After a history working with fast-fashion retailers, Margaret Coblebtz—the founder of direct-to-consumer cashmere brand Frances Austen—felt the need to pursue fashion brands that aligned with her values in order to gain experience before starting her own company. However, due to the smaller amount of more experienced roles in the startup realm, she was led to jump directly into launching her own brand.
Frances Austen focuses on luxury quality cashmere knits that not only follow a high standard of ethics and sustainability, but also maintain an attainable price point. Read more about how Coblebtz has created her brand as well as her partnerships with the family-owned manufacturers she works with.
Tell us why you decided to start Frances Austen.
I worked in fast fashion for Charlotte Russe (RIP) where I held a series of buying roles including the Director of E-com Apparel. I left in 2016 after becoming totally burnt out and was unsure of what I would do next. No matter what, I knew I would never go back to work in fast fashion or for a big corporate retailer. I began to consider the possibility of eventually starting my own business. In the meantime, I sought out roles at companies I admired and that aligned with my personal values with the hope that I could gain more startup experience before launching my own company. What I quickly learned, though, is that senior roles at fashion or product startups are hard to come by. Generally, it was the founders themselves who were directing product strategy and doing exactly what I wanted to do. From there, my husband pushed me to think about skipping an apprenticeship and simply diving in to focus on my own idea.
What did you feel was missing from the fashion industry and market?
It all started back when my grandmother gave me her collection of vintage cashmere sweaters. They were incredible - I wore them religiously and loved them, but struggled to find any other pieces of the same high quality in stores today that didn’t come with a price tag upwards of $1,000. I’ve always loved to mix a carefully considered investment piece with other affordable closet favorites and vintage pieces. Other women do as well, and I knew there was room in the world for a brand with thoughtful sourcing and luxury designer quality offering beautiful, wearable pieces.
What is conscious cashmere?
I define conscious cashmere as something that is made with ethics and sustainability woven through the sourcing and manufacturing process. How that translates for Frances Austen is we work Cariaggi, an Italian yarn supplier, who has long-standing relationships with Mongolian herders and has an almost constant presence checking on the health and wellbeing of the herds and herders alike. From there, the yarn is manufactured in a 100 percent renewable energy powered plant that doesn’t waste anything and has 100 percent traceability of all chemicals and raw materials. It is both complex in terms of the steps they have taken over the years to institute these high standards but also simple in that they are devoted to continued innovation and investment to make the product and process as low impact as possible.
What other types of materials are you working with for Frances Austen?
At this point we are not working with any other materials, we made the decision that anything we work with has to meet the same high standard as our cashmere both from a ethical/sustainability perspective and a quality/cost perspective. That standard has proved hard to meet, so I am focused on growing the business through cashmere and continuing to entertain other possibilities that fit our ethos. It has been a choice that has maybe not led to quick growth but I believe will be the best long term for the business and consumer.
Tell us more about the Oeko-Tex Standard and what that means for your materials.
I was familiar with Oeko-Tex from my time working at Pottery Barn and that originally attracted me to Cariaggi as our yarn supplier. Since then, they have evolved to pursue a more holistic approach to sustainability including full traceability of all raw material and chemical components, renewable energy, etc. Their processes have not changed but they felt that a certification that only reflected the chemical composition/safety of their product was limited in its scope of sustainability. I love them for being so thoughtful about their process and manufacturing and, having spent time with them, am totally confident in their pursuit of a higher level of conscious manufacturing that one certification cannot reflect.
Why do you find it important to work with your manufacturers in Italy and Scotland?
They hold themselves to such a high standard—both as dictated by the local regulations but also driven by their strong belief that ethical and environmental manufacturing is the right thing to do. Both companies have had initiatives in this space long before it was “sexy” to do so and it’s totally ingrained in their DNA to treat people well, respect the local environment and innovate. Johnstons even does in-house repairs, and has forever, not because zero waste is sexy but it’s just how they think you should run a business.
What has been the process of working with a family-owned factory like Johnstons of Elgin.
It has truly been amazing, I pitched them on the concept of Frances Austen and they were willing to take a chance to work with me. They work with the biggest luxury houses in the world, but they have an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit that Frances Austen resonated with and have been incredible partners in growing the business ever since. I think with a family-owned business you can truly build a meaningful relationship and every win that Frances Austen has, they see as their own as well.
How do you hope to make an impact on the fashion industry with this slow fashion practice?
I have always believed that the change in the fashion industry will come from consumers and we are starting to see that. My hope is that people will look at Frances Austen and recognize that you can make incredibly beautiful products, not a lot of them, make them well and run a meaningful business. The reality is that it may come with limitations on how big you can grow but it also means you can run a business that will stand the test of time. I think convincing people to be thoughtful and find meaning in their purchases will be our biggest accomplishment.
Images: Courtesy of Frances Austen