Project: Awakening the Coma of Consumption

Title: Awakening the Coma of Consumption
Author: Kathryn Carter
Publication: JANE
In conversation with: St. Agni co-founder Lara Fells
on creating a more considered fashion future.

‘Society is ruled by the harsh maxim,’ American philosopher Murray Bookchin once wrote, of ‘production for the sake of production.’ It is this adage that has taken much of the world’s aesthetic to dark and untenable places, this proverb that has spawned the evolution of the consumer at the cost of the consciously clothed self. The fashion industry has, for longer than many of us care to admit, been responsible for the violent deterioration not only of our environment but of the human lives caught in the chaos of the opaque supply chains that fuel mass production. ‘The decline from craftsman to worker, from an active to an increasingly passive personality,’ Bookchin believed, ‘is completed by man qua consumer’—an economic entity whose sensibilities are engineered by bureaucratic others. Man, having been standardised by machines, Bookchin concludes, is thus reduced to a machine himself. Take a close look at how we have, for decades, been told to dress, and it’s not hard to trace the truth in his hypothesis.

If our demotion from conscious human to unconscious consumer began with the decline from craftsman to worker, then the antidote to the disease of destructive fashion may lie in not only a return to artisanship but also a recognition of why it matters. As evidenced by brands that are born from their desire to do better, it’s not too late for the rag trade to redeem itself via a radical re-evaluation of its past, and present, dysfunctional foundations.

In a bid to break ground so that more transparent ways of working can blossom, Byron Bay based St. Agni considers itself responsible for far more than just the creation of quality, timeless pieces. Committed to forming meaningful bonds with the artisans who craft their collections, St. Agni co-founder Lara Fells is devoted not only to design but to the development and growth of all of the communities involved in the process of creation. At St. Agni, the slow rising of new systems is something that can be seen one simple, considered decision at a time. As Bookchin reminds us, revolutionary liberation must be a self-liberation that reaches social dimensions. To awaken the coma of consumption may be a global affair, but each of us must first begin with what we’re wearing, how it’s made, and who and where it came from.
It could be said that our clothing speaks for us when we are silent. What is it St. Agni is trying to say? 
St. Agni is understated yet strong in its timeless quality. We create versatile pieces that can be worn casually or elevated, reinforcing the notion that you don’t need to wear bright and bold pieces to make a statement. Ultimately, we intend for the wearer to be comfortable and confident in St. Agni. The fabrications of our pieces are natural and considered; the wearer carries this consideration.

Beautiful. You founded your label in 2014. At that time, were there certain characteristics of the fashion industry you hoped to be able to change?
When we started St. Agni, we didn’t know much about the complexities of the fashion industry, and we were oblivious to seasons and the pace of everything. However, we did notice a lack of quality, handcrafted goods—an element we were passionate to explore, and something we have since continued to embed in the business.

An admirable endeavour, given the state of the predominantly mechanised modern rag trade. How did you go about weaving this handmade touch throughout your process?
We started by working solely with artisans in Indonesia, visiting their workshop regularly so that we could form a strong partnership. We produced small quantities and only made products to meet demand. As the business has grown, the emphasis on quality and artisanal techniques has remained at its core. Despite having had to change aspects of the way we do things to keep up with the fashion calendar, the essence of how we started continues to provide us with a different perspective on the industry as a whole.

The fashion calendar certainly influences the rhythm of operations; even so, St. Agni’s philosophy remains “less is more.” Has this mantra allowed you to maintain a pace that continually puts your vision and your people first?
We started St. Agni with this philosophy, and it still stands true, expressing itself in our minimalist approach to design alongside the notion that items are made to last, resisting overconsumption. We also see this mantra carry through to the teams who run our headquarters, warehouse, and retail stores. We encourage each and every staff member to address each situation and challenge with the same view: that less is more and that simple solutions always triumph over complexity.

Since your label began, society as a whole has faced increasing uncertainty in the realms of societal, cultural, and spiritual wellbeing. How does it feel to design functional, refined, and quality pieces in a world that is challenged by dysfunctionality?
In many senses, it’s stabilising. In a time where we feel little control, we can seek it [instead] in how we clothe our bodies. Functionality and structure in our presentation can provide a sense of stability and empowerment in uncertain times, internally. I think it’s essential that, when designing pieces, you uphold your responsibility to ensure that they are made well, can be loved for a long time, and serve a purpose to their owners.

