Isabel Manns has a unique take on sustainable fashion – her clothes are not only made from quality fabrics using techniques to minimise waste in London factories, but they are also reversible. One side is printed with Manns’ unique designs and and one side is plain, extending their life further still. London-based Manns trained in New York and would one day love to see her designs sold there.
Can you give us some background on your journey into fashion? What drew you to fashion and where did you study?
I first became interested in fashion when I was 14 years old. I was always very creative and I enjoyed painting, but when I started taking textile classes at school I found that I loved the fact that you could then wear your own artwork as it added another layer onto the creativity.
What was it that drew you to study in New York?
I loved New York City and when I went on holiday there, I decided to look around Parsons for comparison against the UK art collages. I liked that you could take so many electives, that were not necessarily about fashion (for example, I took History of Art and American Politics classes). Parsons also offered me to take print design classes as well as accessory and millinery classes alongside womenswear.
I knew that I wanted to learn digital print design so for me this was one of the main reasons why I chose Parsons. I also thought that it would be great to move to another city, meet new people and experience living and working in a different country.
What did you do upon graduation and was the plan always to set up your own label?
I always wanted to set up my own label but I knew that I needed industry experience. I, therefore, worked as an Assistant Designer for high-end eveningwear designed Alexandra Vidal in New York for a year after I graduated.
How did you get the brand off the ground and what was the opportunity you identified?
I had the idea to make reversible clothing ever since I started at Parsons. I was always very sustainably conscious and so my idea was that if people had two outfits in one then they wouldn’t need to buy as much clothing and they may decide to spend a little bit more on something that is of high quality. I also wanted to support British industry and use good quality fabrics so that the clothes would last you a lifetime.
When I moved back to London, I started making bespoke eveningwear for private clients. As I got more orders I started visiting small ateliers in London to see if they could help.
Whilst I was making bespoke dresses I decided to make my first reversible dress myself to see if it would work. The dress turned out really well and so I thought that this really could work as a business. I then took the plunge and started the process of setting up my womenswear brand.
I wrote a business plan, made other reversible items with the ateliers that I had met, and launched my first collection in a pop-up shop six months later to family and friends.
Tell us more about the reversible concept; what garments do you produce and how are they reversible?
You simply just turn the garment inside out!
We produce all kinds of reversible garments now, although it started as just a few tops, skirts and dresses. In the last eight months worked out how to make reversible palazzo pants, which are launching very soon and I am very excited about!
I work with an Italian zip manufacturer who makes us a custom made reversible zips and I also use particular buttons that look the same if the items are turned inside out (this was the hardest thing to source at the beginning). Many items are very complicated to make reversible and you have to use fabrics that work well together for both sides, so it did take a lot of trial and error at the beginning.
The idea for the reversible clothing is that it can justify you buying something more expensive, that is well made in Britain and which will last you a lifetime, not be thrown away after one season.
You design all your own prints, where do you get your inspiration?
I get inspiration everywhere, but it is mainly from my family’s garden in Herefordshire. I love nature and our garden is very inspiring. I usually start my process by painting and taking photographs and then in photoshop I mix them together and create the digital print.
How is the brand distributed at the moment and how would you like to see that develop?
We are mainly selling directly to the customer which is great because I love meeting and talking to our customers. I would like to see our website sales increase more and to be stocked by some independent department stores that value independent British brands like us.
It’s obviously been a tough time for everyone in fashion, how have you managed and what opportunities do you see coming out of this time?
At the beginning of lockdown, it was very tough as we were about to sign the contract to have a pop-up shop in Central London for the summer with lots of planned events! About two weeks into lockdown I decided to not design and launch a Spring/Summer 2021 collection for September, as I wasn’t sure what people would want or need as it was and still is such an unknown time.
Instead, during the beginning of lockdown, I focused on making masks (after a couple of requests) with the profits going to the NHS. We had some surplus fabric leftover and so I thought that we could put our skills to use and provide what people needed.
We are lucky that because everything is made locally our turnaround time for producing masks is so quick that we were able to provide masks for people from the beginning of lockdown.
I have learnt so much from talking to our new customers this summer and finding out what they would like to see in future collections. Having the time to genuinely think about the future of my business due to the lockdown has been very valuable. I have now decided to make “seasonless” collections and not stick to the traditional collections each season. This will mean that we can produce exactly what customers would like right away rather than having to guess 6 months to a year ahead of time.
How have the masks been selling for you?
Our masks have been selling so well! I found that people want masks that are soft, comfortable and colourful to brighten up this terrible time and our masks are just that! We are launching some new masks very soon that will match the Autumn/Winter 2020 collection, which is also going to be available to buy soon!
What are your ambitions for the brand moving forward?
My ambition is to grow our customer base internationally whether that is through direct sales via our website or by being stocked by international stores. I would love the opportunity to sell to a department store in New York as I still consider the city very much a home.
I also have design ideas that go beyond just reversible clothing but that are in the same category as being flexible and timeless.