Changing the world, scarf by scarf, is the mission statement that aptly sums up what York-based ethical fashion brand Conscious Apparel strives to achieve. Founders Sylvia Schroer and Karin Barter were friends who met up again after Karin’s retirement from her career as a teacher. “It’s worked out tremendously well. She makes me hoot and we have a great time,” says Sylvia, who lives in York’s Southbank, near Rowntree Park (Karin lives in Epping).
“It’s calling in, rather than calling out,” she says. “We are inviting people to really see these lovely clothes and to be conscious of what they wear. It’s not bashing people over the head and saying ‘you must wear ethical fashion and nothing else’.”
Clothing to lift your spirit is another of Conscious Apparel’s taglines, describing the decidedly colourful offer of this online retailer specialising in clothes, jewellery and accessories made ethically by artisans across the world.
Together, Sylvia and Karin work with designers and manufacturers to create timeless pieces using sustainable fabrics including bamboo silk, organic cotton and hemp. They produce a bi-annual newsletter to keep the Conscious Apparel community informed about ethical and environmental concerns in the fashion industry and launched a Curvaceous Apparel range to take a stand against ageism and sizeism. The jewellery range by Moth + Magpie uses upcycled old jewellery and items found mud-larking.
There is no latest fashion bandwagon-leaping going on here, far from it. Sylvia worked at ethical clothing store Maude & Tommy in York from 2013 until it closed in 2019. “I thought, I want to keep working with ethical fashion, and fashion is in my blood,” she says. “My mother had boutiques in Kensington and she was an amazing woman. She is my inspiration. She did very similar things, she bought stuff from India, Peru, Turkey and all over the world. Her shop was like an emporium and when I went into Maude & Tommy, it reminded me. My mum had just died and I felt like she was with me.”
Sylvia, who also works as a therapist and is an academic by background, grew up in Earl’s Court with her mother, Irmgard Chapman, and her brother, Felix Schroer, who sadly died last year. “He was probably the first male supermodel,” she says. “He modelled with Jerry Hall and Marie Helvin. He was extraordinarily good-looking and went over to New York to join Elite. He was a lovely man and very into fashion.”
Sylvia and Karin work especially with Nila Rubia, an established British ethical brand that makes clothes in India including hand-blocked prints, with some designs created exclusively for Conscious Apparel, including dressing gowns made from leftover fabrics. They also work with the brand Afterlife Projects, based in Kolkata, encouraging it to produce made-to-order coats from hemp and linen, and with Cofur, a Danish brand that makes upcycled sari products, and with India-based Yavi.
“They are not mass-produced. They can’t be,” Sylvia says. “You are wearing something very unique and it connects you to the people that make it.”
To celebrate the arrival of Conscious Apparel’s new collections, Sylvia staged a fashion shoot, gathering together a group of friends and fellow ethical fashion lovers in her garden and that of neighbour Kate, at their homes near Rowntree Park in York.
“Our brand is all about real women wearing clothes that express who they are,” says Sylvia. “The theme for the shoot was ‘ethical fashion inclusivity’. It was a joyous sunny day.”
The models, all women living and working in or near York, were: Pauline Rourke, costume hire supervisor for York Theatre; Kate Morgan, who works at the Bar Convent; Sylvia herself; Renee Osborne, a missionary; Ruth Claydon, artist and jewellery maker at Moth & Magpie; and Katie J Hill, an artist and university lecturer, who runs community arts at Southbank Studios.
“The pandemic has been a bit of a setback in that our clothes are mainly occasionwear, not all of them, but especially the winter stuff, the beautiful coats. People weren’t going out, so that has been a bit tough, but we are set up well for the future,” says Sylvia.
There is also a pre-loved strand to the business, rather like a dress agency for ethical brands, and Sylvia and Karin hope to grow this in the future.
Although they cannot physically fly out to check the ethics of suppliers, Syliva says: “What we can do is raise consciousness about what is going on in fashion and about the environmental damage, the exploitation, all those things, and get people to start thinking about what they wear in a different way.
“When you wear an upcycled sari, you are thinking about the woman who wore that sari before, and I think that’s lovely.”
All clothes and accessories from www.consciousapparel.co.uk. Photographer Deborah Stevenson is at deborahstevensonphotography.com.