You can’t eat the elephant whole: insights into lala Berlin's steps to sustainability with CEO, Livia Lee

You can’t eat the elephant whole: insights into lala Berlin's steps to sustainability with CEO, Livia Lee

GUESTS FOR CHANGE with LIVIA LEE

PART 1

Within the Guests for Change series, thought leaders, pioneers, visionaries, and game-changers are interviewed to give us more insight into the world of sustainability and circularity. Deep cultural roots and a humanistic approach is what sets lala Berlin apart. We are honored to have spoken with Livia Lee, CEO in this episode of Guests for Change. 


Founded in 2004 by Iranian-born Leyla Piedayesh, lala Berlin GmbH is informed and inspired by her background and rich cultural background. Having migrated with her family to Germany after the Islamic Revolution, she launched lala Berlin with a range of knitwear and a tight budget. She has since become one of the most successful fashion designers to emerge from the German capital. Officially joining the company in 2017 as brand director, Leyla’s good friend, Livia Lee, began freelancing for the company after the two had circled each other for a few years through mutual friends. Her keen sense of trend and customer experience compliments her role of balancing the financial needs of the business to ensure a symbiotic relationship with Leyla, and she has since taken on the role of CEO.

Image via lala Berlin

“We want to be more responsible.

We want to produce less, but better.”

On the radar of most CEO’s within the textile and fashion industry, the topic of “sustainability” is currently taking the spotlight. “The sustainability challenges that the brand has faced are very topical,” shares Livia. And for her, the approach began with establishing what the values of the company are.

“Four years ago, when Leyla and I were building the values of the company, we talked about sustainability. It’s always been something that’s been in her head, and what we wanted to drive towards. I come from a very different perspective. I don’t believe that any company can be one hundred percent sustainable. It’s a goal that cannot be achieved. And that’s why when Leyla and I were talking about this topic, I said, “We want to be more responsible. We want to produce less, but better.” We have to realise that within the fashion industry that we’re in, it is very very difficult to clean up and do all the things that may be required to be ‘sustainable.’ I don’t know if it is an achievable goal. But what I do think is that we can be more responsible with what we do.” 

“We have to realise that within the fashion industry that we’re in, it is very very difficult to clean up and do all the things that may be required to be ‘sustainable.’ I don’t know if it is an achievable goal. But what I do think is that we can be more responsible with what we do.”

Image via lala Berlin

Actioning the move towards this, Livia highlights the tangible changes that are evident since that conversation with Leyla: “When I think about four years ago, as an example, production sizes were huge! You could fill a two-hundred-square-metre space with one season. We were producing all of this stuff, and it would just get left behind because it would be way too much... When you think about sustainability from a design and a creative standpoint, how can any design team create that much every six months? It’s diminishing returns in terms of creativity. On the other hand, why develop all of this stuff when your clients are going to choose a far smaller amount than you’ve developed?”

From this, she logically approached the issue. So we said, let’s have a point of view of what we design and who and what we put out there to the market, and really take our time as a team to really make sure that each piece is being developed in a good way and in a qualitative way. And that’s something that we’re proud of, as opposed to trying to develop the world and then seeing what sticks. For the last four years, this has been our initial action around the idea of sustainability-slash-responsibility (my favourite word!): To really be conscious of what we’re putting out there.”

"For the last four years, this has been our initial action around the idea of sustainability-slash-responsibility (my favourite word!): To really be conscious of what we’re putting out there."

Admittedly, in terms of the supply chain, Livia clearly states that lala Berlin is not there yet. But what is important to her is that her entire team knows what is important, and are clear on what the goals and strategy is. This extends into everyone on the team being aware and on-board with the mission of the brand. Once this is in place, their next step will be to take the actions to adjust the needed areas of the business. 


Image via Fauxels

“First, our focus is on education and workshops - so that we really have one hundred percent alignment internally in terms of what we are doing and why we are doing it.”

Aligning the team to all move in the same direction is very important. She shares, “I could implement a major change to our supply chain immediately. But if my Head of Production doesn’t understand why we are doing this, there will be resistance along the way. You’re not fully fluidly moving in the same direction. I also want to make sure that the teams are educated in terms of what ‘sustainability’ means in general, in the world right now, how it is defined. And then outline what that means to lala Berlin. What do we want to apply within our own business that will take us along that path, and will continue us forward?” Indicating that right now lala Berlin is in talks with external companies to assist with this continual journey towards improved sustainability, Livia continues, “First, our focus is on education and workshops - so that we really have one hundred percent alignment internally in terms of what we are doing and why we are doing it. Because the WHY is always very very important.”


"we’re in the process of getting there while recognizing that it is a journey."

