To kick off our new series spotlighting the women creating the next generation of Northern brands, we spoke with Em and Jess, creators of Ellis and Low, a Manchester-based start-up that makes conceptual pieces for bold, contemporary women looking to shop small and sustainably. Named after the pair’s two glamorous Grandma’s, and with all the designing, making and packaging overseen by Em and Jess, we were keen to find out a little bit more about Manchester’s latest fashion design duo.
Tell us a bit about Ellis and Low, what is your USP?
We’re a startup luxury knitwear brand that creates conceptual pieces for bold, contemporary women looking to shop slow, small and sustainably. We love using colour and pattern to tell stories through our handmade knitwear, including tales from our own family history. Vintage knitwear and history in general really inspire us.
How did the two of you meet and how did you come to the decision to work together?
Believe it or not, we met at nursery so we’ve grown up together from the age of two! We’ve always wanted a business together and had many different, sometimes far-fetched, ideas. But, after university we realised knitwear was our passion and thus, Ellis and Low was born.
What was the inspiration behind Ellis and Low?
Audrie Ellis and Lily Low are our glamorous Grandmas. They taught us to knit and crochet at a young age so it’s only right we named our brand after them. We saw a gap in the market for fun, eye-catching sustainable knitwear and with our design styles being very different from each other, the juxtaposition makes for even more interesting designs.
Tell us about how you created your last collection?
We used our uni work as a starting point for our first two collections, the last of which was inspired by Jess’ textile designs based on the natural textures of wood and the cold-blooded nature of reptiles. We used a mix of handknit, crochet and wooden pieces to create a range of textures and the ideas for the shapes came from vintage knit patterns that our grandmas passed onto us.
What is something you both love about the North?
Other than the brill weather (!), our favourite thing about the North is definitely the people. There’s a real friendly vibe up here, you can spark a conversation with almost anyone. It’s full of creative minds so it’s a constantly inspiring place to live and work!
What can we expect next from Ellis and Low?
We want to grow our brand and get out there, attending maker’s markets and seeing our knitwear in stores. We hope to build our customer base so we can offer our bespoke heirloom knitwear service. This is where we’d use people’s family history and the stories they tell to design and make personalised pieces that can be passed onto future generations. We also have lots of exciting ideas for new collections so keep your eyes peeled!
It’s no secret that the fashion industry has more than a few skeletons in its closet. From dangerous working conditions for low-paid (but high-skilled) workers in clothing factories, to the £140 million worth of clothing that goes to landfill each year, fast fashion is one of the most exploitative and damaging industries operating today. And yet, the majority of people will turn a blind eye to this in favour of picking something up at the H&M sale or snagging a cheap new dress for a night out on Missguided.
Not everyone takes a blasé attitude, however – there’s an increasingly popular movement known as ‘slow fashion’, which prioritises buying less, buying ethically and buying to last. Slow fashion encourages a whole range of sustainable habits, such as buying secondhand from charity shops and vintage stores, investing in high-quality handmade pieces from independent businesses, and learning to mend clothes yourself instead of replacing them. We’re pretty lucky in the north – the sustainable fashion movement has real momentum here, and there are loads of charity shops and vintage stores to favour over chains.
There are also plenty of independent businesses that place sustainability at the heart of their service. Anita Smith, founder of one-woman business Sew What, is a Manchester-based designer and maker, who champions vintage, sustainable fashion. All her pieces are handmade – she generally designs vintage styles with a modern twist – and she also offers a range of sewing and style services to help people make more sustainable fashion choices and fall in love with their wardrobe again. We had the pleasure of speaking with Anita about starting her own business, slow fashion, and sustainability on a budget.
Can you tell us the story behind Sew What?
I was a teacher before I started my business, but I did fashion design at uni, and I wanted to combine the two somehow. I got a bit disillusioned with teaching and wanted to get back to doing something that was more creative and more fulfilling for me. I wanted to share all the skills I learned at uni, and my love for fashion – but not necessarily trend-led fast fashion – and combine that with teaching people how to sew, so they could learn to love it as much as I do. That’s where the idea came from, and I just went from there. I started with a studio at Islington Mill in Salford for a couple of years, and then moved into a shared studio, still in the mill. It’s a separate building with loads of other people that I already knew – it’s so good being in a collective space with other creative people, it means that you’re constantly being pushed and supported.
You mentioned wanting to share your love of fashion, but emphasising slow fashion over high street fast fashion. Can you tell us a little bit more about this and why you feel it’s so important?
Essentially, I love making my own clothes. I got into it in the first place because when I’d go to high street stores, there just wasn’t anything there that was exactly what I wanted, or the fit was all wrong. Also, looking at things and knowing how long it takes to make something and how much skill is involved, I couldn’t justify how little the prices were. For them to be that cheap it means that whoever’s making it isn’t getting paid properly – the maths doesn’t work. That’s how I really fell out of love with the high street.
It’s a mindset change, I think – it takes people a long time, because we’ve all grown up not thinking about the impact fast fashion was having. Now there’s a real momentum going and people have started to realise what effect fast fashion and the high street is having on the environment and people in the industry.
