Utterly Adorable Clothes by Eco Kids’ Brand
Hearing Angela Chou talk about her sustainable kids clothing company Utterly is a little like watching a TV journalist report live from a hurricane zone. It’s the kind of situation many entrepreneurs experience when they’ve struck upon a great idea and suddenly, they find themselves in the eye of the storm. But heading up a new venture, while simultaneously pioneering a zero waste initiative, is not what Angela envisioned for herself.
“I don’t actually know what the starting point is, but things just happen in your life,” Angela muses. “I wanted to be a fashion designer when I was a child, but I ended up studying film instead.”
When she was in her mid-twenties, Angela made two films that involved shooting at a landfill. “You just see the volume and smell the stench,” she recalls. “I went home, and my clothing reeked of the landfill. I just thought, ‘I’m never going to wash this out.’” That experience left a bad taste in her mouth that never left her.
Years later, Angela had become a mom and was making clothes for her young children. “It was hard to find really good, well-made, cute clothing,” she remembers. One day Angela and her daughter were in a children’s clothing store, when the owner asked about the dress her daughter was wearing (similar to Utterly’s current Amur Dress). Learning that Angela had made it herself, the owner said she wanted to carry it in her store. Angela wasn’t receptive to the idea at first. “At that moment I thought, ‘I know how long it took me to make that one dress, and I know how much the fabric cost. I would have zero ROI.’ On top of that, there was nothing compelling about starting a clothing company.”
But as Angela notes, “things just happen,” and one thing lead to another. “One day, I met a woman at a festival. Her clothing was so unique, and I asked her about her business model. She said that she bought vintage saris from India … and it really inspired me, this idea of reclaiming textiles. That’s when my interest got re-kindled. I thought, ‘What if I did that for children’s clothing?’” Angela started researching what textiles she might find in her local area, having a hunch she’d find plenty without going overseas.
“I heard this horrible number from the EPA [about the quantity of textiles being sent to landfill every year] … That’s when the concept of Utterly just really solidified.”
Around this time the City and County of San Francisco began its Zero Textile Waste Initiative. When Angela heard about the program, her interest was immediately piqued. “I was so excited,” Angela remembers. She reached out to the city’s Department of the Environment (SFE) right away and began to meet with staff members involved in the program. “I just shared my concept and boldly declared, ‘I have a solution for San Francisco!’”
At that point, the city was focused on post-consumer textile waste—that is, clothing donated by residents after having been worn. But pre-consumer textiles, from the city’s apparel manufacturers, hadn’t yet been addressed. Since commercial sources account for nearly half of all textile discards generated in San Francisco, there was a need for the type of solution Angela was offering.
Utterly uses mostly “cut waste.” Angela marvels, “It’s not little scraps. We’re talking about yardage … I get everything from a half a yard to multiple yards … The companies accumulate it for a while and then send it to the dump.”
And so occurred a convergence of sorts: The apparel companies had avoidable disposal costs, SFE needed to divert textiles from landfill to reach zero waste by 2020, and Angela wanted fabric for her new enterprise. “I think I was in the right place at the right time,” reflects Angela. “I don’t think there was a better place to start this [company] than in San Francisco. I’m a fashion outsider, but I was completely welcomed. The apparel companies are progressive enough to say, ‘Okay, take the material and make good use of it.’ I’m very appreciative that they’ve agreed to partner up on this issue.”
As to the future, Utterly is taking off. “We just soft launched in August, and we’re going to be launching to the greater world in early February of 2017,” Angela declares excitedly. She expects to offer 10-12 products at that point, including boys’ and girls’ clothes. “We’re just so excited about literally making a difference with every product. When somebody buys a garment, they’re reducing our collective eco-footprint.”
Besides the quality construction of Utterly’s clothing, customers will notice the charming animal prints they’re offered in. (Utterly uses screen and digital printing to add designs to the fabrics they reclaim.) After closer inspection they’ll see they’re not just any animals, however; they’re all endangered species. Angela laments, “Animals you and I grew up with are now in danger of going extinct. Can you imagine a world without elephants?! That’s such an impossible thing to stomach. I wanted these garments to be conversation pieces.”
And do they plan to provide take-back services for their customers’ used items? “We’re aiming for a closed loop model. It’s in our business plan, but we’re not offering it quite yet … We are going to have our gently used clothing line … but that’s down the road.”