Tell me a little bit about yourself and what Mane Project is all about?
I’m Lizzie and I’m the founder and director of Mane Project. Mane Project is an acronym for ‘made at no expense’, and that’s our goal basically; to make sure that our product doesn’t have an expense on our environment, the people that make it, or basically, anyone that’s involved in it. This means ensuring everyone is paid properly, we don’t create unnecessary waste and we figure out ways that we can use our waste. So, it’s definitely a movement, it’s a journey. There’s a lot we’ve learnt and there’s still a lot to learn as well, we just always want to keep our posture to learning I suppose. Fundamentally we make fashion pieces for women and we manufacture them over in India where we only work with factories that pay their staff living wages. We only use organic or recycled textiles, so that’s part of how we try to ensure our product isn’t made at any expense. That’s basically what we do in a nutshell.
Amazing! What inspired you to start Mane Project?
Well, I’ve been in the fashion industry since I was 19 and I’m 31 now, so 11 years, and I had a boutique brand that was manufactured over here in NZ. Then I started a couple of streetwear brands which were stocked in the likes of North Beach and I was manufacturing over in China. That was quite a huge move for me to move from NZ to China, but it felt like the right thing for the market that I was in. We went over to China and met a few different people from different factories and the one that I went with, I only met him in Hong Kong. Part of our agreement was that we could come and visit the factory at any time and when I left the factory and Hong Kong, I felt really good about it, really excited. It was a small family factory and I was excited to go back and visit when I could. Then, I fell pregnant with my son so I didn’t travel, and when he was 1, I decided I was ready to leave him with my husband and just went over for a few days to see the factory and finally do what I’d been wanting to do. When I contacted my factory, they were really stand-offish and wouldn’t let me come visit. I basically had a bit of a break-down, I total freaked out because suddenly there was a bunch of unknown stuff and I didn’t know what I was participating in, unwillingly, it really freaked me out. I felt really yuck that I didn’t know what was going on, and I wasn’t allowed to know what was going on.
Were you provided justification as to why you couldn't visit these factories?
Yeah, there were lots of excuses, such as renovations. I then said I could work around them when I visit, and there was lots of back and forth, and then finally he said, “our customers don’t care where their product comes from, they just care about it being made on time and delivered to them good quality”, and I was like “okay, well, I am not your customer”, because I really wanted to connect with the people that were making the product. So then, the true cost came out a wee while after this happened, it really fed my soul in a way that I realised it was so important as fashion designers to carry the impact that we have on the environment and people. Really valuing the maker was so important because when you value the maker, you value your clothes more, and you value the process, which debunks fast fashion essentially. So, I was really inspired by that and I decided everything needed to be moved. I then had a period of quiet where I didn’t really do anything because I didn’t really know what to do after this experience. After learning the true cost, I decided we were going to India, everything has to be made in India, we need certifications, we need to work with people we can trust. All of those things, not to say that you can’t do those things in China, but at the time with the research that I had, moving to India was the best way to be able to get those certifications because I think there’s some complications with that kind of stuff in China being a communist country. It was honestly such a huge process and such a huge change, but the best thing I could have done because I don’t have that stress or discomfort of not knowing what’s going on. Now I can have those relationships with that factory and communicate that with my customers and I’m just really happy with where things are at the moment.
Have you since visited these factories in India?
Well, then I had another baby! So, I haven’t been able to visit and now that we’ve had COVID that’s a whole ‘nother complication. So, we are trusting in these certifications that these factories have, and we’ve had a long-term relationship with them now and have connected with some of the staff, so it feels like a totally different vibe. I do really trust the people that we’re working with and it feels like a little ‘Mane Project community’ for me I suppose, it’s quite special.
What would you consider to be some of your key challenges?
I think one of the main challenges would be that in China, you’ve got everything readily available, anything you want under the sun, it’s there. In India it's different. You don’t go to a fabric market and purchase a whole lot of different printed prints that are perhaps really modern in their style. You would be able to find perhaps some block print fabrics that are more traditional or it’s just plain fabrics that need to be custom dyed to the colour that you want. So, it’s quite a different process that way, which I think is really amazing. It reduces so much waste because then you’ve just got a bunch of white, or unbleached fabric that’s sitting there waiting to be used and made into something that’s going to suit the customer. Then, you can get the exact amount rather than just creating all of this stuff and trying to find people to buy it, and then maybe people don’t buy it, and then what do you do with all the fabric? So, it’s a totally different ball game. I think we’ve been very lucky, we’ve totally had some ups and downs with new staff coming onboard to some of the factories and then some of the quality hasn’t been good at times, but we’ve been able to nip that in the bud and get it sorted. We do rely heavily on the third party certifications and really look forward to being able to visit the people in these factories we’ve been working with - that’s going to be amazing. All in all though, I’ve actually found it relatively simple, and there’s some really great resources out there like Common Objective (that used to be called the Ethical Fashion Forum) and it’s basically like a LinkedIn for ethical businesses. It’s amazing and you can get a subscription and that’s where I’ve sourced all of my suppliers. I would recommend that to anybody who is considering manufacturing offshore but unsure how to go about it to get involved with Common Objective and have a look at who they’ve got listed on their website.
That’s awesome, and it's great that you can validate that you are doing the right thing!
