We chat to our founder Jessica Schuhle-Lewis about the brand, her inspiration, and what we can expect to see in 2018.
Q. Orwell + Austen was launched by you in late 2012. What is the story behind the brand, and what was you inspiration?
A. My background was in law. I had zero design experience, but had always wanted to move out of law and into something more creative. Because I had no formal design training, I knew it would be difficult to change industries and do something I was passionate about (fashion and design). I decided that I would launch my own platform, with the hope that someday it could become my full time profession. I also figured that if all else failed, I would gain the skills I needed to move into a more creative industry. As a lawyer, I worked in a see of grey. The corporate world was still very traditional and there wasn't much room to be expressive with how you presented yourself. The brand started with scarves, as I wanted to have a really lobby quality cashmere scarf, in a vibrant print, that I could wear with a suit! As the brand has evolved over the years, sweaters are now the central feature, as I found them a lot more fun to design.
Q. What have been your biggest challenges with running the brand?
A. We have achieved some amazing things given our size, but the brand is small. The majority of the work is done by me. We have some outside assistance on the wholesale and PR side, but aside from that it is a bit of a solo operation. The biggest challenge to date has been getting the brand name out there. We don't have the budget for huge media campaigns, or thousands to spend on PR. The brand - since inception - has been financed by me. Until this year (when I had my second baby), I worked another full time job. We are now at stage where I can focus 100% (when not focused on a toddler and 7 month old!) on the brand, and reaching the women who I know would love to discover and wear our pieces. We have been really lucky to have caught the eye of some amazing influencers, who have been incredibly supportive of what we do. Given our size, we have had to be very creative with how we get the brand name out there, and very selective with who we partner with.
Q. What is your average day like at Orwell + Austen?
A. No two days are the same, but most start with correspondence with our factory in Nepal. I tend to be developing samples throughout most of the year, so speak to the factory regularly to ensure our designs can be workably translated. Social media takes up a large portion of the day. I really love instagram as a tool to reach our followers, and show how our designs can be styled, but (as any instagram user probably knows), it is easy to spend longer than intended on the platform! The rest of the day will be spent dealing with queries and emails, and - my favourite aspect -, designing and packing out orders (which always gives me a thrill, as it is amazing to be sending out my designs into the world!). I tend to put the boring (but necessary things) like accounts and admin, to the end of the day. I work a lot in the evenings when the children are asleep, but also have to be available in the early morning to speak with Nepal, so the days can be long!
Q. Sustainability is a big issue in fashion right now. What steps has Orwell + Austen taken to be sustainable?
A: We work with a small family run factory in Nepal, and have done from the beginning. They are an ethically run factory, ensuring a fair wage, and fair working conditions for their workers. In terms of the materials we use for our pieces, we have moved towards more cashmere blends (fine wool and cashmere) to try and be more environmentally conscious. Good quality cashmere is a finite resource, and needs to be farmed in lower volumes to ensure its environmental sustainability, by mixing with fine wool, the cashmere we use has more longevity, and is used in a lower volume. We have also found the blend of cashmere and fine wool keeps the sweaters wonderfully soft and luxurious, but also makes them more robust and long lasting. We make small runs of each of our pieces, replenishing as we sell out. By more closely trying to match stock to demand, we encourage a reduction in waste at the end of a season. Being small, there are also financial advantages to carrying lower volumes of stock. The t-shirts we produce are all made from 100% organic cotton, and made by an ethical, ecological supplier with fair trade practices as part of its core ideology.
Q. You've had some amazing people wear the brand, from A-list TV and film celebrities (such as Thandie Newton, Lena Heady, Ophelia Lovibond, Ferne Cotton, Alice Levine, Gaby Roslin, Kelly Brook, Lucy Watson, and many more), to admired social media influencers. Who else from the world of film and TV would you love to see in the brand?
A: We really admire actresses like Lupita Nyong'o, Emma Watson, Zoe Saldana, Diana Kruger, and tastemakers like Alexa Chung, Natasha Ndlovu, and Alex Stedman. Any one of those women wearing the brand would be a dream come true.
Q. What can we expect from Orwell + Austen this year?
A: We've added some great new styles to our core line (the LOVE sweaters, Baby Bowie, and the new light blue colour-way of our best selling Bowie sweater, are all firm favourites), and will continue to develop new colour-ways for those signature styles. For AW18 and beyond, expect more bold uses of colour, classic styles, and playful prints. I'm super excited about our Bee sweaters, which will launch in late July/ early August. We've had a great response to those on instagram. I've recently designed a new Lip motif, that will be coming out around September, and which hopefully our customers will love. We are producing more t-shirt styles, and looking to do some organic cotton printed sweater shirts, drawing on our t-shirt designs.