Looking good, doing better: men’s fashion with ethics, style & sustainability
Recently I chatted with Kevin Harper, founder and manager of clothing label We Are Harper, about what he’s trying to do with his urban brand of menswear. Though I’ve known Kevin for around fifteen years, his new venture covers a number of social, economic and environmental objectives we’re seeing become more prominent in the media. As the Harper website says, “each time you spend money, you cast a vote for the type of society you want to live in. What you buy, and from whom, is a marker of the value you place on equality and self-determination.”
Kevin grew up around Sydney’s Northern Beaches and, whilst he’s always been passionate about fitness, swimming and the outdoors, he initially took the traditional path of university, degree and a position within risk management and the business sector. Working in a highly corporate environment brought home to him that the purpose of most businesses was simply to make money. It wasn’t until he was made redundant that he realised that what would make him happiest would be doing his own thing; starting a business in line with his own values.
As I mentioned in my ‘Purpose 2015’ review, many decades ago the American industrialist Henry Ford noted that a business should be “an instrument of service rather than a machine for making money”, and yet businesses with real purpose seem to be few and far between. We Are Harper seems to be one of those rarities; an organisation with great style, true purpose, and a determination to tread lightly, live consciously and spread the word.
The range of men’s clothing from We Are Harper includes soft, bamboo-cotton T-shirts in a range of colours, stylish black and white tank tops or racer-back tops, and baseball caps; all are beautifully made and available online. I say this not to advertise particular products, but because it’s great to see a slowly-growing range of high-quality products that someone has sourced ethically, thinking about every step in the supply chain from raw materials to production to transport and, in fact, right through to end-of-life when clothing might be recycled or simply composted.
All of the Harper range feature the small red heart logo, since to Kevin “wearing your heart on your sleeve signifies that you value quality, comfortable products that respect the communities we operate in and the planet we all share.”
Kevin is a passionate advocate for conscious living or, in other words, not just accepting what’s in front of us but being aware of the impacts and consequences of the choices we make, whether it’s the coffee we buy, our preferred method of transport, or the clothes we wear. “Good value doesn’t necessarily equate with cheap”, he explains. “Good value is well-made and should last. Cheap clothing may mean you end up buying the same thing several times over because the original fails, and often things are ‘cheap’ because someone, somewhere is working obscene hours in terrible conditions,” Kevin concludes.
The Harper shirts are certified by the Fair Wear Foundation (FWF), an independent, non-profit organisation that works with companies and factories to improve labour conditions for garment workers. To be affiliated with the FWF manufacturers must comply with the eight labour standards that form the core of the Code of Labour Practices, including no child labour, living wages and freedom of association. Although Kevin looked at having shirts made in Australia, he says pragmatically that “high labour charges mean they wouldn’t be affordable for most people, so for now it's best to use certified quality manufacturers overseas to give us a level of certainty about the impacts and conditions throughout production.”
Kevin loves the feel of the shirts, saying that they are “way softer than regular cotton, and the anti-bacterial nature of the material helps reduce odour”. The first range of T-shirts is 70% bamboo and 30% organic cotton. Kevin explains that bamboo “is technically a grass and the fastest growing plant in the world, takes up less space than other crops, doesn’t require fertilisers, absorbs more carbon dioxide and uses way less water and much less land to produce.”
What does the future hold? Well, next steps include combining the existing range of new clothing with some recycled, vintage styles. Positioning ‘pre-loved’ alongside new clothing will encourage the conversation about not having to buy new all the time – if it looks good and feels great then it shouldn’t matter whether the product is ten years old or ten weeks old. Beyond that, Kevin want to explore themes of life and leisure, perhaps with homewares and furnishings that have responsible, ethical supply chains.
So, what are you waiting for, guys (and gals)? Have a look at the We Are Harper site, examine their ethical, social and environmental objectives, decide to make more conscious decisions about the products you purchase, and look good wearing your (very stylish) heart on your sleeve!
Much as it would be lovely to have an unlimited credit card and bottomless pockets (that's not a fashion thing, trust me, it's a financial limitation), I recognise that we cannot all rush out and buy an entire new wardrobe each month. However, the principle of buying one or two good suits each year, especially from a good designer or tailor round (and around the sales), will help you build up a good selection in time.
