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Top of the fair trade fashion tree

Clothing with a conscience defies the downturn

It has become commonplace for famous actresses to be associated with fashion labels, but when the Harry Potter star Emma Watson launches her own collection with People Tree this month, it will be something of a departure. |People Tree is an ethical business that promotes fair trade – indeed, the launch helps to kick off Fairtrade Fortnight on 22 February – and the fashion industry is widely seen as dependent on sweatshop labour.

This is changing, though. And it would not be unreasonable to say that People Tree has played a significant part in that shift in perception. Founded by Safia Minney in Japan in the early 1990s, the company has been trading in the UK for 10 years. In that time, the business has grown from a mail-order operation selling to the converted into a familiar name in such high-street chains as Topshop. This year, the profile will rise still further through a link with John Lewis as well as pushes into North America, New Zealand, Australia and Brazil.

Minney acknowledges the tie-up with Topshop was controversial. But she insists it has been a positive move that has opened her business to new markets and helped to educate Topshop’s staff and customers. Vital to the success of the venture has been the commitment of Jane Shepherdson,

previously brand director at Topshop, who has moved on to become the chief executive of the Whistles fashion chain and is among a clutch of highly qualified non-executive directors on the People Tree board.

The more outlets there are, the better it is for the producers Minney has formed relationships with in 15 developing countries. But she is wary of who she deals with, saying: “What we’re unhappy about is if a retailer does fair trade on one side and continues to squeeze margins on the other side.”

She is also conscious that, while People Tree is growing, traditional “fast-fashion” companies selling at budget prices are also thriving amid the tough times. As a result, the business works hard to deliver products that are made to the highest ethical standards and are also competitively priced and fashionable.

As the company enters its second decade in the UK, it is developing to reflect a business that has grown to the point where UK sales for the current year are expected to pass £2m and are forecast to be more than 50 per cent higher next year. With Japanese turnover included, sales for the current year are predicted to be close to £7m, and nearly £9m next year.

The structure has been streamlined so that the previously separate UK and Japanese businesses have been combined into a single holding company based on the edge of the City of London, and the design and sales and marketing teams have been brought together. Husband and co-founder James, who previously helped while working as a banker in Japan, has joined full-time as chief financial officer. Among his tasks is raising around £1.2m to help fund the next stage in the company’s development, with plans including a London shop to stand alongside those that have been operating in Japan.

Having pioneered fair-trade fashion, Minney and her team want to benefit from the interest in it. Hence the Watson connection – the more Harry Potter fans she brings in, the better.

As the epitome of the English “country look”, Joules would appear to be worlds away from People Tree. However, the East Midlands-based clothing company has also defied the downturn, increasing sales by 61 per cent in the past year. At the same time, it has seen the workforce grow by 168 to 486. Managing director Tom Joule believes a large part of its success is that it is seen as standing for something.

Although the business has moved on in terms of the breadth of range and is becoming increasingly fashionable and available through a combination of its own quirky shops and space in such retailers as John Lewis, it remains in touch with its roots in an operation that involved Joule selling to horsey folk and other country people at events around the shires.

“It still is, and feels like, a family-run business. I started buying good products for a discerning customer and taking it to them and their environment,” he says, adding that his sister Martine is head of brand, while brand communications is headed by Julie Buchanan, who started with him when he began doing events in 1989.

Like People Tree, too, Joules has ventured into publishing to push its message. Joules is at the forefront of the “catazine” trend, where companies combine their catalogue with articles that reinforce the image – in its case, chic country living. “I really do live the Joules life,” says Joule listing his chickens, ponies, cats, dogs and rabbits.

Fundamentally, though, Joule believes success in tough times is down to beating expectations. “The purchaser in the recession was becoming more savvy and, with Joules core values and great styling, it was the perfect combination for the mood of the consumer,” he says.