Claire Wright is bringing ethical fashion choices to rural communities in New South Wales with her Inverell boutique and e-commerce platform, Eclectic House.
Having lived, worked and studied in developing countries like Indonesia, Claire is well aware of the direct impacts the fashion industry has on these communities.
“I was on a student budget and lived amongst locals near a slum,” Claire says. “The people I was surrounded with would turn their used motorbike tyres into shoes to wear to factories where they made clothes for the likes of Burton and Zara.
“While they struggled to keep clothes on their backs, at their places of work fabric off-cuts were being sent to landfill. The irony of it all wasn’t lost on me.”
Claire’s experiences inspired her to co-found one of Australia’s first ethical fashion labels, Empire of Bees, at a time when ethical certifications just weren’t an option for fashion.
“We decided to take things into our own hands by photographing the families that worked for us and telling their stories,” Claire says.
“This included the village children running around wearing off-cuts from our fabrics as clothing and scraps of leather being utilised for everyday living in the village.”
You could say ethical fashion has always been at the heart of all that Claire does.
“It’s at the core of my work to open a box of stock, think about who made the garment, who packed the box, where was it shipped from and what the quality is like,” she says.
“I always ask myself, is my customer going to love and treasure this piece season after season?”
For Claire’s customers, the story behind a product is a key motivation in their purchase decisions.
“I definitely think people value a product more once they understand the story behind it and the positive impact of purchasing something ethical,” Claire says.
“While there certainly isn’t enough awareness around ethical and sustainable fashion, we have more and more people coming in looking for specific brands that have these elements to them,”
“I see it as an important part of our role in retailing to not just explain and educate the community about the sustainable options on the market, but to give people a deeper understanding of the impacts of the industries they are buying into.
“To me it’s all about conscious consumerism – buying less and buying better.”
For Claire, the decision to open Eclectic House was the next logical move.
“I was already managing and wholesaling our ethical leather label, Empire of Bees, and as I was new to living in the country, I saw a huge divide between regional areas and the cities I stocked,” Claire says.
“I was driven to offer the town some kinder fashion choices, rather than the country town chain store options of Best & Less, Target Country and Miller’s.
“I also saw that there were Merino producers and organic cotton farmers in the community. Farmers nearby are growing quality natural fibres, yet nobody is supporting them and retailing sustainable fashion.”
While Claire has enjoyed success with Empire of Bees and Eclectic House, she acknowledges there have been bumps along the way.
“When I first launched a retail store in 2013, there weren’t many offerings for ethical fashion labels,” she says. “I was then faced with a five year drought, where affluent customers who were used to wearing Max Mara for Saturday sports were suddenly wearing donations.
“It was a time that I admit to selling my soul to fast fashion to keep the doors open, but it was such a negative experience knowing that cheap materials were being used, the tailors weren’t being paid correctly and its whole intent was to last just one season, if that.
“There has been lots of growth and adaptation along the way. We are now very considered when it comes to our brands and offerings and have recently moved our entire store to an online selling platform to share ethical and sustainable fashion with more consumers.
“Now that we’ve moved online, there is certainly a demographic of customers that strongly support ethical and sustainable fashion and have really strong awareness of the brands we stock, such as DK Active from Brisbane and Posie Candles from Byron Bay. Our pottery and earrings actually come from the same street I live in – talk about cutting down carbon miles.
“A portion of customers may come to us because they are already following a label we have started to stock. We also have many people supporting us as a small regional store, opting to shop with us rather than larger, city-based stores. Buy From The Bush, which we have been involved with since its launch in 2019, has been an incredible initiative to drive business to bush boutiques like ours.”
Taking her commitment to ethical fashion one step further, Claire has now created another venture, Somebody’s Story, featuring garments that are ethically made by independent tailors in Indonesia.
“I recognised a gap in the market for ethical clothing that catered to larger sizes and wanted to offer a product that had reasonable pricing, while remaining fair to give value to my skilled tailors,” she says.
“A lot of thought went into launching an ethical label that was accessible to the average consumer with pricing. I wanted to create simple designs that were accommodating to those struggles that I witness in the changing rooms on a daily basis. Garments that worked for larger arms and busts, while still giving shape where needed and without drowning people in fabric.
“Living regionally, my customers value natural, breathable fabrics like linen and hemp. I have had a wonderful response to my designs and customers love the versatility of my collections.”
Somebody’s Story is all about the thoughtfulness behind how to make something minimal, practical and versatile for the longevity of the garment.
“With every design, I ask myself how I can make this piece fit into that top 10 percent of a customer’s wardrobe that they will always reach for and wear on repeat,” Claire says.
“I predominantly use linen, due to its more sustainable growing properties with less water and fewer pesticides, herbicides and fungicides than cotton. It also doesn’t strip the nutrients from the soil.
“There are 100 reasons why I love linen as a sustainable fabric, from its thermo regulating properties to its longevity as a garment – 30 years plus – to its biodegradability. I love working with hemp for similar reasons. I have also done a children’s range of clothing in soft organic cotton.
“I think a truly sustainable garment has been considered in its impact for each stage of its life, from seed to hanger to compost.”
Aside from the garments themselves, Claire has also set herself the goal of having the most sustainable packaging ever.
“We looked into compostable packaging but it still came up short to me,” she says. “It is mass produced in factories with underpaid workers and with different labelling for each brand, and would only be effective if placed in household composting bins. The reality is that a lot of this packaging would still end up in landfill.
“I wanted to create something that could be mailed 100 times before having to retire to become a Lego bag, library bag, shoe storage bag or whatever else you can think of, so I designed a fabric mail satchel with a plastic, waterproof sleeve for the address label.
“We also re-purpose the plastic we receive garments in to wrap our orders and waterproof them inside this fabric bag. We pop a sticker on them to let customers know that the packaging they are receiving has been thoughtfully repurposed.
“The response to our sustainable packaging methods has been overwhelmingly positive, to the extent that we are about to patent the design and start retailing it to other businesses… watch this space for ‘Post it Forward’.”
You can shop all things Eclectic House here.
This article was produced in partnership with Eclectic House.