They call it the "Markle Sparkle," an affectionate term for the attention that brands, beauty trends—and of course, charitable causes—receive once the Duchess of Sussex puts her weight behind them. For many companies (Sarah Flint shoes, for example) that sparkle glimmers bright, taking popularity—and revenue—to new heights. But for one brand in particular, exposure from the Duchess of Sussex hasn't just boosted sales, it's dramatically changed the lives of those who work there.
In the fall of 2018, shortly after announcing that she and Prince Harry were expecting their first child together, the Duchess of Sussex made an official visit to Australia, during which she donned a pair of black high-waisted stovepipe jeans, a style known as the Harriet, from Outland. The brand was part of Markle's effort to wear ethically produced clothing.
Outland was founded by James Bartle in 2011 after he became acquainted with an anti-trafficking group at a music festival. It was there that he learned that once a woman has been rescued from sex-trafficking and related exploitation and supported through her recovery, it is vital for her to find a sustainable career path in order to secure her future.
Through Outland, Bartle and his team started the "Denim Project." The brand's factories were in Cambodia and they launched an education program there that trained vulnerable women in a highly specialized craft, and then gave them jobs in a stable and safe environment creating the brand's premium denim.
Beyond Outland's commitment to preventing vulnerable women from falling back into poverty—and a broader mission to set a high standard for the treatment of young female workers in the garment manufacturing industry—there is also the brand's dedication to sourcing ethical and environmentally sound raw materials from organic cotton to recycled packaging. All in all, wearing Outland denim was an ethical hat trick for the Duchess of Sussex, who not only champions the advancement of women worldwide, but has also favored environmentally friendly fashion brands in the past.
So what changed for Outland after October 2018? A whole lot. There was an immediate 3000% increase in web traffic, and sales increased by a whopping 640% in the week following Meghan's first appearance in the jeans. The Harriet sold out in 24 hours in Australia and the United States, where it also was backordered twice. That same style is just now starting to come back into stock in limited quantities.
The denim maker has since been able to hire 46 new seamstresses in Cambodia, raising their total number of employees to 130, two of whom are recently-hired men who were rescued from human trafficking as well.
"Employment for these women is completely life-changing in the sense that it acts as a protective mechanism against the very things that led to their exploitation in the first place," says Bartle. "Poverty and the stigma and shame within specific cultural settings that so many exploitation victims suffer from affects every aspect of their lives, from educational attainment to employment."
The increased sales means the brand has also opened a state-of-the-art wash house, which boasts new technologies for laser cutting, ozone tech (which prevents the denim from being doused in thousands of liter of water during the treatment process), organic chemicals, and even recycled water filtration systems. All of which have helped Outland have even greater control over their environmental impact.
So what's next for the brand turning denim production into an ethical industry? Bartle says that they are scaling mindfully–especially with regards to their workforce. "To maintain the core brand story and serve our purpose means offering more training and employment opportunities to vulnerable young women and men at risk of human trafficking, so we don't operate like other garment factories," he explains.
"That said, creating a beautiful premium jean that you can buy in some of the world's top department stores takes skill, and market differentiation has to go beyond a good story, so we are heavily focused on style and training our staff in the latest techniques and technology."
For now, Bartle and Outland are asking that consumers look at the true value of the garments they wear. "If we all had the opportunity to visit some of the places where our things are made, then how we think about those things would change," Bartle says.
"We hope to change this not only leading by example in how we treat and value our staff and give them a voice, but by contributing on a global level to the discussion about fashion ethics."
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