Absolutely, it’s a bit of a trade secret, but then it’s not at the same time. It’s a bit of a tricky thing with trade secrets because when you’re working in ethical fashion it’s kind of like, you want everybody to be doing it. So really, what should I be keeping secret? That’s the heart of transparency I suppose aye!
It sounds like you've had a reasonably smooth-sailing experience, do you have any regrets so far?
I don’t know how I could have done it differently with my factory in China because I was working with the information I had at the time, but you know, I would love to wind back and have the knowledge I do now and never have encountered that situation. And I don’t want to feel like I’ve ever arrived anywhere with what I know, and what I’m doing, I want the business to feel like a movement and we’re learning and we want to develop and grow and be open to what needs to change. I just never want to feel like a know it all. I think that’s what I found a little bit hard about some ethical brands or business, it feels like they’re preaching at you and I can imagine it would make people feel a bit shit about themselves if you’re not shopping ethically. And that’s not what we want to do, we want to be able to educate and then encourage and empower people to make a decision they want to make, rather than shaming them for not shopping ethically, or at Glasson’s or H&M etc. It’s more like, here’s the information, you be empowered to make the decision you want to make. You never want to come at people because there’s always room to learn. For me, and for the consumer, we’ve always got to be on this learning journey together on how to support our planet and people.
What has been your biggest success?
We’ve grown and developed a lot over the years. We did Fashion Week which was pretty cool, they got a whole bunch of sustainable designers together and that was really special and I supposed that felt like a big deal because I’d had my baby in April and then this was in September, it was pretty crazy! It’s just felt like such a fascinating journey! Do you know what, I think probably the thing I want to celebrate the most is having my business align with my personal values and feeling like my business and me are in sync, rather than me working for my business. I don’t know, it feels more like we’re ‘together’.
What is your ultimate goal for Mane Project?
I would love to have my own factory and be able to support people over in India particularly that need it. What Freeset does really inspires me where they help these women who are survivors of sex trafficking or those kinds of horrible things and actually teach them a great skill they can then use to begin a career. I think that’s really cool and I’d love to be able to do something like that as well. There’s just so much need over there and it would be amazing to do something like that, have a daycare and school and be able to have a safe environment for people to learn and develop just like we do here. We all have that opportunity to all in all be pretty safe and learn and develop and just to be able to have my business to support that would be so cool.
That’s incredible! Do you have any exciting shorter-term plans?
Yeah, we’re going to be in a local pop-up store here in the shopping mall, which is really exciting because we predominantly sell online so it’s great that our local customers can easily go in and interact with our product. We do hold appointments here at the studio and people can shop online and collect it from us and things, but it’s always different having a shop experience. Then, we’ve got Cosmic who are stocking our face masks so people will be able to shop those at any of the Cosmic stores in New Zealand. We’re just waiting for the little bags to arrive for the masks to go in, it’s really cute and easy to put in your handbag. Any opportunity during these times where you feel like you can get your product in front of people and they can understand it and learn about what you’re doing and the actual movement behind it is so cool!
Do you have any advice for anyone else ready to do the same and pursue their own passions through their business?
Yeah, I just think if you’re going to do it, I would just highly encourage anyone wanting to get into the fashion industry and start designing and manufacturing their own product, definitely go ethical. There’s just no point, otherwise you just end up contributing to the problem and it's way better to start it and be part of the solution. And honestly using resources like Common Objective is so useful from a practical level. Find your manufacturer through them! There’s kind of no excuses.
What are some of your favourite NZ brands at the moment?
Caitlin Crisp is making made-to-order women’s fashion, I reckon she’s got a really cool brand. If we’re not just talking fashion, Will&Able is by far my favourite NZ brand. They are a social enterprise and they create jobs for people with disabilities and they make cleaning products. You can get a subscription and then each bottle has got a sticker of the person who’s made it and a little bit of information about them. In first-person they’re describing it and talking about themselves and what they’re into or why they love this product. It’s just so cool and I feel like everybody should buy from Will&Able and only buy their cleaning products because it just seems like such a cool company. Another favourite that I love is Koha Apparel. They’re in Auckland and I actually discovered them through Chris Parker, I’m actually a huge Chris Parker fan, please look it up if you haven’t. So yeah, they’re an incredible business. They take donated goods and then people pay a Koha. So that means that someone can come in and if they need a jacket and they’re finding it a little bit hard at the moment, or even to the extent that they’re homeless, they can give them a 20 cent coin and get that jacket. I just think it’s really cool because it helps to meet people with the needs that they have. It’s actually on my list of things to do today, to email Koha apparel and talk to them about how we can donate some of our ex stock and stuff like that. I really want to talk about how we can do some face masks for them too.
What’s your favourite place to travel in NZ?
We loved going to Taupo as a family in the summer. We’ve loved going and seeing the lake and the river and we’ve had some really good family times there. Then there’s always Queenstown, everyone loves a trip to Queenstown! Then right up North, it’s just so tropical and amazing. That’s actually so hard!
You’re very lucky to live in such a beautiful place!
Yes, I love living in the Mount so much! I am very lucky. I’ve been here now since I was 17, so this is really home. I never thought I would be one of those people who just stays in one place, but I just really love it here.