How To Pandemic-Proof Your Fashion Brand with Claire Yurika Davis
The founder of HANGER shares her expert insight into starting your own brand, authentic storytelling and embracing sustainability.
The coronavirus pandemic has created a number of unforeseen problems the fashion industry has faced over the last eight weeks, and the solution so far has been to press pause on the fashion cycle. For fashion students, however, the months continue to roll on, with many fast approaching graduation and entering a vast expanse of uncertainty with little opportunities on horizon. In light of this uncertainty, BRICKS speaks to Claire Yurika Davis of HANGER, whose brand has received international acclaim as pretty much the coolest sustainable brand around. Today, Claire shares her expert insight into starting your own brand, authentic storytelling and embracing sustainability.
When did you decide you were going to start your own brand?
I think to be honest I’d always wanted to have my own brand. I think that a lot of people who are into fashion wanted to be designers for a long time, and that was the same with me – since I was a kid I wanted to be a designer. I think a lot of people also want their own label, there’s this mindset of ‘I don’t want to work for anyone else’, and y’know, you want to be the designer.
So what were some of your first steps?
I think I decided my brand name just before I graduated because I actually came up with the name during a [university] project, I think I was doing a project on aeroplane hangars which are actually spelt with an -ar which I didn’t like as much as the -er. I know it is really standard like a clothes hanger, but I liked the symmetry of the word. Everyone asks what it means but it doesn’t mean anything! I liked the word, it was simple, it essentially didn’t mean anything, it refers to a clothes hanger which is like the most basic thing and I liked that non-name-ness about it. People really encouraged me to link it to myself, use my middle name and stuff like that, but my middle name is my Japanese name which is Yurika, but I wanted it to be really separate and kind of anonymous. I didn’t want it to be about me.
Yeah, definitely, and I think that then helps prevent preconceived notions of who you are and what your brand is.
Yeah, right, because if it’s my name then it has to be all about me and my Japanese heritage and there’s so much weight on that and obligation.
So what did you do next, once you had the name?
So as soon as I had the name I registered the company, and I think I did that about two years before I started doing anything with it. After university, I basically went straight into a job that came off the back of an internship I’d done for a few weeks – I’m good at sewing and it was a machinist job sewing lingerie. I did that and just partied and whatever for a year, did some styling, and then I started by doing some courses. I did one with The Princes Trust which was an intensive business programme, so it was a week-long and they tell you all of these different areas of business that you need to think about. I did another with the University of East London Business School who gave me advice and both courses gave me mentors. However, the problem with programmes like these is that they give you mentors who are reasonably old white folk who have no idea of the world currently and how that world impacts you, especially as a black or brown female, so the advice you end up getting would have been correct maybe 10-15 years ago, but not now. So that was something I struggled with, as I always had mentors I could go to but I felt like they were mentoring me for an age that didn’t exist anymore.
But that did get me somewhere, and it’s all about taking these steps and the people you meet and asking for advice and you find your way like that. It was very small to start out with – literally we started in my basement before we got a studio around the corner and just did things small scale with the money that I could save, just keeping things small and working with friends a lot (I’m the kind of person who doesn’t mind asking for favours).
Were the first steps that you took the first steps you’d recommend to people looking to start their own brand?
Um, no! No, I don’t think so at all. I started in 2013 and things have changed so much in the last 7 years. I wouldn’t recommend taking every step that I did, I only did them because I had no idea what to do, and it did get me somewhere. If people were looking to run a business now I would ask them a tonne of questions first, like what is it for? Is this for fun or for money? I didn’t realise – I mean I don’t think anybody realises this as a fashion graduate – that if you want to start your own label, you’re not going to make money for an extremely long time unless you’ve got rich parents or something. So you’ve got to make the distinction of the purpose of everything. I would recommend people to find someone they can speak to who has success right now – the problem with all of these mentors and teachers, even in universities, is that some of them were never successful, some of them have been but it was 20 years ago, and not all of their advice is actually that relevant. You need to speak to people who have success in the current climate. I would recommend people to talk to individuals that they respect, and to ask lots of questions. I get people asking me for advice all the time, especially after appearing on the Netflix series Next In Fashion, but people ask the vaguest questions! I love to give advice and teach people but you need to know what you want to know before you ask for advice. There are always people out there who are willing to give advice.
