babaà on Honest Measures of Success
Babaà is a family-owned knitwear brand, more accurately it’s a network of relationships between multiple families each one a master of their craft. From organic cotton farmers in the south of Spain, the shepherds and yarn spinners in the north, and the multi-generational factory in Barcelona to the brand’s hub in Madrid; babaà’s founder Marta Bahillo is a champion of the Spanish knitwear industry. The brand’s international collaborations and community events are equally as intimate, a chance to experiment and co-create.
We speak with Marta about her unique value system, decision to focus on direct-to-consumer and supporting ecological innovation.
Advance Copy: I would describe babaà as a web of families connected by their shared desire to develop positive change in individual and collective lines of expertise. How would you define the brand?
Marta Bahillo: The first thing that comes to my head is honest life. Babaà is a knitwear brand, but it’s more than that. When I say honest life it’s life and it’s based on real roots. Starting with the honesty of the quality of it and how we produce. It’s a lifestyle and it’s [about] honesty from the beginning to the end. It’s a knitwear brand that is about living with that honesty.
AC: What is the current structure of babaà? Who do you work with in your Madrid studio, what are their roles, the departments and your immediate external collaborators?
Marta: It’s a very simple structure and I like to keep it this way because there’s a lot to look after. And there’s a particular way of working so it has to [be] simple. When I sometimes feel like I’m carrying a lot I have to do a clearance of structures. What I’ve learned throughout the years, is that it can only happen and be sustained in time, if it suits my ideals of the company.
“To me, success is slowly doing things as we want to be doing them.”
AC: We are living at a time when we need to explore new ways and systems in the fashion industry. And I think you’re a very good example of that, of ensuring that whatever decisions you’re making they fit your standards for babaà.
Marta: It has to fit in that. And also maybe it doesn’t look like a total success, but to me, success is slowly doing things as we want to be doing them, going in our own direction and not getting out of that just for anything.
AC: I think the idea of success in our industry, but also in many other industries is just so set on either financial success or the amount of distribution. Which feels completely misaligned with the global and ecological goals of today.
Marta: Absolutely, but then you have to make up slogans and give a lot of explanations to perhaps make it look like something that it’s not. And that’s something I’m very proud about with babaà – that what you see is what it is. And sometimes people think that there must be more to it, but there’s not.
When you were talking about business structures, I’m lucky to work with partners [who] understand the brand and want to work in a particular way. I’ve always been told you can’t just have one manufacturer; you have to have more. And I’ve never wanted that. I work well with these people, they’re like a family. You have to go through the good times and the bad times, like in a marriage. I feel like we don’t need more than that. And also, how much are you going to produce? What you produce, you have to sell. I know what I have to do for my business, and I don’t want slogans, I just want to do it.
“I felt like I could produce less perhaps and invent ways to sell.”
AC: From the very beginning you’ve stuck to doing direct-to-consumer. When you started the brand 10 years ago, it wasn’t such an obvious strategy. Do you mind talking us through how you started selling and distributing?
Marta: That was another decision when I started [with] just knits for children and felt like a lot of the kids brands were doing fairs. I didn’t want to sell in shops, I didn’t want to do retail. It was a personal thing: I’m better at going to an event and selling to a final person, but I didn’t see myself going to fairs and looking for that middle business. I went to see one and couldn’t feel that idea of waiting for people to come. I felt like I could produce less perhaps and invent ways to sell. And I’d have more power of action that way, than going to a place and waiting for someone to tell me that they’re going to buy it. With direct-to-consumer, I could be more inventive. Perhaps it was slower, but I would have a little bit more control over the production and that’s all I wanted from the beginning because I couldn’t work the way I work with the factory if I had to serve retail.
AC: You must have felt a misalignment with the power dynamics of selling collections at trade fairs. It can make you feel like it’s diminishing the value of your work and your sense of worth.
Marta: Or, you have to [work] on certain terms. And I didn’t even know if I could be in those terms because of the way I manufacture. Of course, things change throughout the years, but my basic things of quality and materials, all that is not going to change. It’s never going to get cheaper, the opposite. So it’s very hard to work in retail, you would have to compromise and I didn’t want to compromise. This way I bring it into a rhythm that I can sustain.
AC: You’re going to be kicking off more events and getting back on the road soon to meet your community and your collaborators, which you haven’t had the opportunity to do for the last couple of years. What approach do you take with these events and road trips? They seem very personal with a real sense of adventure.
Marta: [What] I like about these events is that you never know what’s going to happen and it’s not super planned, it’s just connecting with people and it feels like a really natural connection. In general, when we do this, it always works. You don’t know what’s going to happen, so you just have to go open-hearted.
I was a little bit worried about getting back on the road because I had a baby in April and post pandemic and post pregnancy I was [feeling] a more inwards, and I didn’t know if I was ready to go outwards, but I just felt like I needed to reconnect. All these things have happened in the world and even in my life, but I need to feel like we can still be out there and meet everyone because that’s very special for me. That’s kept me going with the brand in a particular way. It’s like a circle that gets completed because you meet the customers and it all makes sense. You give a lot and then you take a lot from these personal meetings.
