Peri Drysdale from Untouched World on growing an ethical brand

Peri Drysdale from Untouched World interview

Peri Drysdale, founder of Untouched World. Image supplied.

Peri Drysdale founded ethical clothing label Untouched World in 1995 with the aim of creating easy to wear pieces that were great for humans and the environment. The label was ahead of its time back then but it was clear to Peri where the future lay and Untouched World has gone from strength to strength over the years and is now stocked all over the world. The garments are made from natural and hi-tech fabrics many of which have been developed exclusively by the brand while keeping the design ethos clean and wearable.

We caught up with Peri to find out more about how her brand has evolved, developing Untouched World’s unique fabrics and how she feels about the rise of ethical fashion.

Take us back to the beginning in 1995, what was the original plan and vision for Untouched World?
By then I was travelling extensively selling our knitwear internationally. As I travelled around the world I became extremely concerned about the trajectory the planet was on. I could see environmental degradation going on from visit to visit. This is something easier to see, more compelling, if you are visiting only once a year rather than day to day. No one was taking notice. All the governments were concerned with was GDP at whatever cost. Businesses only cared about growth and the financial bottom line.

At the same time in the mid-90’s, the market was changing. Knitwear departments were becoming branded spaces and retailers were asking us for a whole wardrobe of clothes and a summer season offer. It was time to step up again. At the time we were primarily selling on our name, quality and design. We hadn’t worked on brand story enough to umbrella a summer collection for example, as back then wool wasn’t going to fly in the summer seasons and New Zealand is not exactly known for the likes of cotton or linen.

So (very) long story short we decided to create a sustainable New Zealand lifestyle brand.

I wanted a brand that would model a new way of doing business; a brand that would highlight that style and quality could be achieved without pollution to water and air, and without creating something that was destined for landfill. Back in those days the word sustainability conjured up images of people wearing hemp sacks and rope sandals.

I knew I wanted to create a brand that would give back and put its money where its mouth is. I needed a project to coalesce the stakeholders and get them thinking about what was and still is happening to our planet.

And so, Untouched World was born. The brand logo is derived from the Maori kite. Maori would prophesy the future, depending on how the kite flew in air currents. It was a link between them and their spirit world. The kite is an outcome of art, natural materials and human skill. It links the earth to the sky and man with nature.

The first non-negotiable for the brand that we laid down was that our garments and products had to be high quality and the fabrics had to be extraordinary. The designs would have an understated, less-is-more aesthetic and be clever, timeless and multi-tasking.

The 1990’s was a quite a different time. Can you set the scene for us, what were you wearing/listening to/reading in 1995?
I was living in designer suits primarily, buying much of my wardrobe while travelling in Italy, Germany and USA, along with a basic wardrobe of Keith Matheson. There was very little merino clothing as we know it now, and suits were a wrangle to keep looking smart while travelling. I would be the one ironing and pressing in the 3 star hotel foyer in the mornings. Shoulders were still quite strong but otherwise I don’t shudder too much looking back at those times. I have always been a strong devourer of autobiographies and personal development books and the long haul travel was a great way to get through these, with no entertainment in the seat back or WIFI on offer. I used to read newspapers picked up at the plane door cover to cover. I’d take copies of them all which gave me a good understanding of what was going on in the world and what was and wasn’t being talked about. In those earlier days it used to cost me $50 to send a fax home or to work from a hotel, and it was hit and miss if I could break into a phone line to send or receive emails. When we opened Untouched World I remember we had Enya playing over and over.

Peri Drysdale from Untouched World interview

Outfit by Untouched World.

How has the brand evolved since then and what stands out as highlights for you over that time?
There have been so many highlights. There was quite a bit of change in the first couple of years as we sorted out where we wanted to sit in the market, and particularly when we decided to amp up the sustainability to a higher level circa 2000. Since then it has been a gradual evolving of the brand, working with new sustainable materials that have become available while keeping a core of knitwear and Merino.

In 2001 we launched our current store format. We have been lucky to have had the brand and what we are doing recognised by political, business and fashion leaders from around the world. Many of these acknowledgements have been utterly humbling and at the same time very exciting.

How do you balance the creative and business demands of your role in your business?
It is a constant juggle. I love both parts of the business, but tend to focus on one or the other at a time as it exercises different parts of the brain.

Over your career you’ve amassed numerous awards and accolades but how do you personally define success and what does it mean to you?
Success is to move the dial in terms of the understanding of the real cost of clothes. To know that for a t-shirt to be $10, the people making it must have been poorly paid and there would have been processing shortcuts made (think of growing, harvesting and processing the cotton, making the fabric, making the garments and taking it to market). We need people to be thinking about the real cost of making garments and the cost of disposing fast fashion that ends up in landfill after only one season. On the flip side, we need to create more awareness around the real value in investing in well-designed, high quality pieces that are timeless and will last for years.

