“I think the only constant, as we all know, in fashion is change. And I think the reason I started L SAHA was to bring about change for the better” – Laboni Saha
One of the joys of this industry is that you can watch the progression of designers and labels through the early years, and if they maintain that growth you can see the full transition from fledgling designer into full label, and so it’s been for me with Laboni Saha and her eponymous label L SAHA, a fully sustainable and very climate change away London based fashion house. I first met Laboni 6 years ago at Fashion Scout while looking at a rack of clothes when a head suddenly appeared from behind them and asked if I’d like to know more about the label, and 12 seasons later I thought it might be time for another discussion of the label and to ask Laboni about her opinions on the industry after her London Fashion Week Show.
I thought I’d start by asking her about that journey and her choice to truly embrace slow fashion and build a brand that was not only sustainable in its products, but also in its commercial outlook, had that been intentional or picked up along the way?
I think the only constant, as we all know, in fashion is change. I think the reason I started L SAHA was to bring about change for the better, and that was what slower speed, timeless collections, less is more, was about, as a person I live by those principles. If I’m introducing a collection, it’s smaller in terms of size, lower, slower paced runway shows, a more intimate setting where we have 30 guests, but I know everybody’s name, who is from where and so forth.
That’s what I believe in as a person, I would much rather have 30 or 50 people in a room where I can go and interact with all of them, instead of having 100 People with a 100 look election where I may not have the opportunity to have input into all the designs as well, so I think I like to have that personal touch. The pace at which I’ve been going, I think has helped me to do that. There are so many people from when I started that don’t exist anymore and also some of them have grown really, really quickly. Whereas we have grown a lot slower.
It’s a very interesting point, a lot of designers focus purely on the creative, but as a business owner Laboni comes across as someone who has a very firm grasp on the commercial and operational side of her business, does she feel pressure from the industry to do things in a certain way or has she felt there is a space within the industry ready to accept other ways of building a label? But alongside that, has the close attachment she’s built with her audience helped with her way of working?
No, I mean, what is the industry, a collective of individuals like myself? I don’t feel pressured by the industry, even though if I’ve had buyers come in and see a collection and in three months time are wanting to see another one. We do what we believe in, and we do what we do, because we believe in it, the moment I stopped believing what I was doing, I would stop doing it.
I think pressure from the industry, maybe as I see some brands being glorified, and been taken as the chosen one. I don’t feel like we are ever that person or ever that brand. But it’s okay, we cater to real clients. We don’t want to give away goods for free for publicity. You know, the business is feeding itself and it’s growing so it’s much better that way, and I do see this to be a lifelong thing. I want it to be continued even when I’m not here. When I take decisions today, it’s about setting the right history for the future, as opposed to just getting a quick win, or, you know, cutting some corners here and there. That’s not what I believe.
One of the most interesting things with L SAHA is that where as a lot of labels have had to find ways to bring in the values of a different way of working, of being sustainable and ethical into their plans, this is a label that has had them at the core of it’s identity and in its DNA from day one, and it was this that saw Laboni invited to join the COP26 gathering via her work with the UN Climate Change group, but has it been hard to create a partnership with academics, scientists and other people outside of the industry given the peculiarities of fashion and did she in some ways have to teach them the industry?
I think I would say with global climate action, those people understand the science of science side of things when it comes to the chemical structure of a PVC material and what that means to the planet, whereas we know it from the design and functionality point of view. So although they don’t understand fashion, by being a consumer of fashion, they do understand some bits and pieces. So we don’t necessarily need to educate them, because the beauty of things like the UN Climate Action Agenda is that they break it into six or seven working groups.
As a business, if you think you are going to be part of the material working group or supply chain working group, those are specific aspects of your business that they will give you input into, so it’s the whole global picture, they might not know, but the pieces that they’re giving you input into are actually really, really vital. It’s research and development and you know, the things that they do, we as a small business would never have the budget to do that, and we also have access to this platform, which is a database of all the research that they’ve done, materials and connected footprints and things like that. It really helps us accelerate the process without having to actually go and invest directly into it, so they don’t maybe understand fashion as an industry, but they understand product and what a valuable product should entail.
Sticking with this I asked about that most difficult of elements in building a business that has these values at its heart, the supply chain and its transparency, how difficult has that element been?
Material is always a struggle, because even if you’re going by certification, in some countries, it’s a lot easier to get material certified in than others. And even if they are auditing, when we work with a manufacturing supplier, there are audits that they can show us certificates for, but having grown up in India, I know a factory can buy their audits, you know, the factory was never visited by that official, but it’s been signed.
These are things that no one talks about in the industry, and you wouldn’t know if you didn’t grow up in those countries, there was a price tag on everything. Because I know that I can’t unknow that, you know, so I know even if when you are buying more expensive and certified sustainable material, I know that it’s not 100% guaranteed that it is what it’s made to look like.
With time running out and a room of well wishers and other journalist waiting to speak with Laboni Saha I had time for one last question, we’re in a time where most fashion consumers have had exposure to these issue but choices around fast fashion and potentially damaging production are still finding it hard to resonate in the buyers mind, has she found it difficult to get her audience to think about their purchases in a different way?
Business is a business. Absolutely. I couldn’t agree to that more. And it’s not just because you’re a young business. It’s the challenge for any business because if you want to bring about change globally, you as a business alone can’t to that it has to be a collective. So it has been a thing that kept me up at night for a long time, which is why I started a platform called true luxury where I invite businesses and brands and people, like the ones from the UN and other people who work in the sustainability space, even as researchers or academic people, to talk about these issues and bring it to the consumers, it’s a consumer platform where we’ve been doing talks for the consumers, and what we’ve been preaching, almost I use the term preach, because at this point, it is that that the change in this world happens at the point of sale.
It doesn’t matter if you’re buying something to wash your clothes, or if it’s your clothes, or if it’s your food, every time you make a choice, you are empowering someone out there to do what they’re doing. So if you don’t believe in what they’re doing, don’t buy that product. I don’t say don’t buy high street, if you’re buying a high street item, take care of it, because a large part of the impact happens in the journey of the item, how you wash it, how often you use it, whether or not to dispose of it, or you want to send it to a secondhand shop or a charity shop. All those things are actually where the consumer has a big role to play. I totally believe that you can make the most sustainable product but if you don’t sell you’ll be out of business very soon. It’s not just making that it’s about being part of a bigger conversation that empowers people to make a difference as opposed to just saying I’m the best brand, just buy my product. It’s not going to make a difference, I can’t cater to everyone in the world, it’s impossible. It’s about joining forces so that people are doing the right things and amplifying that message in a way that it really makes a difference.