Maggie Marilyn, the New Zealand fashion label beloved by Michelle Obama and Meghan Markle, is more committed to sustainability than most. Here, founder Maggie Hewitt explains how the brand’s new eco-conscious mission is driven by both slowing down and being incredibly impatient. Inside Retail: You only graduated in 2015, and the Maggie Marilyn brand has been very popular with both consumers and retailers since you launched it. What have been your highlights? Maggie Hewitt: There have been so
een so many pinch-me moments over the past four years. Having the likes of Michelle Obama and Meghan Markle wear Maggie Marilyn was pretty incredible. Even though we’ve decided to go direct-to-consumer [DTC], I really can’t undervalue the partnership with Net-a-Porter for our first collection. They really catapulted us to the global stage and gave us a global customer from the very beginning; the continued roll on from that was remarkable. I was shortlisted for the LVMH prize, and so within six months I think we were stocked in 75 retailers around the world. It was a pretty steep growth curve, but that’s one way to learn, that’s for sure! IR: What was it like when you found out that Michelle Obama and Meghan Markle were wearing your brand and what was the flow-on effect like from that? MH: It’s amazing. I think it just contributes to a greater brand awareness and credibility. I really don’t believe in silver bullets, though, and while having someone of the stature of Michelle Obama wearing your brand is absolutely incredible, it doesn’t mean “That’s it, I can retire and we’ve done it all.” It’s about putting one right step in front of the other but you can’t get complacent — you have to keep going, keep moving. IR: What prompted your move to DTC and what benefits do you anticipate? MH: We have been on this journey of wanting to be closer to our customer for the past 18 months to two years. We launched our direct-to-consumer-only line, Somewhere, in November 2019, and our first showroom in October last year as well. I think we identified quite early on that if we want to create change in our industry, we really need to educate our customers about shopping more consciously. And we can’t expect our customers to make more informed decisions if we aren’t informing them ourselves. The fashion supply chain is very long and distorted, and there are so many people to get through before you reach the consumer on the shop floor. Covid really amplified the question of, “If not now, then when are we going to align our values and our mission in how we sell to our customers?” Now is the time to be bold and brave and to lead with conviction, and that’s what we’ve decided to do. It’s a huge change, and one that is absolutely risky, but I really believe that when you lead with the right intent and conviction, and lead with purpose, that everything finds a way of falling into place. I’ve seen that happen over the past four years. IR: What are some benefits of wholesale, and is there anything you are going to miss? MH: That depends which day you ask me. I think the real benefit is the scale and being able to reach customers and a market that is thousands of miles away from where you’re based. We’ve been stocked in Europe, the Middle East, America, the UK, China, all over the world, really, and it has been incredible. We are so lucky with the time we are living in, considering how much the world has shrunk with social media and technology, and now we have the ability to directly access a customer of the other side of the world through our own communication channels. Now that we have the brand momentum and a platform, we can continue to ride that wave and continue to find new customers who share in our values and want to see change in our industry, and who want to be part of a better world. IR: How have your wholesale partners responded to the news? MH: Honestly, pretty positively. They are also in a state of flux and so much has happened this year — Covid has probably highlighted or accelerated a lot of cracks in our industry. It’s not often that a young brand says to a retailer, “Hey, we want to go off and forge our own path”; it’s usually the other way around. They’ve been incredibly supportive and they know how true in our convictions we are in wanting to make a positive change in our industry. A lot of our buyers shared in understanding the challenges. It isn’t going to take five minutes, but we are a young brand and we can pivot very easily. We want to see change quickly. We are impatient and we just couldn’t wait around for them to get behind amplifying the change that needs to happen. IR: You have chosen to use sea-freight exclusively in the future and that could seem like a bit of a backward step to some. MH: Fundamentally, it starts from considering the holistic business model. For us, it is slowing down the pace of newness and the rate at which we are putting out new products. Somewhere, our evergreen line, gives us the ability to really get behind our values. We aren’t working to these crazy schedules and, essentially, we are creating a product that has a long shelf-life; it’s not going to get marked down in six months, and I hope that we are still making the same blazer in 30 years. Fashion is our gateway to making a positive impact and everything falls into line underneath that. We know that we need to reduce our carbon emissions; carbon is the single biggest factor in the climate crisis, so we are pivoting our business model so that we can ship everything around the world rather than using air freight. Have a clear mission and purpose and everything falls together underneath that. IR: Maggie Marilyn collections aim to be traceable, organic, recycled or repurposed