MEET | Spell & The Gypsy Collective

Meet Elizabeth Abegg, Co-founder and Chief Brand Officer of the Byron Bay label. One half of the creative minds behind Spell & The Gypsy Collective. The story began when two sisters joined each other in the idyllic beachside town of Byron Bay, Australia, Spell is inspired by ‘far-off places, vintage treasures and childhood memories’. Find out how one customer email started a sustainability journey and established a commitment to embedding sustainability into the brand.

MEET | Elizabeth Abegg

Co-Founder & Chief Brand Officer of Spell & The Gypsy Collective

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TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR OWN INDUSTRY BACKGROUND AND WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO FASHION?

Before joining my sister in the business in 2009 I was a film and video editor. I didn’t really know it at the time, but my 12 year career in film editing gave me the skills I needed to communicate the story of our brand. Content creation and brand communication became the crux of my role at Spell and still is today.

HOW DID Spell & THE Gypsy Collective COME TO BE? WHAT IS YOUR VISION FOR THE BRAND?

My sister Isabella had been designing and hand-making jewellery for many years, first wholesaling in Melbourne and then selling at the artisan markets when she moved up to Byron Bay. In 2009 I joined her from Sydney and everything just fell into place. We quickly moved into apparel and accessories and began selling all around the world through our online store. Together we grew Spell into an international brand and now have an amazing team of 60 based in Byron Bay. We credit our fast growth mostly to being early adopters of social media platforms like blogging, Instagram and Pinterest. Our vision has always been to channel our passion and creative energy into something we love and bring our customers collections that make them feel beautiful. Lately, a new layer has been added to that vision, whereby we approach all aspects of our business with people and the planet in mind, and participate in making positive changes in this industry that we love.

Elizabeth Abegg and Isabella Pennefather - cofounders of Spell & The Gypsy Collective

Elizabeth Abegg and Isabella Pennefather - cofounders of Spell & The Gypsy Collective

HOW HAVE YOUR PERSONAL VALUES SHAPED YOUR WORK?

Do you know, it’s funny... I’d say that it’s the other way around. I’d say that although I’ve always thought of myself as a conscious consumer and someone who cares for our planet – it’s actually been my work that’s shaped my values around our environment, our world and our responsibility to protect it. My values have always been around family, friends and community – however since starting down our sustainability journey within our business, my eyes have been opened to the very real and terrifying crisis we are in as a human race. I feel very grateful to have had my awareness shift so I can pass these values around our planet onto my children.  

Process & Values

Tell us a little about your Sustainability Journey...

I’ve always loved nature and felt very connected to my surroundings, but the “aha” moment for me was when I opened up my inbox one day and had an email from a customer that asked me a very direct question about where our clothing was made (as part of the Fashion Revolution movement). I became more curious about what that actually meant; and so began my deeper curiosity and commitment to embedding sustainability into our brand. It started from a social perspective (things like ethical conditions within our supply chain and being transparent about that, social accreditation of our factories etc) but then it very quickly opened up a Pandora’s box of issues within the textile industry that I just hadn’t been aware of. At first I was shocked and ashamed of our industry’s contribution to the problem, but then I realised that we weren’t a tiny company, which meant that if we started to make positive changes in our operations, that impact could be substantial. So I became energised and excited about the change we could have! Our journey has really been driven by that idea.

“I’ve always loved nature and felt very connected to my surroundings, but the “aha” moment for me was when I opened up my inbox one day and had an email from a customer that asked me a very direct question about where our clothing was made (as part of the Fashion Revolution movement)”

HOW DOES ‘SUSTAINABILITY’ FACTOR INTO YOUR BUSINESS PRACTICE?

Today, sustainability factors into everything that we do and all the decisions we make. This year we have had a major focus on further mapping our supply chain, moving towards more preferred fibres, embedding circularity into the way that we work, giving to organisations that need it most through 1% for the Planet and other local community groups. The first few years we were really working out what sustainability meant to us (how long is a piece of string?) and the learning curve was huge. Luckily, we worked closely with an external sustainability consultant who helped us navigate those first few years and set some ambitious 2025 targets for ourselves. Finally, this year we hired an in-house Sustainability Manager who has helped us take more in-depth leaps towards our long-term goals. Ultimately, we have defined 7 key areas that we are now measuring and reporting on outwardly to our customers in a yearly impact report and roadmap: supply chain transparency, sustainable fibres, environmental footprint, printing and dying, social advocacy, circularity and giving back.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR DESIGN AND MANUFACTURING PROCESS?

