What it takes to build an ethical clothing brand

January 26, 2023

In this episode, Legislate meets David Biren, co-founder at STPL, a men's basic clothing brand that seeks out neglected, yet essential items, and pulls them apart, and re-engineers them to guarantee a longer life span, tailored fit and ethical sourcing. David explains what it takes to build an ethical clothing brand and why contractual terms need to be clearly defined.

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Charles Brecque: Welcome to the Legislate podcast a place to learn about the latest insights in Property, technology, business building and contract drafting. Today I'm excited to welcome David, co-founder at STPL, a men's basic clothing brand that seeks out neglected, yet essential items, and pulls them apart, and re-engineers them to guarantee a longer life span, tailored fit and ethical sourcing. David, thank you for making the time. Please can you share a bit about yourself and Staple.


David Biren: Hi, thanks Charles for having me on, it's great to be here. As you explained STPL is an ethical menswear brand. We launched, we basically had a problem that lots of people in a similar situation to us had. whereby when we're looking for instance just a plain black t-shirt, the options are quite limited, and the options that do exist don't necessarily tick everyone's boxes of slow fashion, ethical sourcing quality and usually when you do find one of those things, let's say ethically sourced t-shirts, what you find is that you're then priced out of the market. Like myself, you're left standing there saying it's just a plain t-shirt so what's going on. So what we figured was that we would create a place where actually you can get everything you want in a plain t-shirt, and it wouldn't cost you a fortune. When we launched the brand, the 4 of us didn't have that much experience within fashion, so things like slow fashion or fast fashion weren't really topics we knew much about, we weren't really educated in them. We're basically fair game for the brand because they would be like, because it's ethical it's going to cost you £100. As we delved into it, we realised that's not the case. So what we're going to do is make slow fashion accessible for everyone. So that people can come and you can get your ethically sourced, high quality item, and you don't have to choose between that and paying the rent one month.


So, yes, and then as we got going we kind of realised that, the clothing was just the entry point into quite a cool, spectre of life where we can meet loads of different people doing loads of different things. As we grew into it we got more and more involved, and more and more into it, and that's how we ended up with this brand, which started as just 4 guys in a pub having an idea. That's now morphed into something far bigger than that. It's become a bit more like, I wouldn't say a movement, but more of a movement.


Charles Brecque: I'm sure you as 4 men in a pub without a background in a fashion have defied all odds to build such a successful clothing brand, and also an ethical one, which I think in fashion is really challenging.


David Biren: There's so many different ways you can go. Basically what happens is, the manufacturers, they use the jargon like I'm sure you're aware. As it happens everywhere, where they hit you with this like bam bam, and you're left standing there confused, and don't really know what's going on. But I find with fashion, when you go for an ethical supplier they are much more willing to help you along the way. It's not like they take advantage of you, they're just like 'we understand you don't know that much, but we're going to help you and we're going to work together to build partnerships to succeed'. So that's been a really helpful part of the journey.


Charles Brecque: Are you saying then that you've achieved the ethical status by mainly working with suppliers?


David Biren: Basically the core of it comes down to the factory. You can't have an ethical, well if you can, if someone can point me in the right direction. The ethical is all about the sourcing, and how it's sourced, and basically how the people in the factory are treated. For instance, in the fast fashion factory it would be like, pregnant women have to have their babies at the desk and they're expected back at work about 6 minutes after they've had their kids, and their kids are also expected to work. Whereas an ethical factory would be like ,okay, it's exactly the same as the UK or the US or wherever you base yourself, if you have a baby you have maternity leave, and if you want to progress through the company they'll help you to progress though. For instance, our factory can give staff English lessons so they can develop skills and move on. It's not about them sitting there making clothes at a ridiculously low rate of pay for the rest of their lives. So it basically, the ethics is really, the core of it is in the actual factory so right at the beginning. It actually goes back even further than that because, it's also how the fabric is sourced and where it's grown. For instance there's cotton from Uzbekistan, it's banned because for 3 months a year, most of Uzbeki men are taken from their jobs, and sent to the cotton fields to pick cotton. And then that's not a choice so there's also a whole ethics actually literally starts when the fabric, when the cotton, or whatever you're using, is taken out of the ground. So a good ethical factory will take care of that side for you and give you proper certification that proves everything they do is above board.


Charles Brecque: Thank you for the masterclass in ethical. Why aren't more brands doing this?


David Biren: Cost. Because if you take a brand, we personally don't like to say anything about any brands negatively, because I don't believe in doing that, because every brand does what they need to do, but there is certain brands that aren't able to grow, that have only been able to grow at such a fast rate, because they can hand, lets say, a 1000 influencers a box of 100 different clothes, get it going, get the marketing going, everyone hears about them, everyone buys their stuff, but you go online and you see it costs you £5 here as opposed to £50 there for the same thing. It's just a matter of people just want to make sales. It comes down to brands trying to grow massively as a very fast rate, that's never really be done before.


Charles Brecque: Congratulations for paving the way. It seems like you've definitely achieved a lot and learnt a lot in the process. What's been your favourite moment?