Conversely, how do you deal with failure and what have been some of the challenges of growing your brand?
I rarely think in terms of failure. You never know what good there is in something, what you will have learned for something bigger down the track. We have of course had plenty of challenges over the 37 years we have been in business and somehow these make me lean in and my energy goes up. When we started Untouched World a PR person said to me “aren’t you before your time?” My response was that I had to be before my time or there never would be a time. Effectively I was bringing something to market the world didn’t think it wanted yet, so our clothes had to stack up alongside or ahead of their non-sustainable peers in every way – quality, colour, style, fit and value. Early on it was challenging finding ecological materials apart from Merino that met our core values of quality, easy care, easy wear. It is much easier now.

Untouched World has been a responsible fashion label with ethical values since the beginning. What first made you aware of the ethical concerns in the fashion industry?
Way back in the 90’s, I was exporting to high end department stores and boutiques around the world; throughout Europe, Canada, North America and Asia. Back then we only did knitwear and I had to sell in the Northern winter for the following winter delivery. I was travelling to most places once or twice a year and when you are only visiting like this, you notice change more than you do if you live there all the time. I was struck by the environmental degradation I saw in these places, increasing from visit to visit. Governments were concerned almost only with GDP as a measure of success and health, and back here in NZ it was much the same. Business was measuring only financial bottom line. I became aware of the issues our industry, the fashion industry, was having on the planet. Cotton was a primary natural fibre for example, yet cotton was consuming 16% of the world’s pesticides and causing major worker health issues from working with the crops and crop dusting, along with major downstream contamination of waterways.

Peri Drysdale from Untouched World interview

Untouched World’s commitment to the environment and sustainably is at the heart of the business. 

Can you tell us about the importance of core ethics and values of your brand?
There are two things we won’t compromise on. These are quality and sustainability. Sustainability lies at the heart of what we do. It’s in our DNA. When we use the word sustainability, we’re not just talking about the environment. We’re also talking about economics and people. We want to create beautiful products people will enjoy for years to come that won’t impact negatively on the environment. Along the way we want to work with people who are paid fairly, provided with good working conditions and given every opportunity to realise their potential. We also want to encourage behaviour change that will help protect our planet, and we do this beyond the realms of the business by investing in our young people to educate them so they can lead their generation towards a more sustainable future.

What are some of the specific fabrics you use and why?
We use a lot of Merino and have done since the beginning. It really can’t be beaten for the realm of benefits it offers such as temperature regulation, odour resistance, UV resistance, supreme comfort and being easy to care for among other things. As well as using it in our knitwear we created a range of essential fine machine washable Merino basics known as Mountainsilk. These have become a staple in all our ranges.

Then there is our Merino and possum blend. Rewind back to 1992. With the potential to become our next big innovation, we knitted up some yarn the Wools of New Zealand (WONZ) brought us to see how it would knit. It was horrible. That was possum and mid-micron wool. Then they brought us some more, this time possum and Merino, and when they came back to pick up the samples I said sorry, I am not handing them over until you park a container of this yarn at our front door. A couple of days later Sir Peter Elworthy called me and suggested we work together on this new development. He had asked WONZ to do the trials. WONZ said the fibre wasn’t commercially viable as it was too short, but gave me the name of a clever textile technologist in Japan. Needless to say after many painstaking trials, we eventually we hit upon the right recipe. Ecopossum™ as it is now known is one of our signature blends. The combination of Merino and possum fibre creates super lightweight yet cosy knitwear, with an incredibly luxurious handle and exceptional performance characteristics. It also provides a solution to a major ecological threat, with possums wreaking havoc on our forests and birdlife.

In summer we opt for fabrics like soybean. It is easy care, anti-bacterial, breathable and feels Cashmere soft against the skin. It utilises the hull of the soybean that would otherwise be wasted in the food production process.

What do you think we should all be doing as individuals to consume fashion more responsibly?
The fashion industry is the second dirtiest on the planet. We need to think about what we are buying and steer away from fad items that will be in one season and in landfill the next, instead favouring timeless, high quality pieces that will still look good season after season.

You were recently inducted into the Company of Women Hall of Fame for your work with Untouched World and the Untouched World Charitable Trust, can you tell us more about the trust?
We set out to use fashion as a vehicle for change. We wanted to prove you don’t have to give up luxury and great design to be good to the planet, but I wanted to go further than that, and really engage the community at a grassroots level.

