Fashion pioneer launches app to help brands like People Tree thrive on pre-loved market

A sustainable fashion pioneer is launching a new app to help brands benefit from the second-hand retail boom and cut waste at the same time.

Kalkidan Legesse, 29, founder of bricks-and-clicks sustainable fashion and lifestyle retailer Sancho’s in Exeter has developed OWNI as a way of tracking what happens to clothes after they have been bought.

Launching in September, OWNI will present shoppers with ways to repair, recycle or sell what they no longer want to wear via a fully provenanced ‘digital wardrobe’.

It means that customers know the re-sale value of what’s in their wardrobe. Crucially, the description for the item is already loaded at the point of sale which means it can be resold by the wearer at the press of a button.

And brands pay a monthly subscription as part of the scheme that gives them the chance to earn commission on every item that’s sold on.

For Kalkidan, who launched Sancho’s eight years ago using her student overdraft while studying at the University of Exeter, it is a way to solve the fashion waste problem, which for businesses like hers – no matter how ethical – rely on selling new clothes.

And in recent years she has noticed that her customers have become more interested in buying second-hand or making a conscious decision not to buy anything new.

With OWNI’s circular fashion system, it means the fashion brand stays in touch with the product after its been sold and is ultimately invested in what happens to it next.

Kalkidan, who in 2021 was named among 30 under 30 by fashion trade magazine Drapers said: “Being the person that I am, if a business model sits in a market that creates unchecked waste then there is no ultimate good there.

“I’ve been thinking about this ever since I started Sancho’s and this is one of the ways we can operate without the reliance on selling new clothes.”

“At Sancho’s, we work hard to ensure our clothes are made in a socially sound way, vetting the supply chain for sustainably produced materials and fair labor.

“But the reality is that hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of products have been sold in our linear model.

“So when we ask ourselves what does growth look like it means increasing scale, production and sales.

“Our business is ethical, it supports jobs in the supply chain and creates high quality clothes that people want to wear but what would make it better for me is playing a part in what happens to products after they are sold.

“How many times can that product be recycled or recirculated, these are questions that every sustainable business should be able to answer.”

The move is part of a growing interest among fashion brands in the resale market, making full use of the life cycle of clothing from repairing, upcycling to reselling ‘pre-loved’ items.

It is a trend that has filtered into the mainstream with businesses like M&S, H&M and Polarn O Pyret taking back clothing to be re-used or recycled.

And there is also a resurgence in clothing rental with the likes of Newcastle firm Hirestreet helping fashion firms launch into the clothing rental market, including M&S, using its white label rental-as-a-service offer.

Kalkidan has raised £ 300,000 in pre-seeded funding through Sustainable Ventures for the launch of OWNI.

But funding has not been easy, said Kalkidan who as a daughter of Ethiopian immigrant parents, has faced barriers to business borrowing and the problem is widespread.

A report called Diversity Beyond Gender: The State of the Nation for Diverse Entrepreneurs by Extend Ventures, a team aiming to diversify access to funding, revealed that black women entrepreneurs received just 0.02% of total venture capital invested in the last 10 years.

And while 2019 was a record year for UK venture capital with more than $ 13.2 billion invested in startups across the country – less than 2% went to all-ethnic founding teams.

Kalkidan said: “It is just absurd and should not be happening.

“I have noticed that people make assumptions about who you are, what you can do and what your level of competence is.

“I was recently at a venture capitalist event and I was talking to women of color who are fundraising for much larger sums of money and I see that it’s not just me.”

Kalkidan said she plans to raise £ 10million in the next two years to achieve her growth ambitions.

When OWNI launches this summer, it will have 89 brands on board including People Tree, Birdsong London, Ilk and Ernie and Bird Sunglasses each paying £ 25 a month subscription to tap into OWNI’s offer which manages all the logistics for them.

The ultimate goal is by being involved in the entire lifestyle of their products, clothing brands will make items to last from the outset, considering recycling and reuse at the design stage to cut out waste and landfill.

And there are a number of reasons why retailers are tapping into the trend, explained Guy Elliott SVP, Retail at digital transformation consultancy Publicis Sapient.

And that ranges from altruism, responding to consumer demand to regulatory concerns.

He said: “In some countries, governments are starting to introduce regulation to reduce wastage. France, for example, has recently passed a law banning luxury brands from destroying unsold items, which is a sign of things to come.

“On top of all that there is also a fashion forward inclined demographic, especially the under 20s, who can’t afford new or who want to refresh their wardrobe more often than they can afford and are looking to reuse to get what they want. Retailers who can capture that market have ‘early access’ to consumers that will get older, get (better) jobs and increase their buying power.

However, the resale economy is very much in its infancy.

Mr Elliott said: “Other than altruism (or law) the economic imperative for resale for the big brands, at this point, will be the incremental sales due to the brand halo effect.

“So, resale is likely to become a more and more important part of the retail ecosystem but, at least in the short term, it will be more of a customer loyalty and‘ total view of the customer ’play than a significant driver of growth and profit. ”

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