The journey – part 1

The idea has always been the same, it’s only the fabric that changed’

Ragnarøk was born out of personal frustration over how intensive and polluting the current fashion industry is, fired up by passion to do things differently to create a healthier world. How did we get where we are now? During an early morning walk through Zwolle, Yann reflects with me on the journey thus far.

It all started with the idea to create clothing out of Hemp.

“Hemp was the starting point because it is such a good and such a fascinating plant! I started to look for what you can do with the plant, and clothing immediately made a lot of sense. When Daniel joined we had our sight on t-shirts, but actually the idea never changed. The fabric did. We started to reach out to people in the industry, ordered hemp shirts and fabric samples to see how good they are. That’s where the focus shifted. Either the quality of the hemp fabric was not satisfactory, or the production process was not really what we want with Ragnarøk. Hemp often has to be processed chemically to make it soft or it is imported from very far away. Or it is still very water intense. Not necessarily growing the plant, but in the production process later on. Those things led for us to look for something else, something different, something better fit for our requirements.”

The big decision

“Organic cotton was never really an option. One of the reasons to start this company was to get away from cotton. As the excessive cotton cultivation is the opposite of locally grown materials. Going back to organic cotton doesn’t make sense then. There was one more big decision we had to make: are we gonna go fully natural or fully circular? For fully circular, you could make the argument for synthetic fibres like polyester, as you can (in theory) recycle them indefinitely. But with Tencel, we struck kind of both! It is natural, but created in a chemical process. So it is a natural fabric that you can keep only with Tencel and then you can fully retake it into your production again. It doesn’t loose any quality so to say.”

How did Tencel come to our attention? 

“That’s a good question actually.. I don’t fully remember how it went. I think it was because we started ordering samples in general. So we started ordering hemp samples. Others too. Took the decision that we wanted to stick to a hundred percent natural material and then I think we stumbled across Tencel. At some point in the process of testing the laser printer, we made the decision that this was the material to go with.”

Deciding was easy, getting it was hard

“When we decided on the material it was about finding the right producers. So we had one where we ordered and also made the first prototypes with. It was distributed from the Netherlands, but they were unfortunately completely nontransparent and not very communicative so we looked for one that was willing to actually cooperate with us.

Its always the beginning that’s a bit hard. Finding a supplier was a bit of a hassle, but it worked. We directly called Lenzing, the company that produces Tencel, and asked them for tips. They gave us a whole list of people that they work with in the EU. That’s the list I started from, calling all of them, asking about everything. It was a lot of calls to make. In Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and more. Trying to find one in the European Union that is transparent, communicative, has an ecological focus. And then most of them you can then cross because they don’t fulfill the rigid criteria that we have since we try to be strict.”

Transparency was the big elephant in the room

“Lenzing is the company behind Tencel. Lenzing makes the fibers, they are at the very beginning of the process. Their fibers then go to distributors who make the fabric out of them. Tencel is their brand name for the fibre that is called lyocell. So it is lyocell at the basis and then they call that lyocell Tencel. The thing is, you can still call a fibre or fabric Tencel when it only has 70 percent Lenzing fibers in it. So that was a problem. When we asked suppliers about the amount of Lenzing fibers in their Tencel, they’d say: can be between 70 to 100 percent. So we didn’t know exactly. Nor did we know what was in there for the rest of the percentage. Would be Lyocell but from very different places and from a very different producer. Can be from very far away. Lenzing first has best quality and they have a very good ecological vision for their production and their growth. Also for the localization of their plants. So we wanted to work with them, absolutely. With a hundred percent Lenzing fabric. That’s for sure. But then we had to find a producer and supplier that tells you exactly what is in their fabric and how much is in there. Not too easy.”

Why aren’t they transparent? 

“With my experience, I see two or three reasons. One is because they have something to hide. With most people we came across, this luckily was an exception, thank god, but it is still happening a lot actually. Sometimes they don’t know better because they don’t get the information from before in the supply chain. Or protectionism. They are scared that if they are transparent towards us, they share their secrets with us. Because that’s how they feel about it. That we’d then jump them. Like we’d just go to their supplier directly or something like that. Since it is a market on which you are always fighting for your position. Because you know that there might be someone who is cheaper. You have to be as projectionist as you can.”

