The Menswear Style Podcast

Marie Callan, Founder of URBAG

April 22, 2022 Menswear Style Episode 175
The Menswear Style Podcast
Marie Callan, Founder of URBAG
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

The URBAG story is defined by a passion for sustainability and innovative design, along with the determination to make a positive impact in the world. Founder Marie Callan has spent decades working in sustainability. From social enterprise and charity work to fostering discussions with industry leaders at the Financial Times, she’s found the plastic problem never goes away. While the issue of single-use plastic was attracting attention, no one seemed to be addressing plastic waste from fashion aftercare services.  It’s this passion, experience and conversations with industry experts that led Marie to do something positive. The result? An ethically-manufactured suit carrier bag that’s forward thinking, superbly made and lasts a lifetime.

In this episode of the MenswearStyle Podcast we interview Marie Callan, Founder of URBAG about her career and the founding story of her sustainable brand which has an aim to combat single use plastics used by dry cleaning companies. Peter Brooker and Marie talk about plastic waste, developing a prototype, supplier relations, startup funding, and changing industry habits.

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PB:

Hello and welcome to another episode of the menswear style podcast. I'm your host Pete Brooker and today I am talking to the founder of yo bag Marie Callen your bag is or maybe a bag we'll get into that. But your bag is a British brand pioneering sustainability in the fashion aftercare industry driven by a strong environmental spirit and desire for innovation and circularity. Your bag is a social enterprise on a mission to rid the world of single use plastic garment covers with a smarter, more luxurious, reusable and sustainable alternative. By eliminating single use plastic in an industry rife with excess plastic consumption. We hope to create a new blueprint for businesses and consumers alike. That I appealed from the yo bag official.com website, obviously. So there you go. And we're going to be talking now to the founder and telling us all about how this came together. The founder for you a bag Murray Callum

Unknown:

Hello. Yeah, thank you for having me on this basket. So my name is Marie Callen. I am the founder of a bag or some people will say your bag was said to be decided. So how do I present this to my friends, I created a bag to tackle single use plastic in the fashion aftercare industry. So namely dry cleaning and laundry services. And to do so I have designed a duffel and garment bag combo. So free in one bag that allows customers to use only one bag to drop off, collect and store their clothes from the dry cleaner. So the bag which is more than just a product, it's a project that was designed to address the likes of convenience really enjoy cleaning, and the unnecessary use of plastic. That's something that's always been driving me crazy. So I just thought, you know, something else needed to be to exist, especially in the age of innovation and climate change. Why on earth were we still using plastic and dry cleaning. And that's how aerobatic was born to really be a product of solution focused product that combines style function and sustainable fabric.

PB:

Amazing. Well, Marie, you must have been under the breakfast table the other morning when I was talking to my girlfriend, Anastasia, because it really does grind my gears, the amount of plastic that we get back from the dry cleaners. I mean, it's absolutely insane. And when I stumbled upon your brand, well, that makes sense. I'm just amazed that I've not heard about this sooner, or it's not more prevalent in, in my stream, but the what was your background coming into this.

Unknown:

So I arrived, I'm French born as you can hear a star arrived here about 1670 years ago. And I initially was working for the Financial Times Group for about seven years. And I obviously worked with numbers of publication within the group. But the big change for me was when I joined the, what they call the Financial Times live. So the events side of the Financial Times where they organise roundtable and this is where I started getting familiar with sustainability and what they called a business for good. So combining businesses, with government, policymakers and NGOs to drive sustainability agenda within the businesses. And that's where I really starting to realise all of his fair this space about sustainability and how we can change the world really for business. And I stayed there for a couple of years. When I ended up my seven years at the Financial Times I decided to to do some field work. So I moved into social enterprises and charity world for a few years in Europe in Sub Saharan Africa, where drive drove a number of projects from microfinance to carbon offset programmes. And then I jumped into the entrepreneurial world. When I met one of my co founders of my previous startup, addressing waste in packaging waste more specifically in E commerce delivery. And when things we took we separated, we parted ways, and I then created her back that way, on my way back from work, and I just was so fresh. straited with my dry cleaning plastic. And I had a project in mind I was pregnant, about to give birth to my first baby, so I had plenty of time. And that's how the project started, really.

