ASKET’s co-founders on how to ‘make garments meaningful again’
Launched in 2015 by August Bard Bringéus and Jakob Dworsky, ASKET isn’t your traditional fashion brand. Its permanent collection of meaningful essentials is proof that fashion doesn’t need to come at such a high price - for the planet, or the consumer. Decrying traditional sizing systems and staunchly advocating sustainability and transparency, ASKET is ushering in a new era of zero-compromise clothing. It’s ending the fast fashion cycle, and writing the rulebook on better production and consumption habits. And the industry is taking notes. We caught up with the co-founders at their flagship store in central Stockholm.
You met at business school. Was ASKET always part of the plan?
It was initially Jakob’s idea to do something about the problem that we have so much clothing, yet we're constantly dissatisfied with the clothing we have. And we use only a fraction of the clothing that we own. It took us a few years to get around to it. I worked a few years for a payment startup and Jakob worked with an e-commerce incubator. And then I think it wasn't until we were studying for our masters degree that we decided to actually take the time to put pen to paper and draft a plan for what this could look like in more concrete terms. So in late 2014 we started working on the concept and launched in early 2015.
What does sustainability mean to you and how does ASKET make a difference?
Jakob: That's a big question and, obviously, it's a huge issue to tackle. Climate change and the way it will affect the future is something I think we, along with hopefully most other people, are acutely aware of. We work in fashion, and I think that the industry contributes 10% in terms of co2. It is a huge contributor to the problem and that's where we see that we want to be showing the way; how to deal with fashion in a more sustainable way. Our take is that there's simply too much being produced and sold and people wear it too little. Even if we could make things better with new materials, we still need to consume a whole lot less. That's a major thing to tackle in fashion and that's why we're all about a permanent collection of pieces that you use a lot and you'll use for a long time, and that the garments are both designed and produced in a way that they should last plenty of wears. And when you're done with them, we take them back and hopefully we can put them into rotation again and really maximize all of the resources and efforts that go into making them in the first place.
How do you go about finding your suppliers and ensuring that transparency?
August: In terms of finding our suppliers, you open one door and there’s three more behind it. It initially started with just desktop research, and then we went down to Portugal and visited some suppliers and then one supplier introduces you to the next. To some extent, as we grew to become a more professional organization, then you have other means, like fairs and whatnot to find suppliers. But in terms of transparency and suppliers, it was really a pretty big challenge when we started out in 2017 with our notion of full transparency, wanting to break down every garment into its individual components and every component into the sub-process that it takes to create that component and trace all those locations. Our factories weren't necessarily super keen on that. For one, it's very hard to find that information because the supply chain is so fragmented, no individual factory does one step or one whole product even. And for the other, it is an opaque industry and people aren't super keen on sharing the details even if they know them, which has been a very big challenge to basically convince factories that transparency is a strength and not a weakness
Have you managed to convince them?
August: To some extent yes.
Jakob: There’s still some way to go with the raw materials. Especially with cotton, it’s a big challenge because you start mixing it very early on in the process when they buy from different farms. So I think we're over 90% in how we calculate traceability. The final 10 is going to be the major hurdle. Previously, we've started from a product. We try to trace it down but to overcome some of those obstacles, you might have to start with ‘okay, we have the raw material and we can turn it into a product’. So that’s something for us to do in the future.
How important is it to educate consumers?
Jakob: Super important. It factors back into asking how we get people to consume less. And for us, it really has to be about making garments meaningful again and turning them from consumables which they are today. They're super cheap, people wear them 50% less than they did 10 years ago. But if we tell the story, educate people about how a garment is made, how many resources went into it. Even the best products are made in factories where it's hard work. When you know this, you're going to care about them more. And hopefully it restores meaning. You're going to start treating it better, both while you’re taking care of it - so maybe washing it more carefully - but also if you damage it you're going to repair it instead of buying a new garment. I think education is super important in those terms. And then also, if we put the information out there hopefully you're going to start asking those questions to other brands.
Is there anyone else in the industry you particularly admire and who inspires you?
August: I mean, there's a ton and we try to seek inspiration from both within the fashion world and outside. I think specifically, there's a woman called Celine Semaan who runs a company called the Slow Factory which is both a consultancy and an educational body in terms of questions regarding sustainability, social equity, and diversity within the fashion industry. And their work is pretty amazing. They work to educate both individuals on a societal level and companies in terms of what the fashion industry needs to do right by people and planet. It’s very, very inspirational.
Do you think that fashion is heading towards a better, more sustainable future?
Jakob: I think so. Awareness is growing, and I think especially with the people who work in the industry, most people want to work with companies that make an effort. I think for the consumer, a lot of people want to be sustainable, but it's still too hard to know what that means and how – even for us. You have to go through all the claims being made and make a judgment. It's hard, even if you’re working with this daily. So how could a consumer know when so many brands are just saying this garment is sustainable with no claims about why that is.
August: Even worse, opaque claims.
Jakob: Yeah, but there's definitely a growing interest. I think that's where it has to start. But at the same time, I think we both feel that there has to be more push. We don't have time to wait. Brands can't hide behind ‘We're waiting for the customer, they don't want to pay for it’. I think there has to be legislation to level that playing field. It's not an option to cut corners. It's very hard to convince the consumer in the end.
So you’re saying it has to come from the top down?
August: Exactly. I mean, at the time of this conversation right now Black Week is starting. So, on the one hand, yes, awareness is growing and within the industry, the level of education is increasing also among customers. But at the end of the day, it's a profit-driven industry with short-term investors. And that's always going to fuel short-termism, and concepts like Black Friday. So I think until those types of concepts die out entirely - because that is really the pinnacle of mindless consumption that is fueling overproduction and over extraction of our resources - you can't really say that we're making any progress if I'm sort of putting on the more skeptical hat.
How do you hope what you're doing will have a positive impact in the future?
August: So the way I guess we see it is that we try to look at ourselves as a pathfinder. Our responsibility goes beyond just our communication with our factories, and our relationships with our factories and our customers, but all the way to trying to lead the way, show that things can be done differently. We’re founded as a company on a very different premise and different principles than most other businesses out there with the permanent collection and a predominantly online-only business model. We have the conditions to operate very differently. So we want to show that it is possible to abandon seasonal collections and that type of short-termism and constant renewal. We want to show that it is possible to abandon sales and discounting and retail tricks that just trigger overconsumption and that it is possible to build a meaningful and profitable relationship with factories, our planet and consumers. It's just that it is a much slower vehicle, right?
You produce less at a higher quality. It costs a little bit more to both yourself and the customers, but the customer can wear it a little bit longer. We want to be the living example and embodiment of that, the fact that it works both from a financial and a sustainability point of view. And in that responsibility, we pioneer concepts like transparency, like The Impact Receipt that we launched last year. We are going all the way into questions about plastic and packaging, all the nitty gritty stuff. We're leaving no stone unturned. And when we uncover something that is useful, we try to make that widely available. So packaging, we eliminated plastic from all our packaging last year. We wrote a white paper about it, and shared that information on our website. And you know, we know that other brands are following and are seeing that as inspiration, seeing it is possible to do things differently. We're not going to change the industry by sheer size. We don't want to become the next sort of multinational giant corporation, but we can influence the industry and society by showing a different way forward.
Jakob: Just to add to that, another thing we hope that we're doing is how we influence how people live and think about sustainability. You know, we are about consuming less in the sense of our clothing, but hopefully it's something that you can take to other areas of your life and that's going to be important for everyone to think about that. You know, you can find satisfaction in other things than material stuff. That's also where we hope that we can contribute in a more, I guess, philosophical way.