The antidote to fast fashion

The founders of premium menswear brand Asphalte explain their radically sustainable business model.
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For the fast fashion industry, unsold stock has led to many companies failing to pay their suppliers and garment workers in developing countries – and they were rapidly being called out for unethical behaviour. While nobody could have predicted coronavirus and its widespread impact, it once again highlighted a culture of overconsumption when it comes to fashion.

That is where Will Hauvette and Rodolphe Gardies step in. ‘We are trying to repair what fast fashion has broken: our relationship with clothing,’ says Rodolphe, ‘We have made the mistake of thinking that clothing has a shelf life because of fashion.’

The pair have been around the menswear scene for a while, launching knitwear brand Six&Sept together in 2012. ‘We tried to respect other fashion companies and follow the same model, buying 100 or 200 items every six months and selling on, with retailers making a cut on the margin,’ says Rodolphe. Eventually, the mechanics of the model just weren’t interesting to them anymore; they realised that they had created a range of products that even they couldn’t afford.

After speaking to people in their close circle about what they wanted from their knitwear, the pair realised that they, like many fashion brands, had neglected basic needs in favour of aesthetics. ‘Their jumpers were shrinking, pilling and itching, issues which hadn’t even crossed our minds.’ The team had a monumental task ahead of them: to create what Rodolphe calls ‘the ultimate sweater’.

Pivoting their focus to comfort, durability and sustainability, William and Rodolphe launched Asphalte in France in October 2016. The premise was simple: only one product would be prototyped and launched at a time, and consumers could pre-order, changing only size and colour preferences. The pre-order model not only limited waste and unnecessary overproduction, but also meant that the team could put together well-designed, well-sourced products. Since the first launch – where 2,500 units flew off the metaphorical shelf – the team has released 70 products. Here are their key lessons from pioneering a new sustainable business model:

1. Be research-driven

When Will and Rodolphe ran a focus group with their friends before launching Asphalte, they dug deep into their customers’ price sensitivity. Gleaning that their core target market would be willing to pay up to €100 for a high-quality sweater, this became the team’s budget benchmark for developing the product. 

The Asphalte team is radically research-centric. Not only has their initial focus group driven their business model, but they continue to engage their customer community in questionnaires to determine where to take the brand next. ‘The first questionnaire we send out asks our customers what they want next. We gather and analyse that feedback, and take it to the next level,’ says Rodolphe. Then the second round of questionnaires is sent out: ‘Once we’ve selected which garment we want to produce, we ask more in-depth questions on style, cut and aesthetics.’ The outputs from the questionnaires become briefs for the product team, who then begin sourcing materials and testing for durability. 

2. Don’t be lazy with segmentation

A sweater is, of course, a universally useful product – so how do you narrow down who to appeal to? For the Asphalte team, it’s their new business model that allows them to effectively segment their target audience.

‘There are three types of clients that we appeal to,’ says Rodolphe. ‘The first is the entrepreneur client, who is attracted to the new business model and honest communication. Then we have the city-dweller, between 30 and 40 years old, who wants to dress well but also buy well. Finally, we have the high-earner – a banker, lawyer, doctor – who has little time to make sustainable choices. We do the choosing for him.’

3. Take sustainability to the next level

Peter Macdonald, part of the Asphalte team, is proud of how the brand lives, breathes and communicates sustainability. ‘Customers are given every piece of information – we have a very sophisticated number of emails that get sent,’ he points out. ‘We are addressing some big issues by using the pre-ordering model, and people might not have the environmental awareness or education required to understand that.’

Where other sustainable brands push a certain narrative, Asphalte pulls you into the journey, according to Peter and Rodolphe. ‘We wanted to create a genuine, honest brand with an element of franc-parler,’ Rodolphe says, ‘and so we need to deconstruct the idea that all brands are bad, while also creating comprehension about long-lasting clothing.’ 

Asphalte’s ‘ultimate sweater’ was transformed into The Perfect Jumper in time for the UK launch of the brand in early September 2020. After reaching out to consumers all over Europe, the team chose to expand to the UK based on – you guessed it – a questionnaire.

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