In a world that is becoming more aware of the importance of sustainable production, consumers are looking for easy shopping locations that still maintain their increasingly eco-conscious values.
Independent online marketplaces offer a bridge between the growing digital landscape and the demand for sustainably produced goods, while simultaneously providing a space for brands that are looking to tell their story. Each site holds its own individual purpose, while continuously on the lookout for new opportunities that contribute to the sustainable fashion sphere.
FashionUnited spoke with the CEOs of three marketplaces that define this e-commerce reckoning, acquainting us with their selection processes, values and perspectives on the future of the sustainable world.
Curated Crowd: community builders
In a mission to bring a more direct designer-to-consumer service to the industry, Curated Crowd CEO Ada Yi Zhao translated her love of shopping for undiscovered niche fashion brands worldwide into a digital platform. Starting out as a crowdfunding site supporting emerging designers, it quickly transformed into a UK based online marketplace for designers that didn’t quite fit the traditional ultra-luxury or fast fashion moulds.
Curated Crowd developed as a response to the increasing demand for mid-level fashion, looking further down the supply chain at individual designers who often struggle to find their ways to access international consumers directly. Through its constantly developing community, emerging labels from around the globe are able to tell their stories while simultaneously marketing their products.
Through extensive onboarding calls and atelier visits, generated from an open application system, Zhao establishes one-on-one relationships with designers, getting to know the story behind their label and the future goals they have in mind. Only a small selection make it onto the marketplace, with every item available either being limited edition or made to order as a way to avoid potential mass-overproduction.
“The business side of sustainability is much more important than the material and the journey of the product - from its conception to how it ends up in the consumer’s home,” explained Zhao. “For me, I always look at each designer and how they run their business. Is it sustainable as a business? Is it a sustainable lifestyle for the designers? I am absolutely against the so-called fashion cycle and I think every single piece that we have on our platform needs to be something the consumer has to treasure for years.”
The care towards designer relations extends into its personal connection with customers. As many as 60 percent of orders come from returning buyers, according to Zhao, who regularly communicates with them through WhatsApp and other social media channels.
“For us, it is really curating that community,” she said. “We are not for everyone. We are for certain kinds of people with an educated purpose. People come to us because they want to learn and know about the brand, what sustainability is about and how to preserve a wardrobe for seasons to come. We are targeting the conscious consumer.”
A pop-up store in London accompanies the online marketplace, offering personal styling assistance while collecting valuable visitor feedback on the products. Future plans could see Curated Crowd continue its development of this omnichannel business model, implementing this physical experience into the digital sphere.
Recently relocating to Amsterdam, Ada Zhao’s new base also brings an array of fresh possibilities, such as an additional potential pop-up store or the chance to aid European brands on their ventures into the UK market.
“As a British Fashion Council member, I see so many talents in London but because of Brexit it’s really hard for them to have a voice here in continental Europe, and vice versa. We want to be that bridge between the two,” explained Zhao.
She continued: “Online wise, we are also looking to launch our US site to serve a wider audience. We do ship worldwide, but we realise that more localised curation is becoming so important for customers.”
Seezona: emerging designer hub
Since its launch two years ago, Scandinavian luxury marketplace Seezona has established a diverse platform offering everything from high fashion and accessories to beachwear and activewear, specifically from emerging designers. The multi-brand store curates on an international basis from over 25 countries, securing a unique selection of brands you may not find on alternate sites.
“Through our technical platform, we facilitate the interaction between small businesses and customers, as well as taking care of the entire value chain involved in those processes,” explained Seezona’s founder and CEO, Anna Helander.
Her love and interest for the industry began in concept stores in Southern France, where discovering new designers enabled her to stand out among the crowd. After diving into the sector, Helander began noticing distinct obstacles that made it particularly difficult for new brands to reach consumers.
