Planting the seeds
Three years ago Florence took off and travelled the world by herself for 10 months. Her travels throughout Central and South America inspired a business highlighting nature textiles, the value of things hand made, produced by locals and the life stories by artisans. She specializes in quality clothing in a French-Italian style, made from linen. Her brand launched last winter.
“Why did you choose only linen to work with?”
"I was looking for a material that was local (European), had sustainable qualities like resistant, durable; where the process was mechanical, little to no pesticides used. She continues to dive into the deeper reasons she prefers to work with this crop around jobs, money and sustainability. "Linen only grows in particular kinds of land. The linen farmers have a certain know-how so jobs are kept longer. Remuneration is also higher because linen is more expensive than say, cotton.
Florence’s voice gained more energy as she spoke about the linen workers. "We forget (or don’t value as much) how we choose materials in clothing. Our grandparents knew that linen was precious, luxurious and rare because it's hard to make and care for.”
“My grandmother was an entrepreneur herself. She had a fabric business but it closed during the Biafra war." This is a Nigerian civil war between the Christians and Muslims in the 1960s-80s. "I wanted to find a name in Igbo to honor that part of my heritage. I don’t talk a lot about this in my brand. I navigate within two cultures that shaped me...my values.”
“This is something I really want to do even if it’s difficult. But sometimes I wonder if I should focus my knowledge of textiles into another path, other than creating a brand. I wanted to have a project to put all my interests together: visual storytelling, fabric, validation of know how.”
I asked her what a “another path” meant to her.
“Society gives us conflicting messages, especially if you are a woman. 'Everyone can be an entrepreneur and succeed if they put in the effort and try hard.' But in reality, life isn’t so easy. There are barriers, material or mental, that put us all on different levels. We think success is black and white. Then we get stuck because we listen to one or the other barrier. In reality there are actually various tones (of success).
I also noticed that there is a difference between equity vs equality. We all don’t have the same resources. And even given the same resources, we may not get the same results. Part of this is related to capitalism and it puts a lot of pressure on people instead of entities to develop a better structure (for society, for wealth building)."
”It’s not just about selling clothes.”
"I ask myself if I have the personality to be an entrepreneur. Having an idea or a project is not enough. You have to be more organized, have more confidence and take risks. I take a lot of time before making a decision.
The life of an entrepreneur is about managing projects, finding solutions for problems you encounter everyday. The way you react to these challenges, says a lot about who you are. I am solutions oriented but I need to be pushed. Sometimes I have doubts about myself and what's required to manage a project...but not about its' success."
I asked her if she's ever sought after a partner to take off some of the pressure.
"I never looked for a partner because in a way I felt that my project was too personal. I found the name of my brand with my father. Eriri is in Igbo, a language and heritage of Nigeria. It's difficult to find someone to anchor in the project knowing this.”
She said that she would need a person that has “les nerfs solides.” It’s a person that can withstand pressure and have a good sense of themselves...really grounded.
"I tried to do collaborations but discovered not everyone is open...into sharing...has a higher mindset. I'm ambitious, not competitive. People say ‘oh, you are an ethical fashion brand, so it means you are a good person.’ No! It's not true. People think that because you are a sustainable brand, everything is perfect. Behind the scenes, there is always a personality."
I'm ambitious but not competitive."
“Let's go back to the word ‘start’ again, what image pops into your mind?”
“A field of something from my region….sunflowers.” She mentions perhaps lavender or things related to that like olives in the countryside around Florence.
“Of these things, do you have a favorite”?
"Actually I was working on this topic for my next collection. I don’t have a favorite but when I think of this relating to my roots, I think of the colors like purple, green, blue of the mediterranean, terracotta (of the earth).
“What do sunflowers represent for you?”
“It’s the side that connects me to my land. My family has a farm with olives and wine...lemons. This is a part of my memories growing up. I've been raised, valuing the hard work of people.
I know it's hard to make linen for example. We don't talk about that a lot in the fashion industry. 90% of the fibers used in fashion are man made. It's not fashionable for a fashion brand to talk about how polyester is made."
It's not fashionable for a fashion brand to talk about how polyester is made.”
Fashion-appreciator Vs Fashionista
Florence never studied fashion but recently she took courses in textile technology to master the fabric of linen. The choice of the material is one of the pillars of her sustainable business. Linen was intriguing and made sense to look for suppliers local to Europe.
“I compare myself with other entrepreneurs. Now I know the reality and I see less glitter. People don’t tell the truth, they just show you what they want you to see. I say, Florence, “go and do your best!” I have to say this to myself because I don't have a partner to tell me this! Sometimes I connect with my colleagues in fashion. Some are in linen like me or other categories and it helps.
I like fashion but I've never been a fashionista. It’s my mom who taught me about frugality, repairing and sewing things. I never had the type of mother who wanted to go shopping with me… is fashionable.
“What about your dad or younger sisters? Were they an influence in that same way?”
"My parents are the essence of minimalism. They don’t care about having a lot of things. They highlight the value of work and of making things.
Before we started the interview Florence and I found how our backgrounds interweaved through accessory design, instagram quandaries and our love of travel. I wanted to interject so many times during our chat to say "me too!" She said not having the personality of "an entrepreneur" seemed to make (the launching of her brand) things go slow. Yes, its true. But if I allowed myself to just "be" and "sense" my way through this first part of the process, I wouldn't have made the mistakes I did.
At one point she said she wasn’t sure what she could share since she didn’t have any garments to show me for our interview. She mentioned that she could only talk about her values and reason for starting the company. Values, materials and “the start” is exactly what you need to begin with. She said she hasn’t stopped thinking about her linen clothing company since 2018 and works to gain an audience one step at a time. That is the sign that one is passionate about what they are doing.
Florence is on a good path - reflective and deliberate. Most bands lose track of why they started their brand. They are quick to design and produce to see their vision come to life and then deal with the hard work later. Once they realize the realities of being a startup they settle into the groove of working 10% designing and 90% marketing and handling challenging problems. Some ease up or stop their businesses or need to adjust, remembering the foundations of their brand’s story.
What sets Florence apart is her story. She says she didn’t think she could find a partner because her brand’s raison d’être stems from something quite personal. Sharing...being vulnerable is hard. But that is what is so attractive about brands with a loyal following like Eileen Fisher for example. The “why” of her brand and what's in her heart. I have no doubt that if she is open to it, her perfect business partner will emerge. The more you give, the more you're going to see I always say. Being vulnerable is not about divulging your innermost secrets online, but the willingness to “go wherever your heart says, at the time.”
She mentioned that “process vs product” is more important to her. Humans want to connect and support and feel the intentions of another. The brand is not a textile nor an esthetic. It's the "why" of a person. Half of sustainable designers are motivated because of their aesthetic and half for their contribution to sustainability. I remember I thought the same way, but over time I realized that a business is a business.
If people have a dollar to spend on either a linen t-shirt, organic cotton or silk one, which one will they spend their money on? We always think that sustainability is the magic key but people will always choose the product whose story is most memorable or personal - different from another. The story is not about sustainability. Sustainability is a value, a feature, a process. The story is always the person behind the brand and what they evoke. It’s about Florence’s role in the world, for example and how she sees the world and how she sees people’s role and value in the world. That is the magic that adds the color and texture to her story.
We will continue to follow her in Part 2 of this post to find out how her brand emerges, how to organizes life with the responsibilities of her current job, her steps in understanding her audience and more.
Note: Parts of this interview have been altered for length and clarity.