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Asia is the unchallenged center of the worldwide textile production. Unfortunately, countries like Bangladesh, India, Cambodia and China pay a high price for this leading position, because the exploitative and strongly polluting fashion industry has severe negative impacts on the people and the environment there. Whilst the demand for eco-fair fashion is slowly but continuously growing in Europe and North America, we wanted to find out more about a sustainable fashion label from Asia that is trying to change the fashion game right there.
greenlooksgreat (glg) talked to Danielle Champagne (DC) from Zhai Singapore, the country’s first eco-friendly and vegan fashion label about her business with a mission. Danielle, Creative and Managing Director of Zhai, leads the company and a motivated team together with her husband.
(glg) Why did you choose to build up an eco-friendly and vegan fashion label?
(DC) I actually did not start the business, but took over in 2013. My background in Arts and Design made a come-back after many years of teaching in primary schools in many countries. What triggered this all is my personal skin issues. I lived in a few countries where the climate was harsh and my skin suffered enough for me to start researching into natural fabrics. Once I discovered the benefits of natural fibers and the effects on my skin, I became addicted. And as an animal lover with two dogs and a cat at home, being vegan is just a way of life for me and I could not even think of offering any animal products in my business.
What was your biggest challenge and your happiest moment on your way to establishing Zhai?
The main challenge is to get to be known without spending a fortune on publicity. The cost of running a retail business in Singapore is extremely high so the sales must be high enough. However, being very niche, our clientele is somewhat limited at the moment as the choice of “cheaper” clothes is quite huge. Our price range is on average slightly higher than a mass-produced fast fashion brand. However, the quality, durability and sustainability cannot be compared with these big brands. Happiest moments are when customers feel the incredible softness of our bamboo clothing and I see this huge smile on their face. Addiction!
How would you describe the style of Zhai and where do you get your inspirations for the collections?
Our style is classic with a twist. We do include trends but avoid the short-lived trendy colors as we know these will be out of fashion in a few months. We are a team with our eyes constantly opened wherever we go. Most of my staff will send me a picture of an outfit they saw somewhere and we start from there to develop a style that is not the same, but is inspired by. I come from a very small village deep in Canada and nature has always been part of me. I go every summer and usually come back to Singapore quite inspired.
Where do you source the materials for your collections? And how do you ensure that they are fully eco-friendly?
Bamboo, linen, Tencel etc…whatever natural fibre I can find, I give it a try. I source them in Indonesia, Malaysia, China…wherever they are developed, as long as the distance is not too great from Singapore to minimize my carbon footprint. I do as much research as possible by correspondence and try to get in touch with some of their previous clients. In the past I have avoided suppliers as their reputation was not so in line with their affirmations. I found some fabric suppliers through references and word-of-mouth which is often the most reliable way. Eco-fashion shakers is a small world and I rely on this network to help source the best suppliers. Our main bamboo supplier is located in China as they hold the patent to transform the grass into fabric. They have their own bamboo forests which is FSC certified, use a closed-loop system and all their fabric is Oeko-Tex certified. I export to Japan and a third-party lab confirmed again the fabric content. Some suppliers visit me in Singapore and I always request for fabric content certificates. But sometimes, even these are not available as I like to work with very small family-owned fabric manufacturers like the ones in India and they simply cannot spend money on certification.
Are Zhai clothes produced under fair conditions?
Yes, I choose my suppliers carefully, do loads of research, get other clients’ opinion, call them directly etc. I do not have a certificate and this would be another topic entirely, but all the staff working on our collections are treated fairly. I would not have it otherwise.
Shopping is one of the top leisure activities in Singapore. How big is conscious consumerism in Singapore and how do you contribute in raising awareness for sustainable fashion?
Oh yes, shopping is big, however clearly declining in it’s traditional boutique way unfortunately. The number of conscious shoppers is growing, but is still very marginal, which is part of the difficulties to maintain a sustainable business. More and more people are intrigued and interested, but not everyone is willing to pay the little extra to cover the fair trade conditions and higher qualities of the garments. We do a lot of education in our boutiques and once the customers are informed, they usually admit it’s an eye opener. But reaching the mass with our information is quite challenging.
Are you still the only eco-friendly fashion label in Singapore?
We are the only company with brick and mortar and an online shop focusing exclusively on natural and vegan fibres, yes. Other brands are popping up, which is great! We all support each other! Nowadays, many brands are making a clear choice to become more sustainable and even large fashion houses are offering some conscious collections. These big players have the resources to advertise heavily which is fabulous to increase awareness.
What are your plans for the brand and your future collections?
We just reopened one of our boutiques as Singapore’s first multi-label sustainable fashion and lifestyle boutique. We carry 12 other vendors of all kind of eco products besides our two clothing lines Zhai and Santorini. This concept is very well received and we are considering expanding the concept.
Thank you, Danielle.
The Zhai and Santorini collections are available in retail stores in Singapore and Malaysia. Orders at the Zhai online shop are delivered worldwide. If you want to see one of the beautiful Zhai pieces in action, then check out Mary’s Fair Fashion Outfit „Singapore“.
Email interview: Questions by Mary Schmidt
Pictures: © Zhai Singapore