Courtney Holm

Courtney is the woman behind A.BCH - an emerging label built on ethical foundations and a desire to disrupt the current fashion system.

How would you describe A.BCH; what is its overall mission?

A.BCH is an independent, designer label creating relevant apparel for conscious individuals. Our mission is to radically change the fashion industry as it stands. We give full disclosure on our business practices, from the supply chain through to pricing. Embedded in the brand’s DNA is a commitment to finding the best possible solutions to environmental, social, ethical, and economic issues within the fashion and textile industry. We do this in a variety of ways as the issues are many, but having full disclosure at our core helps us stay accountable and on track with our mission.

To me, it’s plain and simple. The fashion industry and the people who fuel it (consumers and executives alike) must pivot drastically if the concept of fashion, which is ever-changing, is to survive sustainably in the future. This can only happen if individuals, businesses and the larger industry take personal and corporate responsibility for the damage caused by the current rate of consumption. I see A.BCH as a new, healthy alternative to that. But we are not just about product, we are also a platform for a community of people to engage with each other, discover, learn practicalities and be inspired by the idea of operating in a circular economy.

At what point did you decide to build a business that adopted a transformative, healthier model? Talk us through your journey from concept to launch.

It was a long journey! I originally started my menswear label, Article. by Courtney Holm, back in October 2013. The label was launched somewhat prematurely—in hindsight, my designs were purely creative expression and, although the venture was fun, I didn’t have a great understanding of how to run a fashion business and the brand ethos was shallow. I was naturally committed to Australian manufacturing and slow fashion ideals, but I never found the right way to articulate them.

I was also compelled by the idea of working alongside other local businesses in a collective, and trying to break open what I saw was a secretive and guarded industry. I couldn’t find anything out there that met my needs, aside from designer markets. No-one was nailing the combination of aesthetics and quality of design that I was looking for, so I tried to provide a solution myself.

That’s when I launched Menske, a tri-annual showcase of men’s lifestyle and designer goods ranging from fashion to motorcycles, complemented by lighting and furniture design, and a whisky bar and barber shop. It was great fun, but a lot of work. I ended up being too divided in my time running both Article and Menske, so I decided to again focus purely on Article. However, after designing and showing a new collection at VAMFF and subsequently receiving a startup business loan through RMIT, I took a big step back to re-evaluate what I was actually doing. My conviction for Article was not as strong as I thought it should be. I’d been reading books on the fashion industry and sustainability, and just about cried all my tears when I watched The True Cost, but all I could think about was that I really just needed to get out of the fashion industry.

Shortly after that I went on my honeymoon to Fiji, taking a blank notepad and pen with me. I took time to clear my head and allowed all the pressure I was placing on myself to lift. It was amazing. Soon I was writing down all the things that were important to me, what I saw the key issues as being, and how I could possibly help solve them. A flood of creative ideas opened up. Before I even designed anything, I had established my company values, a mission statement, and a whole range of things that would give this new business solid foundations.

From there I researched my little heart out for around 10 months—read articles, books, joined webinars and became a member anywhere I could to find out more information. I quickly realised that there was a whole lot of talk around marrying environmental stewardship, ethical manufacturing, and good design, but not much success. I decided we would start with basics like tee shirts and button-ups and build on the range as we grew. The name A.BCH pays homage to the original Article. By Courtney Holm, but is an entirely new concept and business model.

There simply came a point where if I was going to remain in the fashion industry, I needed to do something radical to change it. The A.BCH business model is very different on several levels. Firstly, we practice whole garment design, or circular design, which is strangely uncommon. It means all of our pieces can be composted or recycled at the end of their life. We sell directly to the customer at wholesale prices and don’t mark up to traditional prices. As a result, we never discount. All of our products are traceable forever, so when someone buys one of our carefully crafted pieces, they can search its ‘A. number’ to see a breakdown of the garment’s provenance. We also reveal all our suppliers and provide customers with our costing and markup model. We don’t do traditional ‘collections’; each piece is released singularly or in small capsules, making every item a hero garment and allowing us to celebrate its individual story. We teach people how to better care for, mend, upcycle and finally return a garment—either to us or to the earth—at the end of its life.

We are still developing our processes and exploring ways to improve on our impact. I don’t think we’ll ever be perfect, and that only propels me forward to do even better. A.BCH is still small, so I believe it's really important to build these solid foundations now. Growing comes with a whole new set of challenges, but that’s actually incredibly exciting, because we already have a purpose and know what we want to achieve.

Courtney Holm

"The A.BCH business model is very different on several levels. Firstly, we practice whole garment design, or circular design, which is strangely uncommon. It means all of our pieces can be composted or recycled at the end of their life."

Sustainability is a broad umbrella term that encompasses many things. Which sustainability principles have you incorporated into A.BCH?

