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Arnsdorf on Relaunching With Greater Purpose

06.05.21, Melbourne

This conversation is available to enjoy on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Established in 2006 by Jade Sarita Arnott, Arnsdorf is a robust womenswear label comprised of an Atelier, online store and bricks and mortar boutique. Every aspect of the brand is diligently thought out on an axis of moral, creative and business principles close to its Founder’s heart. This iteration of the brand was born when Jade faced a misalignment of her values with those of the fashion industry. She decided to pause and relaunch Arnsdorf confronting industry problems with tailor-made solutions inspired by best practices in other creative fields.    

We talk to Jade about the importance of designing new processes and not being afraid to cross industry barriers. 

AC: Hi Jade! I’m intrigued to hear what enticed you to pursue a career in fashion design?

Jade: I’ve always been interested in creative pursuits. My mum and dad met in art school, my mum studied painting and my father was studying photography. We were always drawing and making things. I studied Creative Arts at the Victorian College of the Arts where I was able to explore sculpture, painting, creative writing and art history. I enjoyed the idea of making and selling things, and seeing people wear them made me feel fulfilled. I wanted to continue down this path of creating but also have the skills to make more meaningful work. I decided to study Fashion Design at RMIT with the idea of creating my own fashion brand.

AC: How did the process of setting up Arnsdorf unfold?

Jade: In Australia, we have a program called NEIS which is a grant that will help fund your business for a year and includes a six-week small business course. I was interested in this holistic way of creating a solid foundation for the brand. I spent a while designing the first collection, then put together a lookbook and dropped it off at all the stores that I wanted to be at. I also entered a fashion week design competition and became a finalist. While showing at Sydney Fashion Week expanded Arnsdorf’s list of stockists and exposure with magazines like Russh, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

“I had started to feel uneasy about the way the industry was operating.”

AC: What makes your story unique is the fact that at one point you paused Arnsdorf and restarted it with a new structure and a new set of ideals. Could you give us some background into what happened?   

Jade: In 2009 I decided to relocate to New York. I had one employee at the time who stayed behind to manage the Australian office while I moved the design studio and production to New York where I stayed for six years. In 2012, there was a downturn in Australia and a lot of the stores had either closed down or had not paid their young designers. It was difficult financially and I was pregnant with my first child and reassessing whether what I was doing still felt like what I should be doing. I had started to feel uneasy about the way the industry was operating in terms of the waste it was generating. Things would be delivered into stores and three months later they would be marked down and deemed as not valuable anymore. A piece would lose its newness and therefore its perceived value. I started to see the cracks in the industry and felt like there was a barrier between myself and the people producing the garments. I decided to take some time off from the industry and reassess whether it would work out for me to be continuing.   

I pressed pause and explored other mediums. I had taken an Industrial Design class in New York and was thinking of pursuing furniture design. I was looking for design opportunities where I could use my ideas to create something beautiful and functional that stood the test of time. I was also approached by Apiece Apart to consult with them on a denim range. Being in that environment had made me realise what I loved about fashion in the first place, like working with a team of women. It felt special and started me back on the journey of enjoying fashion. We then decided to move back to Australia and a lot of people saw it as Arnsdorf also being back.

“I loved this idea of starting again and not being tied to the tradition of how you should operate a fashion brand.”

AC: New York is a Mecca of finance and capitalism and you did the opposite of what that environment was dictating: you turned away from the pressure of chasing growth. Would you say you were led by a moral compass or something more pragmatic?  

Jade: The experiences that I had during that time away from Arnsdorf had informed what it became. I was seeing friends that had startups that were doing things differently and not following traditional paths. I loved this idea of starting again and not being tied to the tradition of how you should operate a fashion brand. Just thinking about what makes sense in the world now. Not to change things for the sake of it but to reassess whether the ways we have been working served the current situation. I had studied sustainability at RMIT and it was just the beginning of those topics being discussed. That had broadened my mind to these issues and in some ways, I found it overwhelming. But I love having those parameters to work in, having deeper questions and approaching things from a more substantial way than just from an aesthetic or conceptual standpoint. Weaving all these issues and finding ways for them to be more harmonious in the outcomes.   

AC: How did you move forward with these concerns and expansive ideas to then strategise a new version of Arnsdorf?   

Jade: I started thinking about what I would want if I was going to come back to fashion. What would I take away from the experience last time to make it a more positive business and experience? Relaunching the brand was an opportunity to have a clean slate, to create everything again and to do things differently. One of the things that we did was bring all manufacturing in-house. We started to hire machinists and built our small factory. That was one way in which we could be sure that the people making our garments had a positive experience, were being paid well and were respected for the crucial role that they play in the creation of our goods. We were also trialling a direct-to-consumer model to create an intimate relationship with the women wearing our clothes and for them to give us feedback. That was the big difference between launching the first time and the second.   

[We are] encouraging a long-term relationship with the garment instead of a short-term fling.”

AC: At the moment you have a beautiful boutique in Melbourne and you are collaborating on different retail projects. How do you marry the direct-to-consumer and wholesale models?  

