Gillian Osrin, it’s fair to say, is an ethical-fashionista. Currently residing over the site of all-things-ethical that is Style With Heart, I ask Gillian for an insider’s take.
“I’ve been in retail for about twenty years. I wanted to give something back.” It’s clear from the start that Gillian’s vision is an encompassing one. Perusing the website, it’s hard to ignore the company’s innate ability to unite producers, brands, communities and shoppers from a rich global community.
Explaining her movement through the retail industry, Gillian draws parallels between the changing ethics of fashion, then and now: “That was around the time when corporation responsibility was still fairly embryonic, but still something I wanted to do. Whilst I was working there I came into contact with a lot of people who wanted to put ethical and eco at the core of their businesses – so working with really small artisan groups all around the world. And I thought, what can I do to help them?”
So Style With Heart was the answer to the difficult question of how to access the market for many small producers,. Think Asos, but eco sector. The business has gone from strength to strength, building its principles of quality and ethics: “I want people to spend less, shop less. Better quality, longer-lasting things.” Gillian also stresses the diversity of company, “I’ve had to put my personal preferences to one side, because there are brands on the site that are slightly more traditional, eco, bohemian types, which isn’t my thing at all. The whole thing about Style With Heart was that it could be a one-stop guide to suit all tastes, men, women, and children. So its very, very broad.”
The site is a nexus of ethical ideas, though Gillian prefers to steer clear of words such as ‘eco’, ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’: “These are terms which are often loaded with specific – and often misunderstood – meanings. They’re not broad enough on their own to encompass the values of all the companies.” It’s a very fair point. The connotations of the term have become largely simplified, though undeniably attractive. “We buy clothes and accessories that make us look good. But how about buying things that make us look good and feel good too.” People are looking to change their lives. As Stella McCartney said, referring to her move to make hers the first luxury fashion brand that is anti-fur and anti-leather: “I’m a big believer in that just doing a little something, is a lot better than doing a lot of nothing.”
This gloriously ethical agenda is closely woven into the fabric of Style With Heart. The site itself is a thing of beauty, with a pristine clarity of layout that can hold the attention of any discerning Internet shopper. It’s a manifesto, too: “The number one criteria is that brands have to be ethical. They need to be aware of their work force. The work places need to be audited regularly and they need to know about their supply chain. In addition to that, if there’s an environmental/ eco element to what they do, then all the better.” It’s exactly this conscientiousness, which Gillian stresses as the key to an ethical lifestyle: “I think it’s really about what you do in your everyday life and the decisions you make. It’s very much about buying less, but better quality and longer lasting. If you need something new to wear on a night out, clothes swap with a friend, or hold a shopping party. Think charity shops, recycling, customizing.”
True. Fashion isn’t about newness: what goes around inevitably comes back around: you just have to get creative. Surprisingly, the much-maligned high street retailers don’t seem to be entirely at fault. “High street retailers actually aren’t the biggest offenders.” It’s a long old catwalk to victory, but Gillian remains positive, “ a lot of the big high street brands are really trying hard to change their ways. But it’s like turning around one of these huge container ships – it can’t be done in a matter of months alone. It does take years.”
I ask wonderingly about the Yves Saint Laurent quote featured in the website. It insists that while “fashion fades, style is eternal.” Is it not being taken out of context? Can this ever mean the same thing in the separate spheres of ethical and unethical fashion? “The brand has been changed and they’re making steps to be more sustainable. It’s something that I’ve always thought is quite ironic for design houses because they’re not using factories in Bangladesh, they’re using real craftsmen and artisans who are hand making these clothes. It’s just how it is.”
Then where do the problems start? It seems a matter of failed communication. “The main problem that people don’t recognize is there’s very few high street retailers that have their own factories. They’re having to share factories, it’s quite difficult when you’ve got one retailer who wants to pay the living wage, and another one who doesn’t. How can they explain that to their workers? That’s a challenge that everyone’s up against at the moment.” The legislation is in place, but no one is enforcing it.
Nevertheless, sound ethics and fashion are definitely courting. Gillian is testament to the changes being made: “You have a lot of high street retailers who are really trying to make an effort. Some are doing more than others. But they are trying to do something.” Indeed Style With Heart is a growing phenomenon. “Off the back of that, a year ago I launched Boutique With Heart which focuses on eco, ethical, vintage, handmade jewelry.” It’s another link in the fashion chain.
Gillian is aware of people’s desire to feel connected: fashion is, after all, a community. “If you have something with a story behind it, it connects you more closely with it. You appreciate the effort much more – the work and time that’s gone into it. I think when people are actually thinking about what they’re consuming on every level they enjoy it a lot more and they take less for granted: they waste a lot less.”
Style With Heart is pioneering not a brand, but a lifestyle choice. Positive change is in the air. So why not change with style?