The fashion industry has a lot to answer for when it comes to environmental sustainability, or lack thereof. I’ve realised there’s no point in merely making organic cotton tee shirts and labelling them ‘sustainable’. To be truly ‘sustainable’ is much more complex than that, and I am very careful not to broadly paint A.BCH as being ‘sustainable’ because I know too much and can’t truthfully claim it.

At A.BCH, sustainability is in the details. Something that helped me get those details right is the concept of whole garment design. Applying a whole garment design mentality means that, before I even consider the style or fit of a new piece, I consider the garment’s lifecycle, using a library of garment building blocks. The aim is for it to be returned safely to the earth via biodegradability or, alternatively, wholly recycled because every fibre is the same material.

Neither of those lifecycles can be completed if you use polyester thread to sew up a linen shirt, or use standard dyes on organic cotton fabric. We design for circularity, which means every product we put into the world has a clear lifecycle, designed for reuse and repair and finally composting or recycling. Education is equally important, because if a customer sends one of our pieces to landfill anyway, we haven't completed that lifecycle effectively. For us, it’s a journey of education alongside product solutions for everyday wear.

I have plans to grow this business to a point of financial sustainability, but I don’t need to be rich. And I certainly won’t be producing 600 million garments a year in order to deem my business a success. I believe in slower principals, like creating desire in the waiting and in the limited availability; celebrating unique design details and clothes that last a lifetime; evoking stories and memories from their owners. I want to remove the assembly line, factory mentality of making and bring back the love and craftsmanship of creative sewing into the design studio. All of those things are my idea of sustainability.

Which materials do you work with and why? Talk us through some of the pros and cons.

We work with very specific materials in the following categories, although some are still in development:

  • Natural fibres (certified organic): organic cotton, organic linen, hemp
  • Man-made cellulose fibres (certified by FSC or lab grown): lenzing tencel, monocel fibre, lab-grown leather
  • Protein fibres (certified cruelty free): responsible wool standard wool, organic peace silk
  • Recycled fibres: recycled PET, recycled nylon, recycled cotton, recycled wool, recycled hemp

There are pros and cons to each of these fibres. There’s no ‘perfect’ fibre that will meet all of the world’s needs. The advantages to natural, cellulose and protein fibres is that they are usually—depending on the dyes or chemical used in their production—bio-degradable at the end of their life. Disadvantages include high water usage in cotton farming, the potential for animal cruelty in wool shearing, and the lack of traceability with hemp. Our GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified organic linen is one of the best fibres I’ve been able to source. It’s incredibly traceable, right down to the farmers, it has a small carbon footprint, it’s durable and timeless, and it’s biodegradable.

Recycled fibres are interesting. Yes, it is better to use recycled fibres than virgin fibres, especially when it comes to polyester and nylon. However, the end of that garment’s life is less straightforward. If it is synthetic, it would need to be sent to a special recycling plant overseas in order to be effectively recycled, and the quality would not remain the same as it was in its initial recycled state. I use those materials with caution and only if I have exhausted all other options. Unless the fibres are recycled, I don’t typically like to use blended fabrics, ie. 5% elastane 95% cotton, as this is destined for landfill at the end of its life. We give a list of what materials we do and don’t use and why on our website, so those who want to learn more can here.

There are a number of innovative tech companies developing lab-grown materials, such as leather and spider silk. These aren’t necessarily available for commercial use yet, but the prospect of a future where new materials take a share in the marketplace—replacing land and water-hungry cotton and chemically toxic, microfibre-shedding polyesters—is really exciting.

We also use biodegradable trims, buttons, threads, interlinings and elastic. Sometimes we do have to make compromises, but what we won’t compromise on is whole garment design. If we can’t source a trim that can be recycled with the garment or safely biodegraded, we won't include it in the design.

“Our clothes are affordable because we don’t mark them up to traditional retail prices. We’d never want to price people out of making a difference.” The ethical fashion movement is often labelled elitist and inaccessible for the everyday consumer. What are your thoughts on this?

One of the key issues I discovered in my customer research and development is that when it comes to ethical fashion, people generally don’t think they can afford to buy it. They’re also confused about what is truly ethical, and how to connect that ‘ethical’ label with where the garment was produced, its environmental sustainability, its quality, and its accompanying price tag. I do understand that the average person is not in a position to spend tonnes of money on clothing all the time; however, I genuinely believe everyone can participate in ethical fashion.

I would argue that a quality, well-researched garment is worth the extra dollars. A cost-per-wear calculation would actually often deem it cheaper than several similar garments of lower quality that may not be cared for, repaired, or worn as often. This does require the everyday consumer growing savvier, as a higher price doesn’t always equate to a better quality garment, or better values behind it. And the research required may lead consumers to decide they don’t need to buy something new after all.

There are several new ‘conscious’ labels rising up with affordable alternatives, including A.BCH, and I think this marketplace will only continue to grow. Thrifting is an often overlooked option, online or in-store, and is a great way to lower the price and environmental impact of your purchases. Plus, you don’t have to worry so much about what the fabrics are made of, as you’re already diverting that item from landfill—that’s huge in itself.