“I began to understand how heavily reliant on wholesale the industry was,” she said. “As a consequence, a lot of designers with great potential never scale up, simply because they don’t have the right connections to buyers or the capacity to produce a certain amount of products. I wanted to solve that problem and, in the midst of our digital era, found that technology was the best solution to do precisely that.”
Each of the over 100 brands featured on the platform has faced a rigorous selection process, involving meetings where the label is evaluated based on a list of criteria. Hearing the stories of each founder and the process behind production allows a relationship to form and further ensures that the brand fits well within the Seezona platform.
Helander stated: “We always look for brands that use quality fabrics, have a local mindset in their production, a sense of community, on top of a great design, of course.”
Items on the site vary between bold statement pieces and more basic staples, offering up something for almost every conscious shopper that visits. On top of that, a virtual styling room feature allows shoppers to test out outfits and products in a digital try-before-you-buy setting.
Seezona is still fairly fresh on the scene and is continuously looking to develop and discover. In terms of upcoming projects, Helander said: “We have a lot of big plans indeed, this is only the beginning. Stay tuned!”
The Wearness: clear conscious shopping
German-based The Wearness, founded and run by four women, started as a way to prove sustainable clothing could also be fashionable. Functioning as a marketplace, that doesn’t want to appear as a marketplace, specially curated brands have a home in a platform that also takes into account eco and ethical production can be achieved in numerous ways.
“We started The Wearness to show that sustainability doesn’t need to affect the look and style of a piece, that it can be the most beautiful thing with a more sustainable production,” said Julia Zirpel, one of the co-founders. “We wanted to show this was not a contradiction, because five years ago sustainable items on the market were not fashionable in our eyes.”
The high-end pieces on the site are selected through a rigorous questionnaire process that deep dives into individual sectors of sustainability. Once on the site, each item is displayed alongside the criteria it applies to, allowing buyers to shop according to their specific requirements. These can include organic materials, fair production and other specifically defined areas of sustainability.
The setup ensures that shoppers know exactly what they are buying, and also allows for slight flexibility for brands that direct sustainability efforts towards various perspectives of the production process. “We write about the brand and we explain why they are sustainable, but we also show where they might not be so sustainable just yet,” mentioned Zirpel, emphasising the importance of transparency.
“Handcrafted is a very important element to us too and is something that is not so evident with that many people. It opens up the possibilities of indigenous production and traditional heritage, as well as local manufacturing,” explained Zirpel. “Lots of women work in this area, and it is another part of sustainability that people are less aware of.”
Female empowerment is an additional core value of The Wearness, that takes into consideration the work of women who are strongly evident in the fashion industry. The marketplace looks to highlight the rights of female workers, stressing the importance of educational efforts, child care and other assets that both support and empower women in the workforce.
Alongside the constantly developing portfolio of brands, The Wearness also releases its own limited collection every three months. Only specific products are available, this edition a dress and a shirt, each with a concept completely based on the idea of circularity and bio-degradability. Formed with all-natural and locally produced materials, the items sold define the circular wardrobe that The Wearness is aiming to promote.
Addressing circular production, Zirpel said: “We think this is one of the most important topics that is coming up in the future, but the market is not there yet. Everybody talks about recycled materials, they are just not aware of what happens to products when they are not used anymore.”
In fact, lack of effective waste management is one of the key obstacles Zirpel identifies, noting that there needs to be a focus on obstructing garment disposal before it ends up in markets Europe no longer can control anymore. As part of its own efforts, products from The Wearness collection can be returned to the platform once no longer in use, and the company is additionally looking into the implementation of a repair service.
Guya Merkle, another co-founder and creative director of high-end jeweller Vieri, has already made a start in the development of sustainable waste management. Together with a Dutch NGO, she set up an initiative to produce recycled gold from old mobile phones, transported from African markets back into Europe.
Further future plans for the platform include the establishment of a physical base, where consumers can see and touch the clothes in person, allowing for direct meetings with shoppers. Zirpel concluded: “Especially now during covid, we have the feeling that people are really longing for personal contact and not just getting everything online.”