Black, skinny-fit and made from organic denim, Outland Denim’s Harriet jeans do not look, on the surface, any more remarkable than any other other pair of black, skinny, denim jeans. It is those jeans, however, that have just secured employment for 46 people at the brand’s production house in Cambodia, lifting them and their families out of poverty. Well, it was the jeans and the Duchess of Sussex, who wore them on her recent trip to Australia. Not only did the Harriet style completely sell out after it was reported that Markle wore them – something that, for a still relatively nascent brand such as Outland Denim, was unprecedented – there was almost a 3,000% increase in traffic to the website. If you were in any doubt over the sheer scale of the Meghan Markle effect, there’s your confirmation. But it’s not merely financial profits that matter, in this case. Markle’s seemingly innocuous decision to put on a certain pair of black jeans actually led to something much greater.
“To have somebody like Meghan wear our jeans was groundbreaking for us as a brand,” says Outland Denim founder James Bartle. “It’s so many layers and we’re still learning what those layers of impact are, even now. But the impact on the lives of the women that produce the jeans – that’s the obvious one. We’ve now employed 46 new people as a result of that. And that’s going to be generations of change. That’s not just the 46 new people who have jobs now and the fact that it means sustainability for those that preceded them – it actually means that those families and the people that come from the growth that we get now… she is so hugely a part of that, just from wearing them over that couple of weeks when she was in Australia and New Zealand.” I’m speaking to Australia-based Bartle on the phone, yet his passion for Outland Denim and its mission is instantly perceptible – and infectious. He established the brand after travelling to South East Asia, where he saw a young girl being sold, and realised just how urgent the issue of human trafficking really is.
“It was life-changing for me to see the fear and the intimidation in her eyes and how everything had changed for her as a result of being put in that position,” Bartle says. “It was enough for me to go away and want to be part of the solution. So we spent the next five years developing the business model that we now work under, which was to give these women the opportunity to be able to escape the atrocities that they had come from, and also to equip them with the tools so that they could escape it on their own. Everything just continually points back to poverty being the biggest contributor to women being made vulnerable.” Outland Denim’s production headquarters are based in Cambodia, where they have made a significant and lasting difference to the 100 or so people, mainly women, that they now employ. “We’ve got a range of different women who work with us and they’re the most courageous, tough, strong, brilliant women that you’ll ever meet. Some of them have come from such terrible backgrounds and through such difficulties to becoming seamstresses making premium products that are selling on a global sale,” says Bartle. “It’s quite incredible to see how they’ve progressed through their own careers – the power’s put back in their own hands and they’re being given the opportunity and the training, education, living wages – all of these different things that are built into the business model.”
The fashion industry is a huge power for good, or has the potential to be, and I personally believe that it could help eradicate poverty
Interestingly, Bartle doesn’t have a fashion or design background, nor was he aware when he launched the brand that jeans are one of the worst polluters in the garment industry, in terms of manufacture. He chose them, he says, because “half of the population, at any given time, is wearing a pair”. He and his team have worked hard to build a sustainable business with an ethos of buying less at a higher quality. Is Bartle worried, then, about how to balance that message with greater demand from customers who have seen celebrities such as Markle and, more recently, Holly Willoughby wearing Outland Denim’s products? “If they’re buying one of our products versus one of the brands that’s not adopting these kinds of practices, I would say it’s a good thing, because they’ve helped the women, they’ve drastically reduced the impact environmentally by purchasing something that we have manufactured. But we’re not a perfect brand. Our hashtag is #ZeroExploitation, which means that every decision we make as a company needs to come from that quest. How do we create a zero-exploitation product that doesn’t exploit people, from those who grow the cotton all the way through to the sales associate who sells it, to the person who buys it and doesn’t exploit the environment at the same time?”
In terms of the product available, Outland Denim sells various styles of jeans, denim shorts and organic cotton T-shirts for both men and women. While they’re more expensive than a lot of high-street options (shorts start at £100, jeans at £140), Bartle is keen to point out that’s because of the way in which they’re made – both in terms of manufacturing processes and the manufacturers themselves, who all receive a fair living wage for their work. He’s also aware that the fashion industry does have the power to influence real change in the world. “I think human nature is always going to have its challenges. All of us have that challenge in battling selfishness on a daily basis. I speak for myself anyway. There’s always going to be a battle – can I make more money by producing for less? – the pressure to cut corners. While consumers are either forced or pressured because of their economic position to not have the funds to purchase sustainable products that are more expensive than a lot of fast fashion, while we’re pushing the message of ‘you must have the latest’, I think there’s going to be a problem. But what I also think is that the fashion industry is a huge power for good, or has the potential to be, and I personally believe that it could help eradicate poverty.”
At the moment, Outland Denim’s jeans are only available to pre-order in the UK, for delivery in April 2019. But, Bartle says, he has been humbled by the fact that customers are actually willing to purchase and wait – surely the very definition of slow fashion. He’s keen to expand properly into the UK market next year, too, citing London as a place he’d love to open a store of some kind. I ask him how difficult it is in 2018 to ensure that a fashion brand is truly sustainable at every level. “What it really comes down to is are you prepared to pay more to produce your product for the safety of the people and the planet? That’s not even a question – it’s a very easy decision to make. I guess we’ve had to pin all our hopes on humanity, and do human beings want to see this change? I firmly believe that the majority – 99.9% of all human beings – want to do the right thing; want to help those who are less fortunate. Therefore we are trying to provide a vehicle for that to happen. And we are seeing people align with us and support us. The product does have to speak for itself, so we’ve focused heavily on creating a beautiful product, something that feels nice to wear; that has brilliant recovery; that doesn’t go out of shape; that lasts; that’s not filling your skin with harmful chemicals because of the way that we’ve either dyed it or washed it.”
Whatever her critics may say, it’s clear that Markle is knowingly using her influence for good. She has put Outland Denim on the map, which has already directly impacted the lives of women living in poverty – and, in some cases, much worse. After the unbelievable success the brand has seen in the past few months, Bartle has big plans for the future. After all, he says, “This is a pretty huge opportunity for us to use fashion to change the world.”