Ethical fashion conversation with Maxime Cartens, founder of TEYM

TEYM (pronounced ‘Thyme’ or ‘Teim’ for Germans speakers) is a Dutch ethical fashion company. I had the utmost pleasure to chat with Maxime Cartens, the founder of this young label created in 2015 whose mission is to assemble, in their words, “one impeccable wardrobe”. They are about to launch their 5th item, after successfully starting off with a parka followed up with a bag, a Merino sweater, and a sweatsuit. Developed in Amsterdam, made in Europe, TEYM guarantees a fair price, ethical production, and long-wearing, high-quality garments. During this interview, we talk about the challenges fair fashion companies face, redefining the traditional business model in the fashion industry, the loose definition of “sustainability”, how to create a capsule wardrobe and much more. Maxime’s refreshing honesty and deeply-rooted desire to make a positive impact are also part of what makes TEYM a key player in the fair and eco-fashion world.

I was reading that what sparked the idea of TEYM was the fact that you could not find a simple and classic, parka. Did you have any professional background before starting TEYM?

Yes. I was an accessories designer for Karl Lagerfeld’s brand, creating shoes, scarves, etc, which is an entirely different world from where I am now. It was a big learning experience because it was my first job after graduation (editor’s note: Maxime studied fashion design in ArtEZ, one of Netherland’s top universities of the arts). In addition to that, starting off by working for Karl Lagerfeld felt like an amazing opportunity. Over time, I realized that I was longing for a different work environment. With a huge brand like Karl Lagerfeld, you find out how much gets really produced, with 90% of what is designed never reaching the stores and then you learn about this whole distribution system, with parts sent to outlets, department stores and so on. It is very difficult to make some changes within a company, especially when it’s big. The business model of most big fashion companies is not sustainable at all. It was an awakening and made me realize that if I wanted to start my own company, I would not want to replicate that model but on the contrary, be as eco-conscious as possible. I did not want to contribute to overproduction which is a big issue in fast fashion. There are so many pieces made that are not just worth being made. Basically, at some point, I debated whether or not I should stick to being a designer (and stay in my lane so to speak) or take the leap and create a brand that could potentially set an example to show new designers that you can make fashion in a different and fair manner. 

So I quit my job and while I was looking for a parka, I realized that I could start by making my own.  I was looking to create something that remains, to some extent, affordable, is manufactured ethically, and also super resistant and long-wearing. This whole TEYM journey then started: finding the right materials (which I ended up getting in Italy), finding a reliable and trustworthy factory with regular working hours and fair wages. In the fashion industry, those significant details are completely overlooked. I then recognized that if I wanted to maintain the price range as affordable and fair as possible, the only solution was to sell directly. No intermediate, I am selling online via my web store teym.eu. I have tried to simplify the business model and it is more sustainable this way. I hope more brands will start thinking on a global level, instead of following this gruesome selling system that includes constantly adding new collections with lots of distributors.

Since you brought up how you sell your products, you are implying that being a fair fashion brand leads to envisioning a completely different marketing plan from a mainstream/conventional fashion label.

It is a risk you take because when I started selling online, the biggest department store in the Netherlands, De Bijenkorf (editor’s note: De Bijenkorf is the premium department store chain of the Netherlands since 1870) reached out to me and showed interest in our Parkas for their store. It was a difficult decision because I had just made up my mind on letting go of wholesale. This happened during the first year of TEYM and ultimately I let them buy a stock but I gave away the margins, making no profits. It was a marketing move and allowed us to have good visibility in the Netherlands. Regardless, this wholesale system does not make a lot of sense anymore. I did not repeat the experience and since then, I sell on my web store only.

By choosing this path, (as a fair fashion brand) you have to be aware that you don’t grow as fast, as your products are not found anywhere else, but I’d rather grow slow and steady. This has been the case for us, we are organically growing, at a human-scaled pace. I don’t work with any investors, which is also different from most fashion companies. To build something, it takes a lot of effort, money, time, risks and years before you can get something out. I did not look for an investor but I think few would have believed in this specific type of business model which consists of buying and selling more consciously, but evidently less in terms of numbers. However, there is a shift in consciousness and consumers are slowly changing their shopping habits by purchasing pieces they truly love and will cherish for years. There is still a long way to go but the movement has started and going onwards. We also want to prove that ethical fashion is modern and corresponds to people’s taste. This image of eco-fashion as being dated and dusty is a fallacy.

Fair fashion can bring together every generation.

This is why raising awareness and educating remain crucial because not everyone is necessarily aware of what goes behind creating a sustainable brand. Now to touch back on TEYM’s mission to produce only the essentials, do you already have in mind how many pieces will be constituting TEYM in final? What is your definition of an essential wardrobe?