Jade: We started with a direct-to-consumer model, working exclusively online and [producing] made to order. It grew quickly and we realised that it was difficult to maintain the lead times for our customers. We also found that people wanted to touch the garments and try them on. Then the idea was to create a showroom experience, to have a space where people would come to a one-to-one appointment while we would find out about the individual and what they needed from their wardrobes. It worked for some clients but others didn’t want that much attention on themselves. We needed to provide a more traditional retail experience and decided to launch the store, creating small-batch manufacturing to meet its demands and offering complimentary alterations. Our idea was that if a garment fits well there is a larger chance of it being in high rotation in someone’s wardrobe, encouraging a long-term relationship with the garment instead of a short-term fling. I wanted to create these bespoke experiences in everybody’s everyday lives.   

One of the plans was to launch more stores but this is costly and we didn’t have the [financial] backing. Instead, we decided to partner with David Jones who created a portal called Mindfully Made promoting brands with sustainable attributes. We felt like it would be appropriate to partner with brands fitting with our values and a way for us to physically reach our audiences who are asking to see Arnsdorf products.

AC: What do the core operations of the brand look like today?   

Jade: We’re based in Collingwood in Melbourne which is where we cut, sew and make most of our garments. We have a permanent collection of foundational garments with an artful take on silhouettes and detailing. That makes up a large percentage of our sales. We also do limited seasonal ranges twice a year, cut in small numbers that sell out and don’t lose value per season. We also decided to not go on sale. That was a big change in terms of redesigning the company, throwing out the rulebook and trying to present products at a fair price that would honour the craftspeople who made them, pay the price for sustainable fabrics and get it to the customer that will be thoughtful in their inner decision-making. But also respecting that exchange with the customer so that in the following week they wouldn’t see their item marked down and feel upset. In trying to deconstruct the opaque side of the fashion industry our website shows all the costs of making the garment and lists the names of each machinist whereby the consumer knows that to make something ethically or sustainably it’s going to cost an X amount of labour.

AC: Earlier this year Arnsdorf held a clothes swap event using SwapChain technology. What was the idea behind this event and how did it unfold?  

Jade: We recently collaborated with Swapchain which is a New York-based organisation. [Using Swapchain technology] we were able to get our clients to drop off a piece of their used Arnsdorf clothing that they no longer had in high rotation and during Melbourne Fashion Week they could come into the store and select a different piece of clothing. There was no money exchanging hands and the information was being categorised with a QR technology blockchain system. The clients were excited by it, some people found it hard to get their head around as it was the first time that anything like that had been done in Australia using Swapchain. We used it as a trial period to see how we could embed these systems into the company. It’s something we’re looking to do permanently in the future.  

AC: You’re combining these two extremes of having your own atelier with a highly personal approach to each Arnsdorf garment but also using the latest technology to problem solve. Showing that being a more conscious brand – doesn’t mean going backwards but looking in all directions for the most suitable solutions.   

Jade: I like the way you summed it up. I think of Arnsdorf as a brand that is respectful of the old techniques: wanting to hold on to that craft and the quality of making things with this progressive side where we embrace new technologies and new ways of doing business and interacting with people. I think these areas are a really interesting space to be playing within.

“Brands need to be open-minded, not constrained by the purity of where they are positioned.”

AC: How do you foresee Arnsdorf’s growth?   

Jade: I have to go back to that idea of having a positive impact on people and the planet, those are the areas of interest for me in terms of growth. From a business perspective, for a brand our size growth is a positive thing in that we can have a lot more positive impact through our operations and business buying power. There is a lot more impact we can make as a bigger company. Growth has, in some ways, been portrayed as a negative thing within the sustainability space. I can see how that can be the case with fast-fashion retailers where growth is the only driving factor but for brands making a positive impact, there’s room to take over from other businesses that are not as regenerative. I think that small brands need to not shy away from the idea of growth and that growth can happen positively. It’s not necessarily this idea of encouraging people to buy more products, it’s about how I can reach a larger audience and get the garments that are needed. It’s about taking a conscious approach to growth.   

There’s the example of a company called Beyond Meat [whose] mission is to take over the meat industry in a way that no longer uses animals for meat. They started as a homegrown brand but allowed themselves to be in places that didn’t align, like Burger King, which let them reach new audiences that were not exposed to these different ideas. Brands need to be open-minded, not constrained by the purity of where they are positioned and who engages with them.  It’s interesting to look at brands doing things in other spaces to see where you can disrupt industries and create an alternative. For the planet’s sake, we need to get these messages out to as wide an audience as we can.  

AC: What would you say you’ve learnt about yourself thanks to Arnsdorf?   

Jade: What I’ve learnt is that my creativity and the business are very much intertwined with my life. There’s not a separation of me, work, home or after-hours. I’m constantly thinking about these issues and design ideas throughout my life. I’ve learnt that small things can make a big impact and it doesn’t matter how small you are. It’s important to have a purpose that’s greater than yourself and your personal development as a designer. It’s been helpful to have this bigger umbrella of what we are trying to achieve as a company. You start where you are and things will gather momentum around you if you have a clear intention.