So we touched on it briefly earlier, but I know some designs have been inspired by your culture and heritage – can you tell me more about the process of incorporating your culture into your designs?
When I started I actually didn’t do it that much. I think when I was learning and studying at university we were never pushed to really discover that or bring ourselves into our work, it was about using external sources, which if I think back now obviously doesn’t make any sense. It’s how a lot of people are taught but it’s a weird way so you have to kind of unlearn that stuff and then learn through the business lens of what sells, and what sells is a story. You need a story and the only way you’re going to show people this story in an authentic way is if it’s your story. It took me a few years to realise that if a concept wasn’t working it was because it hadn’t come from me. So I only really started doing that after a couple of years, maybe around 2015-16. My best friend helped me a lot, she’s a designer from Hong Kong and we were both trying to look internally for inspiration rather than externally. Once I started doing that and bringing small personal things in people were really excited, and you realise these are things that people are interested in because it is just me. I started bringing [ideas] in that I’ve always liked, for instance, my love of martial arts films and basically all of Asian cinema. I’m really into cinema and that’s because my Dad brought me up on horror films since I was around 5.
You have to learn through the business lens of what sells, and what sells is a story– you need a story and the only way you’re going to show people this story in an authentic way is if it’s your story.
Claire Yurika Davis
Wow, I love that.
I know, he had no concept of age restrictions and just wanted to watch things together. I now always try and think about my collection’s story through a cinematic lens which is why I have always made a film to go along with a collection release. I find film is the best way to express moods or feelings or stories. My mum is Japanese but we live in England and I was brought up with relatively no money we didn’t really go back to Japan that much and I didn’t really know that many Japanese people here so I always felt quite disconnected from my Japanese heritage, so a lot of my work was my way of exploring that in a way that felt exciting. Often if you’re doing a job and running a business you don’t have time to read and learn about anything that isn’t directly related to the work you’re doing, you just want to go home and go to sleep. But if you can bring it into your work somehow then you can get the chance to learn and discover while you work.
I think it’s pretty interesting what you said about incorporating things you already like, it’s almost like these things aren’t new to you because you already like them but if no one knows you or your brand yet then how would they know that? I think people are always looking for new external stimulus but why not use what you already know?
Right, like the idea is already within you and it’s such a weird thing with creative learning, they’ll always encourage you to look outside, and that’s not to discount outside influence, but you’ve got to marry that with what you already have inside you so that it has some relevance. Honestly, art and fashion schools can be so chaotic, I can’t even deal.
At BRICKS we love that HANGER is a sustainable brand. What are some tips you’d give to aspiring or emerging designers who want their brand to be environmentally and ethically conscious?
I suppose I’d really just tell them to think about what they want to offer and what kind of business they want to have, what kind of structure, because the best way to be sustainable is to be flexible and to make small. I really feel like it needs to be integrated from the beginning, from the bottom up, and now is such a good time to do it – there are so many courses and online resources you can use. There are a lot of brands that have gained a lot of success from piggybacking off of other brands which is also a really good thing to do, especially when it comes to using someone else’s waste and reinterpreting that, such as Mini Swoosh and the work she’s done with Nike. There are so many ways that you can go into it, you can have a commercial brand but use a really sustainable supply chain and manufacturers and work with people who make recycled fabrics, that’s all fabulous, but there are also things you can do with products that exist already and rework those, or there’s the techy side where people 3D print garments or grow things. There are so many ways you can do it, the most important thing is working out what kind of scale you want to operate on and what is the purpose of your brand – is it to sell loads of garments, is it to make people reconsider their clothing, or how they dispose of their clothing, is it to influence brands to change their practices? You’ve got to think about what impact you personally want to make.
Was sustainability something that you thought about since the beginning of your brand or did it come about more organically as you progressed through the process?
