Sofi + Nick: founders of Alice + Whittles
Yesterday I shared this amazing pair of rain boots with you. Today I get to introduce you to the incredible people behind the brand! What is particularly fascinating to me about Nick and Sofi is that they've entered the ethical fashion industry with extensive backgrounds in humanitarian work. Their insight into how an apparel company can impact the world for good is so inspiring...
Can you share a little about your personal backgrounds?
Sofi: I am a born Canadian with South Asian roots. I was a practicing corporate lawyer in Canada before joining the UN Refugee Agency - first in Geneva then Turkey and Tunisia before launching A+W.
Nick: I was born in Geneva, Switzerland to parents who worked for the United Nations. I have two sisters and spent much of my youth living in developing countries. From a young age I knew that I wanted to work towards promoting the humanitarian values that I grew up with. Having earned degrees in economics, politics and international relations in Edinburgh and Geneva, I went on to work for various NGOs and UN Agencies both at headquarters and in the field. I met Sofi, my wife and business partner, at the UN Refugee Agency.
What was the inspiration behind Alice + Whittles?
Sofi: Nick and I were working with the United Nations Refugee Agency in Tunisia, shortly after the revolution. After years in the system, trying to clean up pieces of a mess that’s made over and over again, we started asking ourselves, ‘Is this the right way to affect massive issues of poverty?’ We thought about what industries had the potential to balance the inequities of the world. Clothing is a human necessity. Economically, production takes place in regions that are unregulated, affecting billions of garment workers around the world.
Nick: Alice + Whittles takes inspiration from many aspects of our personal and professional views of the world: First and foremost, Alice + Whittles is inspired by our humanitarian values and our passion to create positive change in the world. Having worked with different communities around the globe, we've witnessed firsthand the importance of respecting basic human rights and our natural environment - as well as the devastation that comes when they're put to the sidelines. We want to help inspire positive change through fashion that embraces these values. For us this begins in the very way in which our items are ethically created and what they stand for.
Why did you decide to produce boots?
Sofi: We traveled a lot for work. We thought about the necessary things that we needed wherever we were based in the world. Shoes was an obvious place to start for both of us. We wanted to make make the essentials. Make them beautifully and in a way that had a meaningful contribution to the communities in which they are made. Not in a paternalistic way but in a way that respected people's work, self-sufficiency and the surrounding environment.
Nick: An important part of Alice + Whittles is embracing a minimalist lifestyle. When we were working for the United Nations, our jobs involved a lot of travel to very different environments and climates, while meeting a host of different people. An important part of being prepared is to pack light - just the essentials - while being versatile enough to go from a refugee camp to a board room in a matter of minutes. This need has also extended to our lives as entrepreneurs; one minute we find ourselves in deserts or jungles meeting farmers and weavers, and the next we're on a flight for a meeting with buyers. As such, we wanted create essential fashion items that would fulfil these diverse needs of functionality and style, while being able to embrace a minimalist lifestyle that embraces thoughtful consumption.
Has the brand evolved much since you first began?
Sofi: The brand has definitely developed its voice over the years. At the early stages Nick and I were doing everything, from product design to community development, building our website to photographing and modelling our own campaigns! It was chaos! Thankfully we have a great team of people that have lightened our load and dedicated an immense amount of time to help us communicate our story and values more effectively.
Nick: Definitely - and I think it's important that Alice + Whittles continues to evolve just as an individual does. The brand needs to be dynamic and forward thinking if it's going to have the positive impact that we set out to create. As such, characteristics are bound to change over time as the brand responds to both internal and external changes. But what's most important is that Alice + Whittles stays true to its core values and mission to create positive change.
Ethical fashion has gained a lot of awareness in recent years, have you noticed this affecting your work?
Sofi: It is amazing to see how much more engaged people are in this topic now compared to when we started! This has been an amazing progression that has given us the momentum to charge ahead.
Nick: It's very encouraging to see the community growing around ethical fashion, as well as the appreciation and pride in owning something ethically made. That said, we still have a long way to go. We firmly believe that all fashion should be ethical; consumers shouldn't have to seek out or choose ethical fashion. Brands and retailers have to take responsibility for the products they make and the impact their work is having on the world.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Sofi: There is no such thing as a typical day. That is why I love this.
Nick: The only typical thing about our days are how different each one is to the next. Some days are packed with meetings, involving ridiculously early starts to make sure we're in the right time zone for a meeting with our partners in Sri Lanka. Others are spend glued in front of a computer (which we try to avoid) responding to emails and commenting on reports. Still others can be spent between overseeing a photoshoot in the morning and quality control at our warehouse in the afternoon. It's far too easy to get wrapped up in it all but we've found that through exercise, healthy eating and making time for ourselves we're able to keep a balanced lifestyle.
Describe your personal style...
Sofi: Functional simplicity.
Nick: Minimalist design, simple patterns and clean lines. I own few items: 4 pairs of trousers / jeans. 4 sweaters. 2 pairs of shoes.
What's been the most rewarding aspect of running Alice + Whittles?
Sofi: Truly building something from the ground up alongside people who also have a vision of the positive impacts that can be made when we think out of the box.
Nick: It's hard to choose just one aspect. But one interesting story revolves around our collection of natural rubber boots. When we first decided to create this collection, we spent months going to trade shows and calling countess manufacturers with a relatively simple question: do you know where the rubber used in your products comes from? We wanted to partner with people who had control and transparency over their supply chain. The only common answer we got was "you're wasting you time". Fast-forward a few years later and we're now sitting next to these very companies at trade shows, having achieved what they thought was impossible and taking their customers in the process in the name of ethical production.
Where would you like to see the brand in 5 years?
Sofi: I would love to see the brand as part of a bigger movement to revolutionize the industry of fast fashion. We will continue to introduce products that we love - beautiful in design, functional in use and ones that contributes to the communities they are made in...all the way back to the materials we harvest.
Nick: We want to continue to heighten the bar on ethical production practices. We want to close the loop on items that we've made, finding alternative uses on for discarded boots that are no longer being worn by the wearer.