Image: Genia Mineeva
Can you give us a brief background about you and your introduction to fashion?
Oh, that’s a funny one! I absolutely never thought I’d be running an accessories brand. I spent 8 years working for the BBC making news and current affairs programmes, then ran communications departments at Change.org and supermodel Natalia Vodianova’s Naked Heart Foundation and worked on the Global Goals campaign for the UN. So going from news and digital to a physical product made by artisans is still a huge shock a brilliantly steep learning curve and the summary of everything I love and the things I care about. So to be honest, I’ve never been happier than now, making slow thoughtful products from the coolest recycled materials.
Why did you start BEEN London?
If I had to think about one thing that led me to start it all, then it would be a brilliant documentary ‘Hugh’s war on waste’ about the mountain of coffee cup waste we’re all creating. (You have to watch it!) It got me thinking about why certain things don’t get recycled and how we all could do something about it. I spoke to recycling plants, some incredible startups working in material innovation, got a degree in sustainability and put it all on Kickstarter to see if any of my friends would like it. In 26 hrs we had the full amount and I guess this is when BEEN London was officially a thing.
When did you realise sustainability had to be a key aspect of your brand?
Because I started with sustainability, the challenge for me was slightly different - can we make a cool, functional product ENTIRELY from recycled materials without compromising on quality, performance and design. I think we’ve done OK proving that it's possible.
Making everything by hand and locally was another thing I was really keen on. So now every piece is made entirely by hand in Stratford by a small team of artisans with over 25 years of experience working with top luxury brands.
And all our shipping is taken care of a wonderful Camden-based social enterprise training Londoners with learning disabilities. So yes, every step of our supply matters and if we can have a positive impact at every step, we’ll do it.
With the constant changes in fast fashion and rotating trends, do you ever feel pressure to follow these trends in your designs?
Not really. Our core belief is it’s those timeless pieces that last which make us happy, not the quick gratification of fast fashion. So everything we design is a take on a classic, functional shape that will never go out of fashion.
Each of your products has a tie to East London, can you tell us why?
This is a really special one for me. There’s a great book by John-Paul Flintoff called How to change the world and one of the chapters asks you to describe yourself in 10 nouns, in order of importance for your self-identification. Being an East Londoner came pretty close to the top for me. It’s a fantastic area full of creative people. London Fields in E8 is where we live, where we go to work every day and East London is where every BEEN London piece is made. So it felt natural to honour the area by naming our products after our favourite places. Columbia Road crossbody is perfect for a stroll down the flower market, Broadway Market tote will fit everything you might want to get there etc.
You’ve recently released a beautiful line made from Pineapples – what made you decide on Pinatex as your choice of planet-friendly material?
I’ve been looking into Pinatex for a while. It perfectly fits our concept of only using materials that would otherwise be discarded and is PETA-certified vegan. And oh, the silver one we’re using looks and feels divine!
What’s been the biggest challenge of running your own business so far?
For me personally, the learning curve has been so so steep and continues to be every day! Just imagine building a business in a field you’ve never worked in before - it can be quite daunting. But the feedback we get from our customers and the impact we’ve been able to make so far has been so incredibly rewarding.
And to be perfectly honest, the lack of experience in the fashion industry can also be a blessing. We did things the way that felt right and not the way it ‘should be done’. We feel no pressure to create millions of collections every year, to manufacture abroad or hide our supply chain.
What do you think is in store for the future of sustainable living/fashion?
I’m a big believer in circular design so my hope is that as a planet we move more towards closing that loop.
What’s next for you in 2020?
Big year for us! We’re about to launch an equity crowdfunding campaign and expand our team, we’ve got two incredible collaborations coming up with very well-known brands and lots of new brilliant materials we’re looking into. Watch this space!