It was definitely not there at the beginning, I was doing all the [sustainable practices] but I wasn’t really thinking about it – no one was really talking about it in that way in 2013, and if anybody did then they were selling some lame hippy trousers. It was actually one of my early mentors that pointed out to me that it was important to talk about sustainability more and be transparent with what we’re doing. So in 2014-15 I started talking about it more, I still didn’t want to totally own it because there was still loads of things that I used that weren’t sustainable, so there’s a toss-up there between talking about it and calling yourself truly sustainable when I wasn’t because I also didn’t have the power to be – I didn’t have the access to resources, I didn’t know where to get everything.
I think that’s also a very typical women’s point of view, not shouting about all of the good things you’re doing because you’re not doing the best.
I think it can also be a product of cancel culture. I remember at a BRICKS Talks we hosted last year that you were on the panel of one of the panellists mentioned that big fast fashion companies weren’t reporting on some of the steps they were taking because it invites criticism of the things they weren’t doing.
Yeah, totally. The thing is, there are of course problems with cancel culture, but people also need to be held accountable. If you are making a ‘conscious collection’, at the very basis your packaging should be recyclable and those things are really simple, especially if you’re a big brand. A lot of brands will have one sustainable collection, or one ‘good’ product – for example, the one that gets mentioned most is the Adidas x Parley shoe. Parley are great, and Adidas are not, but now they’re doing it together and Adidas are advertising this one shoe like it’s going to save the world when they haven’t even incorporated those practices into the rest of their brand. Like, if H&M has a conscious collection rack on one side of the store, but all of the other racks are not, why not? You should be able to do it for everything now – we can see that you can make clothes sustainably, so just fucking do it. Yes it’ll cost them more, and they might make a loss, but so what? We care. I don’t give a fuck if you make a loss, the literal Earth does not give a fuck because the Earth is not part of capitalism so it’s just suffering.
At one time I felt the same, that I couldn’t talk about sustainability, but then I realised you just need to be clear. Explicitly state which materials are sustainable and which ones are not. When I was doing wovens I would use a lot of organic cotton and things like that, but when it comes to some sustainable things you just can’t get them if the order minimum is too large for a small brand or something like that. The important thing is the messaging, and that’s why I stopped doing woven garments, as half of them would be sustainable and I’d know the exact fabric and what factory it was made in, but when you get busy with meetings and the expectation of not letting a buyer down when you’ve got an order that’s due, it becomes easy for bits and pieces to slip through the cracks, and then afterwards it can feel disappointing that it’s not totally as you had planned. The last time I did something that wasn’t latex I released some cotton T-shirts with Everpress, and it meant that I could ensure the production was totally sustainable. I think when you start with a big scale production cycle it’s just too easy to lose track of everything, and yeah you can make more money, but that doesn’t make me feel happy. It was much better for me to cut that out and make less money making a smaller range of products but know exactly where the fabric was made and who made it and be able to control it, and that helps me feel happy about what I’m producing.
I think the cycle of success in fashion as it currently stands is unsustainable as BRICKS Editor in Chief Tori West had a similar issue when she started making the magazine, she managed to get BRICKS into major retailers and stocked internationally but there was no way for her to control or track what was happening production-wise and it led to a lot of unsustainable printing, so she chose to remove the magazine from these stockists and print it herself via preorders. I think if you get swept up in quick success then the pressure to keep up can prevent sustainability.
Literally! I was talking to Tori about this, and my friend Becky from Sister magazine complained about the same thing, and it’s exactly the same as what happened to me – you get success and you’re so excited and then you come to the end of that cycle and you see all the ‘bad’ stuff you’ve created… all of the waste, all of the stress. And you have the money you’ve made, but it feels like poisoned money. So yes, being successful is a hindrance to sustainable practices if the practices are not transparent. It’s hard, but it’s a good thing to have gone round that journey and assess it.
Being successful is a hindrance to sustainable practices if the practices are not transparent.
Claire Yurika Davis
Moving onto the pandemic, this has obviously created a number of unforeseen problems for the fashion industry. Have you experienced any issues due to the pandemic at HANGER and how have you managed to overcome them?
