Once you know them, you’ll spot them everywhere: on trains, at events, on Instagram. There’s a logo but the brightly coloured dungarees are identifiable from much further away than you need to be to make it out. It’s Lucy & Yak, of course. Bold, unisex and ultra comfy, the brand has a cult of highly engaged fans who congregate on Instagram and join Facebook groups to buy and sell old pairs, and swap sizing and styling tips. Its range has expanded to include trousers, boilersuits, dresses, leggings, T-shirts and recycled fleeces, as well as a newly launched Made In Britain line.
In 2020, sustainability is the biggest challenge facing the fashion industry. We’re increasingly aware of the damage done by fast fashion yet find it hard to stop shopping. Instead of purchasing guiltily, fashion lovers are turning to brands like Lucy & Yak. Rebecca Frost, who blogs about sustainable fashion and interviewed the brand when it started out, says: "I discovered them a few years ago when I decided to stop shopping at places like Zara and choose sustainable options instead. I bought their Originals dungarees in navy and a Mini Pinny dress in olive – they’re so comfy. When people ask for recommendations of affordable [dungarees start at £40] ethical brands, I always point them to Lucy & Yak."
As more brands add the 'sustainable' tagline to their ranges, Rebecca has a checklist for deciding whether to buy: "Does it pay its workers a living wage, are workers treated with dignity or made to work long hours in hazardous conditions? Brands must be transparent about their supply chain." On environmental sustainability, she says: "All clothing production can pollute, but choosing organic fabrics means their impact is lower. Aside from production, good quality, durable garments are more likely to be loved and not end up in landfill. How we treat and consume our clothes is just as important."
Lucy & Yak’s founders, Chris Renwick and Lucy Greenwood ('Yak' comes from the name of their old VW camper van) explain: "We’re reducing our already low environmental impact by working with organic and recycled materials in over 95% of our range. We are GOTS certified in most of our factories, living wage certified across the business." They add: "Our main factory in India is solar-powered. We use as little plastic as possible, packing multiple garments in each pack. Orders are sent in biodegradable mailing bags and recycled Indian sari bags, which can be reused." In short, they aim to put back more than they take out.
The couple quit their jobs five years ago to travel the world, selling vintage finds on Depop before hitting on the idea for dungarees. In 2017, they began having small quantities handmade in India, which sold out instantly. They moved back to Yorkshire and made Indian factory owner, Ishmail, a business partner. Since then, the company has grown phenomenally, moving from Lucy’s parents’ basement to a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Barnsley, then a 40,000-square-foot warehouse. The UK team has grown from three to 50 and in India, its new factory employs 70 staff who are paid three to four times the state’s average wage. "Growing so quickly hasn’t been easy, there’ve been ups and downs," say Lucy and Chris. "What normal businesses go through annually, we do in a month. It gives us power with suppliers but growth is tough, you have to act super fast, learn like lightning and have a really good team, which fortunately we do."
To mitigate the effects of global shipping, the brand is moving to sea shipments – the lowest impact form of transport. It also uses carbon offsetting to plant trees and is looking into renewable, biodegradable fabrics such as Tencel and SeaCell. As the pair point out: "The UK can’t produce cotton so until people only wear fabrics produced in that country, products will be shipped across the world. Maybe one day we’ll have a hemp farm and fabric mill in Yorkshire!" Both are jokey, self-deprecating northerners; Lucy from South Yorkshire and Chris from Cumbria. Lucy laughs infectiously while Chris is deadpan. They agree that funding 90 Indian girls to go to school for a year was their highlight of 2019 – that "and the Christmas party," says Lucy. When asked what his goal is for 2020, Chris says he hopes to "wear more shorts".
In 2019 they fell in love with Brighton, moved Lucy & Yak HQ to the seaside and opened their first shop. "It’s about community rather than just revenue. We employ seven people, all on the living wage, and run monthly events." The duo credit their 200k Instagram following to "being real and honest! We told our story in a transparent, fun way. And personal – putting our face to the brand so customers feel like they’re on this journey with us. We’re vocal about values and how we can create a system where everyone wins." They share followers’ content, saying: "All our customers are influencers – it doesn’t matter how many followers you have."
Lucy & Yak designs make their loyal customers feel 'seen' like no one else. "Anyone else have days where they lose confidence in their style [and wearing] colourful clothes?" writes one fan on a 10k-strong Facebook forum dedicated to the brand. "Most of my friends wear jeans and a cream jumper." Numerous supportive comments beneath the post encourage her to dress for herself and that she looks great. Each new line or collab sells out rapidly, prompting customers to beg for another drop. According to Lucy and Chris: "Our customers are looking for comfort and a way of expressing themselves. Once you’ve worn Lucy & Yaks, it’s hard to go back to restrictive clothes."
The dungarees are unisex and sizes now go from XXS (UK 4) up to XXL (22) in various lengths. "We are community-driven," say Lucy and Chris. "Inclusivity and accessibility have always been key to us, creating a welcoming space for everyone, celebrating individual expression."
What does the future hold for the brand? "The launch of Made in Britain in February, which will hopefully create more seamstress jobs in South Yorkshire. A pop-up tour of the UK soon, which will be amazing! We have a few plans to create a circular system to eliminate waste." And then: "More shops in the UK and abroad. More products for our amazing fans to buy and keep creating more well paid jobs in the UK and India."