The only way is ethics

WHen I started out, my main aim was to try and revitalise the British textile industry,” says Isobel Davies, founder of Richmond-based ethical fashion company Izzy Lane. “It used to be such an important industry in this country – particularly in Yorkshire.” She launched the company in 2007 and in just four years it has become one of the leading ethical brands not only in the British fashion industry but in the world.

Using the wool of the 600 rare breed Wensleydale and Shetland sheep that Davies has rescued from slaughter, Izzy Lane creates luxury woollen garments which feature regularly on the fashion pages of glossy magazines such as Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan and Harper’s Bazaar. The range of clothing includes skirts, dresses, scarves, cardigans, coats and jackets and the collection were one of the highlights at London Fashion Week recently.

They have won awards both for design and for animal welfare, including the prestigious RSPCA Good Business Award in 2008 and in the same year the RE New Designer of the Year Award at the world’s first ethical fashion awards in London.

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At the root of the company’s ethos are three strong driving forces – animal welfare, traceability and sustainability. “When I first started researching into setting up an ethical fashion brand there was no traceability in the fashion industry,” says Isobel. Through her efforts, however, this has now changed significantly and many fashion students today study the business model she has created.

“We have quite a few students getting in touch who have learnt about Izzy Lane on their course,” she says. “The good thing is that in a few years’ time they will be working in the industry, so it gives you hope for the future.”

Having spent part of her childhood and early teenage years in Yorkshire, Davies moved away when she was 17, first working in France and then in London in the music industry, but she always considered the North “home”.

“I started off playing the saxophone and then I moved into singing and songwriting touring around Europe with various bands, but I always used to come back to Stokesley where my parents lived.”

She eventually gave up performing – “I had a terrible singing voice” – to concentrate on songwriting. She was becoming established and successful in this area when, in 1994, she had the idea of setting up an organic fruit and vegetable box scheme. She canvassed opinion in her local area in South London, the response was overwhelmingly positive – and Farmaround was born. “I thought my future was going to be as a songwriter,” she says. “I never intended to stop the music but Farmaround just took off and took over and I never looked back.”

The scheme is still going strong and delivers all over the country with Richmond as its northern base – and Davies is still very hands-on.

It was through her contact with farmers up and down the country while she was sourcing fruit and vegetable for Farmaround that Davies discovered how much wool was being wasted.

“I met a lot of farmers who told me they were either burning the wool or paying someone to take it away,” she says. “It was the wool merchants who were making the money and the farmers were subsidising them.

“It has been a vicious circle with British wool: because they are not getting a financial return on the wool, farmers have not been inclined to keep sheep that have good wool quality. It’s a shame really because a lot of our indigenous breeds are good for both meat and wool.”

Unlike most other British woollen goods, Izzy Lane’s products can be traced directly back to wool from Davies’ flocks. Due to commercial pressures, most sheep do not live out a natural lifespan – they are either slaughtered young for meat or as soon as they are no longer useful for breeding.

“I realised quite quickly that the only way I could do my project was to have my own sheep,” says Davies. “So I started ‘rescuing’ sheep. I started off with four lambs and I asked a local farmer if I could keep them in his field.”

The 600 Wensleydale and Shetland sheep Davies now looks after, with the help of the same local farmer, Ernest Ayre, will live out their natural lifespan at the sheep sanctuary in the fields near her Richmond home.

Wensleydale sheep live for eight to 10 years on average, while the hardy Shetlands can live up to 18 years, so it is a long-term commitment and responsibility. “There is nobody else that I have found keeping sheep just for their wool,” says Davies. “But the great thing about the internet is that people have heard about what we are doing and it gives them ideas.”

The company employs around 50 hand-knitters around the Yorkshire Dales who make garments for on-line sale both in this country and abroad. “Ours is a very niche market. We are relatively small producers,” explains Isobel. “We make about 1,000 garments a year – but we have a very loyal customer base. When I first started, we knitted masses of stock but now we more or less knit to order.”

In keeping with the sustainability principles of the company, local skills and knowledge are used wherever possible. “We started off using a worsted spinner in Bradford – the last one in the city – who unfortunately, has since gone. We now use one in Halifax and our weaving is done up in the Scottish borders.”

The mill, in Selkirk, is over a hundred years old and uses Victorian machinery. She has also recently found a new manufacturer in the borders who uses hand frame looms. “That’s something I’m really excited about,” she says.

When we met, Isobel was finalising designs for Izzy Lane’s 2012 autumn/winter collection and a special range of luggage and knitwear for high street fashion store Topshop following on from a similar collaboration last autumn.

“Topshop approached us at London Fashion Week a couple of years ago with the idea and it developed from there,” says Isobel. “We created three coat designs for them last autumn. To get on to the high street has been brilliant bec ause it gives us a platform to go global.”

Indeed, the company has been invited to Milan Fashion Week for the first time this year.

The latest venture is Good Food Nation, launched last November in partnership with Daily Mail columnist and fellow animal welfare campaigner Liz Jones. Comprising Cow Nation and Hen Nation, they are providing a range of cruelty-free milk and eggs on sale in Selfridges on Oxford Street in London and online through Farmaround.

They are working with two farmers, one in Suffolk – a dairy farmer who was facing bankruptcy until Davies and Jones bought his 60 Jersey cows which are now providing the milk – and another farmer in Sussex who is providing the eggs. Most chickens are slaughtered after 72 weeks when they have reached their egg-laying peak, while dairy cows are slaughtered after about five years. “All the cows and hens will now live out their natural lives,” says Davies. “We are producing 400 litres of milk per week at the moment. It’s a viable business model – there aren’t many small dairy farms left but we are offering a lifeline to those who want to go down that route.”

The feedback to the launch has been very positive, with Davies receiving emails from people all over the country in support of the idea. “I think it’s quite topical at the moment because of the story strand in The Archers on radio about plans for a super dairy,” says Isobel. “So I think it’s timely – and about time.” There are plans to produce butter, cream and soft cheese and in the longer term Davies and Jones are looking into to setting up Goat Nation – rescuing a small herd of goats to make goats cheese.

“All my businesses feed in to my vision of the world,” says Isobel who adds there has been no grand plan in her business success. “However, when I look back at my childhood I can trace it all back to then.

“I always had a shed full of animals that I had rescued – hedgehogs and newts and so on – and there was also a bit of a ‘wheeler-dealer’ side to me. As a teenager I used to breed rabbits to sell and sell bags of manure from the riding school I went to.”

She is driven by her passionate beliefs rather than ambition. “I’m not doing this for myself but to make a difference. I’ve never been interested in business for the sake of it, I can only get enthusiastic about a business that I feel I really care about. I just wanted to create a business model with ultra high animal welfare principles that others could replicate.” for myself but to make a difference. I’ve never been interested in business for the sake of it, I can only get enthusiastic about a business that I feel I really care about. I just wanted to create a business model with ultra high animal welfare principles that others could replicate.”