No – in the vein of what I was saying earlier, I’ve basically just been on a big journey scaling back, massive de-growth, because I realised the more I do, the less good it is and as someone who really cares about sustainability there’s something really hypocritical about having a brand and selling stuff, but also saying ‘you don’t need stuff’. I’ve been on that journey for about a year now, and when the pandemic happened I had a plan to release a small slutty collection – a small collection of really skanky, tiny items – as at this point I decided I just wanted to release a couple of things when I feel like it, if people want to buy it they can, but the main thing to me was putting out messaging that was interesting, and also occupying a space in the sustainability sphere that’s relatively not lame as that was kind of the main responsibility I gave to HANGER, because at the moment I’m not really looking to operate on a large scale or actually really make that much money from it, I’m just trying to show that you can have a brand that has good practices and is cool in that sphere because there’s not that many.
So when the pandemic hit I sent my team home early because there wasn’t much we could do, our studio is in Soho so I asked everyone to stay home. Like, we’re just making clothes here, if one of you gets sick from coming in here then I’m going to feel bad. And to be honest, since taking that time off I’m less interested in doing that much with HANGER as a “brand” brand – I just want to do fun things that engage people, so what I’ve been thinking during the pandemic is small things that I can make that are going to increase happiness and also intimacy, like once we’re all out of this situation. So I’m still going to do this small-scale collection, but I’ll add a couple fun extra things in there. But also for me, because of my de-growth journey, I’ve been super flexible, so if we want to do things post-pandemic then we can, but I just want to keep it as small as possible. I’ve had my label for a long time now but I’m not really looking to go back to that cycle we were talking about before. I want to purposefully keep it small and keep it flexible and just had a couple of things you can buy at a time. For me as a person, I want to give myself the least amount of pressure possible and I think that’s a good way of doing it.
I think if you can recognise that the system as it currently stands is broken then there’s no point in trying to participate until there’s enough that are all in the right stage and feel the same and are ready to rebuild it together.
Yeah, totally, like I’m not about to try and remanufacture a wheel I don’t have the tools to fix it with – it’s not my place and it’s too much of a burden, but what I can do is interact with people in that space and try and insert a little bit of knowledge and change a little bit of behaviour.
If you want your brand to be pandemic-proof then your working and business structure has to be super flexible.
Claire Yurika Davis
Are there any ways that you would recommend to make a brand pandemic-proof?
If you want to be pandemic-proof then your whole working and business structure has to be super flexible, like if you all have to be in the same place… you don’t! Nobody does and we all know this now. I mean I have been doing this for ages with my employees – my social media girl moved to Berlin last year and it’s fine, we can sort things out over Whatsapp anyway. I think flexibility is so important in your working structure, but also in your team – I know a lot of designers that are real control freaks, and to have a team that is pandemic-proof is to have a team that you can rely on and trust to be able to get on with their work without you breathing down their necks.
Another really important thing is treating your team as more of a network and equals and people you work with rather than people who work for you, as if they always have to report back to you then you always have to be available to them, and you’ve got to always be able to see what they’re doing and that just makes everything long. You have to trust your team to do the job and it’ll get done.
Did you ever find it hard when you first started delegating tasks when it’s your label?
Of course to some degree at the start, but the delegating to me becomes worse when we’re all together all of the time. If we meet once or twice a week then you can get on with things a lot more easily. For me, having that break has made me realise that I was being annoying when we were together and so I really needed that distance to reassure myself that everything still goes fine when you’re not there. Also, the reason you have these people is so you can delegate because this is not what you’re good at. Like I know the tasks that need to be done, but if someone else is better at that task than me then tell me what you need, don’t have it that I’m telling you what to do. So I think those sort of team structures are super important so that we can work effectively in any environment.
But also when it comes to the actual product side, it’s all really linked to what kind of product and what the purpose of it is, because if you’ve got a product that you need to release at this time of year and in this location, those kinds of restrictions are going to cause you problems. And really, if you’re a business that isn’t B2B (so you don’t sell directly to retailers or wholesalers) then you’re automatically winning as you’re cutting out all of that crap, so you won’t get fined for sending something in a week late and all of the penalisations that comes with working with retailers. So being direct to customer is way better, and operating digitally. It’s also important to interact with your customer base, knowing when they want things and then being able to provide it.
