Retykle's Sarah Garner On Starting A Circular Luxury Fashion Store For Children
The sustainability advocate shares how she fought gender stigmas and an uneducated public to start a sustainable fashion loop for growing kids in Hong Kong and Singapore
Did you know that the fashion industry is one of the world’s top industries that are polluting the world and that it makes up about 10 per cent of humanity’s carbon emissions, pollutes our water bodies and uses plastic in about 60 percent of their materials, according to the United Nations Environment Programme?
These scary statistics were one of the reasons why founder and environmental advocate Sarah Garner decided to start Retykle, a circular fashion store for kids despite the fact that she herself was once a key player in perpetuating the world of fast fashion.
“From an early age, I knew I wanted to work in the fashion industry which is why when I learnt that Bloomingdales ran a great Graduate Management Trainee programme which required a Commerce degree, I decided to pursue the degree and to get all the prerequisites required for the programme,” says Garner.
When she graduated, Garner got her dream job and began as a management trainee at Bloomingdale’s. Shortly after the programme, she moved on to Lane Crawford where she spent time as a womenswear buyer and later, a commercial manager.
With her keen eye and pure grit, Garner was able to make an upwards move to the global planning in fashion division at DFS (LVMH). She remained in this position for two years before becoming the director of merchandising and product development at Shanghai Tang.
“Throughout each of these varied experiences on the luxury side of the industry was an underpinning of the customer-centric experience and service. I learnt a great deal about how to centre business decisions around predictions of customer expectations. This has served our journey well at Retykle as we have never underestimated the voice of the customer and put their experience at the heart of everything we do.”
Beyond selecting and curating products. Garner’s role also had her managing the inventory of brands which involved monitoring metrics, implementing processes and mechanics and more.
It was around this time though that Garner began to realise that fast fashion also had its downsides and that her career was no longer fulfilling her sense of purpose.
“I spent over 10 years climbing the corporate ladder in luxury fashion. After I became a mum, my whole perspective on my role within the industry and my desired career path changed. As soon as my son was a few months old, I saw how quickly everything he used became obsolete even though many of his things were perfectly good to be used by another family.”
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There was clearly a gap in the market and Garner was, at that point, realising that maybe she could come in to bridge it.
“Widespread participation in shopping secondhand was extremely low and I wanted to make it accessible, easy and desirable. I wanted to apply my experience in the fashion industry to solving waste rather than perpetuating consumption. My goal was to destigmatise secondhand by making it feel as good as shopping new whilst providing benefits to families and the environment.”
Notably, Retykle has shared on its site that children will actually speed through seven sizes of clothes in their first two years of life and that they typically can outgrow hundreds of clothes before they are fully grown.
It was in 2016 that Garner was able to make her goal for more sustainable children’s fashion a reality when she launched Retykle, Asia’s first online resale platform that buys and sells pre-loved high-end babywear, kids wear and maternity fashion.
Retykle, which launched in Hong Kong, allows parents to sell gently worn clothes from their kids to the company and earn cashback. Parents are also able to buy these used designer children’s fashion items at a heavy discount on the circular fashion store to encourage recycling and sustainable buying.
Of course, getting people to change their ways is never an easy task and Garner was hit with a dose of reality from the get-go with Retykle.
“We launched in 2016 when I was heavily pregnant with my second child so I started the company waddling and then tethered to a laptop and a newborn,” she says. “I hired two interns the summer we launched and wore all hats in the early days. I did all of the home pick-ups at the seller’s doorsteps myself and mailed each order at the nearest post office. We started very small and I was very close to the customer experience. In fact, I was even on a first-name basis with many of our customers and sellers.”
As a pioneer in space in Asia, there was also the work of educating the public, especially in its early stages. Understandably, Garner and her team had to teach people why fast fashion was so dangerous, how they could be more sustainable and more.
However, an unexpected challenge came in the form of cultural barriers. “There used to exist a deep-seated apprehension where many believed that the spirit of former wearers would reside in second-hand clothing. Thus, a sizable percentage of the market was apprehensive about purchasing second hand,” she says.
Furthermore, as a woman in the kids’ fashion industry, Garner also had to fight against the stereotype of simply being just another mum starting a business as a hobby.
