In conversation with Towie Vaughn, Esprits Head of Denim
Towie Vaughns is in good spirits. Sitting in her Düsseldorf office where it’s a sunny late summers’ day, the head of denim at Esprit is happy with the direction the publicly owned brand is taking: “We’re getting some positive traction on the fashion items”, she says, “for example there’s this pleated skirt that I find really cute. It’s good to see that our efforts are paying of.” Towie’s role at Esprit is to turn the denim collection around in more than just one sense: It needs to be more fashion-forward and more sustainable at the same time, without losing sight of the classics. We need to be consistent to the brand identity but know when to push the envelope.
Within Germany Esprit is a brand with quite a history to look back on. In the 1980s it was the kind of brand that kids and teenagers aspired to: It offered everyday basics that spoke to a large audience, yet its fashionable undertone made it stand out from the mass market. Think cotton sweaters with a clean and colorful logo splashed across the front plus a fashion sensibility that was similar to that of Benetton. “When it comes to denim, the scene has changed completely, though”, says Towy, “It’s quite tough in the industry. We need to romance and respect the customer. Let them know that we are still here.”
Towie Vaughns seems the perfect candidate to rise to the challenge. Hailing from New York she has worked for brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Kenneth Cole and Inditex – the global brand to which Zara belongs. She has lived in Shanghai, China and worked there as the Head of Denim Product Development. In that role she was not only responsible for sourcing fabric from the mills and created wash assortments with the individual laundries, but she’s also performed audits to monitor companies’ efforts to produce more sustainably. Vaughns is keenly aware that customers are more demanding than they used to be. They are more in the know about trends and they expect companies to be on top of their game in regards to long lasting quality. With globalization and social media, consumers are becoming more interested in corporate social responsibility. As for any major brand, turning production from conventional to sustainable is a demanding task. “We have to be realistic”, says Towie Vaughn, “however, we are offering more and more denim containing organic cotton or recycled fibers. This is especially true in our NOOS (Editor’s note: Never Out Of Style) assortment.”
She goes on to describe that Esprit is at this stage of putting its focus on its factories. Most of them have a vertical setup meaning they offer the entire production from the yarn stage through finishing of garments. The company is currently working with factories that have invested in updated machinery with washing techniques that use less water and less chemicals. New technology and softwares such as the EIM index tool allows Esprit to monitor the impact of each and every pair of jeans is having on the environment. “We look at it and hold ourselves accountable”, says Towie Vaughns.
She is the first to admit that although Esprit is taking significant steps in this arena, there are other brands, large and small that are bringing about change towards a more sustainable fashion industry more quickly. “We are aware that we have quite a way to go”, she says. It is quite refreshing for a brand representative to address the facts so freely. Many brands decide to promote their efforts heavily – and end up being questioned about whether or not their attempts are just greenwashing. From what Towie Vaughns describes, Esprit has been accessing the company’s set up thoroughly: “We recognized there is too much out there, generally speaking”, she says. “The world is overloaded with too much product offerings, and if we are more efficient, we can contribute in saving resources and support the environment.” For her this is a process that is all about being mindful of every production aspect small or big.
From a customers’ perspective the efforts show. Any items using sustainable yarns such as the NOOS – Never Out Of Style – assortment that Towie Vaughns is so fond of – are highlighted with hangtags and labeling detailing this. This is also true with sustainable product in the online shop which includes in the description the organic or recycled content. “There is still a lot to be done in this changing environment, however”, Towie Vaughns says. She hopes that in the not so far future Esprit will offer a return service for used and unwanted items. This is a practice that brands like Swedish Flippa K are doing already – and that recycling and reusing will become second nature to our brand as well as others. In terms of Esprit’s fashion appeal Towie Vaughn is aiming to offer a good mix of timeless and more fashionable styles. With her small, yet talented taskforce of six designers and three technical designers she tries to push the envelope and steer out of the safe zone. “You can’t solely base your decision on what to produce next year by what sold well last year, we must be discerning in what to carry forward and decided how to evolve”, she says. That attitude mixed with the understanding that denim especially needs to be a product that’s made to last for a long time is a promising concept for a contemporary brand.
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