The interview: Jessica Gebhart, founder and creative director, I AND ME

Jessica Gebhart
Jessica Gebhart

I AND ME was born out of the frustration of consumer buying patterns and throwaway culture. After years spent as a buyer and product developer, founder and creative director, Jessica Gebhart, grew increasingly discouraged by the seasonal calendar and subsequent short, and hugely wasteful, shelf life of products. Her “genderless” denim brand is all about buying less and buying better; she tells us all about it.

When and why did you launch the I AND ME denim brand?

My previous role before launching the brand in 2016 was as a women’s denim buyer at Topshop. I did that for about six years. At the time it was a great place to learn about product development and get contacts for suppliers, but I was getting a bit frustrated with the seasonal fashion calendar and the speed we were working at. It was a relentless turnover of styles and getting things in to stores so quickly. Then the styles wouldn’t even be in store for that long before being marked down. So, I AND ME came from that and wanting to offer something different to customers, and wanting to educate them on a slower way of consuming, buying less and buying better. Also, with the idea of looking for more premium products that are designed with longevity in mind. I wanted to appeal to a completely different customer to Topshop, with higher price points to reflect the more premium product. Our jeans retail at £240. Our products are designed to be staples in your wardrobe that only get better with age.

How have you grown it so far?

It’s been an organic growth so far, and that works well with the product, because it’s about a slower pace. The scale of the brand means we have that kind of personability with the customer. They can speak directly to us, ask questions and learn about the product, so it’s very much about the education behind production, style and design. We mostly produce in Turkey, though we have made in Italy too. The fabrics generally come from Japan, Italy and Turkey.

I AND ME

What are the key pieces of the new collection?

I’ve worked on different denim fabric stories in the collection. There’s an indigo story made in Italy, a woven check fabric and a plant-dyed stripe using fabric from India. There’s also a true worker blue type denim. In terms of key styles, I’ve reworked some of our best sellers like the chore jacket, which has been really good for us. We’ve also done a baggy jean and, in the stripe story, we’ve done a really nice smock hooded jacket. We’ve also got dungarees and a slim-leg jean – another of our best sellers – updated in the stripe denim fabric.

How is the offer genderless?

It’s all unisex. We fit everything on both male and female models. Everything is designed to make sure it works with both male and female body shapes, with the size range going up to bigger sizes for men. We go from a 26 waist up to a size 36. I don’t use stretch fabrics at all and I find the rigid denim fabrics work across both men and women. At the moment, sales are probably 60/40 women’s to men’s.

Is sustainability a major factor in what you do?

Definitely. I launched the brand from that kind of perspective. We partner with a manufacturer in Turkey which has massively invested in technology to reduce chemicals and water wastage within production processes. The factory utilises machinery that reduces water usage by 50%, chemicals by 60% and energy by 70%. Small runs and clever re-use of materials promotes a more efficient approach with a large reduction in wastage. We also work with mills which are pushing the boundaries in that sense as well, in terms of their dying or weaving processes. We use plant-dyed fabrics and we’re trying to always source responsibly to get certified products out there. A high percentage of our garments are created using raw and unwashed denim which uses no artificial treatment techniques, and there’s no added water, chemical or electrical usage at all during production. We also use ‘ozone technology’ as an alternative treatment to water, utilising high pressure air to create various denim washes. And more organic fabrics have been introduced into the range across the denim and jersey categories.

Are you finding awareness of sustainability is growing?

It’s difficult in that this type of product does cost more to make, so it costs customers more to buy. But there is definitely more of a conversation happening about the whole thing since the pandemic. People seem more clued up about it, which is great. But we’re aware that not everyone has that kind of disposable income to be able to spend over £200 on a pair of jeans that have been made sustainably. Our product is very exclusive as we only produce 50 to 100 pieces of each garment. ‘Buy less, buy better’ is our brand statement. I think we’re in a good position in terms of where the industry is going because we’ve be trying to push the sustainability side from day one. In terms of being an independent, sustainable brand, we’re in quite a strong position because we’re doing and saying the right things and people are responding to that by buying our product.

Have you had any production difficulties during the pandemic?

Yes, it’s been really challenging! The collection I’ve just launched now was due to launch at the beginning of the year, but that obviously got put on hold quite swiftly. Production has been very stop, start. Where we’ve had orders from stores, it’s been quite stressful managing their expectations, but we work with independents who are quite sympathetic towards everything that’s happened, and thankfully they are flexible. The factories have started back again, but they are not at full capacity, so things are a lot slower again. This collection, under the working title of ‘As Daydreams Go’ – which references how lockdown came so suddenly and we were all daydreaming of far-away places, is coming in slowly in a few different drops. Ideally, I would have launched it all together as one, but that’s not been possible.

Who sells your brand?

We supply independents in the UK, US and Japan. Examples of UK stockists include Our Daily Edit in Brighton, Albion Stores in Margate and Not Just Another Store in Shoreditch. We are also just launching with Epitome in Edinburgh – our first stockist in Scotland. In the US we’re in Burke Mercantile in Long Beach, California, and in Japan we’re in Vulcanize London. About 60% of our business is selling direct to consumer from our website. It would be good to expand in to the right department stores in the future, but right now, given the climate, it’s more about focusing online. The pandemic saw online sales be strong for quite lot of people, and we had a couple of good months online ourselves, though it is quieter now. With the new collection launch, online is something that we are really focusing on – especially in the run-up to Christmas. We shall then see what 2021 brings. We’re a small brand and very much about organic growth, so we can be quite reactive in terms of where the sales are coming from.

Have you ventured in to any bricks and mortar retail yet?

We’ve done pop-up shops in the past which have been really successful. We did one on Redchurch Street in Shoreditch a couple of years ago – around Christmas time – which was really good. We’d love to do some more pop-ups in the future. We do have a studio space in Hackney Wick, which is also open to customers to come and see us, have a chat and try on product.

How important is social media to growing brand awareness?

Instagram is the biggest platform for us. We’re quite a visual brand and we work a lot on our content, so it’s a good platform to show that off and push product. We’ve got over 6,000 followers now.

Have you had any investment, or might you be looking for some?

No, it’s all been self-funded, though it’s just about funding itself now! I’d definitely like to look at getting some investment going forward, because it is mostly me doing everything. It would perhaps be good to get a partner in to share responsibilities. So, someone who could come with a bit of funding and business support would be ideal.