While the global textile industry is still dragging its heels over the issue of climate change, despite being a major contributor to its acceleration, the British brand Turnbull & Asser is continuing to build on its already impressive credentials to help shape a sustainable future.
In 1915, as World War One raged across Europe and soldiers had to carry their lives within heavy backpacks, Turnbull & Asser designed a raincoat that doubled as a sleeping bag, the Oilsilk Combination Coverall and Ground Sheet. At the time the company was predominantly a shirt maker but stepped up with an idea to help lighten the load of the British military, developing a new line of business in the process.
This mix of foresight and entrepreneurism has steered the success of Turnbull & Asser; the consideration around its products has built its reputation for integrity. In the 1990s when the World Trade Organisation liberalised the textile trade and it became more profitable to source from countries with lower labour costs and almost non-existent environmental standards, Turnbull & Asser continued to operate from its British base. Its shirts are still made at its Gloucester factory and its hand-made ties are produced at its premises in Sidcup, Kent. Not only has this ensured quality control, fair wages and a supported workforce, it has also helped the company to design within sustainable practices. There is very little material waste, with the offcuts from shirt production made into boxer shorts, handkerchiefs, and cloth bags.
Creative director Becky French explains that the decision to stay manufacturing in the UK has put it ahead of other retailers. “When I joined the company, I saw how many of the touchpoints of the business were already way beyond many other brands when it comes to sustainability,” says French. “There is a high level of transparency within our supply chain, whether it’s our sustainably sourced mother-of-pearl buttons or the conversations we have with our fabric suppliers, who we challenge constantly to find not just the best cotton, but the most ethically grown. We know everything about their supply chain and when you have that kind of closeness you know they will not let you down. We know the hands that make our products and there’s a real sense of pride in how our shirts are made to last. This extends to when we have sold a product. We feel responsible for our shirts even when they have left the store.”
French was appointed to her role in February 2019, having previously held positions at Ralph Lauren and Paul Smith, and successfully launched the men’s accessories brand Marwood. For anyone who has knotted a Marwood tie, it’s apparent why she has fitted so beautifully into Turnbull & Asser. On her own path, she produced classic accessories with a contemporary aesthetic in exquisite materials. Her attention to detail and care for the product fits Turnbull & Asser’s values.
The company’s refusal to chase trends, prioritising making the best shirts and offering exceptional service, has ensured a loyal customer base. Yet, this discreetness also means that many of the inspiring aspects and stories associated with the brand are still to be discovered by new audiences. This is to change in 2020 as the brand engages in more conversations around one of the most relevant topics of our time, that of sustainability.
For anyone not aware of the connection between the textile and clothing sector and climate change, then the 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report put together by Global Fashion Agenda and the Boston Consulting Group makes for uncomfortable reading. It estimates that in 2015, the industry was responsible for the consumption of 79 billion cubic metres of water, 1, 715 million tons of CO2 emissions and 92 million tons of waste. It also estimated that by 2030, under a business-as-usual scenario, these numbers would increase by at least 50 percent. It’s clear that change within the apparel industry can have a significant impact on mitigating climate change.
French recalls one of the first meetings she had with managing director Jonathan Baker, during which they discussed Turnbull & Asser’s future.
“We agreed that if you’re not speaking about sustainability and the environment, and what as a business we are doing in terms of being responsible, then you’re not speaking to the next generation of customers. This is what excited me about joining Turnbull & Asser, it quickly became apparent that they have not retro-fitted or shoehorned in these values - it’s part of the business. We just need to raise it in the conversations we’re having.”
Since its establishment in 1885 Turnbull & Asser has offered a service whereby shirts can have new cuffs and collars fitted. This is testament to the quality and craftsmanship; that the body of a shirt will last long enough for the parts that take the most wear to need replacing. The company is building on this by embracing new fabrics and processes that make for a more ethically and environmentally friendly way of producing clothes. This includes moving to what is known as ‘peace’ silk – a method of extracting silk where the worms are left to leave the cocoon naturally rather than being boiled out.
Rather than find herself constricted or compromised within the design process; French says that moving in this direction has opened up new creative opportunities. She adds that now suppliers see them as a business actively looking for more innovative materials, and that in itself is opening up exciting design possibilities. “We’ve been working with Lyocell, which is made from wood pulp, and it’s an incredibly soft and lightweight fabric. We used the fabric to create a line of summer shirts and they cleared off the shelf, people loved them,” says French. “You have the messaging about the fabric but more importantly you’re not compromising on what you want. Designers are at the beginning of it all, so we need to ask the right questions [when sourcing materials]. “That’s the main challenge for creatives, to make sure we are producing beautiful, desirable products [while] also thinking about every part of its sourcing. It will take time … but it’s important to do everything we can to move forward.”
As the textiles generated through the fast fashion model continue to pile up, there is a notable backlash to the disposable culture it has created. The customer for stylish, durable clothing may not necessarily be buying because they are particularly eco-minded; it may be more they are looking for an emotional connection and to be part of a community. Ethical brand Patagonia is a fantastic example of a business that puts shared experiences first through its marketing of stories around customers’ love of outdoor pursuits but has also created a community of activists through its online mapping resources and campaigns. Although one cannot see Turnbull & Asser encouraging customers to chain themselves to trees, its history helps to create a sense that by buying from the brand you are joining the ranks of some very distinguished customers, including HRH the Prince of Wales, who granted the company a royal warrant in 1981.
There are numerous articles on the Business of Fashion website that report the growth in the luxury menswear sector, especially within the bespoke sector. Turnbull & Asser is fully aware of the potential for growing an area of the business that is by happenchance sustainable. According to French, currently 30 percent of its sales and a lot of its future growth will come from its bespoke service.
“The entry into the brand is our ready-to-wear, and that’s already a considered purchase, and one that people don’t just throw away,” she adds. “But then you get into bespoke, which is going to grow our business long-term, and in 100 years time might be the whole of our business. However, the opportunities are in offering a range of fabrics, to bring creativity to bespoke so it’s not just a business shirt.”