Sustainability instead of fast fashion: an interview with the Arket CEO

Arket is the new sustainable fashion label of the H&M family. Founded as recently as 2017, it has expanded by now with stores worldwide. In January 2018, the first German store was opened in Munich, followed by one in Berlin in May. Another one should open its doors in Hamburg in September. Arket has high standards for itself and has already set an example for the fashion industry in terms of transparency: Arket mentions all suppliers by product on its website and on the care labels. It wants to create long-lasting and affordable fashion, not a disposable commodity. But how does sustainability work within the H&M Group? How does one realise longevity in fashion? We talked about it with Lars Axelsson, CEO of Arket.

Mr. Axelsson, Arket positions itself as a sustainable brand. What do you think of fast fashion?

Arket focuses on simple, well-designed and durable products that are made in a responsible manner and that customers can use and keep for many years. We value longevity and that is reflected in everything we produce. We believe that our customers strive for quality as a broader concept and part of it is building a wardrobe for a long time, filled with fewer but more versatile pieces that they can always fall back on.

You want to make long-lasting fashion. How do you want to achieve that? How do you determine what is durable design?

To make products with longer lifetimes, we invest time in their development. This may be the study of vintage clothing and source materials to identify the archetypal qualities of a particular style or print, custom development of yarns and fabrics by our in-house technicians or long-term collaboration with textile experts around the world. We regard quality as the basis for longevity and sustainability and strive to produce refined and versatile products that can be combined in various ways to meet different needs and occasions. Sustainable design is based on simplicity and functionality and means that the products need to withstand both wear as well as seasonal trends. At the core of our collections is a basis of carryover products that we want to be part of the collection for a long time so that our customers can keep finding their favourites. Through materials, colours and proportions, our solid base of core products also creates room for playfulness from season to season.

Your collection is very colourful. How does that suit long-lasting designs?

Quality, functionality, simplicity, versatility and longevity are integral parts of sustainable design, which we discussed a lot when developing Arket. Whether it is a garment or an article for your home, the design of our products always begins with the definition of their purpose. Our customers should be able to trust that everything we make has earned its space on the shelf. The colours we work with form one creative framework for every new collection, where soft tones and nuances within a limited range help create abundance and depth in a simple yet sophisticated way.

How much of fashion do you allow yourself within the collection?

The archive is the starting point for all of Arket’s collections, which means coming back to the original idea of each product category to understand why it was developed, why it looks and functions the way it does. Embellishments or experiments with different materials increase function and usefulness and help the products find their place in the modern world. Every new collection is defined by a unique theme or reference, which expresses itself in characteristic pieces, forms or materials, but always stands on a foundation of products that withstand all seasons. The idea of transitional attire, layering and functionality is fundamental to everything we design and develop.

How many collections do you work with per year? How often do new styles hit the stores?

Within our spring/summer and autumn/winter collections, we often make smaller drops with seasonal fluctuations and new additions in our core selection.

What happens to that part of the collection that does not get sold?

The vast majority of our range is either sold in our stores or online. We also actively shift our products into stores in which we observe greater demand or even to other countries, in which we have too little stock. But of course it is impossible to predict the demand always exactly, especially in the early phase in which we are now. If products remain unsold at the end of the season, we evaluate the option of storing them until the next season. Only in exceptional cases, in which no internal solutions are possible, would we consider external buyers of overstock but luckily that is something we did not have to do.

How far do you go in terms of sustainability? Where could you serve as a role model for others?

As a brand within the H&M Group, Arket has the ambition to lead the change towards a sustainable fashion industry. Our focus is on durable and long-lasting products that can be used for many years. Sustainability has a high priority in the development of Arket and, of course, has gone into all processes - from the selection of our suppliers to the materials used and the question how we can help our customers maintain their products and to extend their lifespan. We always strive to find the most sustainable materials for our collections. The definition of ‘sustainable’ is interpreted on a case-by-case basis - sometimes it is organic natural fibers or recycled and regenerated materials; sometimes it is the strongest and most durable option to make products with a long life span and thus guarantee a sustainable use of resources. We believe in transparency as a necessary companion to sustainability and share as much information as we can about the design and production process, especially through our online shop. Arket is too young to be a role model, but we hope that we can contribute our bit towards a positive change in the industry through our work and our suppliers.

