2 May 2023

END. sat down with Manchester-based WAWWA to delve into the label’s commitment to transparent and eco-minded craft.

Crucial to moving the needle in fashion are the brands adopting more slower, considered methods of craft, shifting the emphasis to transparency, eco-minded materials and more localised forms of production. One such brand that is tackling this head on is WAWWA, the Manchester-based label committed to making tangible change in the industry.

Since being founded in 2016, WAWWA’s approach to eco-minded fashion has remained unwavering, taking a responsible stance towards materials, remaining transparent with its carbon footprint and, since 2020, producing its own product in the very heart of Manchester. What this commitment does is send a clear message: that pursuing slower, more eco-friendly craft methods is doable, even for smaller labels just getting off the ground.

Delving into the Manchester-based label’s background and commitment to a more sustainable future in fashion, END. sat down with the brother duo behind the brand, Sean and Andrew, for an exclusive interview.

As a brother duo founding the brand, can you touch upon your background and how your advent into the fashion industry came about?

A series of bad and misguided decisions! We have no real fashion background whatsoever. When we started, we had an aim to put our graphic designs on t-shirts, with no real clue about what we were doing. We were into streetwear, trainers, music, skating and all this other stuff as kids, so it sort of felt like living our younger selves’ dream. When we were researching stuff, it was pretty shocking how bad the fashion industry was for the environment. 10 years ago, it wasn’t something that was at the forefront of the conversation, or even close. We were aware of how climate change was affecting the planet, but didn’t really know how to make any type of dent in that problem, as it did (and still does) feel so overwhelming. So we figured if we could make clothing that was less environmentally damaging, we would be providing something people need — behind water, food and shelter — but in a more sustainable way and by making that part of our DNA as we grew, it might in some infinitesimal way help shift attitudes around the topic.

To start with, literally nobody cared. Once when we told a customer that our t-shirts were organic, the response was ‘I don’t give a f**k mate, I’m not going to eat it’, whereas now hopefully for a lot of people, environmental impact will form part of their decision-making process when picking a product. We started with no money and so had to figure out bootstrapped ways to hack stuff together and find creative ways to get stuff done, without spending much money. This DIY attitude meant we learnt to sew, learnt to code in order to build our first website (before the days of shopify), built our own screen printing machine and so on. This naivety and figuring out how to do stuff was fun, we were working on problems together and finding ways to get things to work.

Having your own factory in Ancoats where you produce all of your clothing is a huge element of the brand and its identity. What kickstarted your decision to manufacture everything in-house? 

It was always a long-term goal of ours to have our own production unit, due to the control and flexibility it gives you, while being able to just make stuff super quick. Being able to turn an idea into reality in hours or days, rather than weeks and months makes it exciting, keeps things fresh and takes away that whole boring back and forth process with factories. We can be more nimble, manufacturing closer to the point of demand rather than trying to make predictions 6-12 months out while waiting for factories to make the stuff. This means less waste, better allocation of resources and reduced CO2 emissions as there is less shipping back and forth. It also means we are able to start building a proper circular system, with real recycling programs, repairs and customisations such as alterations — all with the aim of increasing a product's life cycle so that while the product’s out the gate impact is reduced, that impact is spread out over a longer period.

So while it has been a long term goal, at the start of covid when the world felt like it was collapsing, we had some big (for us) orders cancelled by some big companies, but already had the stock. To the point where it was pretty touch and go whether we could have survived it. As we had a few machines at the time that we used for a bit of in-house sampling, we reacted quickly and made — what we’ve been told — was the first commercially available face mask in the UK in response to covid. This was at the time when the government was struggling to get masks for nurses and the official advice was not to wear masks, so we did get a lot of abuse. But we’d done our research and were pretty confident that people would need masks, so we priced them as fairly as we could, found some organic fabric that would work and just spent a month building a make-shift production unit in a converted shipping container — as we were unable to access our old mill due to a fire! This was great, as we were able to take some people who had slipped through the furlough cracks and give them work when everything else was closed.

As the masks died down, we started transitioning over to other things. Starting with relatively simple bags and hats, then gradually shifting into more complicated pieces. This coincided with all the chaos going on in supply chains, Brexit and whatever else, so it felt like a good time to make the shift to doing pretty much everything in-house.  Since then, we’ve been lucky enough to move into an old cotton mill, which is nice and poetic. We’ve added more machines, grown the team and steadily our production output is increasing — whilst still focusing on quality, design and durability. Of course, we’ve been making mistakes all along the way as it’s very much a case of “you don’t know how much you don’t know” but equally, having completely fresh eyes on garment manufacturing which hasn’t changed a huge amount with technology can be exciting, as we’re constantly trying to figure out ways to introduce tech into the process, to make it more efficient and engaging for our talented team who are doing the work.

Manchester’s history is one steeped in textiles, with the city once renowned as the global centre of the cotton industry. How does it feel to be playing a part in continuing this into the modern day?

This is an interesting one. We were fortunate enough to be introduced to a wonderful sewing machine mechanic who’s been working in the area since he was a teenager, so he has seen it when it was bustling with machines and activity. The way he talks about it and what’s been lost is inspiring. For the most part, as a society — in the UK at least — we’ve developed such a disconnect from how our clothes are made. We barely check the label to see which far off country it was made in, we don’t have a clue about the process, the conditions the people work in or how it’s made. But there’s so much skill, craftsmanship and care that goes into making garments.