After two years of research into how we could best channel profits from the company back into the community in a way that would have both short and long-term benefits, it was decided we could make the most difference by working with young people, educating them on sustainability issues and developing their leadership skills. In 2000 we set up the Untouched World Foundation. The Foundation delivers ground-breaking ‘Leadership for a Sustainable Future’ programmes for young adults. We have been receiving international recognition for these programmes and for leading the way in sustainable business development.

UNESCO for example name us on their international website as one of three global exemplars in ESD (Education for Sustainable Development). They invited us to be founding members of the Global Action Programme (GAP) which involves meetings in Paris and Ottawa to contribute to the development of this programme. We have now been asked to grow these Untouched World leadership programmes beyond New Zealand and are working with the Mahatma Gandhi Institute in India to do this.

Peri Drysdale from Untouched World interview

Peri Drysdale with Mavis Mullins MNZM (centre) and Dame Pieter Stewart at the Co. of Women Hall of Fame awards.

How do you go about choosing suppliers?
We have always manufactured our own knitwear and it is core to our ranges, so the bulk of our production is done under our own roof, which is nice. Where we do work with outside suppliers, we have stringent and detailed purchasing policies and all products and services are run through a checklist and a full life cycle impact process to make sure they align with our values. We are looking for transparency and traceability from our suppliers. We are equally concerned about human and environmental issues, one can’t be right without the other. We are also partnering with Common Good from Christchurch on a project in India teaching women skills to get out of sexual slavery and poverty, where they are paid a living wage. The women have a development programme and there is education for the children. These women make beautiful organic cotton tees under our UW Project U label. This is a not-for-profit component of Untouched World.

There has been an increasing awareness from consumers and the industry about the issues around creating fashion ethically and sustainably. What factors do you take into account when you personally shop from other brands?
I look at labels and read websites thoroughly. I don’t buy from brands who are silent on where their garments are made and/or silent on their policies and practices regarding who makes their garments. I am looking at the materials used and mentally running them across our own matrices for impact on the environment to grow the core fibres, recyclability, upcycling, cleaning impact on the environment etc. However in reality I don’t buy a lot of other clothes beyond the Untouched World brand.

How would you describe your personal style and how does it influence your brand?
I am a less-is-more person. I get inspired by art and original design, interesting architecture in silhouettes. I am not into print, it is all about the cut for me. I am incredibly busy and need clothes to look good getting off a long haul flight and versatile clothes that can dress up or down easily to take me from a boardroom to the high country to meet with a Merino farmer, or from a meeting in one city, catching a plane to another and then straight on out to another meeting or dinner. Fabrics have to be exceptional, easy care and versatile.

Out of the many collections that Untouched World has created, which pieces stick in your mind as favourites and are still in your wardrobe?
I keep hauling out pieces we made in times past and being asked if we remake them in our new collections. I have a long merino jersey snap fastened coat cardi I wore day and night all around the world. It rolls up into carry-on luggage quite happily, looks sophisticated, yet is comfortable and it gets compliments on every outing. It has been dressed up with gorgeous jewellery from Partridges to an Oscar’s party in Beverly Hills and then worn casually around the city the next day over Merino pants and tops. I also have a simple turtle neck in Mountainsilk (our machine wash Merino) that I first wore in 1996 on a four week trip. I flew in it, worked in it, went out in it… and at least at one point slept in it. It is still in the wardrobe and still looks as good as a later one I bought when I needed a backup for when that one was in the wash. It is still the same colour, size, has no pilling. The only way I can tell that one from the newer one is the by label in the back, as it changed since the first one was made.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve received that you keep referring back to?
I was lucky to have Shozo Honda as an advisor, then president of Prada Japan, and said by many to be responsible for Prada’s rise from a ‘me-too’ fake brand, to number one in the world. He said keep the brand still, always keep to your taste and you will be successful.

Peri Drysdale from Untouched World interview

Actress and director Julie Delpy and Peri Drysdale at the 5th Annual Celebration of New Zealand Filmmaking and Creative Talent in Beverly Hills.

How far ahead do you plan and what makes you excited about the future?
I look well out into the future, but we plan in detail 4 years out. We know that we don’t know what things will really look like beyond 5 years. We work way ahead on developing new fabrics, yarns and materials. For example we worked for nearly four years on bringing possum fibre to market as high quality garments, having to overcome a number of variables that come with dealing with natural fibres along the way.

What makes me excited about the future?
Well, I love art and design, the whole creative process and get a real buzz from seeing new ranges and products come together. We will see very creative planet friendly solutions to issues around macro and micro plastic contamination in our oceans for example coming forward increasingly and this definitely excites me.

Images supplied.

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