ELK: beautiful design creating a truly ethical fashion company

ELK ethical fashion co-founder

Emma Tidswell chats with Marnie Goding

Begun in 2004, Australian sustainable ethical fashion brand ELK, set out to ‘do’ luxury fashion a little bit differently. This inspiring brand has succeeded in creating a company that is a master of quality, the curator of beautiful design and operates in a way that is kind to the planet and to the people who make every stunning garment.

When wandering through the ELK boutique in Northcote you are in for a treat. Classic designs with modern flair are expertly displayed while footwear and accessories are on hand to complete any artfully timeless look. The best part is, you can rest assured all these stunning items are ethical and sustainable and are inspired by incredible stories and places from around the world.

Founders Marnie Goding and Adam Koniaras combined their backgrounds in master craftsmanship, bespoke jewellery design and marketing and events to create ELK, and bring a new flavour to the Melbourne fashion scene. A master craftsman, Adam came from a background of bespoke jewellery creation and Marnie had found success in events and marketing. The concept of ELK began when Marnie realised the further potential of their combined experiences and skills and saw the opportunity to transition into a fashion driven, price pointed product, offering an amazing new angle for loyal clients and bringing a new ethical fashion product to the clothing market.

We recently had the opportunity to speak with Marnie to hear the inspiring story behind ELK, the philosophies the company exists upon today and gain her insights into the world of ethical fashion.

ethical fashion designers Adam and Marnie
ELK co-Founders Marnie Goding and Adam Koniaras – Emma Tidswell

Creative Beginnings

I was inspired by the strong ethical and sustainable foundations that ELK is built on. Marnie shared that part of the inspiration for ELK came from her and Adam’s creative backgrounds and studio business, but we wanted to learn a bit more about the inspiration behind ELK. 

“We were also making runway pieces and contemporary designs for many of our friends in the fashion industry so both opportunities led to the realisation there was a gap in the market for fashion based, handmade accessories. We have a natural curiosity for using different materials and for experimenting with using traditional manufacturing techniques in a more modern way.

Our original vision was to create a business that supported and provided opportunities for others, both at home and overseas, through the design and creation of contemporary fashion and accessories using natural materials and traditional techniques. We could see room for an independent brand and the immediate success supported this vision, which has not changed to this day.”

The Story in Every Design

Adam and Marnie’s strong background in the creative industries is easy to see when looking at the classic silhouettes and flawless designs in the ELK range. Not falling into the trap of passing trends, but creating looks that are well thought out and artful, ELK is approaching the design process in a different way to most high street stores.

“We have never subscribed to trend driven, fast fashion because as individuals that is not how we live our lives. We are working like fashion houses did years ago – they produced fashion to last in classic silhouettes and fabrics.

The whole design process from initial concept to store delivery takes around eighteen months so we are always working a long way ahead. In this way we do not ever worry about high street trends or what is happening around us. We design exactly what we want to and run to our own program – it is a very liberating way to work.”

With an incredible design team, ELK garments are more than simple pieces of clothing, they tell the stories that they were inspired by. Stories from the stunning Australian landscapes to representing the textures, colours, and flavour of places around the world.

“Today we have an incredible design team driven by our Head Designer Amadio Colafella who has been with us for over ten years. New collections start with colours, prints and a strong narrative. The story or theme then dictates the direction we take for garment silhouettes, the materials we use and the accessories we design to go with them.

Living and working in Australia, we are inspired by the varied and dramatic landscapes that we visit and have a particular affinity with our beautiful beaches and coastlines. Travelling to different countries across Europe or Asia to source new materials and meet with our suppliers also provides inspiration for the colours, texture and prints that we incorporate.”

Ethical fashion designs from ELK
Sustainable designs from ELK – Emma Tidswell

Ethical Fashion – Looking to the Future

While some of the fashion house processes that ELK works by may be inspired from the past, the brand is always looking to a new and bright future. We were excited to know what is planned next for ELK.

“We see opportunity to expand our retail footprint as well working with more independent stockists who have a particular focus on sustainable and ethical fashion. We are for the first time this season, aligning our southern and northern hemisphere collections as well, which will see us selling the same ranges worldwide at the same time. This is designed to grow our online presence both in Australia and overseas, maximising marketing opportunities and building brand presence.

Guiding us along the way though are our 2025 goals. We are focused on the transformation of our business and our collections to be more and more sustainable, to implement more formal processes and to work with our supply chain to constantly reduce our footprint. We have just joined the 1% for the Planet network, and have our sights set on B Corp certification amongst many other exciting projects – so watch this space!”

Transparency, Sustainability and Social Responsibility

ELK is commendable in its approach to sustainable and ethical fashion, having created a comprehensive outlook in policies and procedures to ensure that all clothes are made ethically and sustainably. With social and sustainability factors such large parts of an ethical fashion company, we were curious to gain Marnie’s insights on whether it was possible to be truly ethical without considering both factors.

“We do not believe that any business can truly operate ethically without considering both their social and environmental impacts. The fashion industry has such a significant impact on natural resources and ecosystems, as well as the health and wellbeing of the people who work in fashion supply chains, their families, and local communities. These impacts are interlinked and difficult to address in isolation, so for a fashion brand to be ethical, they should be measuring and minimising impact across both social and environmental.

Beyond considering the footprint of our products and supply chain, ELK was founded with strong people focussed values of creating meaningful employment opportunities, treating our employees and customers with respect, and giving back to our communities.”