It’s an art and being able to create these things is a gift — even now when a completed pair of trousers comes through, it’s kind of amazing. But a lot of the skills required have basically dropped out of the workforce, almost two generations have barely been involved in it. Some of the best fabric cutters, seamstresses, mechanics and more that we know of are approaching retirement age. What happens when they stop working? There’s machines now, for which there’s like one, maybe two blokes in the whole country who know how to fix them. When they stop working, who can fix those machines? For us, these are things which should be treasured and skills that should be invested in.

So for us, it’s more about trying to keep some of those skills alive, while doing what we can to make the work more appealing to a younger generation, to which the idea of working in a factory probably isn’t that exciting. So we’re lucky that our team is able to get involved in different aspects of the business, whether it’s design, social media or even finance. It hopefully makes some of the less enjoyable or repetitive parts of the job more interesting. Plus, we have podcasts and audiobooks now which can make overlocking for a few hours a bit more fun. With regards to Manchester's history, some of Lowry's paintings don’t make the history of the industrial revolution seem that great and I suspect people working in the hundreds of factories years ago might be somewhat annoyed that manufacturing is coming back — but as we leverage tech more, the human input should be lessened giving more freedom.

At the core of WAWWA is an eco-minded approach to craft, something which runs throughout every element of the brand — from localised craft to your emphasis on using sustainable and organic materials. Can you elaborate on the importance of this for WAWWA?

It’s a core value that has been woven into the fabric of the brand since its inception. We source innovative sustainable and durable fabrics and components, from local suppliers wherever possible. We use organic cotton. Our buttons are made from corozo nuts. Our garment labels are made using recycled plastic and our graphics are printed with water-based inks. Because ultimately, by creating a product where the initial environmental damage is minimised as much as possible, whilst creating a desirable and functional garment that should last a long time, tackles all parts of the problem.

You’ve also recently began calculating the estimated carbon footprint of almost all of your products. How important do you feel this level of responsibility and transparency is in the fashion industry?

Yeah, so this came about after quite a bit of discussion and thought about what is the best way to actually try and solve the climate crisis within the current economic paradigm. The thought process was that if as a society we’ve settled on capitalism, for better or worse, and assuming that’s not going to change any time soon, then the problem becomes about how to use the tools available within the current system to create meaningful, positive change. The first step is to agree as a society about what is the actual goal, which at the moment the consensus seems to pretty much be reducing our carbon output. They use lots of buzz words like net zero, carbon offsetting etc but it obviously doesn’t really go far enough and you have the challenge of how to get developing nations to reduce their carbon output, because arguably they deserve to be able to industrialise and reach the same standard of living that we have. We can’t just do a load of damage, pull the drawbridge up and say “we’ve got ours now you can’t have yours” — this is of course a simplistic analogy and it’s much more nuanced in reality.

So the problem then is how to implement a system that is fair across nations, works within the confines of capitalism and achieves the goal of reducing CO2 emissions here and now. The best idea we can think of is to introduce a global carbon tax, that basically works the same way VAT does. So the CO2 output is calculated at each stage of the manufacturing process, the raw cotton has a CO2 tax added, which is then passed on to the company that turns the cotton into fabric whose CO2 is added along with the tax. When it arrives with us, we then add the CO2 output and tax to make it into a t-shirt. That tax is then added on to the final sale price of the t-shirt and once paid by the end consumer, goes back into projects that help the environment.

By doing this, each part of the supply chain is incentivised under capitalism to find ways to minimise their CO2 output because ultimately their product will be cheaper than their competitors, which broadly speaking means they should be able to sell more. Companies who don’t prioritise reducing their CO2 output immediately would then become less efficient and, as a result, within a relatively short period of time we should see companies turning their innovation towards this, as there is a clear economic benefit. At the moment, with ‘for profit’ companies, their only real motivation is to appear to be more environmentally friendly, to appeal to a consumer who is becoming more conscious of the impact of what they are buying —  hence the problem of greenwashing! By attaching and internalising the problem, real solutions should arise. So anyway, it was basically born out of some amalgamation of that. Obviously, we’re a tiny company with next to zero resources, but by finding a way to estimate the CO2 impact is kind of like a way of saying, it can and should be done. Plus, at some point, if two products are similar, but one uses 50% less CO2 during its manufacturing process, then the customer would hopefully prefer that one.

WAWWA’s design language is one that’s heavily inspired by classic utility, be it outerwear or military garb, though it’s reworked in a way that feels very current. How do you go about taking these traditional design codes and updating them in this contemporary way?  

It’s about taking inspiration from those things and identifying the elements that function within a modern wardrobe. Whether that’s the practicality and durability of a material like ripstop, water resistant waxed cottons or picking out colours that make sense in a contemporary setting. The majority of our collection, however, comes in timeless, non-seasonal colourways. It’s important to us that our clothes are accessible and not tied to any current trend. Our hope is that everybody, whatever their age, or whatever their style, will feel as though they’re able to include us in their wardrobe.

Functionality is at the forefront of our design process, and we tap into our combined interests in activities such as hiking, skating and cycling etc to inform our decisions, and ensure our products serve a purpose within the outdoor world. Being a small outfit does come with a number of limitations, for example, we're restricted by the type of machinery we have and the kind of fabrics we have access to as we try to source locally and are constrained by the provenance of the materials. Nevertheless, these limitations have incited us to be more creative with our design choices. And by finding a way to solve certain problems, we’ve developed our own distinctive design language that is carried across our entire product range, from garments to accessories.