“My initial spark stemmed from a desire to do something with my life that provided me with a genuine sense of purpose – to make a tangible difference to the lives of others and not just my own. I didn’t want to sit back in my rocking chair in 30 years’ time (or something much more futuristic) knowing that I hadn’t tried to do something positive and lasting during my short stay on this planet. Setting up my own business and putting a social cause at the heart of it was my way of doing this, giving me that purpose that I was seeking.” by John, Founder of
Read further to find out what John, Founder of Pala Eyewear, his motivation and the amazing work his team is doing in Africa.
For me at least it was a case of identifying a cause first rather than coming at is from a ‘fashion creation’ angle. Having become aware of lack of access to eye care across Africa during my travels I already had the seed of that cause.
10% of the world’s population are unable to get access to eye care and yet a pair of spectacles is recognized as the number one most effective tool to fight poverty – it empowers the wearer by enabling them to read, learn and work. Simple, yet so very so effective.
That was the cause, and so unusually perhaps, my ‘fashion creation’ was retrofitted to support this cause – an eyewear brand that would act as the vehicle for delivering change.
What drives your motivation?
My primary motivation is uncovering the possibilities of the change that PALA can create through our work in Africa. I have been out to projects in Ethiopia, Zambia and Ghana to see the impact we are having and it’s incredibly rewarding. There is such a beautiful simplicity to it as well.
As a founder of a start-up I am also motivated by the challenges of the eyewear industry, arguably one of the most cluttered and competitive industries around. My view is that eyewear doesn’t have to be expensive to be good quality and for PALA it means challenging that assertion with our quality of product and price point. Getting your brand out there when there are so many other brands fighting for eyeballs is hard unless you have deep pockets (find me start-up that has those!) so opportunities such as the PAUSE Conscious pop-up makes a lot of sense for PALA to be positioned alongside brands of a similar ethos.
In terms of inspiration, I am inspired by all those independent brands out there who have that same purpose in creating change according to the sustainable goals they wish to align to. Meeting people who are driven by passion, who are innovating and challenging the norms is truly uplifting. The pendulum for sustainable fashion is no doubt swinging in our favour, but it will take time and it takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice to achieve. I tip my cap to them all.
What’s your relationship with ever-changing fashion trends?
I travel with our designers to the two main optical tradeshows in Milan and Paris each year. I’d like to say it it’s as glamorous at the destinations might suggest, but these are vacuous convention centres on the outside of the city! We use these shows as a source of colour and trend inspiration for the season ahead. We work about around 12 months in advance.
Across the collection as a whole, we like to include a mix of fashion-forward shapes alongside more classic, commercial shapes. This is an acknowledgement to the broad demographic of our audience. If you are someone who is into sustainable fashion the reality is that you could be someone in their twenties or someone in their fifties and we don’t want to alienate people by targeting a particular demographic. Therefore, we offer a range that we believe works to recognise this spectrum of audience.
Now, if this was a question about my personal relationship with ever-changing fashion trends, then all I’ll say in answer to that is that it’s ‘poor’… in fact, some friends might even say ‘very poor’.
Taking into account that you are a creator that works with challenges every day, what’s in your opinion the biggest challenge of the fashion industry today?
There are lots of challenges in the fashion industry and it’s hard to pick one – garment workers for fast fashion brands living below the poverty line – the industry of clothing and textile production being the second largest industrial polluter in the world… I’m not sure I would want to pick one over the other!
Therefore, if I were to bring this around more specifically to the challenge for young independent brands, I think it is that some publishers and platforms need to recognise that as a small fashion business trying to step out into the world, you are not always going to have every solution to sustainability in place right from the start. As a start-up, there is a multitude of challenges – industry demands, minimum orders, fabric issues, staffing issues even political issues that can all come into play and impact that. You, therefore, pick the key sustainability goals that are important to you and work on the others. For some, however, this isn’t enough, which I think is a shame as we have all these socially and environmentally conscious brands working towards a collective good and need as much help and airtime as possible to grow and succeed.
What is your personal view of fast fashion? Do you feel that the industry as a whole is falling a bit behind if comparing to sustainable fashion?
I am not an advocate of fast-fashion, but at the same time, I recognize it fulfils a need for a significant percentage of the population who simply don’t have the budget to go sustainable. You have to put yourself in the shoes of the single mum or dad with three kids on a limited budget where decisions have to be made based on their financial and practical limitations. For example, if it were a choice of buying a pack of 3x T-shirts from superstore A for £6.99 versus 3x organic cotton varieties made according to sustainable values at £15.00 from Indie B, you can’t begrudge them making a decision for the former.
So fast-fashion does provide an important need for many, but I think where we can see a change at this end of the industry is through the pressure that the sustainable fashion industry is putting on these high street companies to change from within. As ‘sustainable’ independent brands provide more and more choice to customers then people’s expectations of the ‘norm’ will change and will expect the retailers/platforms they use to take a similar stand. To illustrate, we see the likes of ASOS banning feathers, silk, cashmere and mohair from January next year. This is the largest retail website in the world so by flicking this switch they are going to be asking huge questions that have traditionally used these ‘materials’ in their products. I genuinely feel that the groundswell of support for sustainable brands and their ethics will ultimately ripple out to the bigger players in this way. It will take time of course!
Virtually all major clothing companies have a work in progress in the field of sustainability. What makes your brand stand out?
Indeed, I think the majority of brands operating in the world of sustainability are ‘work in progress’. The UN’s have established 17 SDG’s (sustainable development goals) for organizations to aspire to, and the very point that they are to be ‘aspired’ to will always mean there will always be the scope to be better.
For PALA I believe our point of difference is that I set the business up as an antidote to a problem – to tackle the lack of eye care in Africa. This is at the foundation of the business and therefore an essential part of our narrative that we communicate the change that is being created, whether that be the vision centre we built in Chinsali last year or the communities of female weavers of our cases we are empowering in Bolgatanga in Ghana. Whilst our @palaeyewear Instagram is about our product and musings (and run by a person far more able than me!), I personally work on the @palainafrica page as I’m very passionate about sharing our work in Africa, the people we meet and their stories that we hear along the way.
It’s also important for our values to be applied within the business practices itself. All our packaging is recycled or FSC, likewise our point of sale materials. We carbon offset all the air miles we incur for importing our product and business travel and we pay £1 every time we deliver our sunglasses to our customers around the world. There is still a lot more to do, but as we agree… it’s all work in progress!
What does the future hold for your brand? Any plans you could share with us?
In the realms of our sunglasses, our focus is very much on building a profile in the UK and continuing our progress in USA and Australia – after all, we need to follow the sun when it gets all gloomy in the UK in the winter. For SS19 we will be introducing bio-acetate options to some of our styles, and I’m really excited about that. We will also continue to look at bringing more recycled acetates into the collection. We have just the one, Asha Black, at the moment but intend to have two more added to the range from March.
As we move into SS19 we are launching an optical range which is a big step for us. It will be a capsule collection of 6 pieces – early showing of samples have gone down well and we will be looking to wholesale these to opticians around the world.
It’s a very cluttered and competitive market out there and we don’t have the budgets of the big brands, so in homage to ‘slow-fashion’ we intend to grow slowly through word of mouth, working with sustainable fashion influencers and brands and the likes of PAUSE that curate the right retail context for our product and story to become more well known.