If you do want to work with these retailers, you can also make sure to negotiate terms that are going to benefit you and not ones that are just the standard contracts. I’ve [signed contracts] with a few retailers and they’ll say that with small designers they ‘only’ do sale or return policies and it’s like, fuck off! You can either buy it or not buy it, I don’t care if I’m selling with you or not because I sell off my website, and I’ll make less money with a retailer, so if you want it you can have it but in the way that I accept, and it’s about young designers and brands taking the power back from these retailers because we are the ones who make them look cool. They are always the ones sending the contract to us, they are always the ones setting the terms, and I think it’s really important for people to realise that, actually, we can also be the ones sending the contracts first, or sending the contracts back, and having our own terms and our own agreements.
It’s so important for young designers to think about because, all of these retailers are run by older people who think younger people should respect them even though older people have fucked everything for us in the first place and so inherently owe us a lot, and also they need to remember that we’re the ones making moves here, so get on board!
A lot of our readers are students or new graduates and were planning on interning over their summers or starting graduate placements. What is the best thing they can do for their career in the meantime, during lockdown?
I think it depends on where you wanted to intern. Thinking from my perspective, if people wanted to intern with me but obviously couldn’t then a nice way to work together would be to set a project. Like obviously it depends who the designer is that you want to work for, but setting a project is really easy and I’ve done it before for my interns, especially when we had not much to do around the studio. What I would do is set a project for yourself – it could be a fictional project, or it could be something you want them to make and sell – and give yourself a few specifications and a really clear mood or theme. You can literally do anything – if you want to make bags in the future, set yourself a bag project, or jackets, or a logo. If you were planning on working for or wanted to work for a small designer, obviously it depends on each person, but I would encourage you to approach them and pitch your home projects out to designers and see what feedback you get. I’ve included designs in final collections that have come from an intern’s project. If the designer has time, like if someone were to do that for me, I’d let them know what I was then working on and how these ideas could work together. I think it’s the best thing to do as it allows you to stay creative at home, it gives you more work to add to your portfolio and you’d get feedback from the designer which I think is super valuable.
I think especially with the pandemic right now, small brands especially will be excited to hear about new ways that people can intern remotely. If there are brands that are still making stuff, they’ll definitely have tasks that can be done outside of the studio. It’s about reaching out to people and proposing solutions – if there’s something you would like to do for someone, tell them. I get so many vague emails like ‘I’d love to work with you in some way’ and it’s like, if you have an idea you need to tell me it because I don’t know you so I have no idea what your skillset is. Do you want to style a shoot? Do you want to put together a book? Think about what your dream task is for that brand, and then pitch it to them.
Think about what your dream task is for that brand, and then pitch it to them.
Claire Yurika Davis
What is one myth about starting your own brand that you’d like to debunk?
That it would be fun [laughs]. I think the main myth that people think it’s going to be really cool and creative and glamorous, you get to go to loads of parties and shows, and that it’s always exciting. When I think about being busy with HANGER it’s pre-last year, and I was spending 5% of my time designing, and the rest of the time managing people, managing cash flow, managing production, extremely fucking boring stuff. But I mean, there’s ways that you can change that, as we talked about before, you don’t need to operate with that structure and do all of that boring stuff if that’s not for you.
So I think maybe the message there is that if you want to feel fun and creative, then the responsibility is on you to structure your work in that way.
Yeah, 100%, you’ve got to create the system to make that possible, because if you go with the standard, everything in fashion is so archaic that you’re going to be led down a crumbly path from the start. So it’s so important to build a system that works for you, not against you.
At BRICKS we like to share the love – who are some emerging creatives in your field who you think are killing it?
Oh cute, the main people I like to shout out are my friends Nick and Ben who I make jewellery with they’re calledCC Steding, it’s solid sterling silver and it’s gorgeous. They’re amazing. My mate Sophie is a photographer and she shot me last year before I shaved my hair off and she’s a great photographer, and just a great person. Also, my friend Val from Otho who is so talented.