Paula Haunit started her career as an economist before moving to the City. She then took a complete right turn in her career and set up Sheer Apparel, an online retailer specialising in affordable and stylish ethical fashion.She talks to The Industry about the moment that inspired her to switch careers and why it has been her most rewarding achievement.
You started your career in the City, we understand, can you please tell us a bit about that and what you did there?
I actually started my career as an economist for the government, working on international policy issues before moving to the City. There I worked as an economist and project manager for a global bank for several years. I’m really grateful for the skills I was able to develop and the opportunities I’ve had during that part of my career, but I was craving a change towards something more immediately commercial and with a positive impact. To say my career has changed a fair bit is an understatement.
In 2015, you started to become aware of the issues in fashion surrounding ethics and the environment, what was it that brought that to your attention and what were your concerns?
It was a gradually growing awareness, but if I had to pinpoint one thing that irretrievably changed my (and many others’, I’m sure) thinking about the impact of fashion, it was the excellent movie ‘The True Cost’ about the impact on workers and the environment of the fashion industry. I then dug deeper and benefited from the research by people like Lucy Siegle and others to really understand the impact of our wasteful relationship with something as beautiful, on the surface, as fashion.
My main concern has always been the impact of our hunger for cheaper and faster fashion on garment workers, who are mostly female and often work in undignified or downright unsafe conditions. This was most radically demonstrated by the Rana Plaza factory collapse in which more than a thousand garment workers died in one day.
Undeniably fashion has brought new jobs to many countries where there is not such an abundance of economic opportunities, and as an economist I’m naturally pro free trade. However, I wondered how it can be that we are so willing to spend so much money on what we wear, but we are somehow not able to ensure the workers making our clothes can do so in a more dignified way, with a fair wage.
You say it was around this time that the idea for an etail platform began to surfaced, what was the vision you had?
I was working in the City at that time, and was surrounded by people with comfortable salaries and plenty of budget for clothes. Plus, there are now so many people who would like for their spending to make a positive impact, but frankly don’t have the time to spend their evening searching the internet for great-quality, great style, ethical brands that suit their needs. I felt the same, existing platforms just didn’t have enough of the kind of things I wanted to wear, to the office, to the gym and on the weekend.
There are people out there who are happy to spend considerable time scrollling through Instagram to find all the new exciting, ethical brands (of which there are plenty), but my City colleagues juggling very long hours in the office with family responsibilities were not among them.
So I thought, how great would it be to provide a curated, convenient one-stop shop of ethical fashion who are underserved by the (usually very expensive and either very style-forward or too bland) existing platforms.
How did you go about setting Sheer Apparel in terms of the business side of things (the team, technology etc)?
From the beginning I had the philosophy that it’s better to build as much myself as possible, to learn about the building blocks of the business but also to preserve cash – critical for any new business. So I built a store, negotiated with suppliers and built a marketing strategy, and brought in freelancers and consultants for specific areas, such as graphic design and more complicated tech issues.
A big highlight was to be featured in Lucy Siegle’s Observer column on ethical fashion without the help of a PR person, only through building a genuine relationship and pure grit. The hustle is real!
What about the brands, how did you source them and how easy or hard was it to get them on board?
I did a lot of research, both online and at fairs such as the Ethical Fashion Show in Berlin. Now that Sheer Apparel has been going for a little while, we get approached by a lot of brands. We’re very picky and we know what our customers like, so quite often we have to politely decline. But in the last few months we’ve brought on board a number of beautiful clothes, accessories and jewellery brands I am really excited about.
Do you have particular ethical criteria in mind when you are looking for a brand to stock?
Yes, absolutely. We look at 3 very simple things: are the clothes made ethically and can the brand prove this, is the material environmentally friendly and is it a great quality garment that I am going to enjoy wearing for a long time. The result is a curated collection of handpicked clothes, accessories and jewellery that our customers love.
What about price point and design point of view, how do you decide if something is the right fit?
It has to be something that I would (and often do) personally want to wear and for which I think the price point is fair. We only work with brands who pay their workers fairly.
Equally that doesn’t mean we sell dresses for several hundred pounds, because we are not interested in brands that set prices purely to position themselves as luxury, and frankly, because we just don’t think it’s necessary. There is a beautiful selection of ethically made, fairly priced clothes out there. It just takes most people a lot more time to find it than popping into the nearest branch of a mainstream brand they already know.
It seems to be that the consumer is becoming more aware of the need to live sustainably (see the recent campaigns against use of plastics for instance), are you finding that the market is growing?
Awareness is definitely growing, which is wonderful. The UK and many other countries have a lot of potential to improve their environmental footprint and there are more and more people who are happy to make a positive impact. And every step is positive, people certainly shouldn’t think that ‘only’ shopping ethically for part of their wardrobe is worthless.
I would just say that clearly some mainstream brands have woken up to the marketability of sustainability messages, and we should be a bit sceptical if a fast fashion giant produces a few organic cotton T-shirts each season. Sadly, this is not going to change the industry.
How do you communicate your ethical stance to customers and what sort of messages/products are they most responsive to?
We try to keep it clear and simple. We think our focus on the three messages mentioned above is more helpful to the majority of consumers than eight or more categories some other platforms go for, where each garment will fit into some but not all of these criteria. How to choose?
There are – very generally speaking – two different groups of customers that shop with us. The smaller part are extremely informed, very sustainability aware women, sometimes vegan, who really dig into the detail of the products and ask lots of questions.
The message that sticks most with the majority, perhaps more mainstream customer, is that our garments are made of beautiful materials and have great cuts, so you’ll enjoy wearing them for a long time. Investment pieces, you might call them, but not really with the same price tag. This also comes through in most of our customer feedback.
Are there any particular ethical advances/initiatives that you have come across that you think are set to cross-over into the mainstream?
Organic cotton is growing in a big way, which is so important, given the immensely toxic pesticides that growers of conventional cotton are exposed to. We are also step by step seeing more recycled fabrics making their way into mainstream brands’ collections.
inally, we are seeing more and more fashion rental concepts and high-end second hand platforms. Not all customers of these stores will have sustainability front of mind, but go there for other benefits. But that’s actually the secret of making ethical fashion mainstream – it is very tough to be ‘just ethical’ and be commercially sustainable.
What have been the biggest lessons for you on your journey so far?
There can’t be a bigger career change than going from a huge, multinational firm to starting a business from scratch, so there have been many lessons, positive and negative, along the way. To point out a positive, while many people see it as a huge risk to leave a successful career to start a business, I would argue that you are also getting the opportunity to aquiring a set of skills that not many employers can provide. That’s an investment in yourself.
What are your ambitions for Sheer Apparel moving forward?
We have many loyal returning customers but also many new ones each month, and it continues to excite me that the brand is playing a part in getting more and more people to think more about the positive impact they can have. The vision is to add value to more and more women’s lives by providing a great curation of ethical and sustainable fashion women, in the UK and across Europe. More categories are on the way, too, so watch this space.
Are you glad you made the move from the City and into fashion?
Categorically, yes. There are certain aspects about starting a business that are tough. The beginning can we quite a lonely experience, for example, and a huge change from working in a team. But what I’ve built is also the most rewarding achievement of my career and it’s provided me with opportunities I would not have otherwise had.