Today's interview is with Jess Sternberg, co-owner of the ethical fashion brand, Free Label, with her partner Julian Hoyle. Free Label offers incredibly stylish, casual, everyday pieces that you will definitely want to add to your wardrobe. I sure do!
Free Label was started in July 2015 in Toronto, then moved to Vancouver in March 2016 and is currently operating in its fourth season. Fun fact: the first piece, the Betty Tank, is named after Jess's mom and they've been making it ever since!
How did you get started in your field?
I'd like to think it was fate! At the time, I was the manager and buyer for an activewear boutique in Toronto called "Flow-Active" that specializes in Canadian and ethically made brands. I was constantly on the search for ethically made pieces that were great for both yoga and everyday use, and had fits to flatter the average woman; I was looking for what I would call "easy sell pieces."
I couldn't find exactly what I was looking for, so I thought why not make it myself? I was incredibly lucky that the boutique owner supported me 100% and bought a lot of stock in Free Label's first season, which made it possible to get the brand off it's feet. (Thanks, Chad :))
What do you wish you had known when you were just starting your business?
That it takes time to figure it all out. Starting a business is incredibly intimidating - the financial responsibility alone can be overwhelming. But after a couple season's you start to get the hang of the timing, you start to build a network of reliable suppliers and retailers, and you start to gain confidence in yourself and your business. Free Label started out with just one style (the Betty Tank) in two colour ways. This Spring we have 14 different skus.
It just takes time to build the business—slow and steady, baby!
What has been the most effective strategy for gaining new customers and selling more products?
Instagram and word of mouth from a repeat customer base. I think building a friendly and approachable brand that followers/potential customers can engage with on a public platform is really important in ethical fashion. It is still a small industry with a niche following, so interacting with those people, answering their questions, and gaining their trust through transparency is vital.
What has been the best part of running your own business?
There is no better feeling than accomplishing something just for you. Of course its rewarding to do a great job at work and have your boss praise you, or get a raise. But to do a great job FOR yourself...it doesn't get better than that!
What has been the most difficult part of running your own business?
Taking the job home with you! Unlike most 9-5 jobs, you can't just "leave it at work." I'm constantly checking my phone, answering emails, and visualizing the next collection and mapping out the next steps. There really is no break from the mental and emotional connection to the business. (This is something I need to work on).
What advice would you give to someone else starting a business?
You can do it! All you need is a massive amount of passion, and the motivation to learn and do. Seriously...you can do it.
Anything else you would like readers to know about you, your business, or being a small business owner in general?
One of the biggest arguments against shopping ethically is the cost. To buy ethically made clothing is much more expensive than picking up a t-shirt at a big box store, but it truly truly is worth it. There are a lot of costs that go into consciously making a garment. We hire local pattern designers to draft our patterns, digitize them, grade them, and turn them into markers. Then we bring in fabrics made from natural fibres and coloured with eco-friendly dyes - you can imagine this is a much better alternative to buying synthetic fabrics treated with chemicals.
Next, the markers and fabrics are brought to a local factory where the sewers construct the garments in a safe and clean environment. These workers are all paid fair wages and receive benefits. When you buy an ethically made garment, the price is not marked up ten fold like in big box stores. In fact, the margins are really slim and your money is really going to the people that take part in making that garment. If you commit to buying fewer garments and choose high quality and ethically made pieces, you feel a much deeper connection to the things you wear.
There are a lot of amazing people and resources that go into making clothing ethically and sustainably in North America. The industry is quickly disintegrating so please please support your local economy so we can keep making clothes ethically! If you want to learn more or discuss, feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org :)