Environmental factors have never been more important when buying clothing. With large corporations seemingly unwilling to move the needle on ecological production, people are turning to independent brands that focus on sustainable and ethical practices. non is one of those brands. Founded by Pete Hellyer, non is a brand that is ‘conscious by design’, making ‘agender minimalist denim made with organic & recycled materials and earth-friendly ethical production’. We hit up Pete to discuss non, why denim is the fashion industry’s dirty little secret and why he wanted to make loose skate-inspired jeans with a conscious element.
Why did you decide to start non?
I started it during the first lockdown in London. I’m a freelance creative director and a lot of my work changed and disappeared really when the first lockdown began. I had a lot of time on my hands and it gave me a chance to reflect on what I was doing and what I wanted to do going forward. In the last couple of years, I’ve definitely become more conscious of my own decisions of what I’m buying so I wanted to create a brand with purpose. I was shopping for some jeans and I couldn’t find a style that I liked that had the sustainability credentials that I wanted so I thought I’d start my own.
You’ve been in the industry for over 15 years. Has your background and experience made your journey with non easier?
It’s definitely been a huge help. My background in creative direction really helped on the brand and on the product side. Everything was very instinctive for me in terms of how I wanted it to look, so that was kind of the easy part. I’ve worked at brands like SSENSE and the NET-A-PORTER group so I’ve worked alongside amazing people in different areas like merchandising, buying, shipping. I feel like I’ve learnt from them, without realising it at the time.
I live in denim, and I suppose the collections are pieces I wanted to wear but couldn’t find. The looser skate-inspired styles with a conscious element just aren’t really out there. Denim is kind of the fashion industry’s dirty little secret. The average pair of jeans takes 13,000 litres of water and produces almost 20 kilos of CO2. Six billion pairs of jeans are made like that every year. I feel like there are brands that are doing amazing things in other areas like sweats or jerseys but there aren’t as many doing progressive things with denim. It seemed like a natural fit.
Many denim brands like Levi’s or Nudie are marketing their new products as sustainable. What makes your denim and practice different from other brands?
I think ‘sustainable’ is a really difficult term in the fashion industry. Something is really cool one day and six months later it’s disposable and unattractive to people. That’s built into the industry. So I classify the brand more as conscious by design. Starting the brand from scratch meant we could look at everything from materials to the process and consider its environmental and societal impact. That is harder for a bigger established brand to do as they’ve got their suppliers, the way they work and how they’re trying to improve all without adjusting their prices.
There’s a lot of sustainable ‘practices’ that cost more money; people are paid a living wage, materials cost more, certifications etc. On our side though, we’ve used denim which was exclusively made and milled for us in Turkey, which is one of the leaders in responsible denim production. The denim is 50% recycled and 50% certified organic cotton which helps to minimise waste and ensure durability.
I think there’s a lot of greenwashing with a lot of the bigger brands. Simply saying that you’re using a sustainable material but with perhaps questionable production is not an eco-friendly approach. Wrapping organic jeans in disposable single-use plastic packaging seems like a contradiction to me. We don’t use any plastic in our packaging and currently use recycled polyester for our zippers and thread which takes waste away from ocean pollution. We are working on being 100% plastic-free, looking at bio-plastic, a new sort of material that we can use. We’ve also partnered with EON which is a really exciting part of the sustainability aspect, which is not only about using better materials and ethical productions but it’s also changing people’s mindset to fix a pair of jeans to up-cycle rather than just dispose of. So much clothing ends up in landfill which is obviously a huge problem.
Could you tell us a bit more about working with EON?
I’ve always been really interested in the convergence of fashion and digital. EON has created a platform called the CircularID™ Protocol. It standardises how the materials, production, all the information attached to a fashion garment is recorded. It’s like a common language that other systems can access. In simple terms, the NFC tag on our items in the garment label can be scanned with any smartphone and it will prompt you to go to a page on the ‘non’ website which will give you care instructions and provenance.
They also work with next-generation recycling plants in a way that will support recycling materials. One of the biggest challenges about recycling is that so much of it is manual. A lot of clothes are shipped around the world, which in itself is pretty un-eco. The idea is that these plants being more automated can recycle at a larger scale. Hopefully, it becomes a new standard across the industry because it will help how brands can be responsible for what their goods do at the end of their life.
After the raw denim craze of the early 2010s, denim has gradually geared its way back into fashion. What would you attribute this to?
I think there has been a real sense of wardrobing recently. People are building an aesthetic around timeless pieces that will last. Obviously denim is super versatile to dress up and down and also really durable so I think it really speaks to that. With selvedge denim, I think there’s a naturalness to it, which appeals to many, the way it fades and ages. It’s a definitive opposite to a synthetic man-made material.
We’ve all spent a year at home wearing sweatpants and once the lockdown is over, and society resumes, I think people are gonna want to dress up again and I think denim will be a part of that.
Is there an item from your collection which represents your brand best and why?
My favourite or best representation is possibly the pocket jacket. Denim jackets are such an iconic piece but interestingly there hasn’t been a huge amount of variation in terms of design, so it was a challenge to try and find something that felt new but not too out there. All the pieces are designed to be very wearable, they’re all classic with a contemporary update. It’s clean, it’s minimal but it’s not cold either which I feel like a lot of geometric modernist fashion can go. It doesn’t feel like something out of a sci-fi film.
What is one piece of advice you would give to aspiring designers and those who wish to start their own brand?
Play to your strengths and know your weaknesses. Do not be afraid to fail quickly and learn from it. Also just ask people. I’ve been really surprised by how much information is out there on the internet but also that people are willing to help and share their expertise, especially when you have a purpose behind what you’re trying to do. People share the same concerns about the climate and I think people will support you if you have a cause.
Do you ever see yourself branching out from denim? What would you like to achieve with your brand going forward?
I see ‘non’ as a conscious design brand first and foremost, and denim is the first area we’ve worked in. We’re working on a couple of new collaborations with like-minded brands, who are doing similarly innovative ideas in different spaces. I can’t say anymore because they’re not confirmed but they’ll always fit the brand, they’ll be clean, minimalistic, eco-friendly etc.
Why do you always turn to jeans?
I always feel like this sounds cheesy, but I feel like my best self in them. I always felt like putting on a pair of jeans was making an effort consciously, I just feel like me in a pair of jeans whereas I don’t in sweatpants. I wear jeans every day and have done for twenty-odd years. I’m one of those people who has a uniform; it’s a white tee and a pair of jeans and that’s just how I dress. It’s maybe a little bit of armour, you feel confident in what you’re wearing and you know what looks good, and what works with your wardrobe.
What would you like to achieve with your brand going forward?
The climate emergency is obviously a real threat and the industry has a lot of work to do. My hope I suppose is that ‘non’ can be part of the conversation and part of that change. That would make me really proud. My initial goal was to make 100 pairs almost as a proof of concept and then it evolved from there. That’s my reason for doing the brand, is to help be a part of that conversation. And selfishly, to have some jeans to wear.