Only 60 years ago, women were mostly wearing aprons and impractical cocktail dresses. Once they began competing for jobs traditionally held by men - politicians, judges, stock brokers, CEOs - women had to come up with wardrobes that would communicate their reliability, skills, professionalism, and ability to get the job done as well as their male counterparts. In the workplace, men had suits that inspired respect, power and trust. What did women have?
Forced to prove themselves in a male-dominated, gender-biased world which, to this day, still operates under the unspoken rules of glass ceilings, sexism, unequal pay and hiring criteria, women often found themselves losing their own sense of identity and femininity, and ended up adopting more and more of the masculine style, appearance, and character traits.
Heidy Rehman, founder of Rose & Willard, a British ‘feminist’ fashion brand that offers career women uniquely feminine, luxurious, elegant, refined, high quality, versatile, and ethical womenswear, shared her insights about her experience and vision with EFW.
Rose & Willard was born out of Heidy’s previous career as a top Financial Stock Analyst for a major American bank. In the world of High Finance, Heidy saw the reality of the glass ceiling, gender discrimination, and lower paychecks despite equal or better job performance. She also noticed that women (perhaps in hopes of being taken more seriously or just as seriously as their male colleagues) too often opted for a more masculine dressing style and chose a more conservative wardrobe over a more expressive one.
These experiences together with the lack of options when looking for more feminine, yet professional, office attire, sparked the birth of the label Rose & Willard.
At the core of the brand is the desire to empower women - to encourage them to be themselves and fully embrace their own unique nature. “What I found personally” Heidy tells us, “was that when I embraced my femininity I felt much more empowered. This engendered a new-found confidence and I believe it was that that made people take me more seriously. [..] I don’t believe that this necessarily implied wearing a skirt or a dress (my personal preference is to wear trousers) - rather it was more about feeling uninhibited when it came to choosing clothes that made me feel more womanly.”
Adopting men’s masculinity and a masculine dressing style is in Heidy’s opinion “a somewhat defeatist [approach] that doesn’t really work; [it is ] the female equivalent of emasculation.”
In the process of finding and expressing one’s own femininity, the choice of fabric plays a key role. Heidy explains, “much of what makes [Rose & Willard’s] pieces feminine is the choice of fabrics.” The company therefore only chooses materials that feel “fabulous against the skin” and spends “hours on [..] fittings, revisions and re-fittings.” Heidy believes that “so much of wearing something feminine [ultimately] comes down to how it fits and feels.”
Rose & Willard predominantly targets professional workingwomen between the ages of twenty-five and fifty, offering them as many dressing options and ways to express themselves as possible. “Our collection” Heidy says, “features a range which includes overtly feminine dresses (e.g. our Feria, Jaseran or Gabion dresses) as well as tailored trouser suits (e.g. our Ashlar or Rebus suits).” The label is also adjusting to the growing trend that is taking place across most industries, that sees smart casual attire often replacing formal office-wear. Rose & Willard also wants to reach out to stay-at-home mothers: the brand believes “that they are doing an equally important job” and wants to offer them a variety of more casual pieces.
Going against much of the fashion industry, Rose & Willard hopes to foster women’s positive body image and encourage healthy working habits in their models. The company has been using mostly non-models in their work and has recently added a clause to their contracts whereby models are required to eat (and be seen eating) while working with the label.
Rose & Willard’s ambitions go well beyond feminism and their efforts are not exclusively geared toward defining a style that empowers professional women. At its core Rose & Willard also strives to create a sane working environment and to build their business on integrity and solid ethical practices. “I wanted people to be paid, have a proper work/life balance and to have their CVs enriched by working here,” explains Heidy. “What I didn’t expect, in some ways, was how our environmental stance would evolve. Discovering that fashion is the world’s second most polluting industry after oil was a disturbing shock for me and became one we wanted to address.”
Thus, Rose & Willard prides itself on aiming for the lowest carbon footprint in the fashion industry. Unlike most brands, including many luxury labels, Rose & Willard does not cut corners; their garments are not made in cheap markets and then sent to luxury markets, such as Italy, where a tiny edit/addition allows them to apply the ‘Made in Italy’ label. “We design, pattern cut, manufacture and distribute all our pieces from one location in London. Some of our fabric is also from the UK, e.g. the tweed used to produce our Linton suit and jacket. For other fabrics we aim to source them from luxury markets (e.g. Italy other near European countries). We ensure the mills we use produce the textiles themselves and aren’t an intermediary for some other producer overseas.”
Many of Rose & Willard’s garments feature fish leather which has been a recent addition to the sustainable fashion industry providing garments with interesting, contrasting textures and details. For their customers who favor leather, they have created a few pieces using Napa leather. When asked about the use of Napa leather in the context of sustainable practices, Heidy explained: “We had looked at pleather options but found that its production could be as damaging to the environment as leather and it didn’t last as long as leather. Making pieces with as long a shelf life as possible is very important to us. [...] We also don’t source any leather now unless we can categorically confirm that it is a by-product of the food industry, as is the case with our fish leather. In fact we haven’t actually bought any non-fish leather for some time.”
Heidy continues: “What we also do is limit any waste. In the industry as a whole around 15% of fabric gets wasted during production. We like to design into our leftover fabrics. For example our Rodor 2 jacket, Rodor trousers and Rodor dress all use leftover fish leather as trims. Our Debel Kimono Jacket has napa leather trims on the belt that came from that leftover from our Rhizic skirt.
I can honestly say that I have experienced a sharp learning curve with regard to the fashion industry and its impact on the environment. My aim is to keep finding new ways and innovative materials that will help reduce our impact. In any event we intend to continue to design away from short-term trends and always with a view on perennial pieces.”
Doing business ethically, sustainably, and with integrity, while taking responsibility for the impact the products have on the environment translates, of course, into higher product prices. As we all know, lower prices come at the expense of human labor and the environment. Heidy comments: “Consumers, generally, have become accustomed to very cheap clothes and so communicating that ethical clothes cost more than they are used to is quite the uphill struggle.”
Heidy would like the brand to be “broadly recognised as one committed to ethical, environmental, and female-empowering principles.” Part of the company’s future goals is also to expand geographically.
Rose & Willard, has made garments for Pippa Middleton, Cahrlotte Riley, Naomie Harris, Helen McCrory, Michelle Dockery, Gemma Arterton, Esther McVey, Sue Perkins, Haydn Gwynne.
As Rose & Willard continues to grow and explore ways of developing sustainable business practices, of ‘doing’ style versus ‘fashion’ and as it continues to create a unique, lasting, empowering wardrobe for professional women, EFW would like to join BBC presenter Louise Minchin, in saying: ‘Keep up the good fight!’ It is a good, necessary, vital one and Rose & Willard is certainly doing a remarkable job not only at redefining fashion ethics, but in providing women with elegant styles that help them express their best and most confident selves.