This is the start of a new series, Behind the Brand. Together we will learn more about the “why” driving slow fashion brands and discover some of the independent designers and makers creating beautiful clothing with a conscience.
First we have Jess Sternberg owner of Free Label, a Vancouver-based clothing brand with a focus on inclusivity, comfort, sustainability and local manufacturing. Their collection includes high quality everyday pieces, comfy bra tops and loungewear, and seasonless wardrobe staples.
Not only do they make lovely clothes, but I especially wanted to interview Jess because Free Label does many things different from your average clothing brand. With both the industry challenges they’ve tackled and initiatives they’ve started, I think Free Label is a great example and leader in the slow fashion space. So let’s hear more from Jess…
Can you describe Free Label in a sentence or two?
Free Label is a community and ethics based clothing company. Our goal is to make clothing that people feel good IN and about wearing.
All your factories are within a short drive from you, what benefits and challenges come with manufacturing locally in Canada? What does “ethically made” mean to Free Label?
The benefit is we can pop into the factories any day and see progress, ensure the working conditions meet our standards, and build genuine relationships with the folks that make our garments. We’re really lucky to work with some amazing factory partners that have also become friends. The challenge is the Canadian garment industry is a dying industry: most of the workforce is older and closer to retiring. It’s hard to attract and train young people since cutting and sewing are highly skilled manual labour jobs.
Ethically made means the people who are making the clothing are paid fairly for their work, work in environments that are safe and pleasant, and are treated with respect. In my opinion, it’s the bare minimum of what a workplace should be, but sadly it’s rare these minimums are met in the garment industry.
Your customers are big fans and your drops sell out fast! You’ve mentioned before that even with the high demand you still want to keep production runs small, can you explain why this is important to you?
I believe in sustainable growth; when I see the demand grow, we make a bit more according to demand. Most companies make huge amounts of inventory to predict future demand and then do what it takes to sell it. I’d rather wait for the demand and then produce based on real needs instead of just projections. This ensures we don’t waste any goods and the pieces we make are always loved. I’m also self-funded without any investors, so every time we grow our inventory, it’s a big risk. So slow and sustainable growth is vital to our health as a small business.
I have written before about the many benefits of seasonless fashion and love that you have a core seasonless collection! Why did you decide to go this route vs traditional seasonal collections?
Living in Vancouver, BC, we have fairly mild weather. I love the idea of keeping the majority of your closet year round and just putting away a small bin of summer or winter clothing for the off-season. This helps us to buy less when new seasons hit since we already have a fabulous seasonless base. When I look at my “core” seasonless closet, it’s almost all Free Label!
Free Label offers a great size range of XS – 4X, which is something we unfortunately don’t see from many slow fashion brands, and you can tell you put a lot of work into fit! Can you tell us more about why inclusive sizing and fit is a priority for Free Label?
I think if you want to be an ethical and sustainable business, that MUST include all bodies. We’re not there yet, but we’re working toward better inclusivity! The challenge is there are not a lot of resources available to designers and brands that want to offer more inclusive size ranges, so it requires a lot of self study and trial and error.
What has been your biggest challenge starting/running a sustainable clothing brand?
The constant pivoting. It really is exhausting always looking one step ahead, learning new platforms, growing and shifting with demand and changing consumer habits. As a small sustainable/ethical brand, you really do have to do your best at all times; there’s little room for error – which leaves very little time to relax and enjoy the journey. It’s something I’m working on 🙂
What is something you’re proud of having achieved with Free Label?
I’m really proud of a lot to be honest! I’m proud of our commitment to getting the best plus size fits in an e-commerce space. I’m proud of our production line and our special relationships with our production partners and fabric producers. I’m proud of our small but growing team that does really hard things with passion and excitement. I’m proud of our Empowerful Incubator program that helps to fund and grow BIPOC owned small businesses. I’m proud of the really kind and cool community we’ve built online (truly the nicest customers ever). There are a lot of hard days, but there are so many things to celebrate and be proud of!
Thanks so much Jess for giving us a peek behind Free Label! Check out their collection here. (Especially if you’re looking for a comfy and supporting bra/crop top, Free Label has amazing options, I wear mine all the time!)