I’d also suggest repairing older garments, or making your own clothes, or even attending a clothes swap. If you don’t have that kind of time or desire, then researching some solid go-to brands using the Good on You app might be a good start.

No matter how you look at it, there is a solution for all of us participating in ethical fashion. It doesn’t have to be expensive, and there are so many businesses and startups catering to this market now—it just takes a little time and research to find them.

You have a better understanding of garment impact than most brands; what would you say to those who may be disillusioned with their current business model but unsure how to evolve?

Start by defining your values. Without a values system in place, it’s very hard to say, ok we got it wrong and we need to change. Next, do your due diligence in finding evidence-based research before making high and mighty claims. I’m immediately skeptical of brands who claim ‘we are sustainable.’ That also goes for suppliers. Finally, consider that it’s difficult to accurately measure the impact of an article of clothing that doesn’t have a lifecycle assessment outlining a clear path for use, re-use, repair and finally recycling or disposal. I believe anyone who creates products should also take responsibility for that item when it is no longer usable. That will help ensure proper stewardship, and a more considered use of materials at the design conception stage.

Courtney Holm

"We don’t do traditional ‘collections’; each piece is released singularly or in small capsules, making every item a hero garment and allowing us to celebrate its individual story. We teach people how to better care for, mend, upcycle and finally return a garment—either to us or to the earth—at the end of its life."

Increasingly, fast fashion companies are engaging with the term ‘sustainable fashion’ and launching ‘ethical’ capsule collections without necessarily considering the overall environmental and social impact of their business model / production methods. What are your thoughts on this, do you see scope for fast fashion businesses to drive positive change in the garment industry?

To be 100% honest, I do not think fast fashion and the genuine quest for sustainability and ethical practices in fashion are compatible. I am happy for fast fashion companies to put a portion of their huge profit into researching and developing recycling plants to help reduce textiles in landfill. In fact, they should. But if that technology and those fibres aren’t shared across the industry, then it’s a self-serving gesture that isn’t based on a real ethical agenda. Rather, it's being done to perpetuate their own agenda of making hundreds of millions of garments a year, squeezing margins down the supply chain.

Much more work could be done to support workers throughout fast fashion supply chains, ensuring they earn living wages in safe working conditions.

Looking at the fashion system itself, how can we best instigate meaningful change? Who is responsible?

I believe everyone is responsible for changing the fashion system. We all wear clothes, so we all have the power to do something. Some might say that ‘conscious consumerism’ is meaningless and doesn’t have any impact, but I disagree. The act of buying recycled toilet paper or an organic tee shirt won’t change the world, but the individual who makes those small changes in their life can. By making those changes and by sharing their ideas and discoveries with the people in their world, an amazing ripple effect can take place. I’ve seen this in action with my own friends and family over the years.

Businesses who are employing the methodology of putting people and planet before profits have it right. They will thrive in a future where the millennial consumer cares about the social and environmental impact of the products they buy. Government has a responsibility too, not just in the fashion industry but across all industries, to help decrease waste, lower carbon emissions and save precious resources like water. They also have a responsibility to improve or uphold fair work rights.

In what ways would you like A.BCH to improve or evolve going forward? Are you curious about any particular innovations or technology developments?

There are so many areas I want to improve in. From visiting every single raw material supplier, to being able to commision orders of new input products that I currently can’t meet minimums for, there are many areas in which I can see us improving as we grow. Part of A.BCH’s ethos is that the production machinist is just as important as the designer and that they should ideally work collaboratively together. To build on this ethos, I am working towards one day bringing all of our manufacturing in-house.

I am very interested in material innovations, and keep a close eye on what is slowly becoming available. At this stage, much of it is expensive and difficult to find in workable minimums. Innovative materials are on my radar for future products, including lab-grown spider silk and pineapple leather. I am also interested in using regenerated, recycled fibres that are made from textile waste. On a more grassroots level, I am curious about creating one or two supply chains entirely within Australia, and am working on how to make that commercially viable. Eventually I intend to share this with others in the industry to also use.

When looking to the future of the fashion industry, what excites and/or daunts you most?

I’m super excited about how much passion there is in the world right now for developing creative and innovative solutions for this industry. There are so many startups, and new technologies and processes popping up that I can't help but get carried away when thinking about how A.BCH could be a part of it all.

I am daunted by the enormity of the task ahead. The world is suffering on so many fronts: the people who make most of the world’s clothes are living in conditions that I could barely imagine, and the planet’s land, oceans and atmosphere are all being abused. The issues we face can seem insurmountable and impossible to tackle, especially as a small business or as an individual. I have very big dreams, and at times I need to remember to walk before I run, and that these things do take time. I count my lucky stars that I even have a business and that I can use it make a difference. That’s the most exciting, difficult and wonderful future I could imagine and I am determined to make it happen.

Photography Katie Goodwin
Production Sigrid McCarthy
Sub editing Reb Mery
Learn more about A.BCH