When looking into ELK, we noticed that transparency was a core part of the label’s ethical approach and wanted to discuss with Marnie if transparency forms a core part of sustainable fashion.

“Because fashion supply chains are quite complex and traditionally very opaque, transparency is an essential part of being a responsible and sustainable fashion brand. By publicly reporting on how and where our products are made and publishing our supplier lists, it allows for potential issues in our supply chain to be identified and raised, and for us to work with our suppliers and other brands on collectively improving working conditions and reducing environmental impact. We are still working on mapping our full supply chains right back to the farm and getting a more complete view on this ourselves.”

Living by their statements of an ethical approach, ELK places an emphasis on supply chain transparency in its own operations and believes in accountability and change through action in the industry and takes a commendable approach to supply traceability and ethical production.

“Our approach to transparency is to share information about how we are running our business, how and where our products are made and how we are progressing against our ethical and environmental goals. Not only for our customers but for our team and suppliers, so they can make an informed decision about whether they want to purchase or work with ELK. We also want to give others a view into what it takes to run a fashion business with ethics and the environment in sharp focus. Because there are many areas we are still working on improving, we aim to cover both the positives and the challenges along the way. This helps us to clarify where we are at in our journey, and what we still need to do. Our annual transparency reports are also about accountability and demonstrating measurable change through our actions rather than just our ambition.”

An Innovative Outlook in Ethical Fashion

Inspired by the past, but very much fitting into the modern fashion scene, ELK celebrates and welcomes innovation, rethinking and redesigning what a modern fashion company should be. We wanted to hear a bit more about why innovation is such a vital part of the ELK outlook.

“We have recognised that to become a more sustainable business we need to completely rethink and redesign the way we operate across all areas of the company. To do this requires challenging our existing processes, being creative in our solutions and working as a team to achieve our goals. In terms of ELK design we have always taken our own path rather than following trends, and our approach to sustainability is a natural extension of this. We want to lead by example in this space. Having said that, we also recognise that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel if there are existing solutions, and we are happy to collaborate with and learn from others in the industry.”

The Sustainable Ethical Fashion Market

With COVID-19 having rocked the world, the fashion sector has not been immune to the many challenges and impacts brought on by the pandemic. Marnie shared her experiences with some of the challenges both Elk and the wider industry faced during this historic and unprecedented time.

“The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on the global fashion industry, due to a combination of disruptions due to factory and retail store closures and reduced consumer spending.

We experienced significant supply chain and production delays through 2020 and into 2021, as many of our supplier factories were closed due to periodic local lockdowns. As factories reopened, production capacity was often limited, and this was further compounded by delays in receiving input materials, as well as transport restrictions and disruptions which continue in many countries today.

The impacts to our suppliers and their employees, as well as the broader industry, are significant and ongoing. We are sadly seeing many of the factories reporting a reduced workforce, with updated figures from 2020 and early 2021 indicating between 20% to 60% fewer employees at many sites.”

Commendable in its capacity for problem solving, ELK is rethinking its operations to ensure that even a changing market is still a sustainable one.

“With many fashion retail doors closed during 2020, there has also been a shift in the industry to online sales. For ELK, this has resulted in an increase in packaging used for online orders and redirected our focus on making this packaging more sustainable.”

There is no doubt that sustainability has become a much larger part of the consumer mindset in recent years, with shoppers beginning to prioritise sustainability around the world. Closer to home in the Melbourne fashion market, consumers are looking to reduce their impact while engaging with the fashion industry and Marnie shared her insights on this shift towards a sustainable consumer mindset.

“We are seeing an increase in consumer awareness on a range of sustainability issues in fashion. Our customers are asking more informed questions now about our products and practices than they were even just three years ago, and it seems like the disruption from COVID-19 has given people time to take stock of what’s important to them and how they want to shop.”

Aiming to inspire sustainable consumerism, Marnie hopes that ELK and other sustainable brands  can help spark productive conversations surrounding sustainability.

“ Brands are beginning to provide more information on these topics and online tools such as filters to allow customers to shop by their values. Our transparency reports, information on our website and other communication channels along with on product details is designed not only to provide customers with information but to spark conversation and educate our consumers, bringing about a higher level of conscious consumerism.”

What’s Next for the Sustainable Fashion Industry?

When looking to the future of both the global and Melbourne fashion markets, Marnie is optimistic, envisioning a world that is kinder to people and the planet and celebrating a circular economy. At ELK, Marnie and Adam, are leading by example, innovating and rethinking processes to create a company that operates in a truly ethical style to bring beautiful garments to the industry.

“We would love to see the local and global fashion market become more circular. With brands designing products to incorporate more recycled, low impact materials and designing for longevity and recycling. Also, to see consumers making more considered purchasing decisions, including buying less, buying better, and buying more pre-loved fashion. All supported by an effective recycling infrastructure to ensure products are not going to landfill when they reach their end-of-life. There are different business models emerging, such as fashion rental options, that support this more circular model. In an ideal world, every worker in the fashion industry would also be provided with a safe work environment and paid a living wage.

In terms of the local fashion industry, it would be great to bring more of the production back onshore and increase investment in developing innovative and sustainable local supply chains; all of these things are either in motion or on the table at ELK.”

With ELK leading the way, the future of an ethical and sustainable fashion industry doesn’t seem too far away.

website: https://au.elkthelabel.com/

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