PB:

And so whilst you were feeling your way around at the beginnings of this project, was there anything else around at the same time that was solving this issue.

Unknown:

But this is exactly where the project started. Because one day I was coming back to the dry cleaner. Not because we do dry cleaning is mainly because I was taking the shirts like many of us, in fact, we take off shirts to the dry cleaner, because I have no intention to do laundry and ironing shirts. And I think I'm not the only one in this case. Yeah. And I feel like let me find something because I had to carry my bag where I put my clothes to drop off to the dry cleaner. But number two, I can always refuse to keep my bag. One of them in fact, told me you know, I'm not here to do your recycling or take your waste. And funnily enough, you know, if they do that for every client, they never, they never end. So. And then I feel like I have gunman bag at home. But you know, I never came around to bringing those with me to the dry cleaner. So I looked at the solution and nothing looked at on Chinese website, Amazon, the US. And I thought there's nothing out there that could be convenient. It's not possible. And my dry cleaners that by the dinner had any solution even. So that's how I feel like that's so frustrating. And surely there must be something so I didn't find anything. And I started analysing, okay, well, if I have to bring a bag to the dry cleaner, and I have to take my clothes in a garment bag, why? Why don't we just do a combo bag. Yeah, and I looked for it, nothing, at least not available at all to a B to see market, nothing that we can find in any shops, or any website for that matter. So this is when I had my Hurray, you know, moment I thought you know, maybe I should, I should try to do something about this. There's something I had no background in fashion are no background in dry cleaning. But I had plenty of time. And I had my baby at the time just born. So I had plenty of time to think and plenty of evenings. To to to do some prototypes. And that's how the ideas was born really.

PB:

Okay, I want to get into that. I want to drill down on the process of how you became how you managed to get the prototypes together. But before that, I will say that the the plastic, the virgin plastic that you get from dry cleaners is the most useless plastic as well, because they pierce it at one end to put over the hanger. And then it's open ended at the other so you can get the garment out but you can't use it even as like a beanbag or anything because it's already pierced at one end. So what you have is like this open sleeve of plastic that you can literally just do nothing with apart from ball it up and throw it into recycling. And hope that they take it because he shouldn't be putting that in recycling anyway.

Unknown:

Yeah, but that's exactly the point Peter because they actually some dry cleaner said yeah, you can recycle them and I went to the to one of our recycling bigger recycling centre in London. And they said actually, no, we don't recycle them because they block the machines. The upper layer of plastic block the machine so they have this big belt and these big vacuums in the in the ceiling. And as soon as they see those plastic bags, they vacuum them out. Not that they see them often because most people don't put them in a recycling bin. Right? Right. Well, they're not recyclable, and they're not biodegradable lever. As we know plastic will degrade in microplastic anyway, yeah,

PB:

it's the worst kind of plastic that's what I mean I agree with you. It's just it has literally no use. I mean like if you buy plastic bags you try and or at least I try and make several other uses out of them. You know, maybe I'll take them again to the shops and or I'll do the cat litter trays for them or whatever. I make sure that you know it's not just one plastic bag and that's it going into trash. But with these things you can I mean it is the most painful of plastic. And also you touched upon it there are you people go to dry cleaners, not just to get stuff dry clean, but to get stuff ironed. I mean, I've been guilty of that as well. You know and I saw like this business van the other day that the name of the business and you know, free promotion for them, but it's literally just said I hate ironing.com And that's a business. It's a very niche market. But I did think was a little bit harsh. other people that work for that company, you know, you're you're basically saying that I do the worst job in the world. Unless you really love ironing, and then you kind of have that car.

