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How Julia Buchanan runs a successful sustainable fashion brand

JULIA, founded in 2014 started off as a swimwear brand inspired by Cape Town and its surroundings

Tell us a little about yourself and how the "JULIA” label came about ? I started the brand in 2014 while I was reading for my BA Fine Art at Michaelis School of Fine Art. For many years it was a ’side hustle’ and provided a helpful additional income stream for me while I was completing my studies. It was further inspired after I spent six months in Europe, particularly Spain, where I saw beautiful, innovative swimwear and realised that South Africa lacked locally made, affordable swimwear. Since then we have expanded into designing apparel and accessories, we introduced our Creatives’ Collection - a series of collaborations with local artists and designers to create limited edition items - and we have worked with Pick n Pay Clothing for three consecutive years to create exclusive designer ranges.

What's your favourite part about being a fashion designer? I prefer to be classified as a ‘hybrid’ as I work across different areas of the creative industry, spanning from food, to fashion, to art. That being said, the thing I love most about designing and running a local brand is receiving positive feedback from customers about the garments making them feel comfortable and confident. I also love the process of building a collection, starting from the story that I’d like to tell and choosing materials/ colours/ silhouettes that can best share this message with the audience.

Julia Buchanan fashion design collection, Image: Supplied

What's your greatest strength as a designer? I believe that one of my greatest strengths is to listen to criticism and use it to improve on what I’m offering. I’m a strong believer in never thinking that you know enough and always keeping a curious and open mind.

How would you explain the importance of brands like yours making steps to become more ethical and sustainable to someone who isn't well versed in what that means? It’s crucial for local brands, and all brands to take steps towards being more ethical and sustainable so that, together, we can build a ‘greener’ fashion industry in our country. There are so many angles to sustainability, but if we all focus on doing what we can, such as working with conscious fabric or making garments locally, we can make a big difference.

Where do you look for creative inspiration? I get most of my inspiration when I’m close to the ocean or somewhere in nature. Cape Town is a major source of inspiration for me but travelling along the East or West Coast gives me space to be creative, to innovate and to reflect on past projects. These spaces also remind me of why it's important to build a brand that promotes being kind to our environment.

How do you walk the line between being unique and having commercial appeal? I am currently reading for my Executive Masters in Cultural Leadership offered by the Royal Academy of Arts and Maastricht University and I have learnt about the importance of collaboration, and the sharing of knowledge and skills. This has informed the way I approach the work I do, in particular looking at the Creatives’ Collection and the In Conversation Series, which was a series of discussions with local artists/ designers/ art professionals that we hosted during lockdown. I believe that JULIA finds its uniqueness in being more than a clothing brand; it is a space of sharing, learning and collaborating.

Julia Buchanan fashion design collection, Image: Supplied

How do you successfully run a sustainable business? As a business, we still have so much more to learn and work on every day to see how we can be more sustainable but the things we focus on are the fabrics that we use, only producing things locally and trying to ensure that our business is financially sustainable, so that we can keep supporting our surrounding community.

What do you think needs to change in the industry? Aside from being more sustainable, I think there are three key things that I think could be improved on. Firstly, I would say that local designers need to be more open to collaboration, sharing ideas, and sharing resources. The more we can work together, the more our industry can thrive. Secondly, I believe that there needs to be more help for smaller brands. For example, shoots are incredibly expensive and if there was a platform where young, upcoming designers could get access to more affordable models, photographers and make up artists, who are perhaps also in the process of building their careers, it would make a major difference. Lastly, we all have a responsibility to help young, upcoming creatives, so mentorship is something that I think could be improved on in the fashion industry.

What is the industry doing right? It's been great to see bigger retailers developing more conscious capsules within their stores. If we look at stores like Mango, Zara, and more locally, Pick n Pay Clothing, they are all making an effort to be more eco-friendly. If major platforms like this can make these changes, then it can hopefully motivate smaller brands around the world to do the same.

Julia Buchanan fashion design collection, Image: Supplied

What do you want to achieve personally with your brand, in terms of sustainability? I would really like to build our brand into a platform that inspires our customers to make better decisions, not only when buying clothes, but also in their everyday lives.

What advice would you give to those wanting to make their business sustainable? I would recommend starting small and being guarded in thinking that it is about instantaneous implementation. Sustainability is a HUGE word and should be a long term ambition. I would suggest starting with what is in your control and working to improve on that as you go.

What’s the smallest change a consumer could make to become more eco-conscious? Buy items that can last you for a long time, so that you aren’t constantly needing to buy new. Quality over quantity.

*SHOP the JULIA collection here and Instagram @juliadianabuchanan

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