I interviewed Rachel Watkyn from Tiny Box Company and Danielle Reynolds from DVR Equestrian, two stellar businesswomen, about their new joint venture Aire Activewear, an eCommerce business that brings together small brands who make properly sustainable activewear for sale all in one place. Simplicity itself, I thought, a gentle eco story, pats on the back all around and home in time for tea and an organic shortbread finger. By Kate Bendix
Sadly not, as truly sustainable sportswear is difficult to make, let alone track down and buy. This is where Rachel and Danielle come in.
Rachel set up Tiny Box in 2008 to make recyclable, high quality and beautiful packaging to match the quality and ethics of the product being wrapped. It came about because Rachel couldn’t find anything to pack her range of ethical, Fair Trade jewellery in. A frustrated entrepreneur can sniff out an opportunity the way a dog can detect a discarded chicken drumstick three streets away so after a lot of research, Tiny Box was born. Fourteen years later the company has a £10m turnover and Rachel has spotted another eco-friendly gap.
Danielle is no shirker either. She studied fashion and business then freelanced for sportswear brands, and taught maths on the side. I mean, why wouldn’t you?
In 2017, Danielle was a finalist in the Santander University of Brighton Ideas competition, sponsored by MDHUB; the prize, a year’s MDHUB membership. Off the back of this success and with MDHUB’s support she grabbed the reins and started her own brand of sustainable equestrian wear, DVR Equestrian.
Danielle is passionate about making top quality sustainable and ethical clothing. She ploughs these values into her products and says “My generation assumes that sustainable fabrics and clothing should be a given, I never realised it was a concept that needed promoting.”
So, where did you two meet?
Danielle: I met Rachel at an MDHUB peer group. I was a bit intimidated surrounded by these successful women entrepreneurs then I met Rachel, told her what I did and she was all ears. She’s become my mentor.
How did the business come about?
Danielle: We got talking about the possibility of Rachel investing in DVR but during Rachel’s research she spotted a much bigger niche for a multi-brand retailer for sustainable activewear. She said, “I don’t want to invest in you at the moment. I don’t know enough about the equine activewear industry but I have something in mind.” When she told me her idea it was so obvious.
Rachel: I know nothing about fashion. I just love business, and it can be anything. I’ve always run my business in an ethical, social and moral way. Obviously, you need profit but it’s doing it with a positive impact.
Danielle: I come at it from the point of product. When it comes to sustainable fashion you look at longevity. I’ve got an eye for detail and make sure we’re getting that right.
Rachel: I was researching the equestrian wear market and I said “what about the rest of the market? I Googled ‘sustainable activewear’ ‘sustainable sportswear’ and all that came up was lists of articles about tiny sustainable brands. There was nothing there that shouted out ‘we only sell sustainable activewear’. I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a single major player in the sustainable activewear market.
How is Aire Activewear different?
Rachel: The only people doing sustainability, who are making good products, are the small brands that have started out with that in mind. We are bringing these companies together buying the products ourselves and offering them on a B2C platform. The point of Aire Activewear is to offer these companies a choice. We’re positioning ourselves at a price point similar to Sweat Betty or Lulu Lemon and saying to consumers – ‘look, there is another way.’
Danielle: We still want the business to be about beautifully selected collections and a great shopping experience. We also want customers to shop by what they care about so we have our ‘shop by values’ as a feature. Some customers choose ‘Made in England’ because they care about working conditions. Some want to change to wearing recycled fabrics. That step for them could be a direct one from fast fashion.
How do you select your products?
Danielle: We do our own research into the brands and meet with them. We check certifications, the fabrics they’re using, sustainability and their transparency. On the hoodie Rachel’s wearing on our Zoom call. “This is from our range that I’m testing”. I very much struggle giving samples to Rachel knowing I’m never going to see them again !”
And, there’s always the argument for using longevity for sustainability.
Rachel: If you have a pair of leggings made of organic bamboo it will need Lycra added. Once you add Lycra it becomes non recyclable. If you use a recycled fabric like Econyl instead it’s still unrecyclable but the longevity is probably five times longer.
In the late eighties, I would pay £50 for a pair of jeans, then production moved overseas and now cheap clothes are the norm. Back then we bought twelve new pieces of clothes a year, now it’s twelve a month, on average.
Danielle: That £50 pair of jeans back then meant you wouldn’t have thought ‘I’ll have them in every colour’. We need to spend more and buy less.
What about targets?
Rachel: We’re aiming for £250k sales in the first year and we’d like to hit the million pound mark in three years. We want sustainable growth and for it to become self-funding as soon as possible.
How does it work between you two?
Rachel: We come at it from different angles. I see it as a commodity, Danielle’s all about the product. We’ll sit in meetings and for me, it could just as well be about boxes. Danielle sees it as a way of bringing products to market which are as sustainable as possible, and giving customers the choice of what to buy based on what’s important to them.
In what ways has MDHUB supported you over the years?
Danielle: Being an entrepreneur, it’s a lonely place, it’s hard to keep the momentum up. MDHUB motivates me. It’s helped me massively around my selfconfidence and self-belief. Being around MDs of big businesses where you know them personally and you get their authenticity, these are everyday people. There’s no reason I can’t be as successful and I can’t achieve everything I want to.
I love my regular MDHUB group and being around women entrepreneurs; I can see myself reflected back and there’s just something really empowering about it.
Rachel: It’s like having a huge non exec board without the expense of having to pay them all!
The thing that MDHUB does for me, and the thing I struggle with most, is morals and ethics in business because they always cross over. You always end up with a situation where you ask ‘is that morally the right thing to do, it might be the best thing for the business but is that morally right?’ Being on a panel of women helps me work processes through when you hit those dilemmas. I think that’s where MDHUB is really good for me, it’s a great sounding board. It’s a shared network of different expertise.
And I found Danielle! She’s a brilliant woman and entrepreneur.
How do you think MDHUB is going to be able to help in the future?
Rachel: We hope that everyone in MDHUB will totally buy into our new business and tell all their friends and relatives because as I said, it’s never been all about the profit, it’s about trying to make a change. Then we would have a small army of changees behind us.
Danielle: It’s everything that the MDHUB has already been and stands for. I know they’re particularly helpful in terms of being at a crossroads and in selling businesses. So at some point…it’s the support of people who have been there and done that.
Rachel: I couldn’t have done this without Danielle. I just don’t have the fashion knowledge or the patience. The way the fashion industry works. I mean, ordering a year in advance in a ‘just in time’ world, what’s that all about? I’m always learning on the job.
Danielle: And I couldn’t have done it without Rachel. I wouldn’t have had the idea. We take on and appreciate each other’s backgrounds. There has been a lot of learning on both sides and Rachel’s really good at listening. It has been a seamless process because Rachel is always keen to learn and listen.
The last word
Rachel: We want Aire Activewear to be a platform to create noise for the small companies that are trying to change but don’t have the weight behind them.
And Danielle: I can’t remember the exact words but we want to encourage people to change one thing and not try to be perfect at it every time.
Aire Activewear launches on April 1st 2022 – www.aireactive.co.uk
Rachel and Danielle were in conversation with fellow MDHUB Member Kate Bendix – writer/author and owner of www.wormcountsfordogs.co.uk
To find out more about how the MDHUB can help you as a Business Leader visit www.mdhub.co.uk