This article is part of our Going Against the Grain series, which tells the stories of companies bold enough to break business norms and try out new ideas. To explore the rest of the series, head here.
Despite securing a job with Nike, widely regarded as the most valuable apparel brand in the world, Becky Okell was growing disenchanted with the industry she worked in.
The fashion sector produces more than 92 million tonnes of textile waste a year, with UN estimates placing its contribution to global CO2 emissions at between 2% and 8%. Facts like these suggested to Okell that there must be a better way to run a clothing business.
“In the fashion industry, more often than not, companies are knowingly overproducing in favour of cheap prices that don’t fairly pay the makers of their garments,” says Okell. “Meanwhile the pace of trends and shopping keeps accelerating. This cocktail of cheap, disposable products means we can’t handle the level of waste the clothing industry churns out everyday.”
While at an entrepreneurship accelerator, Okell was introduced to Huw Thomas who shared many of her concerns over the level of waste in the industry. Working together, they identified two key areas for improvement: overproduction and poor product quality. And so in 2018 they established Paynter: a jacket brand that purposefully limits the number of products it produces each year
“We didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of others in our industry and their broken business models,” Okell says.
Their solution was to produce jackets in batches, making only the number of items sold and ensuring that each product and style is designed to endure “for decades, not seasons”.
Paynter has now produced 12 batches of its jackets in three years, with a different design used for each. The number of pieces produced for each batch has varied from 30 to 750, depending on the style and number of orders.
Why Paynter decided to grow slow
The concept of limiting product production might sound antithetical to creating a successful business for any CEO primarily focused on profit. Okell admits that 12 different products “sounds like nothing compared to most brands, which produce collections with hundreds of styles per season”. However, the two co-founders have found their unique approach to business has several benefits.
“Being so clear on the problem we’re working to solve is a great motivator,” Okell says. “Our quality improves with every batch as we learn more and grow ever closer to the fantastic factories we work with. Thankfully that’s a sentiment often shared by our customers.”
Similarly, Okell stresses that producing any product in a “thoughtful and responsible way” takes time. “It’s really important for us to test everything we make through the design process and before we sell it, to make sure we’re confident about the quality,” she adds. “Since our focus is on reducing waste in our industry, it’s very important that we grow slowly and only once we’re certain there is demand.”
That demand does appear to be there. In May 2019, the company’s first batch of 300 jackets sold out in 14 minutes and there was a waiting list of more than 1,000 customers.
But the business model does not come without risk. “Making only four times a year is incredibly difficult on so many levels,” Okell says. “First of all it’s a huge risk, you’ve got to become comfortable with sales amounting to £0 on most days throughout the year, all while costs keep going out. That quickly forces you to be very careful with how you spend and what you prioritise.”
It also means that there’s a lot riding on the success of each Paynter batch. “If one batch goes wrong, that’s 25% of your annual product and 25% of your reputation and customer’s trust at risk,” Okell adds.
The pair were unaware of the significance of the risk this placed on the brand until supply chain issues struck shortly after the first Covid lockdown. Several boxes of their products went missing while travelling between the factory and customers. Despite trying to track them down, the jackets eventually had to be remade, causing a significant delay for those that purchased them.
Although the customers were understanding, Okell says that she “felt terrible”. “Most companies order their stock, receive it and then start selling so, if something has gone missing, only the company would know,” she explains. “For us, when we start to make something it’s already got someone’s name on it, so there’s a different level of risk there.”
Finding success as an independent retailer
Gaining the trust of customers is something that’s very important for Paynter - and something that Okell and Thomas don’t take for granted. As soon as the first orders were made, Okell says she “knew we had to deliver a great quality product to those people who had trusted us”.
In an effort to build up trust, anyone who pre-orders one of Paynter’s garments is sent video updates from the factory floor every week, so they can see exactly how their jacket is made. This is something that fast-fashion brands are often more concerned with hiding.
“We believe strongly that if you connect with something, you’re more likely to cherish and care for it,” Okell adds. “That’s why we send our customers videos from our factories during the production process. We’re lucky to have a close community of customers who feel a big part of our brand.”
The business remains relatively small, with only one part-time employee working in addition to the two full-time co-founders and a number of freelancers. Paynter has its own studio but no stock room - because it holds no stock. Products go directly to the consumer and any returns go straight to the next individual on the waiting list. Offcuts are also recycled into new thread.
Being independently owned is crucial to Paynter’s ability to keep focusing on its core promise of limiting waste. “It means we don’t have to compromise based on someone else’s values,” Okell says. “As soon as you sell even part of your company you’re inviting other decision-makers in, who ultimately only want a return on their investment. We can understand why some companies and industries are better suited to that way of working, but it’s not for us.”
For others looking to build companies with different ways of doing business, Okell has some advice: “It might sound obvious, but if you’re looking to disrupt it’s good to start with the problem,” she says. “What’s currently not working well and in need of disruption? It might be the product, the way you do business, how your product is delivered or all of the above. But it’s worth picking a lane and sticking to one problem at first. You can keep making improvements as you’re up and running and have momentum.”
Paynter’s lane remains proving that the clothing industry does not have to be wasteful, one batch of clothing at a time.