Sustainability instead of fast fashion: an interview with the Arket CEO

How far has your work come in terms of closing the loop?

Our first step and primary goal as a new brand is to extend the loop before we close it. That's why we invest in the design and development of products that our customers can keep for life. We always work on increasing the sourcing of recycled materials, for example Econyl yarn made of 100 percent recycled nylon waste or yarns made of recycled cashmere fibers, and are currently exploring more ways in which our customers can give their Arket products a second life.

How do you ensure that your suppliers can live off their work?

Arket works with independent suppliers and not with those employees directly. However, we want all our suppliers to pay a fair wage, and we definitely see it as our job to work towards fair wages and good working conditions in the countries in which we buy products. The best way to improve wages for textile workers in the long run is the improvement of the wage structure for the entire industry. We believe in doing this together with factory owners and employees, with other brands as well as the governments of the respective [garment producing] countries. The first necessary step is the creation of a favourable environment, in which wages are negotiated by the factory owners and the democratically elected workers' representatives.

Will your experience of designing sustainable processes affect the processes at H&M as well?

All brands within the H&M Group have a common goal and a common sustainability strategy. Of course, every brand chooses areas in which it can have more more impact and accelerate change but at the end of the day, we all learn from each other.

Why is Arket interesting for the H&M Group as another concept of trade?

All brands of the H&M Group have different design concepts but pursue the same business philosophy in terms of fashion, sustainability and value for money. The Group is developing constantly, with several new projects running simultaneously to complement the existing concepts and to find new customers. When we started working on the Arket project in winter of 2015, we observed and asked ourselves what we were missing as customers. We also considered the role of the brick and mortar store in today’s time and came to the conclusion that it must be a place where customers feel good, get inspired and where they like to spend time. Arket is a modern market with a broad but carefully curated selection as well as a vegetarian café under one roof and aims to make quality and sustainable design accessible to a broad range of customers.

The store concept is unique as it includes a vegetarian café. Why did you decide on that?

Our goal was to create a new kind of destination, a modern market that combines carefully curated collections with a new Nordic vegetarian café. We looked at what experiences we as customers were missing, where we get inspired and feel good, where we easily find what we are looking for and where we can understand the quality of the products. We also wanted to offer more than just shopping, and thus making the café a central part of the business was a natural decision. The café is a warm and generous environment that invites you into a slower pace and creates a unique atmosphere in each of our locations.

In which countries did you open stores? Which ones will be next?

Arket was launched in August 2017 on Regent Street in London and online in 18 European markets. Since then, we have opened stores in Copenhagen, Brussels, Munich, Berlin, Amsterdam and two more in London. In the coming months, we will open in Hamburg and in our hometown Stockholm. In August, the first of a series of Arket areas will be opened at Copenhagen Airport, where we will offer a selection of our collection.

How has Arket’s development been so far? In what areas do you want to become even better?

The H&M Group does not disclose numbers for its individual brands. The customer feedback, however, has been very positive and we are particularly pleased to see that the aspects that were crucial for us in the development of the brand are also the most important for our customers - like the quality of the materials, the focus on simple and well-made articles, sustainability, transparency throughout the production processes and last but not least, our vegetarian café. We are still a new concept, and at this early stage of the development of the brand our main focus is on continuously absorbing feedback, listening to customers and trying to refine and develop our version of the modern market.

What are your long-term plans for Arket?

We are still a young brand and are currently focusing on the development of our version of the modern market. We have a broad customer group in 18 different markets and want a close dialogue with the people who are spending time at Arket to refine our selection. Our mission is to democratise quality, to provide customers with an everyday uniform and a destination for essentials that embody a sense of warmth, innovation and tradition - both online and in our physical stores. This year, we will have four new openings and more will follow of course.

This article was originally written for FashionUnited.DE. Edited and translated by Simone Preuss.

Photos: Arket/ Store: Arket Berlin