Denim is notoriously unsustainable. It uses vast amounts of water in production (7,000 litres of water per pair, to be precise), the dyes that give our jeans colour leach chemicals into the natural environment, and denim distressing processes like sandblasting can be incredibly dangerous to human health. Not to mention the forced labour practices found in cotton farming hubs like China, Uzbekistan and India.
So how do you build an environmentally conscious denim brand from the ground up, with all these factors to contend with? It’s a question that Pete Hellyer asked himself last year, when the pandemic put on hold his work as a freelance creative director.
“I suddenly found myself with a lot of time and a real awareness that I was very reliant on other people to get by, which felt a little scary,” says Hellyer, who has previously held roles as the creative director at e-commerce platforms Ssense and The Outnet. “I live in denim and white t-shirts, and I wanted to buy a new pair of jeans, probably to cheer myself up,” he says. “I was looking for a sustainable pair and I could only really find ones that were more heritage in their styling — that Levi’s aesthetic — and that’s not me.” What began as a spot of retail therapy quickly became a business idea and a year later, he’s just launched his ethical agender denim brand, non.
Consisting of three cuts of jeans, a jacket, overshirt, bucket hat and tote bag in three different denim washes, the first collection is pared back and unfussy, offering wardrobe staples that Hellyer hopes will speak for themselves. “It’s a wardrobe of core essentials that you need,” he says. “We’re not going to have trend-led pieces. I was inspired by that quote [by Li Edelkoort, an influential dutch trend forecaster] when she said: ‘Fashion is dead. Long live clothing.’”
non is “conscious by design”, partnering with leading sustainable denim producer ISKO to create a signature selvedge denim made from 50% organic cotton and 50% recycled cotton. Every detail down to the choice of zippers, buttons and threads has been chosen with the entire life cycle of the product in mind. Even still, Hellyer is honest about the downfalls of bringing more new clothing into a textile saturated world. “It’s difficult to be a sustainable brand within a system that’s inherently unsustainable,” he says. “I identify the brand as conscious by design, and that really is me trying to be aware and conscious of every decision that we make — our impact, the positive things that we’re doing, some of the negative aspects of what we’re doing, and being honest about that.”
Transparency is key for Hellyer, who is keen to make information as clear and accessible as possible for his potential customers. To do so, he’s dedicated a page of the brand’s website to naming everything from the origins of the hardware to the factory that manufactures his jeans. “When I went freelance, I started working with a couple of sustainable brands and I found all the labels really confusing,” he explains. “I felt like I suddenly was learning a new language. So I thought if I’m confused, as somebody who has worked in the industry for 15 years, customers must be befuddled.”
Using selvedge denim (which is considered superior to raw denim in terms of durability) was a decision that posed an ethical dilemma of its own. “I wanted to use 100% recycled cotton, but when you recycle cotton, you lower the fibre length, which reduces the strength, which reduces the quality,” says Hellyer. “I have tried to find that tipping point of having the best credentials, but also make a product that would last more than a few years, because if something can last a long time, then it’s inherently more sustainable.”
Hellyer has considered the full life cycle of a pair of non jeans just as much as the manufacturing process. Partnering with EON, a fashion tech company that tags clothing using an NFC tag, allowing him to share more information about the product with customers. Hellyer is planning to offer everything from information about the materials, to where to get your jeans repaired and how they can be recycled, as EON’s technology becomes more sophisticated and widely used. “I think it’s important to have greater responsibility for the item once we’ve made it,” says Hellyer. “That includes helping the customer look after their jeans and helping the jeans to be recycled at the end. I think it’s a big problem that brands make clothes, and then they don’t care.”
Sizing agender denim wear has thrown up a number of challenges for Hellyer, not just for the fact that men and women tend to have very different body shapes. “The thing with unisex and agender clothing is, how do you size them in a way that all people understand, that isn’t gendered?” he asks. “We’ve really put time into making inclusive names and sizing. With the jeans, I didn’t want to call them wide leg or loose leg, because it might not be loose on a larger person in the same way that straight will not necessarily be a slim fit on everyone.” The jeans range from size 25 to 36, and the website has detailed sizing information to help reduce returns. “Most online return rates are really high, and that’s such a waste of shipping and carbon footprint,” he says. “So we want to encourage people to actually measure themselves for their jeans.”
With non’s first collection stocked at Ssense, as well as independent boutiques like The Wasted Hour in Hamburg, Beamhill in Helsinki, Never Never in Belfast, plus a handful of others, what’s on the cards for the next few seasons? “Multi-functionality and modularity are things I’m really interested in,” says Hellyer. “I want to explore different ways to wear things, like reversible jackets and detachable sleeves, so you can wear it as a vest in the summer and as a jacket in the winter. If you can wear it all year round in different ways, it means you only need one jacket instead of two, or three, or four of them.”
For now, perhaps the brand’s biggest challenge will be convincing customers to swap their well-worn pandemic joggers for a pair of jeans as lockdown in the UK begins to ease, but he’s hoping that a denim revival is on the horizon. “Denim isn’t very cool at the moment,” he concedes. “Everyone lives in sweats because of lockdown, but I hope that once a sense of normality returns, that sense of dressing up is going to return too.”
Far from just another lockdown project, non is the result of 15 years industry experience combined with a drive to rewrite the rulebook on denim and offer a more sustainable, conscious way forward.