As the Middle East catches up with eco-friendly, sustainable fashion concepts, MOJEH meets one woman currently championing the chicest way to save the planet…
Like most great business ideas, the best concepts are borne out of love. In Sian Rowland’s case, her business plan evolved from the fact she had a little too much love for shopping. “I originally started the concept in 2011, when I discovered a huge gap in the market for a consignment service focusing on high street fashion. This actually came about because I used to have a bit of a shopping problem, and at the time there was nowhere in Dubai to sell any unwanted or unworn pieces.”
A university graduate in Architecture and Interior Design, and a Dubai resident for more than 30 years, Sian had a successful 15-year career designing hotels, bars and restaurants in the city before switching full time to running Retold. And despite having no professional fashion experience, the 37-year-old’s love of retail therapy in all its guises, paired with a strong creative streak compelled her to do something new that combined two of her greatest passions – shopping and history. “As kids, we lived in England near a big antiques hub called Hemswell Antiques Centre. We’d often visit, and I would regularly get lost in there for hours, searching through all the pieces and wondering where they’d been and what they had seen. I now have a collection of antique cameras, art work prints, and even an old gramaphone, so my interest in all things with a story to tell has always been there.”
Originally launching her business as My Ex-Wardrobe, Sian rebranded to Retold in 2017. “It wasn’t until then that I made the decision to open the boutique. and finally, on January 22, 2018, we launched.” Making her first sale the day before they officially opened to one of the volunteers helping to get the store finished, the days that followed were a whirlwind of money-making activity. “To be honest, I was totally exhausted, but the cash register was ringing constantly, which was brilliant,” recalls Sian.
Just over a year later, and Sian’s working days are as varied as the array of pre-loved stock hanging on the rails of her Al Barsha boutique. “I have days that are filled with admin tasks, strategy and development planning, and on the flip side I have days packed with exciting meetings discussing collaborations and growth opportunities. I have an amazing team supporting me, who handle all of the events, operations, administration and sales. You won’t often actually find me at the boutique, but when I am there, I’ll be checking out the new stock and chatting to customers and clients.”
While fashion sustainability is currently the topic on everyone’s lips, there was a time when the second hand clothing market was something few in the region would admit to being interested in. “It really took time to convince people in the UAE that buying second hand goods was OK,” reveals Sian. “I have been ‘campaigning’ since 2011, but now there is an increased level of awareness about the importance of recycling clothing in this kind of way, which is fantastic. It’s certainly making every day at work that little bit easier for us, and I’m finally starting to see all the hard work paying off.”
And it’s the eco-friendliness of the pre-owned shopping industry that drives Sian’s business ethos. “I’m passionate about what we can do to save the planet, and being environmentally friendly is the most important part of what Retold is about,” explains Sian. “I read somewhere that buying and wearing second hand clothing is the second most sustainable choice behind being nude. Since that’s not really the done thing here, we’re doing our best to be the next, most eco-friendly option that we can be. There are over 150 billion items of clothes manufactured every year, and an equal number of items are sent to landfill annually. This fills me with a certain amount of anger and resentment towards the fashion industry, and this is the issue that Retold is tackling. There are already enough items of clothing in circulation, so our plan is to reduce the demand on the ‘new’ and encourage people to ‘renew.’”
In a city known as an international shopping destination, despite having countless malls selling brand new items, finding pre-loved, second hand or vintage fashion outlets has never been simple for those seeking an alternative to the mainstream.
“Our biggest hurdle has been raising awareness and getting our name out there – letting people know that we exist,” says Sian. And since dispelling misconceptions about the resale of second hand clothing is no longer such an issue, thanks to improved education on the subject and an increased interest in the region’s vintage fashion market, Retold’s appeal is growing as word spreads. “We live in such a melting pot of cultures, but there is still a little hesitation from some people, which is entirely expected. However, we already have so many amazing customers and fans,” says Sian.
