In the heart of Leicester’s manufacturing quarter, and steeped in the history of the town’s fashion and textile heritage, sits Helen Howe’s light-filled studio in Maker’s Yard. Until today, Maker’s Yard is still a hub for plenty of Leicester’s creatives and artisans, and Helen stands at the forefront of the local manufacturing community, championing a philosophy of ‘buy less and invest’ and promoting the timeless value and quality of British craftsmanship.
At the tender age of six, Helen Howe already knew that she wanted to be a fashion designer. After a fifteen year career in the commercial fashion industry and disenfranchised by the greed of fast fashion, Helen set out to prove that fashion can be both ethical and sustainable with her eponymous brand, Helen Howe. By using only the highest quality local fabrics including Shetland wool and Harris Tweed and producing her entire collection in the UK, Helen doesn’t just reduce her carbon emissions, but also shines a light on the talent and skill of British manufacturers. According to Helen, ‘fashion should be expensive’, and we couldn’t agree more. Because in a world where the repercussions of landfill are forever looming, there’s nothing better than wearing clothes that are well-made and made fairly.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background? What inspired you to start Helen Howe?
I’ve known since the age of six that I wanted to be a Fashion Designer. I took every opportunity from age fourteen onwards to do work experience and I relished being involved. When I finished my college course, I was offered a job as a designer at eighteen, with a company I’d worked with for several years. I worked in the mainstream commercial fashion industry for fifteen years before becoming disenfranchised with the way the industry was going, ‘stack ‘em high sell ‘em cheap!’, with little regard for the human or environmental impact of that practice. So I decided at that point to launch my own label. I wanted to prove to both myself and the Industry that ethical, sustainable, and durable fashion IS possible, and that UK manufacture is still great.
What is it like working in Leicester’s Maker’s Yard? Do you think Leicester’s manufacturing heritage inspires your work?
I love our studio and have a fantastic team on board to share it with! I also feel blessed to be at the centre of such a creative and talented group of artisans. I have so much respect for the other tenants of Makers Yard and also the cultural quarter in general. The fact that Leicester has such a rich heritage in the fashion and textiles sector, in which previous generations of my family were involved, inspires me to bring quality, skill, and traditional practices to the area. Makers Yard is a superbly converted hosiery building, so we feel very at home with our surroundings!
Helen Howe uses proud British made fabrics like Shetland wool and Harris Tweed - what is it like working with British producers?
Supporting other UK businesses is important to me on so many levels. First and foremost, I want to support other UK manufacturers. Because I feel that their skills, experience, and heritage should be respected, protected, and embraced. Working with these companies, many of whom have been around for generations, also ensures that our carbon footprint is low. It also means that we have control and transparency within the supply chain, as we are able to closely monitor their methods and corporate responsibility practices and that we are able to be responsive and flexible according to the needs of our customers.
How important is ethics and sustainability to the ethos of Helen Howe?
It’s essential that we maintain the highest level of ethics and sustainability within the practice of our own work and that of our supply chain. Having witnessed first-hand bad practice, exploitation, and wastefulness during my prior career, I have a clear understanding of the impact that cheap, fast fashion has on both the environment and those employed within manufacturing process. It’s not ok. As a designer and creative, everything I produce is a little piece of me and of my heart - to see garments that I've lovingly designed having a negative impact on others killed my soul. I knew I needed to do something different - to prove that fashion and manufacture COULD have a positive impact on everyone involved.
In what ways do your production processes reduce your environmental footprint?
It’s quite simple. We source everything as locally as possible and produce within the UK. All of our garments are made within the UK. We aren't responsible for air or sea freight pollution. We minimise the amount of road travel impact by sourcing as locally as we can and recycle within the design room as much as possible. We donate or use any off cuts as much as we can and promote an ethos of ‘buy less but invest’. We create beautiful garments that are designed to LAST, with the intention of reducing the amount of textiles going to landfill. We also repair garments for clients when requested, to extend their lifespan when necessary. It is a strict company policy that we do not and will never discard to landfill or destroy garments that could otherwise be worn.
Tell us more about your Buy Less but Invest philosophy?
I don’t really understand when ‘cheap’ became a good thing? - Or when the respect for quality was lost. For me clothing should be expensive. In my grandmother’s generation, people would save up all year and buy one great dress or jacket. They cherished it and repaired it when necessary, and as a result had a small wardrobe of beautiful, quality garments that they loved and that fitted them beautifully. Once they were eventually no longer required, they would be passed on to others - or at worst recycled and made into something else! To me that’s exactly how things should be – I seriously doubt that much of today’s clothing will survive long enough to ever be classed as vintage. To me, we need to recognise the amount of work and skill that goes into a garment and the number of people and livelihoods involved in the design, production, distribution, warehousing, and sales of our clothing. If you take all of that into account you can understand why clothing should not be cheap.
Today, sustainability is more important than ever, with brands becoming more and more concerned about their carbon footprint. What role does the luxury industry play in the effort to minimise our environmental impact as a species?
In all honesty there are brands fighting the good fight and trying to affect change, in terms of sustainability, at different levels of the industry - which is great. While I believe that clothing should be expensive to reflect the work involved, I also believe that it’s more of a commitment to sustainable practices that is important at every level. Some luxury brands may be charging the price tag, but have clearly shown in recent news that they value exclusivity of the brand over environmental impact or wastage. That’s never ok in my eyes - but hey that’s my opinion.
As consumers, how can we make a difference in protecting the future of our planet?
Be conscious about your buying choices, buy quality products and sell them on when you no longer need them. Ask questions - don’t assume that getting a bargain is a great thing - consider WHY it’s that cheap. Seek out brands and stores with a clear and transparent corporate responsibility ethos. There are loads of great brands out there doing things consciously and working to protect the people within the garment industry and the environment - they aren’t difficultly to find, I guess it’s just a case of whether you care.
Interview By Hannah Tan-Gillies