and you’re now reimagining your inventory ratio. Can you tell us more? MH: Absolutely. Our main line is now going to be known as our Forever capsule. It’s really the heart and playful soul of our brand and it will always have a place in our future. It’s about minimising our inventory risk because Covid really highlighted the risk that we face as an industry. The industry has a business model that is based on making as much product as possible to boost the chances of achieving every available full-priced sale. That never really made sense to me. I think we need to slightly under-deliver on available opportunities. With our Forever capsule, the intention is to have a 100 per cent sell-through rate. We might think we can sell 200 dresses, but we only make 150 so that we sell out. We don’t want to have an inventory problem because we don’t want to mark down. We don’t want to tell our customers in six months time that this dress is now worth less than what you paid for it six months ago, so you should just donate it and buy something new. We are trying to move beyond the insatiable appetite for newness and I know that seems counterintuitive for a brand that is putting out new clothes and encouraging people to buy them, but we want people to be conscious and to buy for forever. With our Somewhere line, we are flipping the inventory model. This line will be 95 per cent of our inventory, because it sits within a circular system. This answers the question of, “How can we be sustainable if we are a company that puts out new products?” Any product that we put out there can be repaired and sold to a new customer, be composted or recycled into a new garment. As we grow and employ more people and produce more clothing, we hope that we have a regenerative impact. That’s the goal. You’ve got to be ambitious. IR: You want to use regeneratively farmed resources in greater volumes, can you explain more about that? MH: We live on a planet with finite resources and, quite simply, if we don’t give nature time to regenerate, we won’t be able to pull and pull from those resources. So we know that if we want to sustain ourselves and the industry, then it’s important to sit within a circular industry. There are some pretty scary statistics out there: we only have 60 years of top soil left because we have absolutely eroded our soil quality. A lot of Maggie Marilyn garments are produced from raw materials like cotton, linen and merino. If we are going to be here in 100 years time, then we have to work alongside our farmers to regenerate our soil. This is not a five-minute project. It’s probably a 10-20-year journey that we are on to work with our organic raw materials farmers to introduce regenerative farming practices. I’d like to challenge people who say, “You can’t change the world.” We are such a conduit across lots of different industries, from farming right through to retail, so if we can introduce regenerative farming at one end and educate our customers on the other, then I absolutely believe change is possible and I feel optimistic about our future. IR: Why is it important for you to offer a free repair service? MH: Ultimately, I think to be a modern brand, you have to take accountability for the life cycle of your garments. You have to realise that when it leaves the store, it doesn’t mean the product is no longer your responsibility. The first step in that circular journey is repair. It’s the most economical and environmentally friendly step. From a commercial perspective, I think the more that we align with our values and bring our customer along with us on that journey, the more we will build brand loyalty. If a customer knows they can return their Maggie Marilyn garment and we will repair it, they are a lifelong customer. If we are truly standing behind the quality of our products and making garments to last, I don’t envisage we will have a huge amount of repairs anyway. My vision is that we will have a little embroidered red love heart that we will stitch into the garment when we repair it. I hope it will become a badge of honour. It’s cool to have your clothes repaired. It’s the romantic notion of how the clothing comes on a journey with us. IR: You launched your new store in Auckland this month, what has the response been like? MH: The store has reinvigorated our belief in the power of bricks-and-mortar. I think this year, with the global pandemic, it’s shown that people crave human connection more than ever. We are delighted to be able to create a space that we are calling a “brand home”. It isn’t about increasing sales per square metre, but about being a conduit for connection. We launched community events at the beginning of the year, and while they have been a bit on and off because of Covid, it’s great that we can be a brand that brings people together; where friendships can be made and powerful conversations can be had. That’s what I envisage our stores looking like all over the world. This is the first of many. Not that I want 2000 stores, but that they should be curated and about brand experience as opposed to driving sales. We will drive product and conversion online, but we want to build customer loyalty and connection in these brand homes. Obviously, you can still buy the product there, but it’s not the sole focus. We are calling our sales associates “change makers” to really get them into the mindset of educating our customers and the power they have in that role. They have thick handbooks on sustainability and they are so knowledgeable about our brand and mission. The goal now is to communicate that to the customer. That level of control on the shopfloor just wasn’t possible with our wholesale partners. We are excited for the future.