It was in 2014, while working in Italy, that I began to question the wider practices of the fashion industry. Having worked for small and large businesses in the US and Europe I began to think that something, a connection to the clothing we were designing, was lacking industry wide.
As a new designer, I always expected to have deeper, or in any case more active involvement, with the clothing I was designing. You may think I’m naïve but designing and manufacturing things that simply ticked a box (be it customer, price range or material) was not what I was expecting.
I began to think it was no wonder that as consumers we didn’t love our clothes, and ended up more often than not, throwing them away. The makers and the designers of these clothes rarely care about them either.
It was this lack of connection to clothing design and manufacture that made me start STUDY 34. I wanted to get back to making something because it was beautiful as well as functional. Making something that had a purpose, character and a story behind it. Making something responsibly by paying attention to the materials used and their effect on the environment and by working with skilled and respected craftsmen and women.
I started small, with the skills I had accrued over my years at university and with brands, and I set up a little studio with the machinery I needed to make garments to order myself. This approach was very exciting because everything was so instant, orders were manufactured when they were placed online and it was all very creative, but with that of course came a lot of pressure.
Increasingly aware this set up would never be scalable, I started to look for manufacturers close to me, who I could work with producing limited collections. There are not that many manufacturers left in the UK so they were quite hard to find but once found, I worked with them using end of line luxury yarns from the industry.
The collection sold out, which was incredible. But of course working with end of line materials, is not hugely scalable either. So it was from then that I was on the hunt for a ‘new’ or ‘virgin’ luxury material that was also sustainably produced.
And about a year ago I went out to Peru and discovered just that: alpaca.
I spent four days entirely immersed in the world of alpaca fibre processing and clothing production and it was fascinating! It’s an incredibly versatile, lightweight, soft fibre and the array of natural colours is more than any other fibre-producing animal (sheep of cashmere goats for example).
When I got home, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and was determined to find the money and the opportunity to work with alpaca and the amazing craftswomen I met. I made it happen and 12 months later (in September this year), The Alpaca Crew launched on the STUDY 34 site to a fantastic reception.
This garment is a huge step towards achieving my goal of designing and making truly modern and sustainable luxury for women, and I am hugely proud of it.
If anyone reading this has an idea that they truly believe in and want to pursue, but find themselves thinking it might be a bit risky, I’d love to pass on some key things that I have learnt on this incredible journey of ups and downs…
Do stay focused, trust your gut, and take every opportunity that comes your way, no matter how small is may seem. Stop worrying, wondering what others may think and definitely stop getting in your own way!
Do the best that you can, enjoy it and it will be worth it.
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Having completed a degree in Fashion Knitwear Design at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, Eleanor O'Neill went on to work as a knitwear designer for an established Italian brand, having previously worked for an international luxury brand in Switzerland and a global supply chain manager in New York. Launched in 2015, her knitwear label STUDY 34 champions innovative and responsibly produced fashion.