One of my Sydney favourites when it comes to look AND affordability is Brent Wilson. Again, I've bought one suit a year from him over the past six years, and they're all really different - different weights, different fabrics, different colours and very different styles. Refreshingly, at Brent Wilson you can buy a second pair of trousers when you buy a suit, meaning not just that you'll get a bit more wear out of the suit but that if you're travelling for a few days you'll have a freshly-pressed pair of trousers to keep you looking sharp (even if you're tired and cranky you can still look good!).
Brent seems to be making it into the bigtime now, dressing celebrities like PRINCE, and appearing in his own regular photoshoots (honestly, put some clothes ON sometimes, would you - you're really showing some of us up!) - but his stores and his lines are still accessible and affordable. Best of all, he’s got everything from conservative jackets and suits (best for government meetings or performance reviews) to glorious modern plays on traditional styles with great colours and patterns. In the photo I’m wearing one of Brent’s blue windowpane three piece suits – and I love it. Go have a look at his work . . .
In an earlier post, I mentioned Billy Wood, the self-styled 'Head Honcho' of Woody Roo. I first met Billy in the Bondi Markets one Sunday a year or two back, and was taken by his traditional styling with modern flair, great materials and quirky touches such as jacket linings, pocket squares and shirt-and-tie combos made from the same material (which I happen to love, despite knowing what some of my colleagues think!).
For me, it's the sustainability angle of his designs and clothing that really fascinates me. As his website states:
"WoodyRoo is proud to have every piece crafted in Sydney by Australian hearts and hands. Being 100% Australian made is a huge part of what the label is about. Premium fabrics have been sourced from around the world, including superfine Australian wool suiting sourced from the grazing pastures of New South Wales, Japanese cotton drills, linens, and Italian shirting. WoodyRoo's work is full of pride knowing that the gentleman lives… ". My friend Lisa Heinze, author of 'Sustainability with Style' looks at issues of product, provenance and proof in her book, so it's good to be able to walk the talk just a little bit.
Wearing an Australian-crafted suit to represent the Australian green building industry whilst overseas gives me great pride - and they look awesome, too. I've got suits made by Billy in light tan, dark green and navy blue, and ties in pretty much every shade under the sun. Love good suiting, love locally made products, love old styled new!
I was delighted to be photographed in the street, a year or two ago, for a new blog entitled 'Scrub the f*%k up' that showcases smart and well-dressed men and encourages guys to make more of an effort in their appearance. Since then, they've changed its name - perhaps to get past those 'NSFW' problems, language restrictions, or just to scrub itself up - and can now be seen at www.facebook.com/stfumen But they do have a point . . .
I don't hold myself up to be any paragon of style, but I do like to dress well and I do look around many of the men in Australian cities and think "Wow - we could do SO much better!". The usual uniform of badly-fitting dark suit, old greying shirt and mismatched, poorly-knotted tie sorely needs refreshing, and it's really NOT that hard. There are so many amazing designers, stores, tailors and retailers offering guys everything from quirky to quaint, sombre to splendid, and elegant to extravagant, and with so many up-and-coming designers around Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide or Brisbane alone there is great competition - which means prices aren't too steep.
Knowing my own limitations, I enlisted the help of my friend Howard Steeves - a man with a truly amazing eye. Former fashion stylist for Vanity Fair magazine in New York, as well as for TV, print media and designer collections here in Australia, Howard is now based in Sydney and works as a stylist and personal shopper for private clients as well as for Westfield. He showed me how to make better use of my shape (tall and lean), the better parts of my existing wardrobe (similar suits in wildly different colours), and the better examples of things in the shops that wouldn't break the bank but which would last well (Henry Bucks, Brooks Brothers and Brent Wilson). Howard can be found here, and there really is nothing better than an experienced, objective eye: www.workagency.com.au/agency
And I was delighted to read how the men in different cities have such different looks - the book 'Men in this town' was a present from my friend and writer Michael Wilton (www.teaorcopy.com). It takes a look at how the guys in London, Tokyo, Sydney, Milan and New York have their own styles, colours and looks - and it's good to recognise a few faces in there including Billy Wood (www.woodyroo.com - more on him later) and Patrick Johnson (www.pjohnson.com.au - more on him later as well). Read more in Giuseppe Santamaria's book and on his website: www.meninthistown.com
Robin Mellon is one of Australia’s experts on sustainability in the built environment and is determined to leave the planet in a better shape than it was when he found it. Robin believes in a Better Sydney – better buildings, better communities and a better quality of life.