Today’s interview is with James Bartle, the founder of Outland Denim. I first heard of Outland after Meghan Markle stepped out in a pair of their perfectly fitting jeans, and quickly came to love their approach. Their jeans – while beautiful – are a secondary purpose: instead, James started his business as a way to provide a secure future for female victims of human trafficking.
Today, his business employs a group of team of seamstresses in Cambodia that they know by name, providing a living wage and pastoral support to keep themselves on their feet. They are also trained across a range of skills and machinery, meaning they’re not stuck doing a single process on repeat; instead, they are skilled and rotate their work.
In addition, Outland Denim uses ethical and environmentally-friendly materials – from organic cotton pocket lining to recycled packaging. It’s all very well thought-out.
And ethical denim is hot property right now. I’ve had a particular interest in the area since watching the Riverblue documentary early last year. It was shocking to see how an everyday pair of jeans takes advantage of people, the environment, and harsh chemicals. It’s people like James that are cleaning up a much-loved outfit staple.
So, here’s our interview; it was a real pleasure to read James’ answers and see how much passion he has for his mission.
1. What sparked your interest in ethical fashion?
We never set out to create a fashion brand at first, we wanted to create something that facilitated training, employment, and support for women who have experienced human trafficking. We learnt that many women through the restoration process after their experience discover an interest in sewing and garment making. It made sense to help these women turn their newfound passion into a career.
Through development of the brand, we naturally learnt of the fashion industry’s own injustices, which drove us to employ an ethos of zero exploitation. Within our team we now have a Social and Environmental Impact Manager who assesses the impact of every aspect of our supply chain, from the cotton farm through to the courier that delivers to our customers, to ensure the success of Outland Denim and the seamstresses we employ does not come at the expense of other people or the planet.
2. Your jeans have been spotted on celebrities including Meghan Markle. Is there anyone you’d like to dress next?
Having Meghan wear our jeans was a real pivot point for us as a brand – where do you go from there, as she embodies so many of aspects of what we stand for, as well as having style credibility? That said, we are only too happy to have our jeans worn by anyone who can help us to lift more people out of poverty and exploitation, whether that be a celebrity with a profile or your mum (!)
3. Outland Denim works to employ and support vulnerable women in Cambodia. How are you helping to change their lives for the better?
We invest into our staff in every way. With Outland Denim, a seamstress will learn to sew entire garments and to work across all our machinery, to save and to budget, to care for her infants, and to speak English. Through this, she will also gain self-esteem and the respect of her family and her peers. She will be able to put her children through school and provide for their material needs. Her whole family benefits. She will earn a living wage and have the opportunity to progress professionally and be promoted into leadership positions. One of our first seamstresses was able to facilitate the roofing of her family’s home and the planting of a rice field, and bought her sister out of servitude.
We create opportunity, but these women are the agents of their own change.
4. Who inspires you, and who should we all be following?
To be honest, my role doesn’t allow for a lot of time to be following anyone else – you really have to bunker down and run your own race. But I appreciate and respect anyone working toward making the world a more equitable place for others, especially those who lack the same privileges that we have. So people like Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank are right up there. His work as a social entrepreneur, banker, economist, and pioneering microcredit and micro-finance concepts have changed many people’s lives for the better.
5. Finally, can you share any exciting developments with us for the near future?
We are really looking forward to what 2019 has in store. With our Summer 2019 collection, we’ll be welcoming to the range our first denim skirt, the “Florence”, as well as statement seasonal washes including White and Patchwork. We’ll also be introducing the Eddie jean to our men’s range, a straight-leg cut. But the most exciting news for 2019 will come from the manufacturing side of Outland Denim, the details of which we can’t disclose just yet!