“Retykle was initially stigmatised as a ‘project’ despite our traction and proof points of being a ‘real business’. It is definitely not easy starting a company from the ground up,” she says. “I believe that more female founders should be sharing their stories, to show that it is indeed possible for a woman to be both a mother and the owner of a successful business.”
Today, Retykle accepts and sells over 2,500 of the best children’s and maternity brands from across the globe and they have recirculated over 150,000 items while educating both parents and children alike.
This November, Retykle expanded into its first overseas outlet by launching an online store in Singapore along with a physical studio for parents to come down to view the clothes before they commit to purchasing them.
With her recent expansion, her two children and more, Garner is certainly swamped. Below, she shares how she does it all in her own words.
What is a typical morning like for you?
I wake up at 6.45 am and get my kids dressed and ready for school before taking them to the bus stop for pickup. At about 7.20 am, I take a walk or run on the waterfront path near my place. I also use this time to call a friend or family member in Canada or listen to a podcast. By 9.30 am, I arrive at our Retykle Hong Kong office to start the workday.
What does a standard workday look like for you?
First thing in the morning, I have a quick informal catch-up with my team members. Then I get to work on emails, calls, events, and internal or external meetings. I usually have lunch at my desk, continue working and then leave the office by about 6.15 pm. I try to ensure I get home in time for some evening family time. Once I put the kids to bed, I will continue working from my couch.
How would you describe your working style?
My working style is fluid with relaxed intensity. As many things happen throughout the day, I try to set aside time slots for meetings. Outside of those, I prioritise and accomplish tasks in order of importance and always leave time for team interaction whether scheduled or not.
There are also periods of time where I am completely focused, working intensely on certain deliverables. Although the juggle of predictable versus emergent priorities is constant, I remain calm throughout the day and take each thing in turn.
Free time: overrated or underrated? Why?
Underrated. I think it’s important to have free and liberated time to trigger creativity. I believe that it is vital to have breaks to create distance and be inspired.
I find that when I create the space for new ideas, I am able to come up with innovative solutions to the problems we are trying to solve. True circularity is complex and still in its infancy of possibilities. This is a new frontier that requires ambitious problem-solving.
How do you achieve a work-life balance? How do you set boundaries?
In terms of work-life balance, I believe that being present with my kids at the beginning and the end of the day is essential. Therefore my balance is somewhat predetermined as I work backwards from that as a starting point.
Before having kids, in my corporate life, I was usually the first in and last out. Now I set boundaries and prioritise my work to protect that daily time with my kids. I do my best to limit calls and meetings that are outside of key priorities and take calls versus in-person meetings to set clear limits on windows of availability.
Risks: should you take them? Why or why not?
Absolutely. I never shy away from a calculated risk as, without it, I don’t feel you can reach your full potential or unlock the discomfort that propels growth, creativity and innovation.
How do you deal with your shortcomings?
I try to be quite aware of my blind spots and areas for development. I am constantly seeking opportunities to learn and upskill. I regularly take courses, participate in accelerators, join mentorship opportunities to mentor and be mentored, read books and listen to podcasts. Beyond self-development, I am a big believer in finding others who can complement my shortcomings. Moreover, I elevate and empower team members to have the opportunity to shine and own their domain expertise to round out our team.
What is an idea/thought that you heard recently, that you thought was interesting?
I see blockchain and the digitisation of fashion supply chains and stored data revolutionising the industry and propelling circularity. I also see the infancy of textile recycling and the opportunities that lie ahead with regenerating end of life textiles into new products. Fashion is at the most critical and exciting stage because innovations have never been more crucial. I enjoy learning about anything that will continue to contribute to propelling circularity in the industry.
How do you unplug?
I find exercising and spending time in nature are the best ways for me to relax and also to spur ideas.
How do you stay motivated?
I am motivated by big challenges and we have no shortage of those to tackle in the current and future plans of Retykle. My engine is always fuelled by the complexity and opportunity of what we are trying to accomplish.
What would you still like to accomplish?
True circularity with global participation. While there is a shift in perspective towards caring more about the environment at large, there is definitely a long way to go in terms of circularity in the fashion industry.
My goal is for Retykle is to continue to be a vessel that educates parents, as well as children about the importance of reducing clothing waste and the impacts of fashion on the environment coupled with providing a real solution to combat these issues.
What is the last thing you do before you go to bed?
If I’m honest, power off my phone.