That’s where the slow fashion movement came from. Slow fashion is about taking the time and being a bit more thoughtful and a bit more conscious about what you’re purchasing, and buying quality rather than quantity. It’s about buying from businesses that are really transparent about where they’ve got their fabrics from and who’s made it. It might be that it’s a complete one off – you’ve had something made especially for you. It might be that there’s a really small batch. There’s something about knowing you’re going to walk down the street and you’re not going to see someone wearing the same thing as you that makes clothes so much more special. So it’s a mindset change of trying to think about your style, and what you want to wear rather than what you’re being told to wear by the high street.
Slow fashion has a bit of a reputation for being less financially accessible. Do you have any tips for people who want to shop and dress more sustainably, but are on a tighter budget?
I think it goes back to the idea of investing in something. Rather than buying five things that are really cheap, you can save that. Just buy one thing that’s better quality, that actually fits and fulfils the need that is there. What is the gap in the wardrobe? Save up and invest in that.
At the same time, you’ll hear people saying they can’t afford sustainable fashion, but they might shop in middle-range stores like & Other Stories or Cos. They are not cheap places to buy from, but people still don’t think they can afford sustainable clothing. There are cheaper brands out there that are sustainable – it does exist!
Part of it is also about trust. People have to trust that they will still get the quality products from small independent companies that don’t have all the marketing and publicity. It takes a lot of work to stop yourself buying lots of little things, and saving up for something, and trusting that that’s going to stand the test of time. Maybe we’ve all got used to Primark prices and sale prices. There are sales on all year round now, so it’s part of our psyche that we believe everything is cheap. And it just shouldn’t be – that’s not the real cost of things.
Can you tell us about the process behind designing and creating a bespoke garment?
I generally collect things from a vintage aspect, because essentially all the fashion that’s in stores references vintage fashion. Right now the 70s are back in, when I was growing up the 80s were cool again, the 60s are always in fashion. So I generally look back at clothes that I would love to wear now, and do a modern take on them. I’ll use a modern fabric, and adapt it slightly so it doesn’t look costume-y. You can make things look more modern just with the fabrics or the print that you use.
I do things that I think my customers might like and that will fit in their wardrobes but won’t go out of fashion. I also get commissions, where people say they really like something from my website, but is there any way it can be made with sleeves, or without a zip down the front, or with a collar rather than a pinafore neck. Making something specific for a customer is a real privilege – it’s an honour that someone trusts me to do that.
What’s your favourite thing about being based in the north?
The fact that I can afford to have a studio! There’s something very specific about being in the north where it’s almost like people haven’t quite realised how incredible the creative network is here. There’s a bit of a lack of other makers but it’s just because people don’t expect to find you there. It’s really nice to find other creatives that are in Manchester or Leeds or Sheffield – you can connect more with them because they’ve not done what everyone tells you to do and gone to London. People are really proud that they’re here, and they support other northern businesses. The support network, and how positive people are towards each other is just wonderful, an absolute dream.
And finally, as people are spending more time in the house at the moment, do you have any suggestions for steps we can take and things we can do at home to start to sort out our own sustainable fashion habits?
The fact that people aren’t going out means that they might start to realise that they don’t need to buy. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with going out and treating yourself – it’s not a shame thing and no one should feel guilty about it. But it might make people reconsider how much they own and how much they actually need. Maybe they’ll take a bit more time to consider – when we are set free! – that they don’t go out and immediately buy, because they have all this stuff at home that they can’t wait to wear again.
Or, they might find that they’re wearing things in different ways. It’s the best thing when you see your wardrobe in a different light, and you start to wear things together that you never would have before. On Instagram, Erica Davies has started a prompt – #ericamademetryit – challenging people to wear things they’d never normally wear. People are so excited about going out once a day, or going to do their weekly shop, they’re wearing all these crazy things. Now they’re wearing a fabulous 70s maxi dress that they’d normally save, because they’re desperate to wear something other than joggers – they can start pulling stuff out and getting it on!
I also hope it makes people realise that at a time like this, it’s the smaller independent businesses that need help. I’m sure everyone’s seen that ASOS and Boohoo are still forcing people to work, and they’re having sales to encourage people to buy stuff they don’t need. They’re not bailing their workers out; they’re not helping anyone apart from themselves. Little businesses are desperately trying to make sure their workers are OK, making sure customers get their products on time, and doing things for free for the NHS. I hope people take note of that after this is all over and really try and change their shopping habits to support the little guys – they’re the ones that need it.
You can find Anita on Instagram @sewwhatmcr and on Twitter @sewwhatmcr. Sew What’s Facebook is here, and the website can be found here.
