October marches on with another look at men in eco-fashion.
Kevin Baum, CEO of sustainable label Sust, is one of many men carrying a well-lit torch for the eco-designing movement. He’s made great strides in laying the groundwork for the Sustainability Across America Tour (of which EcoSalon is a sponsor).
I caught up with him in the midst of markets and orders recently. Here’s what he had to say:
I know you come from a Fortune 500 background. How is it similar or different being the CEO of Sust, a sustainable clothing line?
Managing a start-up is an amazing and wonderful opportunity. The functional aspects of the business (concept, branding, strategy and infrastructure) are the same, regardless of whether or not you’re an eco-fashion or conventional company.
What are some ways you’ve drawn from your collection of experiences and put them into SUST?
This is a tough question, probably because the complete answer would be the foundation of a semester-long course at many fashion or design schools. In short, running a business (restaurant, retail store, etc.) is much the same in principle. It’s about designing or creating great product that is focused on a target market with enough disposable income and interest to purchase the amazing goods you’ve produced. Of course, the distribution model, price points, capital and infrastructure all come into play when you’re building a new business from scratch. All of these complicating factors are what makes a start-up such a great experience.
Tell me about some challenges that have entered your path that you couldn’t have foreseen?
I don’t think there really have been too many surprises in the basic day-to-day business. Of course, no one really understood the impact of the recession back in 2007 when Tristan & Marion started the company. I joined in early 2009, so I had a pretty good idea of what we were up against and we’ve adjusted our model to be more price competitive with conventional brands that we benchmark ourselves against the specialty store space. I feel strongly that we would have done the same thing, economic downturn or not, and the current macroeconomic climate may have expedited the exercise.
I asked the question on Twitter “Do you know of any men involved in the eco-fashion industry?” and all said they didn’t know any. Does that surprise you?
Not really. In the past 20 years I’ve always seen the core population in retail, merchandising and design positions primarily held by women. I don’t have a statistic, but I would venture to say it is 75% or more in the industry. Spend one day at any major trade show and you’ll see it’s an industry run by women. Yes, there are “other men” in eco design. Many of them happen to be focused on the men’s space or have companies that have multiple product categories.
Are you a part of the design team for Sust?
Marion McKee is our Creative Director. In most companies, there is an intersection between Creative, Sales and Production. In other words, how to take great design and match it up with what can be made with the right value proposition to ensure it will be successful in the marketplace. I handle the Sales & Production side, so Marion and I collaborate daily on how to build the right product each and every season.
What do you think is the hardest part of being a sustainable designer?
The market is nascent, but really very small in the overall retail landscape. Combine that with the macroeconomic climate and it is clear that most customers will not pay “more” for eco products. Our challenge is to find a way to make beautiful products cost effectively, so we can sit side by side with conventional brands and remain price competitive. The current environment has helped us to focus on this aspect of the business. It all starts with great product, but if you are not competitive on price, then you’ll have amazing goods with no place to go.