“I have a business and there’s a lot of people that live off it and that’s success.”
AC: The garment-making process is the foundation of your brand and I’d love to discuss how your work with babaà has helped to reinvigorate the production and manufacturing of wool and cotton in Spain.
Marta: It is very important to do this, and again, it is about honesty. You start by going local but then you look at the numbers and you end up going to other countries to produce. So, you’ve started a relationship with a factory that has made the effort to do your samples, give you ideas and then you go somewhere else to produce. I’ve seen that again and again in the factory. To me, if you want to do it, it’s going to be good and bad, but it can’t be based just on numbers. That’s how you sustain the industry because you are committed to doing something long-term. Local production is expensive and that’s just the way it is, but it’s expensive because you’re working with people and around people that are getting good salaries. These people live in Spain, and they get paid and they have their holiday. What’s sustainability other than sustaining that? I think it’s something so obvious. If you are going to get a t-shirt that costs two euros, there’s something going on. I don’t think we have to talk about it, it’s just if you want to be blind to it or not.
AC: Since starting babaà, do you feel more optimistic about customers’, producers’ and brands’ attitudes?
Marta: I have mixed feelings about it. I was feeling very positive because I felt like a lot of industry was coming back. Then in the depths of it, people are not willing to give up on certain things, there’s still a lot of talk about the costs and I think customers are still very focused on that. Of course, it’s going to cost more if you do it locally and the numbers are never going to be excellent if you do it this way. But there are ways around it. I have a business and there’s a lot of people that live off it and that’s success. No?
I think people want to do it, but when it comes to reality, you need to accept that there are a lot of things that you have to give up and one of them is huge profits. That’s why people produce in other countries, it’s for profit which is fine. But if you want to do it right, there’s a family behind that factory that also has a right. And so many families that work for them also have rights. So you need to think of that.
“We can all keep going because we are supporting each other.”
AC: There is a lot to say about battling the ego in the industry. What do you prioritize? Of course, you need to have, as you said, a financially sustainable business, but then there’s that point of quality decision-making, where it’s between you as a brand owner, your office staff and retailers having considerably better lifestyles thanks to the lower pay received by the rest of your outsourced supply chain. But you can make decisions differently, which would put you on a more difficult path but would also bring something completely new to the table in terms of equality, ethics and supporting local industries.
Marta: I think there’s space for everything. There’s space for making more money as the owner and space for the factory to do better, you just have to have everything in the equation. The factory has to produce because otherwise, they’re not going to be able to sustain the structures. It’s all [about] inventing. It’s a lot of energy. That’s why I couldn’t work with three factories, one is already like a lot. You have to be constantly active to sustain all those things. I’m not saying that it’s perfect but that’s the way I like it.
AC: You work very closely with the team at the factory in Barcelona. The relationships there have been pivotal to the growth and development of babaà. Working hand-in-hand with collaborators and sharing resources and knowledge is ingrained in your design process.
Marta: During the pandemic, I really saw that it’s for real, these very intertwined family businesses, we can all keep going because we are supporting each other. The actual numbers, the actual sale and the profit are just not that important. This is more long-term. I think the numbers will be better because you do it this way.
“It’s easier to give the responsibility to someone else but now I’ve learned to take it.”
AC: There was a pivotal moment when you began experimenting with colours for cotton specifically. Could you tell us about these developments and ecological dyes?
Marta: I just love colour. We dye the wool in a traditional way and it’s not as sustainable as the cotton which we [dye] using ozone and nanotechnology. Doing it that way means that you’re using less water, 60% less, there’s no toxic waste and there’s no need to do any bleaching. Doing it this way we can also develop a lot of colours and do small batches. So it’s a very sustainable way of working. The good thing about this is also that all the [substances] that will be forbidden in a few years, we are already not using. We are benefiting from these partners that are already investigating how to not work with them. It’s more expensive to do it this way, but in the end, for them or us, we are developing something good, so it’s worth it.
AC: Reflecting on these 10 years in the fashion industry, what do you think you’ve learned about yourself as a business owner?
Marta: I’ve learned to trust myself, and that’s very recent. I always felt like the way I did things was just crazy and other people would know better, which is true for nearly everything, but perhaps for running my own business, maybe I know better. I’ve learned throughout the years that that’s the way we do it. That’s the way it works for this business. I’ve learned to trust myself and that’s a lot.
AC: How do you instil that trust?
Marta: I try to be more connected to myself. You have to make a lot of decisions and sometimes a lot of hard decisions. Other times, you have to take risks and perhaps sometimes it’s easier to give the responsibility to someone else but now I’ve learned to take it and to trust that what my gut says might be the right direction. Because if I’m still here 10 years later with babaà, maybe it’s not that bad what we’ve done. And that goes along throughout my family, the factory and all these things. We’ve been doing this thing in this particular way for a while, and we are here so I can trust it. It’s [about] being connected to my feelings and trusting my gut. It sounds very easy to say. I promise I don’t find it easy, but I really try.
This interview has been edited and condensed.