Unknown:

I think from a brand perspective, that's a great I know, I know it was, was guys may actually have them they have a laundry factory not too far from where I live. So I see them all the time as well. And I think the branding is brilliant actually. Because a lot of people will that will touch points or the, on the pain that people feel about ironing. And I know it's, it's not the nicest people that I do iron, but most of us don't want to take the time, or is not passionate and patient enough to do that. And you know,

PB:

well also, it's genius branding. If you burn all the shirts anyway, let's just say you and then you go well, how you bought you burned all my shirts. You go well, I hate ironing. That's the name of the company. You gave me your shirts. You kind of threw the dice on that one. I mean, it says it on the band very clearly logo. Yeah,

Unknown:

exactly.

PB:

I digress. Please very talk about the you're about to go into the prototype. So where do you start with that if you don't have the background of fashion or, you know, pattern making or making garments and garment holders? What were the first touchstones?

Unknown:

Yeah, that was a very interesting journey. Actually, I so where do you start where you don't even know where to start? Right. Yeah. So that was my first my first point and I thought, Okay, well, I have kind of an idea in my head that I could I'm not even good at drawing so I couldn't draw it. Therefore, I'm going to take a plastic sheet, metal plastic sheet a bed sheets are. And I started doing small prototype like this. And it took me forever, quite frankly, quite a few evenings while the baby was sleeping. To do this bag, and I tried to find different solutions. Hi, can you make a bag, a duffel bag to unfold into a garment bag? But but keep it hygienic? Because how are we going to okay, you have dirty laundry, do you really want them to be in touch or in contact with your clean laundry? Not really. So I just did many, many, many prototypes, some small, some big. And then one day that, you know, the idea was kind of there. But I couldn't I didn't have the skills to do it properly. So I took a sewing sewing course. I borrowed a sewing machine from my friends. And then one, once I had my first prototype, more or less finished, I went to see a private seamstress and explain the project to her. And she helped me finalise the details from a professional standpoint, so making sure that the zip was working well, or the opening of the top was working well, while keeping the water out all of these little details. And then from there, I contacted a number of social enterprises. To help me manufacture in London, I wanted to be very close to the design, because at the time, it just got to the registered design granted by the UK IPO. And I wanted to make sure that we can develop this project quickly. And so I found this little social enterprise that was doing great jobs with refugee women. So providing work and training. And that was very well aligned with a value that I wanted to promote. So we develop this project and the first project should run at that time. Another challenge, quite frankly, when you do this kind of things is to source your materials, right? So you have to do it with no knowledge. So I had to research textile, and what is the best textile that would keep the shape but will be waterproof, but it's not really ethical or sustainable. So what are the different technology they're gonna help me making this product work? So I managed to find this textile innovator in Europe and starting sourcing obviously, you spend a lot of time on the internet trying to source different materials, you make a lot of mistakes. And you people don't necessarily want to deal with very small startups because we are not ordering the quantities that manufacturer manufacturer or supplier will want from you. So it takes quite a lot of time for us. attempt to convince a manufacturer suppliers to work with you. But once you have your, your special supply of book, you have to keep them very close. And I think that you can start, you know, developing your first project turn around and think about what's going to be the next step in terms of supply.

PB:

And how did you manage to hoodwink the suppliers? Was it just a matter of having convincing them that this was a very, very good idea?

Unknown:

No, I so because I had these. These registered design, I didn't want to speak a lot about a project to many people, because you have to approach a lot of manufacturers and suppliers. And it's just really, personal relationships. When you you know, have a good site, explain what you're trying to do. So have a general idea of a project, not going into details. And you happens that with this manufacturer, for instance, they they had a UK representative here in London, who we made and they Yeah, that we had a very good first connection. And they they accepted to supply me with only 500 metres of fabric instead of a standard one. fasn. But it's, it's purely the relationship that you develop with your suppliers.