“Parallel to that, it is important for us to start projects like we are doing with THE GUESTLIST and some upcycling projects that are one hundred percent sustainable. This means that we are parallely introducing new product lines and new items within the collection that we can proudly say have been responsibly made from root to nuts. So these are the two things that are happening. One is a much bigger project that’s going to take the next three to five years, and we’re in the process of getting there while recognizing that it is a journey. But for me, parallel to that, it’s also important to also start to inject this approach from a product standpoint, from a supply chain standpoint, and show those small changes that we can already speak to and show to our clients, and ourselves - to demonstrate that we are able to do it.”

Image via Gpoint Studio

"This means that we are parallely introducing new product lines and new items within the collection that we can proudly say have been responsibly made from root to nuts."

And within this, change is not easy. It’s breaking the mold of what has happened before, and going against the grain in certain ways to create something new. And within that, things can fail. It becomes risky, especially when looking through the lens of a CEO.

Livia is open in saying, “This is the fear, right? Change is sometimes not easy. I always tell people that it’s a generalisation of Americans - we say, “Change is easy! This didn’t work, let’s move onto the next!” In Europe, it’s a little bit harder... The machine takes a little longer to run and to make those quick flips. But if we are taking both actions parallely, we can show the teams that yes, we can do this! We are actually already doing this! And as we start to affect the broader business, it becomes much easier for them to digest in terms of what needs to happen next. Then it becomes a case of ‘slicing the elephant,’ as the Italian’s say. You take off a little bit and a little bit. You can’t eat the elephant whole. You have to slice it to really see progress and make progress.” 


Contributing to a more sustainable world is not at the sacrifice of profitability for Livia. It’s not a case of only doing one of the other, rather it is a balance between the two, taking smaller steps towards improvement. “As a business owner, for me, it is a prioritization - what can we do first, then second, then third. Again, as I say, it’s a case of “slicing that elephant” so that we can really plan out our strategies. We’re not just making a 180 turn and all of sudden we have a completely different brand at a different price-point that doesn’t reflect the customer base that we’ve built for the past twenty years or so. It has to be considered and mindful. For example, working with THE GUESTLIST and developing a small capsule, or an upcycling project - these are ways in which we can start to inject this and the learnings from it, so it’s almost like a laboratory test-phase as we start to change the direction of the bigger machine.” 

"it becomes a case of ‘slicing the elephant,’ as the Italian’s say. You take off a little bit and a little bit. You can’t eat the elephant whole. You have to slice it to really see progress and make progress.” 

Image via lala Berlin on Pinterest

When asked if the shift towards sustainability is coming from leaders of businesses or from consumer demands, Livia says that she sees it happening from both sides. “There are businesses out there that genuinely want to make an impact in a positive way, for very altruistic reasons. But obviously, there are also market conditions. The customers are expecting something more and something different - so that drives the change as well. So for better or for worse, I don’t think either way is right or wrong. If you’re being forced into it or if you’re altruistically, naturally wanting to do this, I think both are good because they’re all getting to the same end result. I do believe that it’s a bit of both.”

And yet, at times, it can also feel like a shot in the dark, especially for those businesses who may be very unsure of what to do. This ends up opening an immense opportunity for collective learning and collaborations, such as THE GUESTLIST’s Cashmere Spa and Wool Recycling Initiative that partner with brands who want to offer more circular options to their clients.

“Everyone is kind of in the position of throwing the darts on the wall and seeing what will stick.” Livia highlights. “There are a lot of resources out there. And I see that there is an opportunity for companies that are already doing it - and doing it well - to share their knowledge with companies that maybe are like lala Berlin and are just starting off. I have an idea and I strategically understand where I want to get to, but I don’t have all the ideas.”

Image via lala Berlin on Pinterest

 “Within the fashion industry, we are talking about the planet, the entire globe. If one person does it then it doesn’t make any difference. But if everyone does it then it really makes a difference.”

Within the global perspective, as Guests to this Earth within the ecosystem of our various industries, we all need to be thinking along these lines. Livia shares, “Within the fashion industry, we are talking about the planet, the entire globe. If one person does it then it doesn’t make any difference. But if everyone does it then it really makes a difference. So you would think that there would be more outreach to say “These are my best practices, why don’t you try it?” or something like that. This is a piece that I feel is missing. The part of who, and how companies are getting to this sustainable mindset is quite frankly irrelevant for me, because what's important is that they’re all doing it, or trying to do it, or being forced to do it. What’s more important is not if we are all doing it in the right way, if there is a right way, but rather how we can learn from each other.”


 “What’s more important is not if we are all doing it in the right way, if there is a right way, but rather how we can learn from each other.”

From the perspective of lala Berlin, “Once we are further on the path,” Livia states, “I’d like to be able to share what we have learned - mistakes and successes - with other companies so that they can do it as well. We’re all playing in the same field. We’re all using the resources on this planet. And if we’re all going to use it anyway we may as well use it in a good way and learn from each other in terms of how we can make the path easier for everyone else.”   


We explore one of the often-overlooked keys to sustainability with Livia in the next installment of our conversation with her. Click through to read it here



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