Absolutely. Speaking of pieces that serve a purpose for their wearers, you say that St. Agni was created with a vision to create functional, refined, quality pieces that you couldn’t seem to find elsewhere. Can you tell me how it felt when you were finally able to dress in pieces that reflected who you were?

We initially started the business with bags. I was finding everything overembellished, and so the raw quality of the pieces themselves was no longer noticeable. I’m a very simple dresser, and I feel most comfortable when wearing a neutral palette and natural fabrics. I like investing in good quality pieces that I will wear often, and St. Agni embodies this for me. Ultimately, I felt a sense of comfort and grounding to who I am.

Did this deeper sense of being grounded in your true being change the way you interacted with the world around you?
I think as you age you become more confident in going against trends and in wearing what you truly feel comfortable in. In turn, you naturally become more grounded and confident and authentic to your true self. This was always going to be a natural progression, but I believe that my work helped me to cultivate and accelerate this transition.

And as you design your pieces, do you ever think about how they may help to ground the wearer, helping them to flourish in their reality?
When designing a collection, I first think of myself and what I feel comfortable wearing. Then, I think about the fabrication and how the garment will wear and last, and finally about how it will compost at the end of its life. I want people to feel comfortable, and I want their personalities to shine and their clothing to complement that, not overpower their sense of self. It’s important that the dresser wears the clothes and not the other way around.

You cherish the handmade process, a way of working that is harder to come by nowadays. What do you feel it would take for more fashion houses to return to manual, less mechanised practices?
It’s such a beautiful way to manufacture because it’s grounded in relationship and person-to-person communication. The pieces created in this way hold a raw beauty that can’t be found in mass-manufactured items. For example, often the pieces can show small imperfections that can be really beautiful to some, but I understand that these imperfections are not what everyone likes or understands. Our society is so used to consuming perfect things, and I feel it’s this mindset that would need to change if the fashion industry returned to manual manufacturing on a larger scale.

Further to the point of mindset, you’ve expressed in the past that you feel it’s your responsibility to promote slow consumption habits in your customers. How do you go about doing so?
Our collections are designed to be combined with each other, not simply worn for a season and discarded. We only order to meet demand and focus on fabrications to make sure the garments have a long life cycle. It is a pillar of our business to reduce waste in all forms, including wasted stock from over-ordering. This is something we are always improving on.

Do you feel the appetite for fast fashion is a reflection of a culture out of sync with itself, in that its individuals need to be told what garments they should wear and when they should replace them?
Yes, I think this is a part of our culture, [in that] we are taught to consume. It’s really important to take responsibility for what you are purchasing as a consumer and to make sure you stand behind the brands and pieces that you are investing in. One of our basic needs as humans is to feel wanted, so it can be difficult to break the grain of trying to fit in, especially in a culture that places so much importance on social status.
Further to your point on fabrications, at St. Agni you create quality timeless pieces in materials that are gentle on the environment. Can you tell me a little more about how your fabrics are sourced and what makes them more sustainable?
We make it a priority to use natural fabrics that will be compostable at the end of their life. We have been lucky to work with some really amazing mills that produce beautiful fabrics made from hemp, Tencel, yak, and organic cotton—these are all sustainable in the way they are produced. But we aren’t perfect, and there is always room to improve in this area. We face some challenges when it comes to traceability, as we are a small company and often do not use enough fabric to meet the high minimum order quantities for certain materials.

It would be hard to strike the perfect balance, for sure. Your latest collection consists of linen, silk, cotton, hemp, alpaca, Tencel, and organic cotton. By working with biodegradable fabrics such as these, do you feel you are, in some way, nurturing Mother Nature herself?
We aim to give back more than we take by making considered choices when selecting fabrications. We have also partnered with a program called Carbon Neutral that is working on reforestation in the Yarra Yarra Biodiversity Corridor; to date we have planted 24,459 trees and shrubs. We have made it a priority to ensure that everything we produce as a brand, whether it be product or packaging, is biodegradable or recyclable.

Orsola de Castro, the co-founder and global creative director of Fashion Revolution, once said that ‘it isn’t enough just looking for quality in the products we buy, we must also ensure that there is quality in the lives of the people who make them.’ Can you tell me about how you encourage understanding, appreciation, and acceptance of all people in your supply chain to create healthy and safe relationships?
I can’t agree more with this sentiment by Orsola de Castro. It’s about open communication between us and our manufacturers, and us and our customers. I think it’s really important to have good relationships with your suppliers, to know them personally; however, you can’t solely rely on these personal relationships. So, at St. Agni, we also look for certifications to make sure our supply chain is being transparent with us about the way their staff are looked after.