PB:

Interesting. i By the way, I did like the slogan, where do you start when you don't know where to start? I feel like that could be the title for your next coffee table book. I can imagine loads of people just Googling that, like, I have no idea where to begin. Can someone

Unknown:

Yeah. Exactly. And you have to accept that you're going to spend quite a lot of time. You know, you just have to start somewhere. So spend a lot of time trying.

PB:

Yeah, and I guess like you mentioned the trial and error of different fabrics, when you don't have the experience going into it. And especially dealing with like unknown quantities of suppliers abroad and stuff like that. And you know, nurturing those relationships and making sure you get exactly what you want, not just in terms of the fabric, but in the designs that you had in your head. So yeah, but that was a process. You mentioned the the grant as well. What do you make what Grant was that? So you, this is how you raised the capital?

Unknown:

Yes, so at the beginning, the quite frankly, we still are very small. So the beginning, I invested most of my savings. And from there we so we managed with savings there had we managed to do our first production run the first branding and having by having to buy all the supplies, but been covered hits. So by the time we reach, you know, we develop the design, develop relationship and production, things like that. We were in December 2020 2019. Sorry. And then, obviously, as we started in 2020 20, we already knew some some things were going on, and we were about to launch. And then COVID hits. So we and I had my second baby in April that year. So we just put the project on the hold. In the meantime, we had access to the bounce back loan. through there, we managed to, obviously get a loan to get this started again, because we were hoping to make all the money back with the sales pretty quickly. But obviously that didn't happen for quite a long time. The project being really centred around suits and you know, evening wear cocktail dresses, weddings, all of a sudden nobody was going anywhere. So the project had almost no sense during COVID. So the band's back loan allowed us to go back to trading. And then from there, obviously we're starting to grow organically through sales, keeping the overheads quite low. Right. And the next step in fact will be to seek investments either from crowdfunding or probably Angel, angel investment at some point.

PB:

Very interesting. Well, we also spoke offline about the name of the bag as in that sort of the name of the brand and how it can be maybe mispronounced in one way or correctly mispronounced in another way

Unknown:

And that's, in fact, that's that's one of the question that I haven't lost, even among my customers, how do you pronounce the name of your brand? So the idea originally was the combination of ban and bag. So I created a bag this way. And this is the name and the pronunciation I had in my head originally. But then, especially in Anglo Saxon space, a lot of people were speaking about your bag, they can also be your bag. It makes complete sense. So I think there will be, as we mentioned earlier, quite a good social media engagement video and asking people how would you pronounce that that name?

PB:

Because I think it's definitely something that you read different to what you say. So I think you read it a bag. I've been reading your bag for the last couple of weeks. Well, we've been back and forth on email. But like I said, just talking to you. I want to say your bag, because that makes more sense.

Unknown:

Yeah, exactly. And it's a very British English thing, isn't it to, to read and pronounce words completely differently? Which was my main difficulty when I first learned English and actually,

PB:

and so other than the name, what's been the reaction? So you have the product you've you've been out now for a couple of years, what's been the main feedback?

Unknown:

We had actually really good feedback. Most people say, finally, somebody came up with a smart idea. Why is it why nobody gave that solution before, because the bag is not only a garment bag, it's a lot of my clients told me, I take it as a travel bag or ticket as to go shopping, or to go to the beach, or as a weekend away bag. But also take it to store my clothes, my seasonal clothes. So nuts, really multi use bag, and people have been really happy about having a solution to just drop off and collect your clothes without plastic. Now, on the other end of the spectrum, one of the most common question that we had is a little bit of a concern about Yeah, but the drycleaners how they're reacting to this, are they accepting the bang, because we are not only bringing a bag, we asking them to change the process of how they do things? Yes. And it's very true. And the answer to that is a little bit longer than what we will lie. But you have two types of dry cleaners, you have the first one who will send all your clothes to factories and that's where the problem is. That's why they have plastic to protect the clothes during the transportation. And then you have all the dry cleaners that have everything on site and this is therefore not an issue. So there will most people will ask the the clothes naked as they call it. So without plastic and there's not an issue that can just put the airbag in it. Now we work with a lot of dry cleaners and nobody so far has been refusing the bag. Now you do sometimes have to have conversations and but if you want to change the system, you have to have us conversations. So dry cleaners reality right now is that the cost of plastic almost tripled in the last two years. Oh, welcome. So they they came to a point where Yeah, okay, that's very convenient to have plastic because it's single yours is automated most of a time based sorting cheap cost us a lot of money for nothing, because ultimately people arrive at home, take the plastic off the clothes, and put it in the bin. If you by the way, don't do that. You might stain your clothes by leaving the plastic on your clothes in the wardrobe. Stains the clothes.

