This Fashion Designer Is Betting You’ll Wear the Same Shirt for 30 Years

Mark Hay

Two years ago, Tom Cridland was a small-fry newbie in the British fashion world. Just out of college with no real industry work to his name, he’d used a tiny government loan to start an eponymous brand making affordable, yet luxury-level, trousers. The company had done fairly well; celebrities like Daniel Craig, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Hugh Grant were rocking his slacks, bringing in attention and customers. But his brand was still a shoestring affair with just one other employee: his girlfriend since age 18, Deb Marx. Despite his limited experience and resources, Cridland decided he wanted to make something truly innovative. He launched a slew of crowd-funding campaigns, hitting up everyone he knew for money to launch something he called the “30-year sweatshirt”—a simple, super durable clothing staple.

Cridland saw the 30-year sweatshirt as a direct challenge to the fashion industry’s growing norm of producing cheap clothing that breaks down within a year or two. These practices, which skew toward noxious materials and poor labor standards, heavily contribute to fashion’s status as the second-highest polluting industry in the world, after oil. Cridland figured he could source high-quality, organic materials and work with skilled artisans, leaning on older traditions focused on durability to produce a line of simple sweaters. These items would cost more up front (around $100 with flat-rate shipping) but less per wear over time, all while taking a lighter toll on the Earth’s resources. (He landed on a 30-year lifespan after consulting with the Portuguese family firm he partnered with for his initial production; they decided to repair, free of cost, any form of damage within that timespan save for stains.)

The business could have died like so many idealistic entrepreneurial ventures, especially given Cridland’s inexperience. Instead it took off like a shot, with a flood of positive press and the successful launch of the sweatshirt; he took in around $1 million in revenues in 2015 alone. In 2016, Cridland launched a pop-up shop for two months in a posh London shopping district, added a 30-year T-shirt to his collection (as well as a limited-edition holiday sweatshirt), thereby sustaining his press visibility. And this year, Cridland plans to take his message and brand still further. Make Change recently caught up with Cridland to talk about the market for sustainable clothing in a fast fashion world, why his story hooked so many people, and the future of his brand.

Fast fashion and other cheap clothing have strong appeal for many consumers, not all of whom explicitly care about sustainability. Given those trends and forces, how big is the market for what you’re doing? How big can it possibly become?   

The markets are exactly the same. We’re not talking about a fast and a slow fashion market. We’re talking, in our case, about wardrobe staples. It’s just a question of [the company’s] size being a factor holding us back as opposed to [trends like] fast fashion. The pros to buying one of our 30-year sweatshirts far outweigh the pros to buying something from a fast-fashion retailer—and we’re not talking about the environment here. You’re going to save on cost-per-wear, and you’re going to look smarter because we make our clothing to a higher standard. As a bonus … we don’t harm the environment in the same way that fast fashion does. Some fashions are based on trends that don’t have real longevity. But the cornerstones of your wardrobe don’t change that much.

Sustainability is trendy these days. How important do you think that trendiness is to your ability to reach consumers?  

I don’t think sustainable fashion is really a trend. It’s a small handful of conscientious people taking an interest in sustainability and trying not to needlessly contribute to the cycle of waste.

The garments we make aren’t in any danger of going out of fashion. No matter how we market them, there’s always going to be demand. But our concept is more eye-catching than a trend—the simple promise that our garments are going to last for 30 years. … I’m not for one second going to think any of the major tabloids that covered us wanted to focus on the nitty-gritty of sustainability and how much fashion is contributing to landfills and the fact that fashion is the second-most polluting industry after oil. They just wanted to write about the guarantee.

There are other brands—well-known ones—that make durable clothing and market themselves around lifetime guarantees. How did you build a brand and sell your story when you’re not the only or the first durable brand out there?

The lifetime guarantee is a very respectable thing to do, but I don’t think it’s necessarily realistic based on conversations with my production team. The lifetime guarantee just felt like a gimmick to me. I’m not knocking other businesses, but I wanted to come up with something more concrete. I felt [the 30-year guarantee] was … a great way to market sustainable fashion.

[As to how I sold the story,] it wasn’t something where we went viral. We’ve been getting good press for two years—and I’ve worked hard at it because I needed to get that exposure to survive. We didn’t have a marketing budget [when we started]. I worked out how to do it. No one taught me. But everyone wants a story, and there’s interest in almost everybody’s story, otherwise human beings wouldn’t enjoy interacting with people so much. We were articulate, and we tried to communicate things concisely. Sometimes we’d get it wrong, but you’ve got to knock on every door if you want to get the word out there.

You’ve said you’re not directly competing for fast fashion’s market. But given your focus on sustainability, do you feel an obligation to push back on that industry?

Yeah, I think that fast fashion is badly made, and it’s tacky. There are people who complain about not having enough money for good clothing—yet go out shopping for clothing every weekend and end up spending thousands of pounds on clothing [every year]. I’d rather buy one nice suit in a year, for example, than a few different outfits every month.

Sure, that’s the case for some people. But there are many people who don’t have the luxury of saving and waiting—people who need clothes now and can only afford cheap clothing. How can sustainable fashion play into their lives? Is that something you’re focusing on?

I see that problem. Even though we’re trying to offer clothing made to a luxury standard at an affordable price point, there are people out there who simply can’t afford it. My best advice—go to thrift shops. This is what I do when I want to buy really great clothing that I otherwise wouldn’t want to spend the money on. You can find some really great clothing there at low prices. You can go looking for sales. We occasionally do flash sales if we’ve got something to celebrate; we [inform] subscribers that the discount’s open just for 24 hours. We don’t like doing it for longer because it devalues our brand. But stuff like that.

Still, for some people I understand [fast fashion is] the only way. It’s a sorry state of affairs. The people who put together [cheap clothes] are probably in a similar position.

Speaking of workers, I know you take pride in using well-compensated, high-skilled labor in Europe. But you’ve thought about shifting production to the developing world, right? What’s your approach to taking sustainable fashion into areas where clothing production is vital to the economy, but often linked to brutal environmental and labor conditions?

We had a plan to move our production to India to use organic cotton, but we put a pin in it. We’re happy with our manufacturing, and we want consistency. Consistency is key.

Down the line … if you have the resources to do it, maybe moving your production there is the best thing. If you open your own production facility [that you’re able to monitor independently], pay people what is a great living wage out there, that’s still going to make you save money because it’s cheaper than European prices. Basically, just going out there and doing it properly, taking advantage of the fact that the country is cheaper but not running [wages and conditions] into the ground.

What is your plan for growth today? How big do you want your brand to become?

Later in 2017 we’re going to be launching women’s wear for the first time.

Longer term, we’ve been approached by a major [company] interested in working with us on business development and our first-ever foray into third-party retail. We’ve resisted calls to go into third-party retail [before] … We’ve got to really focus on making our website and our garments reflect our philosophy because our brand, our concepts, and our philosophy are our strongest attributes. I really want to do them justice. Within five years, we’re trying to continue to establish ourselves as the leading sustainable fashion brand.

Why have you resisted working with brick-and-mortar retailers before? What (if anything) would draw you into a traditional retail setting like that?

What we turned down was giving away some equity in return for investment and help with scale, which we didn’t want to do. We started a public relations agency that enabled us to make enough money and invest in things like a new website. We’ve focused on trying to get our online model up and running, which allows us to get clothing to consumers at a good price point. And it’s a real test of whether you can establish yourself as a brand that people will search for on its own.

One has to remember this was started with a small government loan at our kitchen table. We’re grateful to be doing this, so we’re trying to keep our feet on the ground and get established.