Alicia Tsi founder and designer of Esse. Image supplied.
Alicia Tsi founded contemporary womenswear label Esse in 2017 with an ethos of sustainablity and strong ethics. A long time fashion fan, Alicia had become frustrated with buying clothes that fell apart after a few washes and realised that she wanted to be part of creating fashion that was made to last and had purpose. Alicia quit her full time job and set about researching supply chains and how clothing is created, her discoveries led her to creating Esse which offers conscious clothing that is beautiful and sustainable.
She chose the name Esse which means ‘existence’ or ‘to be’ in Latin as it is a word that invites us to look inwards, to be aware and discerning. Alicia focuses on creating timeless designs that are considered and seasonless with Esse utilising only natural fibres for it’s garments. She sees Esse as a way to ‘redefine the way consumer’s approach fashion and interact with their garments by inspiring them to consider their garment’s purpose and lifecycle’. The brand’s merger of timeless design with a business model which focuses on reducing waste, promoting transparency and encouraging longevity gives customers is the perfect way to do that.
We caught up with Alicia to find out more about her brand, what inspires her and why sustainability is important to her?
Tell us about your label Esse and how you went about creating it?
Esse is a conscious womenswear label that merges timeless designs with social responsibility and environmental awareness. The sustainability route was not something I gravitated towards initially – it came about through a culmination of experiences. I used to be quite the fashion victim and chased trends mindlessly. Over time, I became quite dismayed at the quality of fast fashion brands. I felt like I was devoting too much space in my wardrobe to purchases that left me feeling empty and I wanted to develop more of a relationship with the things I was wearing.
This led me to research and dig deeper – I learnt that the fashion industry had a negative impact on the environment and wanted to shop more consciously. As there weren’t many conscious fashion brands in the market back then, I was inspired to create a fashion label that approached the fashion supply chain in a more sustainable and ethical way.
Prior to the launch of Esse, I spent months sourcing for fabric suppliers and makers around Asia, and visiting factories. After meeting with a couple of fabric suppliers and testing the fabrics for composition and quality, I managed to find a few fabric suppliers that we could work with. I also met with a number of producers to ensure that their team of seamstresses were paid a fair wage, had safe working conditions and reasonable working hours. We finally found two studios based in Ho Chi Minh City and Chiang Mai that produced in small batches and met our standards.
We launched Esse in August 2017 with a small capsule comprising of just three pieces.
Why is sustainability important to you as a person and for your brand? What does sustainability mean to you?
I’m an advocate for environmental conservation and a deep lover of nature, so I was very affected to learn that the fashion industry, an industry that I have been a part of, and that I love very much, has such a negative impact on the environment. I truly believe that there is a way to merge the needs of the environment, economy and society that isn’t at the expense of the environment or societies in developing countries.
This means a systemic change within the fashion industry with the aim of reducing environmental and resource consumption to a sustainable level. That is why we approach sustainability from a more holistic angle at Esse – we focus on reducing our footprint on the environment, respecting the makers we work with and being transparent about our processes.
Esse is very much an extension of myself, and my personal journey with fashion. My vision is to redefine the way people interact with their garments and consider their garment’s lifecycle, and I want to deliver products that inspire a new approach to shopping and that will bring about a positive change in the fashion industry.
Clothing from Esse’s current collection.
What do you think are some of the misconceptions about sustainable and ethical fashion and how do you address them?
One of the most common misconceptions is that sustainable and ethical fashion is expensive. That is why we have deliberately kept prices accessible, so we can introduce consciously stylish pieces to as many customers as possible. Understandably, the cost price of our fabrics are substantially higher than most fast fashion labels since they are produced in a more sustainable way. This means we have smaller profit margins, but has also encouraged us to approach this challenge creatively – for example choosing to operate mainly as an online business, so we can reduce overheads.
Also, choosing sustainable and ethical options may seem more expensive at first glance but I usually encourage our customers to calculate cost-per-wear. Cost-per-wear for sustainable and ethical options may ultimately be the same or even lesser than fast fashion options, because the garments last longer and you can get more wears out of them.
What are some of the materials you use?
We use only natural fibres which are produced in a sustainable way and sourced from around Asia in order to minimise our carbon footprint. Some of these fabrics include certified Lenzing TENCEL™, Global Organic Textile Standard Cotton, Linen, and Rescued Fabrics.
Lenzing TENCEL™ is produced in a closed loop manufacturing process meaning that over 99% of water and non-toxic solvent used in the manufacturing process is recovered and recycled. These certified bio-based fibers are made from sustainably sourced wood, and are certified as compostable and biodegradable, and can fully revert back to nature. Lenzing TENCEL™ is also a really soft, absorbent and breathable fabric.
We only work with organic cotton as the cotton is grown using methods that have a low impact on the environment and production systems that replenish and maintain soil fertility. This also means that toxic and persistent pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are not used in the process of growing the cotton.
Another category of fabrics that we use are rescued fabrics which are leftover or deadstock fabrics that may have been initially deemed for the landfill.
What made you become a designer?
I’ve dreamt of starting my own fashion label ever since I was a child. I used to sketch my designs on little fashion figures and cut up scrap cloth to make clothes for my dolls. I took up dressmaking classes from a local seamstress for a number of years and fell in love with the mastery that goes into creating a piece of garment. This led me to pursue a career in the fashion industry at a luxury fashion retailer before starting my own label.
What inspires you?
Many things! I like to look at classic designs that can be improved or tweaked to cater to the modern woman.
Nature is my biggest source of inspiration for the colour palettes that I work with. I often put together colour palettes based on what I see when I’m out on a hike or at the beach.
Being able to interact with all the seamstresses every time I visit and watch how they work is a lovely human story. Even though we don’t speak the same language, I feel like I am a part of the team. Connecting with the seamstresses who make the garments definitely reinforces the need for us to help people value craftsmanship and the hands behind each piece of clothing.
Clothing from Esse’s current collection.
Describe your personal style and how it influences your designs?
I favour classic styles and simple, relaxed silhouettes as I’m a big proponent of dressing for comfort and functionality. That has influenced the way I design – I like to look at classics and add details or update them to cater to the multi-faceted lifestyles of women today. Our customers are a big part of our design process too – we gather and listen to their feedback and then make incremental improvements to our designs.
How do you personally define success and what does it mean to you?
I feel a sense of satisfaction when I see the pieces on my customers, and watch them develop a relationship with each garment over time. Knowing that Esse is part of a bigger movement that’s redefining the industry and being able to make a positive impact within the fashion industry is what drives me the most.
What are your tips for people who want to make their wardrobes more sustainable?
When shopping, the easiest way to start is to be curious and start asking where your garments are made. Knowledge is power – that alone can spark a conversation and help you have a better understanding of the story behind each garment.
The other way is to invest in well-made pieces – by buying with greater awareness and intention. Ask thoughtful questions like why you are buying the product, how you can incorporate the garment in your wardrobe and what value it brings to your life? All these questions help evaluate your purchases in a more holistic manner.
What makes you excited about the future?
While there are many negative implications of COVID-19 and the crisis that we are in, it also seems like we are ‘entering a quarantine of consumption’ as trend forecaster Li Edelkoort puts it. I am hopeful that this will encourage people to slow down, recalibrate their lives and re-think current systems, for the better good of the environment and humanity. I hope we’ll emerge more mindful in the way we live and consume.