Looking for a sustainable fashion brand in Singapore that ticks all the boxes? You need to check out Esse. This ethical fashion label creates designs in tailored silhouettes and breathable fabrics that are made to last. It’s all about quality over quantity here, folks. We chat with founder Alicia Tsi about why sustainability matters and what keeps her motivated to grow Esse in this industry niche.
Tell us a bit about your career before launching Esse.
My career in fashion officially began in 2013 at Club 21, a luxury fashion retailer based in Singapore. Before that, I’d always had a keen interest in how clothes are made; I love how fashion can tell stories.
When I was a kid I sketched and made clothes for my dolls, but I think my journey towards the inception of Esse started in 2008 when I took up dressmaking classes. I fell in love with the mastery that goes into creating a piece of clothing from scratch. In 2012, I decided to further my knowledge and took up night courses at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts for Fashion Illustration.
So, what inspired you to start a sustainable fashion brand in Singapore?
I didn’t gravitate towards sustainability straight away, it happened because of a few different experiences. I used to be quite the fashion victim and chase trends mindlessly. Over time though, I became quite dismayed at the quality of fast fashion brands. I felt like I was devoting way too much space in my wardrobe to purchases that left me feeling empty and was missing a real connection to my clothes. I wanted clothes that could withstand more than just a few turns in the wash and began to crave timeless investment pieces rather than throwaway deals.
This way of thinking led me to research more into the fashion supply chain. After educating myself on how the relationship between brands, factories and fabric suppliers tended to work, I decided that I wanted to take a more transparent approach to my brand and inspire women to consider the purpose and lifecycle of their garments. So, after three years, I decided to leave my full-time role and launch Esse, with a new goal to redefine the fashion industry.
So, there was a mindset switch to quality over quantity?
One thing that has remained a constant is my belief in owning good quality things. It’s something that my parents instilled in me while growing up. They always believed in buying less but buying better. With many retailers churning out looks that look homogenous and generic, as well as the lack of quality and good construction, I decided that this was the path I needed to take with Esse.
Tell us about the fabrics and production processes you use at Esse.
Esse uses more sustainable materials like Tencel, bamboo and 100% organic cotton to what we call “rescued fabrics” – over-ordered, leftover material from factories and fabric warehouses that would otherwise be destined for landfill. This helps to reduce our overall impact on the environment as a fashion label.
I want to create the best product possible while being transparent about our processes. We put each sample through wash tests to understand how it will stand up against wear and tear, as well as rigorous sample fittings. We also vet our supply chain partners through a stringent set of criteria and share this information with our customers so that they can make more informed buying decisions.
Why does sustainability matter to you?
The fashion industry has such a far-reaching social and environmental impact; it’s one of the most polluting industries next to oil! Many individuals, companies and organisations have, for various reasons, chosen to ignore its impact, but it’s becoming prominent now with issues like global warming and factory accidents like Rana Plaza in 2013. Morally, I just can’t turn a blind eye to these issues.
I think that striving for sustainability shouldn’t be an afterthought for brands, instead, it should be common practice. That’s the only way we can get to the heart of the issue, and take action to change supply chains and systems for the better.
“I think that striving for sustainability shouldn’t be an afterthought for brands, instead it should be common practice. That’s the only way we can get to the heart of the issue, and take action to change supply chains and systems for the better.”
As a sustainable fashion brand in Singapore, what challenges have you faced to grow the brand?
The main challenge has been an awareness of ethical causes and sustainability practices. Most consumers in Asia are very price-conscious and are less likely to question how their clothes are made. Instead, it’s all about cheap prices and trendy designs.
And have you noticed any changes in shoppers response to sustainable fashion?
Actually, yes, my Esse customers have become increasingly more interested in these issues. More and more women are asking me who makes their clothes and what materials are used. Some have also expressed their love for classics and how they’ve been wearing our designs on repeat.
Ultimately, what drives you to do what you do?
I love fashion, and knowing that Esse is part of a bigger movement that’s redefining the industry is hugely motivating. I’m inspired when I can share my experiences and I love that I can tell the stories of fabrics and makers through my designs. Ultimately, I feel a sense of satisfaction when I see the pieces on my customers and watch them develop a relationship with each garment over time.
What steps do you take in your daily life to live more consciously?
I shop less and think twice about every purchase. I also try to save my clothes by patching and altering them, rather than tossing them out – it’s really satisfying! I’m also not afraid to wear the same clothes twice, and hand wash them to extend their lifespan (this also helps to reduce carbon emissions.)
Finally, what tips would you have for women who want to shop more mindfully?
Build a wardrobe over time rather than shopping every season. It feels rewarding to save up and invest in well-made pieces (plus, you save money in the long term.)
Finally, be curious and ask where your products are made. Knowledge is power!
Susannah believes better design can help create a brighter future. A former magazine editor, she now runs ZERRIN and works at the intersection of consumers, brands and sustainability advocacy.