Down to Business: Sustainable fashion brand Lucy & Yak
Barnsley-born Lucy is the founder of Lucy & Yak, a sustainable clothing brand known for their colourful dungarees and personable ethos.
Reader's Digest: Tell us the story of how your business began
A team meeting. Lucy standing
Lucy: Myself and my partner quit our jobs in 2013 and went travelling for a few years. I worked in a bar for a few weeks and I hated it, but I knew we had to make money somehow, so we started making these little tobacco pouches out of old clothing that travellers left behind in hostels—big bins full of awful-looking shirts but with great prints. When we came back to the UK we didn’t really want to get back into full-time jobs, we just wanted to keep travelling. So we bought an old camper van and started selling vintage clothing on Depop, travelling around the country picking up gems in charity shops.
We did that for about a year, saving up, and then in 2017, we went to India. We’d noticed through our Depop that the 90s were making a big comeback, and dungarees were a huge part of that. There was nobody really making them really apart from in the workwear sense, so we thought while we’re here, if we meet someone who can make something, we’ll give it a go. The cook in our hotel mentioned that his brother was a tailor and invited us out to meet him.
"I did a business and fashion degree, but I then ran as far away from the fashion industry as I could"
That turned out to be Ismail, who is now our main guy. He was working with two of his friends, splitting all the profits equally. They had such a good structure in place that all we had to do was give him a good price and we could be confident about how much each tailor was going to get. Ismail actually laughed when we were trying to negotiate a price, because we kept going upwards. He thought we were just idiots from Britain who couldn’t negotiate, but we really wanted to give him a price that we felt was more than fair.
As the business has grown, it’s gone from Ismail and his two friends in India and Me, Chris and my Mum over here, to a sizeable team both sides, and both businesses remain really collaborative and dependent on one another. It’s a bit more special that just finding any old supplier.
Lucy and Yak's Brighton store
RD: What line of work/study were you in before it started?
L: I went to university 10 years ago and did a business and fashion degree, but I then ran as far away from the fashion industry as I could. I hated it; we’d have an ethics day every three months or so where we’d discuss issues in the industry and I remember seeing videos of sweatshops in China, and that’s the only part of it all that’s really stuck with me.
I was terrible for keeping jobs and just kind of jumped around between different bar and sales jobs. I met Chris in car sales—he was a manager in a dealership that I worked for and we became friends and then partners through that.
RD: How does your work complement your personality?
L: It’s funny now, coming from my restless working background, I do still have days where I would normally run away but I just can’t, there’s nobody to run from! We’ve both been a little like that; Chris moved around a lot as a kid so has never really been able to settle. We’re built for the travelling life.
It’s why I really like what we’re doing now, because it still fits our original ideal earning enough to keep travelling and enjoying what we want to do, making stuff in countries that we love to visit with people that we love spending time with.
RD: Can you tell us a bit the "slow fashion" ethics that support your business?
L: We set out knowing we wanted to pay everyone fairly and our workers are making roughly three or four times what an average tailor would in India which is great. We wanted to bring that to the UK as well, so we pay living wage as standard, and some people earn more.
The fabric was a funny one—in the beginning, we were just getting cheap end-of-rolls at markets, which I suppose is waste-reducing in its own way, but as we started growing, we wanted to be better. It wasn’t necessarily a focus on the environment from the outset, but rather a focus on people, and if you care about people you have to care about the way people are living. We began to buy enough fabric that we could go direct to a mill, and be able to order organic fabrics.
"If you care about people you have to care about the way people are living"
One of the hardest things is trying to design something but then realising that you can’t do it sustainably. We’re looking into using Tencel more as a sustainable fabric, and making these amazing new windbreaker jackets using something called Sorona, which is the first waterproof fabric that isn’t 100 per cent synthetic.
One of our main things has always been that it’s great to preach to people who are already aware of sustainability, but they’re already on the right train; how do you convert the people who aren't? For me, a lot of sustainable brands aren’t really doing that with their designs and colour and expense. I love the brand Reformation because they have a grading system for how ethical their fabrics are, and tell you why they’re using certain fabrics so you can make an informed decision. Raising awareness is really important.
Lucy and the team in India
RD: How do you go about forging a genuine connection with your customers?
L: It’s definitely a challenge, scaling up but keeping that personality. We’ve got 40 staff and can still get around everyone individually, but it’s a challenge making sure that everyone is still on the same page as we grow. I’m planning on spending a lot more time working on events and connecting with influencers who are our genuine customers and really shout about the brand.
I’m not a designer; I love that we’ve done dungarees because they’re comfortable and they’re unisex, but it could have been any product for me really. For me, the values are the most important bit, and I want to spend as much time as possible communicating that to staff and customers. It’s always about how you treat your staff and how that hopefully feeds down.
We get such amazing feedback from our customer service—I’m really proud of how we always take the time to reply and be kind to the customer, people seem to be quite surprised by it.
RD: What does an average working day for you look like?
L: There’s never really an average one, but at the minute, I’m spending some time with the product development department, mood boarding our ideas for next summer, and getting a refreshed handle on exactly who our customers are.
My mornings are normally the best. I always try and go for a run and a swim now we live in Brighton. There’s nothing better than freezing cold water in the morning because even if your body and mind don’t really want to, you always feel so much better after. Then we’ll head into the office.
We’re working a lot on sizing at the moment for autumn/winter, just checking everything before we start photographing the new range. I was never somebody who plans more than a day ahead, and now I’m thinking about summer 2020. It’s a lot!
A Lucy and Yak photoshoot
RD: What do you do to switch off?
L: Meditation really helps, and yoga. I do a meditation called Vipassana, which is a 10 day silent retreat, truly amazing. They’re challenging, but you completely switch off and then come back with so many ideas.
If you burn yourself out, it’s such a struggle. I can honestly say that we probably never would have started this without meditation, as we were—and still are—so laid back and relaxed. It really helps with all those little doubting voices in your head. Nothing can really get in your way and you aren’t as scared to try things.
"There’s nothing better than freezing cold water in the morning"
RD: What are your favourite and least favourite parts of your job?
L: Humans and humans I would say! I love all our staff, all our customers—it’s not the thrill of the sale so much as the thrill of somebody saying really positive things about the brand or how it’s made them feel.
People saying that they’ve never had clothing that makes them feel so much like themselves, I love hearing that. I love when my staff are happy, but equally, it’s difficult when they aren’t, you have to try and fix that and strike the balance where everybody is treated fairly.
It’s really hard when someone occasionally does something wrong and you have to tell them off—it’s not a nice thing to do and it’s not my strength, so I never look forward to that.
A Lucy and Yak photoshoot
RD: The business is going so well, but what is left on your bucket list?
L: One thing I am passionate to drive forward is our Made In Britain line, which is produced up in Yorkshire. I feel really strongly about all the women in Yorkshire who used to work in the sewing industry for the likes of Marks & Spencer and have all this talent but aren’t able to use it because there are no fashion jobs up there.
We’ve already found three amazing women who are ready to drive things forward which is really exciting. That’s the one thing I think my dad is going to be really proud of me for, creating jobs in Yorkshire!
RD: What has been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned on your journey so far?
L: When we set out, I think we thought every big company was trying and ruin the planet and that there were just these evil people at the top who just didn’t care.
Of course, there are some, but the more I get into this work, I realise that some companies grow so big so quickly that control just gets lost. Looking at it from the inside, I can see how companies have to say that certain big changes might take 20 years or so to change, I always used to think that was ridiculous before.
It’s why it’s more important than ever to get a team together who really share your ethos and can spread the right message and make the best decisions.
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