With strict guidelines in place about exactly what makes it to the shop floor, Sian’s rule is to have her boutique full of items in nothing less than exceptional condition. And with more than a nod to fashion’s second biggest current buzzword, diversity reigns at Retold. With high street finds happily sharing rail space with designer brands, the premise is that as long as it’s fabulous by style standards, Sian’s happy to try and rehome it. “Whilst we deal with all brands, from high-street through to designer and luxury labels, we require that everything is in perfect, new or nearly-new condition. Our shoppers love that they can expect a particularly good standard of items to choose from, and I take pride in maintaining our boutique criteria. We do have strict guidelines about what we accept, so none of our items are heavily used – in fact up to 25 per cent of our products are still brand new with their original tags, and the other 75 per cent are in perfect condition.”
Sourcing from individuals decluttering their closets all over the Emirates, with up to 2,000 pre-loved items arriving in store every month, there’s a constant supply of unique pieces making their way to the rails. “Lots of our clients love us specifically because we carry a selection of both high street and designer pieces,” explains Sian. “There are certain brands that do really well, especially when we receive hard-to-find pieces from somewhere like Zara that flew out of the store on the high street the first time around. Boutique label brands are always popular, as are the limited-edition designer and high street collaborations. Of course, classic statement pieces from luxury labels like Valentino and Chanel are always in demand. If we receive some Rockstuds, or a Chanel 2.55, for example, they won’t be with us for very long.”
Along with the fact that recycling clothing is vital to saving the planet, while clearly eco-conscious, those selling their unwanted items at Retold are financially savvy too. “We sell on behalf of individuals who have done a wardrobe clear-out, and currently have a waiting list of ladies ready to sell,” explains Sian. “Our main client profile is a mostly women in their late twenties to forties, who are fashionable, sociable, socio-economically-aware and really smart with money. They use our service because they fully appreciate several of the values Retold upholds; they can regain some of their hard-earned cash on items they no longer want, renew the lifespan of the pieces they entrust to us and reap the emotional benefits of decluttering their wardrobes.”
Indeed, with organisation guru Marie Kondo’s theory of only keeping items that ‘bring joy’ to their owners sweeping the globe, as closets across the UAE are being cleared out, Retold is receiving a wealth of forgotten fashion gems that would otherwise have languished, unloved, in the back of someone’s cupboard. “There are lots of things prompting people to kiss ‘goodbye’ to things they don’t wear, and ‘hello’ to valuable wardrobe space and a bolstered bank balance,” notes Sian. “All of which are great for our business, the environment, and, as a knock-on effect, the health and wellbeing of our clients and customers.”
Conscientiousness is something that Sian is particularly passionate about at she continues to grow her business. “I have tried to build sustainability into everything we do,” says Sian. “Its one of our core company values. From the tiny things, like the fact we have a water filter installed at the boutique and offer our customers free refills, to the more significant ones, I try and think about every part of how our daily existence as a business can be better and more considered.”
Trying to minimise the global footprint of herself, her employees and those living in the city she calls home, however, is how Sian intends to turn Retold into a leader of the sustainable fashion world.
“I always think about the bigger impact we are having on the fashion industry as a whole. Since I opened the boutique, we have rehomed over 8,000 items of clothing, and by the end of 2019 , I aim to have rehomed over 20,000 pieces. The environmental impact of this is actually pretty impressive, especially if you consider the fact that by extending the lifespan of an item by merely two months, we reduce it’s carbon footprint by up to 10 per cent.”
Dedicated to making a change for the better, Sian cites Retold’s key company values as sustainability, altruism, passion, conscientiousness and accessibility, and has big plans for the brand. “I have an overriding vision of making the world a better place,” she says. “There are so many incredible and inspiring people out there who are all working so hard to do something that benefits the planet and all of us living upon it. Genuinely, that’s the thing that gets me up and out of bed every morning, and what inspires me to work as hard as I do. I would love to see Retold have a global presence, both online and offline – and my vision is to see us helping to rehome hundreds of thousands of items each month.”
With such big plans afoot, and at a time when the fashion industry is in such a gigantic state of flux, Sian intends to step-up her efforts to make the UAE a more eco-fashion- conscious place. “I’m going to continue to make waves in the sustainability sphere here in Dubai, and every day my campaigning voice gets louder… so be prepared to hear a lot more from me.”
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- Words by Lucy Wildman