PB:

So

Unknown:

they are also very happy. If you leave a bag behind it, they can use it to save costs on plastic. So if you leave a bag and they may have to be introduced to the idea, but the client is king, it's a very disseminated market very competitive. We will see a lot of consolidation on the market I think especially after COVID So people are fighting to keep clients to keep clients happy and then no plastic tax is coming. Today they have to charge customers 10 pay for all the plastic bags they give

PB:

to placed at least that's going well, I mean dry cleaners but in shops that's rocketing up now.

Unknown:

Yes, exactly. So there is a new low in the UK where plastic bags are not charged a 10 P, not only on big businesses, but all the businesses and these need to apply this tax is the enforced all the time. No, but you will. And businesses, especially dry cleaners need to start getting ready and they know it. So we actually been called by dry cleaners asking you they can stock the bag offer off of a bag to their customers. And so the the general feedback has been really good. But it's not only a product, it's a project, we are here to change a behaviour, we're here to change industry processes, because they're going to need to change. So it will take time. And when you suggest change. Sometimes you are faced with resistance, but that's normal, and those conversations need to happen. Now on the other hand, also the spectrum is the customer that kind of had enough of looking a bit silly with a plastic sheet on your shoulder above the shoulder as he walks back to the front of a dry cleaner. You bring your bags, you never know what to do with your bag once you drop off your clothes. And then you have to take all this plastic over your shoulder back home where you're going to have to fly away anyway. So offering a stylish, nice bag wherever the wall cute you're at the moment starting to grow against plastic and to to sponsor and comment, bring your own bags time you had to ditch the single use plastic culture that solver we need to change.

PB:

And you're right, there's it's an elegant way of actually going back and forth with the clothes that you're so it's kind of counterintuitive that you're looking after these clothes, you're really proud of them. You want them to have a good long life, but then the way that you're carrying them and transporting them just they look like crap. And these plastic sheets or schlepped in a bag. So it does make sense to have something quite elegant. When you're looking after these clothes, and you're you know you're in transportation with them. So very, I'm a fan, love the product, love the idea that philosophy they get and I'm sure it's gonna take off as soon as we create some more awareness and people actually find that this is a solution. And then it's not such a bad thing to change habits because again, you touched upon it that you're not just selling something, you're also trying to sell a different way of thinking or a different way of going about things which is it kind of has that extra add on difficulty but at the same time once people plug into that, I'm sure it will then just reap the benefits of that and takeoff. So yeah, the your bag official.com or a bag official.com is a place people can go and your Instagram handle we are your bag. Yes, the place you hang out. Is that where you hang out? Are you the lady behind it?

Unknown:

Yes, I am actually we have a small team as well helping me with social media, but I do most of it.

PB:

Yes. Awesome. So people when they message you there, there'll be you replying which is good to know. And we'll pull the menswear style dot code at UK so people can check out the show notes there but in the meantime, take care yourself.

Unknown:

Thank you Peter

PB:

you've been listening to the menswear style podcast be sure to head over to menswear style dot code at uk for more menswear content and email info at menswear style dot code at UK if you'd like to be a future guest on the show. Finally, please help support the show by leaving a review on iTunes or wherever you're listening to this podcast. Until next time

(Cont.) Marie Callan, Founder of URBAG