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The Interview: UNLESS co-founder, Eric Liedtke

Andrew Thompson
09 February 2022

Eric Liedtke is the former Executive Board Member and Brand President at Adidas, where he re-energised the sportswear giant through collaboration and creativity. His work enabled Adidas to break new ground in the areas of material and process innovation, sustainability, and streetwear.

In 2021 he announced his latest venture, UNLESS, a zero plastic streetwear brand which will relentlessly pursue the goal of zero waste. It was co-founded with a collective of industry executives from Quicksilver, R/GA and Adidas.

“Fashion is arguably the world's second-largest polluter. And the plastic problem keeps getting worse. With UNLESS we see a real opportunity for change. An opportunity for a better way. A way driven by cutting-edge innovation married with the desirability of streetwear. An innovative solution for consumers so they can truly feel as great as they look knowing their choices will have a positive impact on the world,” explains Liedke.

He tells us more about the brand, his view on streetwear in general and his vision for the future.

Where does the name “UNLESS” come from? K 

Inspired by a famous quote from the Dr. Seuss classic “The Lorax”. UNLESS is a call to action, and a caution all at once. Unless we find a better way, we will continue to pollute our oceans, our food supply, and our bodies with plastics that never go away.

Who is behind the brand?

We are a collective of industry insiders and outsiders - designers, artists, marketers, and engineers who believe in taking responsibility for the things we make and how they are made. We believe in the power of innovation to solve the problems of plastic waste and the energy of inclusivity to fuel creativity. Our goal is to leave nothing and no one behind on our journey to zero plastic waste.

What was the catalyst for starting a Sustainable Streetwear brand?

People want to look good, they want to buy beautiful products, but they also want to live their values and do less harm to the planet. We don’t think that they should have to compromise their values to look good, or their style to do what’s best. This was our starting point.

From there we dug into the many problems the fashion industry creates for people and the planet.

Honestly, the list is too long to go through here. Everything from labour practices to carbon footprint, to waste at the end of life, and everything in between. Rather than trying to tackle all of it, we decided to take on the problem of plastic waste and what happens to a product once the consumer is done with it.

Less than 15% of discarded clothing is recycled. Most of it ends up in landfills, where the plastics break down into harmful microplastics or are incinerated, leaving behind toxic emissions.

We really liked the idea of starting with the end in mind and designing backward, finding the right material and process solutions required to create a product that can decompose harmlessly at the end of its useful life.

As far as "why streetwear?" We really love the energy and attitudes of streetwear. We love that you don't have to follow the same rules or fit into neat boxes. And really we see ourselves as "streetwear but not streetwear." UNLESS makes simple, elemental apparel staples that are durable and comfortable - from the elements, for the elements, able to be returned to the elements.

Drawing from the energy, creativity, industry, and activism of our home in Portland, OR, and the Pacific Northwest. Our inspiration comes from there, and from skate, work-wear, cold-water surf, outdoor, etc.

Unless Collective

Images via @unlesscollective on Instagram

Can you discuss the philosophy of “UNLESS collective” and how do you intend to land the brands mission statement to your audience?

As mentioned above, what we believe in is what drives us, what we come to work each day to bring to life, both inside the company and out on the world. Taking responsibility for what we make and how we make it means that every product can be returned to us at the end of its useful life and we will compost it - returning it safely to the soil.

We can do this because our products are 100% plant-based - with zero plastic. No nylon threads, no polyester blends, no plastisols in our printed graphics, no elastic cuff, and collars, or plastic buttons, pulls, and zips.

We believe in the power of innovation, and the power of the collective to help provide the many solutions required to build products with uncompromised style and quality WITHOUT using plastics and petrochemicals. Some of these solutions are simple and traditional, some of these solutions are science projects, manufacturing engineering challenges, or simply supply chain challenges.

Each requires expertise and problem solving that one small company can’t tackle alone. This collective approach requires shared values, shared investments, and shared equity for collaborators and team members alike.

Diversity of thought, experience, perspective, and expertise fuels our creativity, and inclusivity ensures that we bring people along with us on the journey where everyone has the opportunity to share in the successes - whether they are an engineering partner working material developments, or a local artist working on graphic tees. We aren’t trying to save the world, or solve all of society’s problems, but we do come to work each day looking to find a better way, to do what we love.

What are your thoughts around the current state of global fashion /streetwear as a whole?

We see both sides of the coin. We love the fashion industry, many of us came up in it and have a great passion for design, streetwear, sneakers, or fashion in general. This is kind of a “heyday” for streetwear as it has really become the most influential force in the fashion world. But with that, you do see a lot of redundancy, over-saturation, hollow stories, and artificial hype.

The growth of streetwear and fashion over the last decade has been great for the brands but along with that comes massive commercial pressure and expectation that has its own sort of flywheel effect. As things get bigger, stronger, faster, they also get much harder to turn or change. Some of us have tried to drive change from within the big brands and while there is general support for this both in the board room and the marketplace, it is near impossible for the big incumbents to do what it really takes. This is where small companies and start-ups like UNLESS come in.

We exist solely to prototype and test new models for the industry, we can be agile and focused in ways the machine cannot be. Our impact might be small at first, but if we can show the industry and consumers a better way, then we have a real chance to drive change.

How important is the role of materials in the future of streetwear?

Material and process innovation must be one of the key drivers in the future of streetwear and fashion in general. This is less about new looks and more about new, more sustainable capabilities. Material and Process innovation is the key to unlocking truly circular solutions – but these new solutions need to look and feel great, must enable designers to create without compromise, and perhaps most importantly, allow consumers to purchase without compromise.

This is so important because we simply can’t afford to make things from petrochemicals, use them once or twice, and then throw them into the ground any longer. The best way we know to bring about behavioural change is to create the desire for what's new. If we make awesome stuff (and oh, by the way, it's sustainable) we all win. If we make sustainable stuff that isn't awesome, then the status quo won't change.

The roots of Streetwear have always been about respecting culture and community, along with your sustainable practices do Unless have a social ethos?

This is where our collective approach brings our partners, collaborators, and team members along with us, sharing in the successes that we might create together. We are doing our best to model diversity as we build our young company. We have female and/or BIPOC board members, investors, executives, team members, partners, and collaborators. The streetwear community has historically been diverse and we will always look to be a positive reflection of the communities that we engage with.

Like most environmental crises, the plastic problem impacts all of us, but more often, communities where our consumers live, where streetwear was born are impacted the most. It is important that we shine the lights on this issue, to educate and raise awareness, but also provide better choices and opportunities for our consumers to lean in.

Could you tell me more about your distribution strategy and how this works?

We are currently a digital direct-to-consumer brand, with key city-focused pop-up retail events.

Our first was in our hometown of Portland OR, next we will pop up in Atlanta, and then LA later in the summer with wholesale partners. We are selling in the US at the moment, but intend to open up to more global markets in the coming year.

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