion, impact of fashion on the climate, building living systems and career advice. This is a really insightful read for anyone new to sustainable fashion.
How did you start out in the fashion industry?
Many moons ago, I was brought up in a small working class village in Stoke-on-Trent. There just happened to be a fashion BTEC in the local college and I jumped at the chance to join it. Most people in the village thought I was bonkers to go to university and study fashion, no one from my family had ever been to university, let alone for a creative pursuit. So, against all odds I went anyway and had the best time. I went out and actually got a job in industry which wasn’t what happened for everyone. I was happy to work in kidswear for 10 years as a designer and then moved to womenswear and design management after the first recession in 2008.
Is there anyone in your family that is creative or inspired your decision to pursue fashion?
My Grandmother and my mother, my grandmother was great at sewing and showed me how to create and sew from the standard patterns, my mother was a great creative and very artistic, she used to paint the faces on Dolton figures in the factory. My father was an upholsterer so being around sewing was a part of my childhood. My mother also guided my love and appreciation of nature and others of which I am very grateful.
You have had many titles and experiences in the fashion industry, what is your favourite part of working in the industry?
Being hands on and related with the product and people, even when in what would be classed as mainstream fashion, it is the people that made the job. I love working in sustainability as it is so all encompassing, it’s not just one aspect everything is related.
You have worked in the fashion industry for the past 22 years. What changes have you seen, the good and bad?
When I started in the industry as a student I worked over the summer at a factory then called Masons of Leek, I learnt so much there about how a production run works and the whole process. I felt the industry shift towards global production and faster cheaper production when I went to go back to work the following summer and everything had packed up and moved to India. Generations of people who’s livelihoods were based in an industry that died overnight for the UK, skills left to waste. I’m glad to see UK production make a good comeback and as we see locality production rise I'm sure we will see many new disruptive innovations as we go and who knows how to bring back some industry to my old town.
In your own words, how would you define Sustainable Fashion to the readers?
Sustainability is a scale of a bit better than the rest to what would be fully regenerative. Sustainability to me is something that would encompass many aspects, not just focus on one silo. It’s a journey for many brands, but now the world is moving us to look at the whole systems perspective more urgently, and the many levels brands and suppliers will need to move to in order to have a real impact on our future. For me the future is a regenerative one, in terms of product and structure in business.
How has the fashion industry impacted global warming?
It has impacted the world in so many ways: pollution, overuse of water, CO2, deforestation, Micro plastics, Biodiversity loss, waste, overproduction, ethics, diversity, raw material extraction.
We live on a finite planet, and we act as if we have all the resources in the world, we do not.
I tend not to focus on these issues, I indeed acknowledge that they are there.
How important is it for a fashion brand to be sustainable and transparent in today's market?
It is important, but I understand why they greenwash sometimes. It is hard to get a fully regenerative product without compromising on the design. Transparency is really important, but really hard to balance in a commercial world where the consumer really wants to stretch in their jeans. As I said it is a journey for brands and consumers moving from business as usual and being able to create anything, to being more restricted, I personally think that being restricted breeds creativity as you look for outside of the box ideas, It takes something to design with the fullest integrity.
You work with eco brands, tell us about this.
It is really fun working with small brands, they are so agile and want it to be as good as it possibly can be. Which is commendable when they are not the ones with big R&D budgets. So I salute the small brands out there for trying to create in somewhat of a David and Goliath world. I am working on a project called The Ecosystem Incubator to disrupt that status, where small brands, artisans, mills, consultants, designers and techs collaborate. As one we will be stronger and be able to work together on things like MOQs that stop the smaller business from being economically viable.
When did you start learning about sustainable fashion?
About 15 years ago I was very much into it, to be fair I didn’t really know what to do with it then, I was young and not as confident as I am now. It was also the start of it, so it was focused on being ethical as a start point and there were some organic cotton brands out there – but not much and still very linear. I went to early events such as the Ethical Fashion Forum (Now Common Objective) and hid in the shadows learning and taking stock.
