While fair fashion is increasingly in demand and the awareness of responsible wardrobe becomes more evident in today’s customers shopping patterns, new sustainable brands come across variety of challenges in a bid to establish themselves. Sophie Thalhammer, the founder of Fitico Sportswear, a sustainable performance clothing brand for sports lovers, would know a thing or two about that.
We met at the Impact Hub Vienna accidentally during an event organised there (a common occurrence) and after a short conversation, I knew I wanted to find out more about entering the demanding realms of fashion industry when one is a complete newbie in the field. Sophie’s inspiring story is a testament to the support of people who believe in you and the drive to go one step further in making an impact being key to fostering growth.
Photo courtesy of Fitico Sportswear
What prompted you to create Fitico?
I established Fitico because, first of all, I wanted to create something of my own. And I wanted it to be something sustainable,something to make the world a better place. Second reason – out of personal necessity because I am trying to live a sustainable lifestyle and at the same time I like to do sports. I realised that especially in sportswear there are not many labels operating in a sustainable way.
How did you go from wanting to live a sustainable life to founding a brand? I mean, a lot of people say they are going to live more sustainably, which translates to ‘I am going to eat organic’ or ‘Buy more things that are not packaged in plastic’. So how did you decide to go a step further?
Because I wanted to take it one step further and create more impact than just buy sustainably or make sustainable decisions. Secondly, you know you spend so much time in your work and your work is such an important part of your life, so I wanted to do something meaningful with my work, something that matters.
How did you become interested in sustainable sportswear? Again, there are so many other choices for social entrepreneurs. Why did you choose fashion industry?
Like I said, out of necessity because I couldn’t find sustainable sportswear brands I really liked. Also because the fashion industry in particular, and within the fashion industry especially the sportswear industry, is operating in such a horrible, harmful way. The factories are mostly sweatshops in South East Asia; workers there suffer from often inhumane working conditions. The companies don’t use sustainable materials or use very very little of them, and there is just so little environmental consciousness about saving resources and reducing greenhouse gas emissions that I thought I am going to start there and bring change in this specific industry.
Tell me about the journey to establishing a social venture. First, you had the idea, what followed then…
After I had the idea, I started talking to people, reaching out to people, to fashion designers, graphic designers, textile designers. Very soon I approached people from the industry: the material suppliers, the producers, the manufacturers, to get the basic idea of what I needed and what was possible. And then I also did a lot of research of course, on the Internet, about the fashion market, other sportswear brands, social media strategies – many different things.
What were the most challenging parts of establishing your company?
There were many challenges but so far I could overcome them all. To find the main material and the additional parts were the first challenges. Then the manufacturer. People in the industry say it is always the manufacturer that is most challenging when you try to create a new label. So that was quite challenging but in the end, I found one in Portugal and I am very happy, very satisfied with the cooperation.
The next challenge is to enter the market. And to become heard and become recognisable because, as everyone in the fashion industry and sports industry knows, there are thousands of labels. It is not so easy to stand out.
When we met at Impact Hub Vienna some time ago, you mentioned the challenges of entering the market. How is it going now, what are you doing to get people to talk about it?
Well, the first priority right now is to establish a web shop and once in place I can start with all the marketing activities. Also, trying to bring people to the web shop. I still need to put more emphasis on social media. I think social media is really crucial for fashion in particular.
Was creating your own sportswear more difficult than you thought initially?
I would say yes, because I started as a complete beginner. I was new to the industry, I wasn’t working in fashion before, which, on the other hand I think is an advantage because I was not aware of all the challenges I would be facing. (laughs). I did face more challenges than I thought, there were more things I didn’t think of in the beginning.
When those things come up, how did you deal with them? Did you do it singlehandedly or did you use support from people, who already had experience?
Depends on the challenge. Some of them I had to refer to other people with more experience. In general, I think it always helps to talk to people, even to those who do not have experience in the industry because they can still be supportive. Sometimes I just talk to my boyfriend, or friends, or my family about a problem, and talking about it already helps a lot. Singlehandedly… Very seldom. In the end, I always try to solve problems in a team or through talking to people.
Is sustainable fashion industry very specific?
It’s very very different to the fast fashion industry, which is almost an industry on its own. Because the prices and the conditions are so different to all the other, smaller and bigger labels and the luxury labels. I think the sustainable fashion industry and the conventional fashion industry are not so different. And I also see the trend of the conventional fashion industry to go more in the direction of sustainable fashion.
Which sometimes is fake..
Sometimes, but some of them really make an effort. I can see mid-size labels putting more emphasis on the materials they use and on the factories they use. Also, becoming more transparent in their activities and trying to communicate to their customers that they do care.
Your first collection spring/summer 2017 collection is reusing fishing nets… How did you come across the idea of using this material?
I was looking for a sustainable material for sportswear and of course I came across organic cotton and Tencel [lyocell is a sustainable fabric, regenerated from wood cellulose.]. They are natural fibres which are good for the environment but sometimes not so ideal for workouts because they are not so stretchy, they don’t deliver the support you need, and they sometimes absorb the sweat. Then I found Econyl®, a material which is made of recycled fishing nets. This material had exactly the characteristics I was looking for. Abandoned fishing nets are regenerated into nylon which is then knitted into high-grade polyamide fabric, with a little bit of elastane added for compression. When you do sport you obviously sweat so you need a material that wicks sweat away from the body to help you stay cool and dry, a material that fits and stays tight with every movement and a lot of other requirements for sports. Especially for sports I do, which is Crossfit®. It was perfect, exactly what I was looking for.
As a sustainable brand, what are the different challenges in conventional fashion, to get customers?
I would say the biggest challenge, but not only for sustainable fashion but for everyone else except for the fast fashion companies, is to get the physical space in big shopping malls, big shopping streets. People still do most of their fashion shopping there and all they can find is fast fashion. Fast fashion brands are the only ones that can afford the rent so in terms of physical space that is a big challenge. Online… I think the challenge is to stand out, to become heard because there simply are so many fashion brands.Sometimes, people have to specifically look for the sustainable brands and this means a lot of extra effort. The online market places are full of conventional brands, and the ones who focus specifically on sustainable brands are much less known.
How long have you been at Impact Hub Vienna?
It’s exactly one year now!
Do you think that being part of Impact Hub Vienna inspired you to go forward with Fitico?
Definitely. As I said before, the people around you really matter and during this year at IHV I met so many interesting, inspiring people. It’s really amazing. Without that I don’t know if I would have always kept on going.
What would be your advice for people who want to start their own socially impactful venture?
First of all, go for it. And just try and start wherever you are. A friend once told me something, that influenced me a lot, namely that so many people think the idea is everything and you have to have a good idea to start. But the idea is only 10%. The rest of is the making. 90% is taking it forward one step at a time.
Photos in the header & portrait shot (c) Aneta Pawlik