I’ve set an alarm for 7.30pm and I have my laptop open and ready. Nope, I’m not trying to bag a Glastonbury ticket but a silk blouse from Maison Cléo. Loved by the likes of Leandra Medine and Emily Ratajkowski, the French brand releases new designs each Wednesday and there’s always a buzz around the latest limited-edition drop. Once you’ve placed your order, it’s handmade in the brand's Lille studio and on its way to you within two weeks.
Founders Marie Dewet, a VIP manager at Vestiaire Collective (her Instagram is a treasure trove of inspiration), and her seamstress mother are passionate about handcrafted clothes and cutting back on unnecessary waste. Fortunately, in a fashion industry that creates 92 million tonnes of waste each year – that's 4% of the world’s total – they aren't alone. Once reserved for special occasions (think wedding dress) or customers with unlimited budgets (think couture), a crop of more affordable labels are now implementing pre-ordering systems to avoid deadstock and encourage a slower way of shopping.
The problem with the current fashion model is that waste is an accepted byproduct. Buyers predict sales across every style, size and colourway before placing an order with the factory (bigger orders equal better discounts) and when items don’t sell, there is very little they can do with them. The cheapest option? Burning said stock. Although it happens across the industry, prestige brands who are reluctant to offer discounts as it devalues their image are even more likely to get rid of pieces in this way.
Brands like Maison Cléo, however, only order stock that customers have already bought and paid for. HADES, the Scottish knitwear brand which counts Zawe Ashton, Lucy Boynton and Alexa Chung as fans, has begun to introduce a pre-order model on an increasing percentage of its cult slogan jumpers. Customers choose their knit, pay upfront in full and the order is sent to the factory with a delivery date of around two months. "It's hard to predict demand for particular sizes or colourways so this removes any potential wastage if we forecast these incorrectly," founder Cassie Holland told me.
Supporting local craftsmanship and reducing air miles are bonus points when it comes to sustainability and operating in this way means HADES can continue working with its Scottish manufacturer. "The cost of creating our knits is higher than those who source their products overseas, which leaves a smaller margin of error for predicting stock levels. By offering a mix of pre-order and normal sales we reduce this risk and can continue working with our Scottish manufacturer," said Holland.
It’s a similar story for Birdsong, a London-based sustainable clothing company known for its elevated basics and cool artist collaborations. The brand recently shared via Instagram that it would be shifting entirely to a pre-order system. Are they finding that customers, used to next-day delivery, are frustrated by the wait? Quite the opposite: as the conversation about sustainability evolves, people are enjoying the delayed gratification. "The idea that it's being made by someone they'll be able to name, and the anticipation of it arriving, adds value rather than taking away from it," cofounder Sophie Slater explained. Holland agrees: "We've had people email to say it's a really lovely surprise to receive the knit at a later date when they've almost forgotten about the order."
Beyond this, pre-order brands are by default much more accessible. "We can offer a bigger ranges of sizes with this model," Slater noted. Similarly, at Maison Cléo you can play a part in creating your own design. "[Customers] can give us their measurements or a request for a specific fabric to make a tailor-made piece," Dewet noted. Sound eco-credentials and a totally unique piece? It's a double win.
This kind of shopping demands patience but it can create a powerful shift in attitude. "Waiting for a piece of clothing to be produced to order changes our relationship with our clothes," says Fiona Cartmel from sustainability consultancy Eco-Age. "It slows down fashion and removes the idea that we can get everything we want instantly." It’s the antidote to fast fashion culture – the ability to shop looks direct from Instagram and order an outfit on your lunch break for the evening ahead without considering the ramifications further down the chain. It also connects consumers to traditional craft, which is exciting in itself. Plus, in a world of viral Zara dresses and turning up to dinner in matching & Other Stories blouses, pre-ordered products carry exclusivity and clout.
It isn’t all plain sailing, of course, and returns are an issue. Policies vary between brands but the majority are happy to accept unsuitable items in the hope that another customer places a matching order; inevitably, though, they will still end up with some waste. On the upside, the return rate of pre-ordered items is naturally much lower than it is for off-the-rack pieces. "We have one of the lowest return rates in the industry currently," Slater said. Unlike blindly ordering 10 items from an online retailer knowing you can send nine of them back, shopping from a sustainable brand encourages a different mindset, in turn reducing carbon emissions from delivery vans zipping across the country. If you're prepared to wait, you'll ultimately receive something you definitely want, which will definitely work in your wardrobe. "We're hoping it'll inspire deliberation in our customers' buying habits that are in line with our ethos," said Slater.
Changing your shopping mindset is not easy. "Some people will always want to receive their order immediately," Holland pointed out. However, she remains positive. "I think people are genuinely trying to adapt their buying behaviour to support brands that make their products with manufacturers who respect their workers' rights and respect environmental laws." Then there's the undeniable thrill of purchasing a piece that only a handful of people have and it turning up weeks later, like a present on Christmas Day. Perhaps this slow journey will make us fall in love with our clothes all over again.