David Biren: Favourite moment, interesting because every day is different. Every day has it's own reason of why this was good, and that was great but as a manager I really enjoy travelling around, and seeing different places, and experiencing different cultures. So when we decided to manufacture in Peru, which is where our stuff is manufactured, we figured that we would go to visit the actual factory, before signing off on the order. So, that 3 week trip to Peru, that was great, I'd say that was a pretty great trip. Then in terms of general day to day, the first sale, the first organic sale was a great day. We did learn that what we made actually works. So that bit of validation is always really great. And then we had a couple of weeks ago, sorry September, that was great, but there's been so many moments. But the trip to Peru was really that was really great.


Charles Brecque: What do you wish you'd known before starting STPL?


David Biren: Ooh Interesting. What do I wish I'd have known? I'm not sure. What do I wish I had known? Do you know what, I'd say I wish I would have been more clued in as to what's a success and what's a not success, because when I first went into it I thought the success would be a certain amount of sales and when we didn't get to that I was like oh that's pretty bad, and it knocks you off course for a week or 2. So for instance, just to know exactly where we were, what would have been a success and a not success at the right time, that would have made the first couple of months much easier, because we worked it out, it didn't take that long. But for the first month or 2 that would have been quite useful.


Charles Brecque: What's the vision for STPL in the next 3, 5 years?


David Biren: So at the moment we've got 2 shirts of our product range but we're working on jumpers, shirts, jackets, denim jackets to come quite soon. They'll be ready to go in the next 8 - 12 weeks. So what we're trying to do is going to keep growing, we'll keep trying to grow our product range until we have the full load. But also keep retaining our 4 pillars which are ethical sourcing, expert tailoring, world class fabrics and accessible pricing. So we built those pillars because we want those to be what STPL's built on, all the way through. So for the ethical sourcing, to make sure everything comes sourced ethically, that explains itself. The world class fabrics is, what we're trying to do, is bring like a luxury experience to people, for a regular price, that everyone can access to amazing fabrics. The expert tailoring, again we work with a tailor from Saville Row to design our clothes, because we figured that basics and t-shirts and this kind of stuff, people don't really tailor it. You don't really get the quality you get from let's say a leather jacket. And then the last one, the accessible pricing is just, we want to make sure that everything is always priced in that way that regular people that just still afford to aspire to buy STPL. Just keep building the brand keep it going and retain our core pillars.


Charles Brecque: You've definitely got the perfect brand name. As an entrepreneur, a founder, what are the key contracts that you interact with the most?


David Biren: The key contract we interact with the most. We had one contract which went a bit wrong, which was for our website, which, that just went a bit wrong. But let's say that gave us the experience of how contracts work, and how to go through them and make sure they are rock solid. And then when we bring on influencers, and TikTokers, and people just to promote our brand, we create contracts for them to sign so that, because in the past we've been burned. In the past where we've sent someone a t-shirt, he said he would do something, and it didn't quite work out and if we had a contract then we would have more to say actually yeah. So I think we're going, we haven't really got so many contracts yet because we haven't started influencers but we've drafted 1, so now that will be the contract. And also factories because you have payment terms so it's a percentage before and a percentage after, so yes those will be the contracts that we are using.


Charles Brecque: You mentioned that some of those contracts didn't work out quite well. Can you share examples of some of the issues where maybe there was lack of clarity or some confusion?


David Biren: Yes the website one. We were under the impression that, lets say when someone says put a basket on your website, when you click the basket, we were under the impression that when you click that, the functionality of the basket is included in the click, and then it turns out that actually it was just the icon of the basket, there was no functionality of the basket. Which was a bit surprising. We were just like yes that's a bit. That's when we learnt that contract is all about what's written, not what's assumed. It's irrelevant what you think, it's actually just what's written on paper is what's important. It just made us able to see how thorough we have to be on contracts moving forwards.


Charles Brecque: Yes so a valid point. A contract isn't just a piece of paper that you sign. The contents are really important. And I think 1 thing I would say that we really try to do, we don't believe in jargon or legalise, we simplify the wording so it's easy to understand for non-lawyers because they're our target audience and user base. But the other thing is, representing the contract, visually, or as a set of question and answers can also help improve a person's understanding of what are their rights and obligations when they're entering into this agreement, and just being upfront from the start is how you ensure a rock solid relationship, and expectations which are aligned. Thank you for that insight and a great tip for other founders. If you're being sent a contract to sign today what would impress you?


David Biren: What would impress me? Being as concise as possible. By just saying everything in the small amount of words as possible. Because I find when people really understand things, they make it very simple for other people. To see that person drafting a contract has a very clear grip on the contract, and there's no in-between, there's no grey areas, that would be great.


Charles Brecque: Sounds like a great answer. And a great feature that actually, at least at Legislate what we're trying to do is make contracts simple and easier to understand. Thank you very much David for being on the Legislate podcast, and best of luck building STPL and expanding your product range. I'll definitely check out your products.



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