Improving

“So yes, it was a bit scary in the beginning. You don’t really know what to ask. So you call, have no idea and then you learn while calling. That is also the thing. The supplier that we work with now, they were super open from truly the beginning. They mentioned that they have worked with start-ups before, they eased it into the conversation and really showed that they know that we are small. And they of course have bigger clients but that doesn’t matter, they still treat you the same way as the others. That is not something we had with other companies. A lot of times the first question was: ‘how much would you like to order?’. And of course, that’s their main focus. They need to sell. But for suppliers to understand us, where we are coming from and why we are even reaching out to them, not a lot of companies did that. But when you are doing it, you get better at the questions you ask. You’re just improving these things and you build up some knowledge. Then it gets better.”

The fabric we have now is like really real

“We now have fabric that’s truly 100% Lenzing fibers. The fibre comes from Austria, goes to Germany where it’s knitted (and dyed 30 km away) and then it comes to Zwolle. So the fibre makes only like a little detour on their way to the Netherlands to be made into a fabric. That makes that our product in the end has traveled around 3.300 km’s or so. While the average t-shirt travels 36.000 km.. so that’s very good.

The colors are custom made for us too. We choose our black. We send them one or two options from the pantone fashion catalogue and then they made a sample out of it. We didn’t like the black as it was too grayish, they remade it. That’s also why it took a bit longer for the black one, besides the supply chain problems due to Covid. Also for the sample of the white, we liked it but not that much. It was a bit too aggressive, it had a blue tone in it, just wasn’t that nice. Later on it turned out to be a bit more yellow, way better.

Last thing about our supplier: they produce on demand. This allows us to tackle the problem of stock overload in the fashion industry. Producing on demand comes with a higher price but it prevents waste. While other companies calculate the waste already in the price, then produce as much as they can, try to sell it and if necessary they dump or burn it. We want the product to be created for the quality of the product, not just for the sales it generates. That’s what we get with this supplier.

Sure there are other suppliers out there. And this is not the last one we are going to work with but for now, for the stage we are in and for the fabric we want, this is the best we can get. I am excited to work with other suppliers for different products that we go into in the future. Direction might be Hemp then and maybe we already need Hemp or Linen for packaging now, we aren’t sure yet. But now, after all my calls and research, I and we now know what approach to take. Not that I had it written down, but I have it in my fingers due to all the practice.”

Looking back at the last year

“If you look back at it for the full year it didn’t go, or well, it doesn’t feel like it went that fast. But yes, you are right. If you see where we started, from zero. We didn’t have a clue.. no background in fashion. Then it went quite fast. But it is also not there yet! It’s nice that we grow with it all. Building up to the launch we are definitely passing all these milestones. We started with the website, that we have our regular social media posts and the blogposts now. We see the engagement going up. We really grow with it also. Literally too, our team is growing and the list of people that we got help from in any form is continuing to expand. It all goes so natural as well. Its insane. So yeah, we are growing and getting better. It is getting more concrete, less exploratory that’s for sure. We know better where we exactly want to go. And its getting closer so that’s good.”

I mean..

“We have our cube at iLab, where we already had our office for a bit. This cube, our first production place, that Meike is furnishing and putting into her liking as we speak. We made our first big order and the rolls of fabric are lined up in there. Another sewer found his way to us, he really brings another set of qualities that we don’t have so far so that is really great. He and Meike are making a headstart with the MVP’s. MVP means Minimal Viable Product. So this is the first batch of shirts that we are going to sell but as it is our first we do it in the format of a 50 people test-group. 50 people that wear it in different way, more active, more casual, more, less etc. That way we can find out how it wears, feels, washes, and how it wears out and so on. To find flaws that we can correct before going into the ‘real’ production.”

We keep on refining

“So yes, it is getting more clear, but like I said: we are definitely not there yet. An exercise that is taking a lot of time, especially in the beginning, is to refine the idea. Refine the business idea and the business itself. The approach. That is something we still do. Now also with our launch-meetings, seeing what should be our main aspects and our main message. Because we probably have to break it down a bit so that it becomes more digestible. Because you know, the people that read a bit more into the brand and look it up a bit more, they probably get the concept. They think it makes sense and its a sound concept. But if we want to catch people in a quicker manner then yeah, we have to refine it. But that is an ongoing process. And that’s also something that we want. To keep on shaping the company as we grow older.”

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