As we’re going slow and steady, it will take years before we constitute our final wardrobe. I would say around 20 items. Our Merino sweater comes in 3 different necklines (crew, v-neck, and turtleneck) and we won’t add another sweater. We also have the sweatsuit in addition to the parka and the bag. Our next item will be a t-shirt because it is a wardrobe staple. We want to include a wool coat, a more fancy coat, jeans, shoes. We are just starting to develop a pair of boots, so our main focus is more classic pieces. For me, essentials are things that are truly wearable, the ones you reach for frequently and therefore the most sustainable options. When buying something new, always ask yourself how many times you plan on wearing this and for how long you see yourself wear it. What we make is timeless and classic, however, it does not mean that we have to stick to plain colors and patterns. If you love a bold print which you will enjoy for a very long time, then it’s fine to purchase it even if it’s mainstream.

The key is really to avoid giving in to impulses. I try to encourage people to think before they buy because it will improve their shopping decisions. They get to listen to their inner voice which will guide them into buying what they genuinely love. I keep this mindset when I develop new products, I showcase sketches to customers, friends, family and everyone around me, i.e people with different styles, backgrounds, and sizes so that the product is not a reflection of my personal perfect wardrobe, but something that adapts, suits and pleases as many people as possible. I am so happy when I see 80-year-old customers who are hooked on the sweaters and young people who are interested in sustainable fashion and want to invest in pieces they will hold on for a while. Fair fashion can bring together every generation.

Teym.eu, the sweatsuit, merino sweater, parka

 

I noticed that TEYM’s collection is very cohesive as well, the pieces so far seem to go together. You can wear the jumper underneath the hoodie, even add the parka. This is also a significant element when creating a capsule wardrobe. Usually, during an impulse purchase, we realize that the piece we just bought may not necessarily work with the rest of our closet. So we end up purchasing additional things to create a look with that new but misplaced purchase. TEYM seems to have come up with a solution for that because every piece pairs up nicely with the rest. 

Yes, you can easily combine our different pieces, and in my opinion, they are also adaptable to various fashion styles. You don’t necessarily need to buy our whole wardrobe, but grab those pieces that go along with your personal aesthetic and style. While we tend to stick to classic colors, we also love vivid colors. Philippa K., which is a brand making changes to become more sustainable and transparent has an aesthetic revolving around neutral colors – colors that are wearable on a daily basis – but I believe we can have a little fun too. When I decided to create a pink parka, everybody was hesitant at first and warned me that it would not sell at all. While it is not our bestseller, our customers who bought it, love it and wear it all the time. You have to trust your gut.

Roughly, what is the process that goes behind creating a new piece for TEYM? How long does it take from the starting idea to the finished product?

Much longer than it would with other brands (laughs). It takes a full year, sometimes even longer. It starts with an idea in my head, then we design it and create samples. Before we even create a sample, we show the sketches to people to incorporate their opinions and get as many feedbacks as possible. For instance, for our upcoming t-shirt, I asked around, doing a survey for my friends, enquiring about their favorite t-shirt (‘why, how much, would you buy it again?’) It’s very interesting to get to know people’s thinking process when it comes to fashion purchases. I see people buying t-shirts for 5 Euros at fast fashion chains and others for 70 Euros and beyond from Scandi brands such as Philippa K and Acne.

We then look for the right material, test them on various sizes, check the fits. Even for a simple t-shirt, it can take more than a year although it is not as technical as a parka for sure. For our sweatsuit, we looked at various sleeves options. We featured a special sleeve construction in our zip hoodie, where the front has a straight sleeve inset and the backside a raglan sleeve so it is therefore much more round on the shoulders and makes for a better fit, one that is suitable for women but completely wearable for men too, a true unisex style. For men, the sleeves are just a bit longer, the rest is entirely the same. On men, it looks a bit more square which is funny how the piece adapts to the morphology. That was the result of many researching and fittings. I think some brands just do not take that time because it is costly when you have a collection of 200 pieces to conduct research for every single item. This is precisely why we put our energy, money and time only on things that are worth being made. If it’s not worth it, we do not produce it.

You have to be aware that you don’t grow as fast (…) but I’d rather grow slow and steady. We are organically growing, at a human-scaled pace

When it comes to fabrics, do you have any preferences? Which fabrics do you consider sustainable?

It depends on the product. So far, it still feels like have to find a compromise because we have to choose between elements that are not entirely perfect. For instance, cotton is super nice to wear. Light, it breathes, has a long lifespan but it takes a lot of water to produce cotton (editor’s note: every cotton t-shirt takes 2,700 liters of water to produce). I think every material comes with its advantages and disadvantages. We try to opt for organic as much as we can but we also focus on durability and resiliency. I prefer to go for a cotton t-shirt (despite the heavy water consumption) because it is something that won’t wear out as opposed to another material who might consume less but will be damaged after a few uses. The materials we use are cotton (and now organic) wool which is 100% biodegradable and nylon (for our parka). 