What is Regenerative fashion?
In a physical product it deals with the farming of the original fibre or natural animal collection. That this is farmed in a way that is biodiverse and not mono cropped. There is no waste, as in nature a leaf falls from the tree we do not say oh what a waste and throw It away, we know it will go back into the system and do good.
It is built on the phrase ‘Life creates conditions conducive to life’’ That everything that dies or has the end of its life goes back into the system.
You could argue that plastic circularity is regenerative – however this process still creates microplastics and processing energy, a process that still creates waste that isn’t regenerative will only cause unintended consequences.
What are the new economics in fashion and how do you build living systems?
Living systems refers to how we create product and business structures as we would mimic nature's systems. Nature is the best teacher for sustainability as it is naturally regenerative in nature. Take nature's guide and try on how you could create business structures and products with her living principles.
New Economics is how we facilitate the transformation of our economy to help living systems to work. At the moment our economic system is set up for pure growth in only one term – GDP. It is not set up as a balance with nature and beings, therefore it cannot be a living system. Read Doughnut Economics and Sacred Economics, these books offer a solution and bridge our minds to a new more inclusive future. I certainly advocate for this as I see that sustainability will not be achieved in the mechanistic old economy of scale; it is an oxymoron.
You are the founder of The Ecosystem Incubator. Tell us more about this?
We are a collective of brands, factories, artisans, mills, fabric innovators – over multi products – that see a different way of working in our new economic future. Where, working as one we can be agile, even more innovative and powerful as a collective whole. We at the Ecosystem Incubator see our collective as if it were a forest..
No one tree can be a forest alone – yet together we share nutrients as a real living system.
Created with regenerative style leadership and living systems thinking, we started the ecosystem by collaborating with tech platforms Wondr and our future thinking partnership with Ethical AI – which is where the ecosystem will live well into the future. For now, it Is a seed collaborative community doing business, sharing, and creating joint ventures that have a win-win for each player – so that everyone in the ecosystem thrives.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Stand and be yourself, for the freeness of being, for your creative and intelligent mind of which you do not know its grace and wisdom, Stand for others but hold your boundaries, enjoy life and place every wish into not just your future but the future of your children, Place the word enough into each action.. I only need enough.
What advice would you give to anyone pursuing a career in fashion?
Do it with integrity, not for the money or the fame – that is nice if it is to be your path, do not have expectations, go into everything with a beginner’s mind. If you want to be a designer, be it but listen to others, know that you won’t be great straight away, that it takes work and effort to get to a place, That you never see the tough stuff that someone who is already successful has gone through.
I tell you what, I have been through some blood sweat and tears to get where I am right now – that might not be anyone you have seen on TV or In the papers, but I’m proud of who I have become and who I am stepping into each day.
What are you working on now?
I am consulting with clients, working on The Ecosystem Incubator and building the community person by person. I have launched our podcast series recently to showcase the founding members of The Ecosystem Incubator, absolutely loved to hear all of the history and rich conversation. I have a course for startups, so if you have no experience in industry and need to know how to get a move on without making too many boo boos, come along on that journey.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
As long as I am creating ripples for the future, I will be here in the fashion and education space, for someone out there may read what I do or say and create something amazing, I am happy. I have no expectations in this life, we cannot otherwise we would walk around being very disappointed. I simply go out with intentions and look to work each day, each year towards them. The bigger question is what would I like to see in 50 or 100 years, That’s what we refer to as Cathedral thinking, where one still goes out there each day and works towards the common legacy for our future, where we might not see what we started to create, just as the great architect Antonio Gaudi designed La Familia in Barcelona, he never saw his plans come into reality, yet he designed it anyway. I work for that kind of legacy, that surpasses my existence, for all our children and theirs.
Where can people find you online?
I am generally on LinkedIn, Instagram or Twitter shamelessly promoting things, to exist in this strange world.
Thank you Rachel for being apart of Shanahan Studio Session! This is really insightful information and great advice! I wish you well for your future. Hannah x