Manchester is a city with a vibrant fashion and style scene. From the abundance of chic young professionals in the city centre to the students sporting unexpected combinations of vintage and contemporary clothes up and down Oxford Road, there’s always at least one eye-catching outfit on every street you walk down. And given the highly prolific vintage, second-hand and independent business scene in Manchester – concentrated in the city’s famous Northern Quarter but with outposts everywhere from Salford to Withington – it’s no surprise that sustainable fashion is finding a home in the north’s industrial epicentre. It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect apex of Manchester’s style sensibilities, vintage roots, and, of course, love of a good time, than at Manchester’s Sustainable Fashion Party, the first of its kind in the city.
Manchester’s Sustainable Fashion Party, held late February this year, in Salford’s high-ceilined, white-walled fivefourstudios, puts ethical consumption at the heart of fashion. As more conversations open up about the climate emergency, the culpability of the fashion industry in employing dangerously wasteful fashion practices is becoming harder and harder to ignore. Looking to step away from treating many finite resources as disposable, both those involved in the fashion industry as well as consumers are increasingly seeking out more sustainable and ethical practices – and those people in Manchester decided to have a party to raise awareness, support, and funds (all profits from the night went to local non-profit Emmeline’s Pantry, who provide food, clothes, toiletries and baby items to women in need and their families).
The event was organised by Alison Carlin, who moved to Manchester 25 years ago and became thoroughly involved in the arts and culture scene in the city. Founder of Ally Pally Vintage, Alison aims to encourage second-hand shopping and the fun and creativity that go along with it, along with the incomparable ethical and sustainable benefits such practices create. This attitude, in fact, shone through the whole night, particularly from those speaking about their local businesses and efforts to combat the damaging effects of fast fashion, but also in the catwalk, which showcased exactly how stylish sustainable fashion can be.
Opening the event was a poem from Kermit Leveridge, formerly of the band Black Grape, read by Kelly Hughes. In it, Leveridge effectively critiqued the fast fashion industry – as he points out “the time between new collections seems to be getting shorter and shorter” – how can this obsession with disposing of old trends and bringing in the new for a short period of time be sustained?
This conversation was continued in the panel discussion of people involved in various ways in the fashion industry, many of them local to Manchester. First to speak was Sophie Benson, a former stylist who left her job as she couldn’t reconcile what she was doing with the insidious practices that keep the fast fashion industry running. Sophie is now a freelance writer trying to raise awareness of how we can all engage in more sustainable fashion practices – her tips ranged from the everyday and expected (shopping secondhand wherever possible) to bigger picture calls to action (she recommends contacting your MP as government legislation could really help to curtail the negative and unsustainable practices of the fashion industry).
Niamh Carr, owner of brand and creative outlet NEMCEE, aims to make things to last as long as possible, as she believes that extremely high-quality garments that don’t need to be replaced are crucial to a sustainable fashion future. Every element of Niamh’s designs are considered with a view to being, essentially, irreplaceable, in the sense that they should never need to be replaced – she only uses buttons and never zips, for example, so that they can be replaced easily if necessary. Another independent business owner local to Manchester, Anita Smith, also emphasised the positive impact doing things for yourself at home can have on ethical fashion. She runs Sew What, designing and making clothes inspired by vintage styles using only deadstock, vintage or donated fabric. Anita also runs workshops showing customers how to make their own, as she believes that if more people knew how to sew, the dissonance between the price of a garment in, say, Primark, and the effort it takes to make it would be exposed more clearly – and they would realise how cheaply they could make their own clothes from charity shop fabric!
All the other panellists (Vinnie Tao of SneakerPharm, Rich Gill of Bags of Flavour, and Camilla Cheung of Wardrobe Wellbeing) also emphasised their own backgrounds and how the disconnect between their increasing beliefs in ethical practices and sustainability led them to where they are today, each running businesses that aim to promote more sustainable and ethical style choices (Camilla Cheung, for example, worked formerly in retail management then trained in counselling in order to provide a comprehensive service that links fashion and wellbeing).
The response from the comments of the whole panel from the audience was phenomenal, with many of their remarks being greeted by cheers – and when Alison herself made an appearance on stage, she brought the house down. The event clearly attracted an audience in Manchester – of all ages, and all, in my opinion anyway, very fashionable – who are deeply interested in increasing their own sustainable and ethical practices, and rejecting those of the fast fashion industry. In the catwalk immediately following the panel, the audience got a taste of what’s on offer right here in Manchester to help them do so, with outfits modelled from a wide range of local vintage, secondhand and sustainable shops and boutiques, from Suzy Loves Milo, Pop Boutique and Bee Vintage to the slightly more specific but just as stunning Camilla Vintage Wedding Dresses. Followed by a stunning performance from House of Ghetto, a vogue dancing group, and DJ’d by Danielle Moore of Crazy P, the event soon turned into another Manchester favourite – just generally a cracking night out. The success of the event can only leave us with an optimistic view of Manchester’s future as a leader of sustainability, and a hope that many more events like it are soon to follow, if only for the excellent time that was had by all.
A Small Good Thing, a community greengrocers with a focus on seasonal, organic produce and waste reduction, is the product of a long term friendship originally forged 11 years ago in a pub in Bolton, where Lisa and Emily, founders of the business, were brought together by a shared love of Joni Mitchell…