It has been said that nearly 20% of global wastewater is produced by the fashion industry, and approximately 15% of fabric intended for clothing often ends up on the cutting room floor. At St. Agni, you strive towards zero waste to landfill through waste reduction, reuse, and recycling. What practices do you employ on a daily basis in pursuit of this end goal?
There are a number of practices that we implement when it comes to waste management and reducing our environmental footprint. The easiest environments to manage are our warehouse, headquarters, and retail stores. Not only is our e-commerce packaging completely recyclable, but our garments are also delivered to us in biodegradable cornstarch bags, which we use as waste bags and bin liners here in our office. Waste management is a little more difficult when it comes to the manufacturing environment, as there are a number of restrictions and legislative processes you have to abide by. One outcome in particular that we are very proud of is that of our card holders, which are crafted from footwear offcuts which would have otherwise been discarded.
What an imaginative way to recycle! Speaking of your footwear, you have recently introduced jute into your latest footwear collection, one of the most sustainable fibres in the world. Can you tell us a little more about the process of sourcing this material and how it will help to increase the sustainability of your supply chain?
Jute fibre is 100% biodegradable and recyclable, and thus environmentally friendly. A hectare of jute plants consumes about 15 tonnes of carbon

dioxide and releases 11 tonnes of oxygen—much more than trees. Jute also

enhances the fertility of the soil in which it grows, helping the growth of future crops. We produce our jute footwear with our very first footwear partners in Indonesia and also in India, where they can source the fibre locally.

So much careful thought goes into your processes—inspiring, considering how the clothing industry has been oversaturated for some time now. How do you develop and maintain a unique voice and aesthetic amid the noise of the current market?
It’s important to be authentic and to stay true to your vision. I can see how tempting it may be to jump on or follow a trend, but your customers can see through this. I’m happy to not be everything to everyone and to just keep creating pieces that authentically represent the St. Agni ethos and what I love.

And what role does the recognition and honouring of your authentic self play in your process?
Everything comes back to these elements: the decisions we make as a business, the organisations we choose to support, and the pieces we produce. At St. Agni, everything is personal and contemplated; it’s important to me that things stay this way.

What lessons have you learnt as a designer from listening to yourself and yourself alone?
I work with an amazing team, and I’m always open to hearing their ideas. But, at the end of the day, I think it’s crucial to give yourself some quiet time to make sure your decisions are authentic and considered.

In a piece published by Vogue Business, Timo Rissanen, a founding member of the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion, stated that ‘mostly people dare only imagine “solutions” that fit into the existing system and its values and goals.’ Rissanen then went on to say that we are much less capable of imagining what a life of abundance might look like with a radical and rapid reduction in energy consumption, and yet that’s the work of imagination we must do urgently. What role do you feel imagination will play as we work together to revolutionise the fashion industry in the years to come?
Essentially, the core of all design is problem-solving, so it’s just about focusing on a different aspect of the process, but everyone is capable of this. The fashion industry has made a lot of progress in the last few years towards a better future, but we still have a long way to go. It’s about everyone analysing what they are doing and why, about asking ourselves the hard questions. Only then can we imagine how we could possibly do things better.

And what hard questions will you and the team at St. Agni be asking yourselves this year?
At the moment, we are discussing how we can achieve better trackability on the fabrics we choose to use. And asking ourselves questions along the lines of: what would it look like if we didn’t work in alignment with the fashion calendar? How can we make our product more circular? For example, by introducing a recycling program for garments. As well as: what would it look like to move production to Australia? How can we make our product more inclusive? And how can we be more transparent, more accountable, and more empowering?

Sounds like it will be a powerful year for the brand. When you look further ahead, what do you envisage for the future of St. Agni?
We still have so many things we can do to improve as a business, and we will keep analysing how we do things and keep trying to make our ways of working better. Ultimately, I want St. Agni to continue to make good quality products from beautiful fabrics. I want our team to enjoy working for our business, and I want our manufacturers to be safe and happy.
Photographer: Odin Wilde
Creative Director: Annika Hein
Stylist: Billie Iveson
Production: Sunday Service Agency
Model: Bridget, Kult Australia
Make-Up: Teneille Sorgiovanni using Sisley Paris
Hair: Taylor James Redman using Hair Rituel by Sisley Paris
Styling and Creative Assistant: Olivia Sullivan

1 march 2021
Mamiya rz67 pro ii and Canon eos-1
Blue Mountains, Australia