Midway through 2020 and with the world facing a pandemic, Port Adelaide defender Trent McKenzie and partner Carlea Atkins took the leap and decided to start their own fashion label, ‘West Essential’. With the brand establishing itself as a player in the sustainable and ethical clothing space, Trent and Carlea spoke to aflplayers.com.au about their decision to start a business, why they chose to remove the focus on fast fashion and their biggest lessons along the journey.
Kavisha Di Pietro: How did the concept come together?
Carlea Atkins: It was in the back of my mind when Trent and I first got together a couple of years ago. At the time, I was living in Melbourne and Trent was just moving to Adelaide (from the Gold Coast). We were doing long distance initially. I have a background in digital marketing and was a little bit concerned with moving to Adelaide and finding opportunities because it is quite different to the eastern seaboard in terms of the availability of jobs. I was also thinking about what life would look like if we had to move to another state in the future, knowing that players can move around quite a bit. I really wanted us to be prepared if our life was going to change again and really avoid having to start over every single time we move.
For me, personally, I have always been interested in fashion, so it made sense to go down that line. It started off as a bit of a side project for me as I was still working full-time. Trent was helping me on his days off, which isn’t much in-season, but it was a really important support. I ended up leaving my job to solely focus on growing our business and West Essential which is exciting.
While starting the business I was working full-time as the Digital Marketing Manager for Adelaide Airport. I was working on West Essential in my mornings and on the weekend and any other spare time I had. We ended up launching the business right in the middle of COVID last year. It was two years of hard work and preparation, researching, finding manufacturers and all those elements associated with starting a business.
With the AFL season shutdown period we had a little bit more time to work on it. There’s no doubt there were times where Trent was getting a bit annoyed at me with how much work we had to put in. He was my model as well for all the sizes and fits, especially being a gender-neutral brand it was important to get that stuff right.
Can we expect to see you on West Essential’s Instagram any time soon as a model, Trent?
Trent McKenzie: (laughs) unlikely, I’m pretty shy when it comes to being in front of the camera but I’m always happy to help Carlea with sizing and trying on the clothes.
In terms of the decision to focus on ethical and sustainable clothing, how did you land there?
Carlea: We wanted to focus on our definition of sustainable in its most holistic form. We wanted to have a business that was sustainable and something that we could nurture over time. We weren’t in a rush to get something off the ground, and I think that’s why it did take a few years because we didn’t want to go against that ethical and sustainable mindset that we want to focus on.
Trent: Football careers can last a short amount of time, and you do have to start thinking about life after the game so we wanted to set ourselves up with a sustainable brand that we could grow.
What about the range itself? West Essential markets itself as ‘basics, but better’ with a focus on ethical, sustainable, and genderless clothing…
Carlea: The biggest thing about the range is the premium quality of the products. We wanted to set ourselves apart from the rest of the industry by creating basics, but better. There are so many fast fashion brands that do basics, but they don’t last and they’re also often unethical in their production and supply chain. A big thing for us was creating a unisex, gender-neutral range because we didn’t want discrepancy between apparel. One of the biggest things I found in my research is how much more women pay for their clothing, even basics, because it’s targeted towards female wear. We wanted to create an inclusive and equal range and something that people can keep in their wardrobes knowing it will last.
You spent a long time researching the right manufacturer and suppliers that would fit into your vision. Can you take me through that journey?
Carlea: It took a while to find someone that we could trust. One thing we had to consider as well was that there are plenty of manufacturers out there who say they are following the right protocols and procedures, but they’re not. The other thing to weigh up was whether we were going to manufacture in Australia. There is a negative stigma about offshore manufacturing and so we wanted to understand how it works and find a supplier that was going to tick our ethical and sustainable boxes. We were working closely with a fashion development agency, and they put some brands and options forward. We found this manufacturer and I ended up contacting them directly to gain a better understanding of their operations. After this research we found our manufacturer in India who are a completely carbon neutral manufacturer, which again was important for our business ethos. From the sustainability aspect of our business, we didn’t want to preach that we were an apparel label using organic cotton or recycle materials if developing our products was contributing negatively to the environment.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in establishing your business?
Carlea: The biggest thing for us was getting people to understand the concepts. People today often preach being ethical and sustainable but when it comes down to how it affects their hip-pocket, there is still hesitancy around spending money. We’ve tried to help people understand our story, why they pay the price they do and why a holistic approach is important for our business. In saying that, I think we have had to try harder than we initially thought we would to help people understand that and get the message across. The other thing was that we wanted transparency in the supply chain. So many people only think about the finished product but for us, it was important to ensure sustainability and ethical practices across the whole process.
What are you most proud of?
Trent: Getting the pop-up store we had in Rundle Mall for a couple of months. In Melbourne and Sydney there are so many shopping strips and areas, but Rundle Mall really is synonymous for shopping with people in Adelaide (and beyond). It was a different experience to be working in that store, but it also provided a positive experience to receive feedback directly from our customers and in-person given we are primarily an e-commerce platform. It was also an important step for generating more brand awareness.
Sustainability and the impact of our environment is an important topic right now. Why are you passionate about this?
Trent: Players are so lucky to be in the position they are, and we have an opportunity to use our platform to help raise awareness and support a variety of different causes and issues. Climate change and the impact we as humans are having on the world is a big one. There are so many times we don’t understand the waste we are creating, even in footy clubs and the new apparel drops we get every year, or when our uniforms change because a sponsor has changed. That’s obviously necessary for business but how does that impact the environment and the level of wastage we are creating? We want to create more transparency across the supply chain and we’re hopeful other businesses and organisations will follow suit.
It’s been a strange 12 months globally and in the football industry as well. How important has it been to have a focus outside of football?
Trent: Football is only a short part of my life, hopefully there’s still more to come but as I get older and sense that the end is coming nearer, I’m starting to work towards my post football career. It’s been good on my days off as well to assist with something outside of football and gives you the chance to take your mind off what can be an otherwise all-encompassing and taxing sport.
Thanks Trent and Carlea for your time. I look forward to seeing how West Essential grows and changes the face of sustainable clothing.