Lucy & Yak is an ethical clothing brand best known for their dungarees.
Interviewed over email in Spring, 2020
In 2014, Chris and I decided to quit our jobs and travel across the world including Cambodia, Laos and China. We spent hours sewing on the beach in New Zealand, making tobacco pouches from old clothes. In 2015, we came home, bought a van we called ‘Yak’. We lived in the Yak and sold vintage clothing on Depop, which went so well we decided to search for a manufacturer to create our dream designs; dungarees! In 2017 We visited India in search of a small business to work with. We wanted to do things ethically and help a community that really needed it. Eventually, we met Ismail in Rajasthan. He was the right guy, we just knew it, we connected instantly and his values were our own. He looked after his workforce of two tailors so well, we trusted him and he became a good friend. The first 30 pairs of dungarees – ‘The Original’ (I modelled, Chris was the photographer in 45- degree Indian heat). We sent the clothes back to my mum, who uploaded them to Depop. They sold out in hours, so we made 100 more pairs and the same happened! Next, we made our website in an Internet cafe in Rishikesh. And with that… Lucy & Yak was born. We flew back to the UK to build the company, working out of my parents’ basement.
Our team in the beginning was just me, Chris, my mum and my friend Jenna. In 2018, we moved to a 10,000 sq ft warehouse and operations hub in Barnsley. Out in India, Ismail also build a new factory employing 40 staff. The factory is clean, bright with solar panels installed on the roof. We are not completely off-grid but certainly a large percentage of our products are made using renewable energy.
In April 2019, We opened our first store and our Design Studio in Brighton, increasing our UK staff to 50. We relocated to Brighton after falling in love with the place after a New Year visit in 2019. It’s been a fantastic way of bringing Lucy & Yak to life. It embodies what we are all about – fun, energy, community and empowerment. Our stores are about community rather than just another revenue stream. We also launched our first Made in Britain collection in 2019, designed and produced in Barnsley, South Yorkshire by our in-house team of seamstresses. 84% of the team in the UK are female, 89% of management are female and we have built up a 300K- strong following on social media.
We try to be real and honest on Instagram. We didn’t try and market the brand intentionally, we just told our story in a transparent and fun way. Being personal was important to us – putting our face to the brand – our customers feel like they’ve been on this journey with us. Our tip is to care! Having a purpose bigger than business – we are passionate about our product but as equally on how we make that happen. As a brand we can be quite vocal with our values and how we can create a system where everyone wins. We want to lead the way in how we can all make better choices for the people and the planet. We are community-driven; inclusivity and accessibility have always been key to us. We frequently share our followers’ content and want to give them a platform. We see all our customers as influencers – it doesn’t matter how many followers you have; we all have the power to influence and everyone’s voice count. We only collaborate with influencers that we love and have a genuine love for the brand. We recently launched Tik Tok – a perfect platform for having fun, getting creative and connecting with our community.
We like our models, both professional and our lovely staff models – to be cute with something else – great natural energy about them. Being accessible, relatable and representative is really important to us – we are all about being inclusive and diverse as a community, embracing body positivity and empowering all, regardless of size, gender, orientation, ethnicity. We don’t photoshop our models, again it’s not something that was intentional – it just feels right.
Sustainability is something we believe everyone should be trying to do but it wasn’t an initial focus. Ethics has always been important to the brand from the very beginning – our intention was to create quality long lasting clothing that doesn’t have a cost to the people making it – creating and building business does not have to happen at the expenses of someone else. In fact, business can actually have a positive impact on the world, when done right. Creating and sustaining well-paid and rewarding jobs is the single best way to benefit a community and that’s what we try to do in India and the UK. We didn’t initially focus on sustainability but quickly moved to using organic cotton as it does less harm to the environment and the people growing it. We now use organic and recycled materials for our clothes and are constantly working towards more sustainable practices.
Although no brand making new things is ever truly sustainable – we are aware of this and are continually working on making positive changes. Our partners’ factory in India is almost run solely on renewable energy, we are moving to using only sea shipments, which is the lowest impact for a form of transport. We also source ethical, organic or recycled fabrics. Currently we are looking into new cellulose fabrics such as Tencel and seacell which are renewable, biodegradable and produced in a closed loop system.
The UK can’t produce cotton so it will always have to be shipped in. Until people are only wearing fabrics produced in that country, the reality is that products will be shipped across the world. Maybe one day we’ll have our own hemp farm and fabric mill in Yorkshire!
We’re finding it hard to say exactly who our customer is from a marketing demographic point. Our customers are often looking for comfort and a way to express themselves. Once you have worn Lucy & Yaks, it’s hard to go back to normal restrictive clothes. Our fans are pioneers in that they are the first to say, “I just want to be comfortable and enjoy life”, rather than dressing to impress other people and spending their days uncomfortable.
Dungarees are our best seller, but we’ve added trousers and jeans, which are popular, as well as tees and dresses. Our artist designed tees sell really well too. People seem to really enjoy the design collaboration pieces with smaller artists and we love being able to give them a platform.
We go up to a size 20 which is way bigger than some other brands and a lot of the high street, but it’s taken forever to get there. Extra size options are way harder to execute than anyone realises. It’s the complexity of adding an extra size across multiple products in multiple colours, is logistically a lot. We’ve had customers complain in the past, we don’t get it so much now. I think people sometimes need to go easy on small new brands, it’s tough trying to get things right. We offer more sizes than brands that have been around for 20 years and we’ve been going less than 3 years. The challenges faced by independent ethical fashion brands in 2020 are things like other brands greenwashing. We actually downplay what we do for fear of being accused of greenwashing. But the “sustainable/ethical” space is becoming crowded with brands big and small shouting “conscious” or “sustainable”. If you look at the label of some of these brands clothing, there is nothing sustainable about them. It’s only going to get a lot harder to be heard above all the noise.
We also think it’s important not to forget the workers because while we are all talking about the climate impact, there are still loads of issues with supply chains, even here in the UK there are serious issues with factories in Leicester paying thousands of people way below the minimum wage.
We have expanded so quickly, which hasn’t been easy. We’ve gone from one employee to 50 in just two and a half years so what normal businesses do over a year, we do in a month. It’s given us better buying power with new suppliers, who wouldn’t take you seriously for small quantities, though not many will turn down a meeting with us now. But growth is tough, you have to act super-fast, learn like lightning and have really good people around you, which fortunately we do – a really good team supporting us.
We’d like to say thank you! to our customers. Thank you for buying our clothes and thank you for sticking with us through thick and thin. Thank you for helping us build such an incredible community! In the future, we have a few plans to create a circular Lucy & Yak system to eliminate waste, hopefully we can get it off the ground in 2020.
We want to open some more shops across the UK and maybe some in other countries too. We will keep growing and adding more products for our amazing fans to buy and keep creating more well-paid jobs in the UK and India, and maybe a hemp farm and mill one day!