We do receive comments on our choice for nylon and how we can claim ourselves as sustainable if we use synthetics. Our response is simple: we look at the bigger picture. When you buy a parka, you want it to be functional and long-lasting, and it is difficult to find a material that is durable, water-resistant and remains intact with time. Wax cotton, for example, has a significantly shorter lifespan than the nylon we use. It’s colorfast and water resistant. To me, it ticks all the boxes and feels more sustainable than choosing a 100% biodegradable fabric. I know it is a controversial topic and prone to debate, it just depends on each and everyone’s own agenda. Some people are opposed to all kinds of plastics, others are strictly vegan, we try to find a middle ground and stay true to our values. To me, the lifespan is the most sustainable part. We take this element of time into our design and look for the most durable material.

You raised an important topic. The definition of sustainable fashion is still broad. This is similar in cosmetics where you can’t create something that pleases everyone, literally. Transparency and core values play an important part in the sustainable and fair fashion world. As an independent brand, you actually have the possibility to adapt and be flexible. If new material is developed in the future which ticks all the boxes (durable, biodegradable, vegan, etc.), you can always use it.

Exactly, as soon as we hear of a better and improved fabric, we’ll switch to it right away.

 

teym campaign
TEYM focuses heavily on the fair aspect of fashion. I noticed that for each piece, you resort to a different factory from Europe.

We do because each time, we look for the most specialized factory in the said domain. We also keep it in Europe because it is close by, requires no long-distance transports and I can easily visit them. When the production starts, I am always there myself and I can see with my own eyes if the human working conditions are respected. The workers take breaks, they leave at around 6 o’clock, the environment is clean and fine to work in. Unless you go check out the factory for yourself, you can never really know about the real manufacturing conditions.

For bigger companies, their business model is non-sustainable from the start, they have to redo everything in order to become truly sustainable. Due to the large number of pieces they produce, they also put factories under a lot of pressure because everything has to be ready quickly and they’ve got short deadlines.  It makes little sense, but unfortunately, that’s how the fashion industry is built.

As a woman entrepreneur who decided to dive into this abysmal market that is fashion, what has been the biggest challenge since creating TEYM? And what has been the biggest reward?

Nice question! Just entering the industry is very hard, partnering up with the right factories was also a piece of work. You can find good factories with excellent working conditions but they refuse to work with you because you’re not famous yet or you’re just getting started, so you kind of have a « fake it until you make it » approach by making your company look bigger than it is (laughs) so that they give a listen to what you have to offer. I am a designer, I spend a lot of time on that but I also have to take care of every other aspect. Marketing, logistics, finance…you don’t know the things you’re putting yourself into when starting a brand. Yet, I take every opportunity that I can and that comes along, I am determined and persistent. Had I a different personality, I would have given up on my company a few years ago (laughs).

There are many challenges, but it is an awesome journey. There are, of course, setbacks such as delays in productions and when things go wrong, I am reminded that I quit a job with a steady income with fewer responsibilities which seems like a crazy move for a lot of people. Regardless, I am super happy. I am doing something that fulfills me as a person, I love my job, I know my values, I cherish my family and my husband. This is the biggest reward for me. I found something I am passionate about but I also know that work/life balance is essential. I refuse to let work take over my life.

That’s lovely to hear! Work/life balance is a recurrent theme in the wellness world and it’s not something that is easily achievable, so you’re reassuring us by showing that as an independent fashion creator, you are managing it. 

Yes, but of course, there are times I struggle and work takes over but I always aim towards that balance. I think it also has something to do with the fact that I am not working with any investors, so it gives me much more space to work according to my own agenda, freedom to create at my pace and make business decisions I am entirely comfortable with. It feels good and we are organically growing this way. 

Is there a typical day for a fair fashion creator or is every day entirely different?

TEYM accessoriesEvery day is completely different (laughs). Today, for instance, I worked on logistics to get packages sent from Portugal, worked on our website, did customer care service, I also just received new samples for our upcoming t-shirt, talked to our photographer, and now I’m doing this Skype interview with you  (laughs). That was my day so far, and it’s only 13h30. Every day, I have a thousand things to do at the same time. 

That’s multitasking at its finest. Now I’m curious to know, what is your biggest hope/desire regarding the future of fashion?

More brands choosing to make less. Even though we have been warning for years about the environmental issues linked to fast fashion, with overproduction and over-consumption, things have not evolved much in that aspect. There are still many people to reach and encourage to make better choices. A large number still associates sustainable fashion with expensive prices, leading them to continue purchasing cheap clothes in bulk from fast fashion brands. I hope this mindset changes. I hope more people will realize that a piece that is ethical and manufactured fairly, is something they can cherish. That they realize how long lasting it is and worth the initial « investment » as opposed to impulse purchases. 