When we started our brand in 2009 we began producing our apparel and accessories in Bali – the artisans we met while travelling there allowed us to sketch a design and have it made on the spot. We’d sit with the artisans and watch them crochet, or do the intricate handwork of the beading or applique, or hand carve bone or wood for our jewellery. We’d walk down a street and talk to a leather craftsman or a tailor and sketch up designs on the fly and they’d sew or craft it right before our eyes. Today our process is very different, most of the designing happening in Byron Bay. Our design team is led by my sister Isabella and in our Byron design studio we have a team of around 20 across design and production. We manufacture globally, in areas of craft and expertise, namely China, India & Peru.

WHAT DOES ‘AUSTRALIAN’ FASHION/STYLE/DESIGN MEAN TO YOU?

It is the most relaxed form of chic you can find, it is suited to our lifestyle but mostly it’s a “vibe”. We just love seeing all of the emerging brands coming up and how they’re approaching their take on Australian fashion.

ARE THERE ANY BUSINESS MODELS OR WAYS OF APPROACHING SUSTAINABILITY THAT PARTICULARLY IMPRESS YOU?

I do love what Reformation are doing. I feel like they’re showcasing ‘sustainability’ in a really mainstream and accessible way – they see themselves as fast fashion (for us, a sketch becomes a dress in a year, but for them a sketch becomes a dress in a month!). Traditionally I have seen fast fashion as the devil, but it has been very refreshing and inspiring to see a different model of fast fashion that is taking a more responsible route. It shows that a system that feels very broken can be reinvented. The circular economy is something that also has me inspired. I love new trends and innovations in fabrics that have been developed in this space. It is unreal that you can make a piece of clothing from old plastic bottles, fishing nets or even orange peels!  

HOW DO YOU APPROACH RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT IN YOUR BUSINESS &/OR THE BROADER INDUSTRY?

For the first few years our research and development in this space was clunky and time consuming. I literally had to Google ‘how to become a sustainable fashion brand’, (I don’t think Google came up with any suggestions at the time, now it may be a different story). I stayed up until 3am and rang the ETI in London. We had no idea what we were doing and honestly our suppliers didn’t know all that much either. Now, however we have a strong network of connected suppliers who are all on this journey with us. These days our suppliers come to us with a new sustainable fabric they’ve woven, excited when they’ve achieved a similar hand-feel to our conventional fabric. We do a lot of research and travel to China to meet with companies like LENZINGTM to find out about new fibres they have in the works, that’s how we were one of the first Australian brands to begin using LENZINGTM ECOVEROTM last year. In terms of projects we’re involved with, we signed with the Canopy agreement last year, and through this partnership we hope to access a global supply chain that can tap into sustainably sourced raw materials, which aren’t contributing to the deforestation of our planet's endangered forests. We are also a signatory to The Global Fashion Agenda’s Circular fashion Commitment which hopes to encourage and accelerate change toward a circular model across the whole industry.

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Sisters, Elizabeth Abegg and Isabella Pennefather at Nightfall Camp for their recent Climate Council Retreat

Sisters, Elizabeth Abegg and Isabella Pennefather at Nightfall Camp for their recent Climate Council Retreat

WHAT’S NEXT FOR SPELL & THE GYPSY COLLECTIVE?

We were excited to recently break the mould of traditional advertising spend as part of our 1% for the Planet contribution – partnering with The Climate Council, influencers were invited to a retreat and shared the Climate Council’s message in a very intimate way. It was quite exciting to see an environmental awareness campaign play out on Instagram in such a unique and very Spell way. We are also very excited to be releasing Spell Active in July, which also took a long time to develop as the leggings and tights are created from recycled polyester.  

RECOMMEND 5! WHO/WHAT/WHERE ARE YOUR LOCAL TEXTILE & FASHION GO TO’S?

1. Wardrobe Crisis by Clare Press – her books and Podcasts. We love the people she interviews and often learn so much!

2. Big Closets Small Planet with Michael Schragger which is a very industry focused podcast. I love this especially when it comes to complex conversations in this space, and lots about R&D and innovation.

3. Let my People go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard Patagonia’s mission and business model is so inspiring.

4. Fashion Revolution Australia. The local team do such a great job to drive the narrative in Australia!

5. All of the emerging small businesses, NGO’s and individuals giving it a go and making a real effort to push sustainability to the forefront. It really does take a village..

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Images provided by Spell & The Gypsy Collective