“I remember a few months after launch, we were on holiday in Bali. Someone saw my daughter wearing a Little Islanders dress and said "that's the best dress I've seen in a long time!" recalls Hong Kong-based Gwen Vetuz, a lawyer and founder of childrenswear brand Little Islanders...
It’s this kind of feedback that keeps entrepreneurs going. It’s what keeps them motivated. Feedback like this, and in the case of Vetuz, passion to make sustainable clothes. “My current workshop is a social enterprise run by a charity, which supports community work in economically disadvantaged areas of Hong Kong,” she says. “The second organization I work with is an amazing foundation committed to sustainability, preserving weaving traditions and training and empowering women. They incorporate sustainable practices into their processes, from plant extraction to the final output of the textile. There is low waste in every aspect of the process, from the tools made from locally sourced materials to natural washing and dyeing processes. No chemicals are used.”
The current range for both boys and girls aged two to eight features heavenly fabrics made from 100% organic Philippine cotton, which has been naturally dyed (the ikat fabric is our favourite).
We spoke to Vetuz about the highs and lows of starting a business in Hong Kong, the process behind her pieces and a quick guide to Hong Kong with kids.
Go to www.little-islanders.com
You’re based in Hong Kong- talk to us about the start-up/entrepreneurial culture in HK?
Hong Kong is a great place for startups. It is a vibrant city teeming with ideas and opportunity and has correspondingly developed a supportive ecosystem for entrepreneurs. Having said that, it is easy to set up a business here but the challenge is sustaining it and keeping it viable.
What have been the biggest challenges starting and running your own childrenswear label?
Marketing and IT! I was so focused on developing the products that I had not given sufficient thought to what I needed to do to get the word out about the brand/ label. Also, I am a bit of a Luddite and am slightly technologically challenged, so dealing with the technical aspects of setting up and managing an online shop was a struggle. I have since learnt to delegate.
And what have been some of the highlights?
People appreciating our clothes and the meaning behind Little Islanders. I remember a few months after launch, we were on holiday in Bali. Someone saw my daughter wearing a Little Islanders dress and said: “that’s the best dress I’ve seen in a long time!”. I had a smile on my face for days afterwards. At a pop-up shop last year, there were a few ladies who were excited about our brand because “you can find kids’ clothes everywhere but to find ones made with intention, that makes it so much more meaningful”. It felt great to be understood! The best thing, though, is hearing that the kids love the clothes or that a Little Islanders piece is their favourite dress such that they rummage in the (clean) laundry basket to find it to wear again, before mum has time to iron it or that they love it so much that aunty had to buy the same dress in a size up when they grew out of it.
In a practical sense, where did you begin?
I began, literally, from the very beginning. Everything had to be thought through and done completely from scratch as I had no prior experience working with fashion in any form whatsoever. The idea for Little Islanders grew from a desire to work with hand-loomed cloth from the Philippines, so that aspect of the label was sorted out very early on. Finding a manufacturer, however, took me 18 months of searching before serendipity (thanks Google) brought my current sewing workshop to my attention. I wanted to find a sewing workshop with a social enterprise element to it and intended to produce in small quantities only. It was really challenging trying to find somewhere that fitted what I had in mind. Then one day, after months of searching, I chanced upon the website of my current workshop and the rest, as they say, is history. My current workshop is a social enterprise run by a charity which supports community work in economically disadvantaged areas of Hong Kong. The workshop itself is managed by a community of tailors with years of garment making experience, and who are committed to local craftsmanship – including working with and mentoring young local fashion students.
Tell us about your work with artisans in the Philippines?
I work with two organizations who work directly with weaving communities in various parts of the Philippines.
The first is a social enterprise with a mission to keep Philippine weaving traditions alive and to provide sustainable livelihoods for the weaving communities they work with. Hand-loom weaving is a heritage craft which is taught by the older generation to the younger, and the knowledge is preserved that way. Over the last few decades, these skills were at risk of being lost as the younger people started going to the cities to find work instead of learning how to weave as that was more economically viable. This social enterprise runs community development programmes in a few weaving communities across the Philippines to encourage younger people to continue the craft and to equip women with skills which enable them to work and become financially independent whilst looking after their young children.
The second organization I work with is an amazing foundation committed to sustainability, preserving weaving traditions and training and empowering women. They incorporate sustainable practices into their processes, from plant extraction to the final output of the textile. There is low waste in every aspect of the process, from the tools made from locally sourced materials to natural washing and dyeing processes. No chemicals are used. The foundation runs a main weaving and training centre in Palawan, and manage several other community weaving centres on the island, providing training and support for the community-led weaving centres to grow organically. In some of the communities, the weaving centres also serve as daycare for their young children. The main aim of the foundation is to provide alternative livelihood for women by training them in traditional weaving techniques and assisting with establishing a sustainable income.
As the demand for Philippine hand-loomed cloth grows (both domestically and internationally), it is important that I know exactly where the fabric I use is sourced and basically who made our fabric. I have heard stories of unscrupulous middlemen trying to take advantage of weavers, buying their hard work at ridiculously low cost and selling them for a handsome profit. Working with these two social enterprises and being able to visit the weaving communities and weaving centres with them ensures that the fabric I use is always ethically sourced.
What advice would you give to other women looking to launch their own fashion line?
Do your research, have clarity of vision, plan properly and prepare to persevere! It’s hard work but it is super satisfying when people appreciate your work.
Can you tell us about your background - what did you do before you started Little Islanders?
I was a lawyer before starting Little Islanders… and still am one! Little Islanders began as a labour of love after my elder daughter was born, and I am not yet in a position to give up the day job but who knows what the future holds. I would love to be able to work on Little Islanders fulltime.
What are your time management tips?
Be very very organized, but maintain the mental flexibility to change plans to deal with what needs dealing with first. Make to-do lists!
You do not produce seasonal collections and instead focus on presenting timeless and versatile sustainable options for those in search of unique, good quality clothing for their loved little ones - where did your passion for sustainability come from?
There is so much waste in the world that I wanted to do better. I wanted to make stylish good quality clothes that I would dress my children in, without following any fashion trends. Little Islanders was always meant to be slow fashion, and as we all know, children grow so fast! It takes about 1-2 months to weave the fabric we use, and the fabric is so strong and durable that it can last for a very long time, so it seemed a shame to only be able to use the clothes for a short period of time. I try to come up with thoughtful designs so that the clothes can be creatively styled for all seasons and layered, for maximum use and enjoyment. And then passed on to other kids to be loved and used some more.
What worries you most about the fashion industry and the impact it’s having on the environment?
The plastic and pollution that follows from it, slowly poisoning the earth. I think we all have a duty to spread the message about the need and importance of making good choices to limit waste and to buy less, buy better, and to practice what we preach.
Tell about some of your favourite pieces from the current range?
I love them all! My favourite style has to be the Riviera dress in Sunshine ikat and Fuchsia. The style and colours are just so happy and summery. Also the Resort shirt in Rainbow ikat. I love all the fabric in the current range so much, as it is so soft and luxe – made from 100% organic Philippine cotton, naturally dyed.
Where are your favourite places to go in HK with children?
Repulse Bay is fantastic, with the beach, playgrounds and the family-friendly beachside restaurants. Our favourite restaurant there is Limewood, which is where we did part of the photoshoot for our City | Beach collection. The kids can safely run around there to their hearts’ content and you almost feel like you are outside of Hong Kong. It’s a totally relaxed side to the city. We also enjoy going to Cheung Chau, one of the outlying islands, for the beach, street snacks and a pleasant wander around.