Fast fashion brands do « conscious collections » now which I am very skeptical about because they could make so much more of a difference and have a tremendous impact, but just putting out a few pieces in organic cotton or recycled materials and call it « conscious » does not make them sustainable. They do it for marketing reasons, to jump on what they see as a « sustainable movement trend ».

They are not the spokespeople of sustainable fashion, yet with this strategy, it seems like they take the place of authentic fair and eco fashion brands by stealing the limelight. 

Yes, and due to their big advertising budgets, they are the ones featured in every magazine and media. This is also the harsh reality behind it because there are many eco-friendly alternatives, but they are not being heard of.  I can never compete with the advertising budget of H&M, my brand grows thanks to the word-of-mouth, not by launching huge campaigns with big marketing strategies.

You rely on your customers and them spreading the word. This phenomenon is also visible in green beauty. Some brands grow without resorting to ads/PR companies but through word-of-mouth. They manage to develop a loyal base of customers. Are there any sustainable fashion brands you particularly enjoy?

There should be some. Phillipa K., for instance, is the only example of a large company to have made the choice to become more sustainable. I really respect that they are transparent regarding the manufacturing process and ended up reducing their collections. They only have one store in Sweden, which sells vintage, second-hand Phillipa K pieces. Something like that is inspiring to me. There are not many brands like TEYM which have a minimal collection, but every one choosing to make sustainable choices and drop the seasonal collection scheme, I support them.

Has TEYM or fair fashion in general impacted your personal style?

Yes, completely. I have always been fond of vintage but I also used to buy crazy, bold prints. Anything crazy, I’d wear it,  but since starting TEYM, I invest in pieces that I’ll often wear and for a longer time. I still buy funky dresses occasionally, but that’s because I adore them and wear them often and with love. Done buying things that I will wear for one event and then abandon in my closet, I now consciously choose a piece and end up going for the one that fits me the best, that way I know I’ll wear it endlessly.

teym campaign clothes
You are based in Amsterdam, which is also home to quite a number of sustainable fashion brands. Do you consider this city to be some sort of an eco-hub? Is Amsterdam the place to be when it comes to slow fashion?

Yes, I think so. The market here is very open to fresh, new eco-friendly initiatives. It’s a great environment to start something, the Netherlands, in general, holds a high number of startups and independent entrepreneurs. It feels more encouraging and easy to start a business here as opposed to other countries where it can appear more daunting. 

I can never compete with the advertising budget of H&M, my brands grows thanks to the word-of-mouth, not by launching huge campaigns with big marketing strategies.

My last two questions are stepping outside of slow fashion. Are you also more eco-conscious in other aspects of your life? Or since starting TEYM?

Yes, with time. Those little things that I used not to pay attention to, such as flying less for instance. The way I shop for my wardrobe is also the way I shop for furniture. I only buy items I really love and it’s usually vintage. I take the time to think about every new purchase. On a personal level, I think it is crucial to spend time with loved ones, family and friends. I make time for them, I am more living « in the moment » and appreciating it. Less time on the phone and on social media. My overall approach is more mindful than before, that’s for sure.

Lastly, are you into green beauty?

I am into natural skincare but I don’t have a skincare routine (laughs). I look for brands that share my values. Makeup-wise, apart from lipstick I don’t wear anything else. That’s one product I can’t be without.

Do you have a favorite?

Yes, I love MAC’s matte lipsticks. I usually wear red or pink. I am probably one of the only people that use them up until the bullet is empty. (editor’s note: MAC is not green but Maxime’s approach is definitely minimalistic and sustainable since she uses up her products)

Have you tried ILIA lipsticks?

No, but you have mentioned them on your blog, haven’t you?

Yes, many times even (laughs). In terms of prestige, wearability, pigmentation, color range, quality and so on, it’s an incredible brand. I highly recommend their Colorblock High Impact lipsticks. The pigmentation has been significantly improved and they are 4x times more long-lasting. I’d say that they are a great alternative to MAC. 

Nice! I’ll check them out then.

 

 

A huge thank you, Maxime, for sharing with us a fascinating glimpse into the life of a fair fashion entrepreneur. If you are not familiar with TEYM’s collection, I invite you to check out their website teym.eu. You receive EUR.10 discount on your first purchase by subscribing to their newsletter. I am obsessed with the Zip hoodie which definitely stands out due to its superb quality and impeccable fit. You’ll see more of it here and on my IG soon.

I hope you enjoyed this interview and let me know which TEYM pieces you like.

Take care,

 

 

Pictures sources: TEYM (copyright to them)

Liz

Green hunter, wellness junkie and pun maker on the website, I'm on a journey towards a kinder and healthier life. @lizthegreenspirit on Instagram.

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