AN INDIVIDUAL, EVENT, IDEA, OR PROCEDURE THAT EFFECTS A SIGNIFICANT SHIFT IN THE CURRENT WAY OF DOING OR THINKING ABOUT SOMETHING.
IBUYING A PAIR OF OUTLAND DENIM JEANS IS LIFE-ALTERING. THIS IS NOT HYPERBOLE (ALTHOUGH THEY ARE INCREDIBLY FLATTERING
AND SUPERB QUALITY). BUYING A PAIR OF OUTLAND DENIM JEANS WILL LITERALLY CHANGE THE COURSE OF A WOMAN’S LIFE, CREATING A MEANS OF EMPLOYMENT AND ESTEEM FOR ONE PARTICULARLY VULNERABLE COMMUNITY IN CAMBODIA FOR WHOM SEWING IS THE ANTIDOTE TO SLAVERY.
Outland Denim began its jean-making journey when founder James Bartle had a fortuitous encounter with an anti-trafficking group, travelling to Asia where he saw first-hand how human traffickers prey on vulnerable young girls to supply the lucrative sex industry.
After learning that once a girl has been rescued and rehabilitated, a sustainable career path is vital for securing her future, James created the “Denim Project”, which would enable those girls who demonstrated an interest in sewing to put their new skills to use.
“I didn’t feel that a T-shirt brand would be sustainable”, says James. “And I’ve always lived in jeans. If you were going to produce anything, why wouldn’t you produce the most staple part of a person’s wardrobe? Jeans aren’t a throw-away item, but something you keep for years.”
So began the steep learning curve that is picking up a highly specialised craft from scratch, from experiments in pattern making, sourcing raw materials and stone washing in a cement mixer, to setting up a manufacturing process that began with pedal press sewing machines and hot-coal irons in remote Cambodian villages.
“Today we have created a clean, bright training and production facility in Cambodia from where we manage our manufacturing operations and oversee the holistic care of our staff through wage and personal development initiatives.
We are committed to sourcing the most ethically and environmentally sound raw materials, from up cycled pocket linings to recycled packaging, and endeavour to verify our entire supply chain in alignment with the world’s best practices,” says James.
Here, he shares with us the motivation behind the brand, the highs and lows of the business to date and his ambitions for Outland Denim to become a global brand making a world of difference.
When did the idea for Outland Denim arise?
It was the culmination of a few things over a few years. My wife and I saw the Liam Neeson film Taken in 2008, and that made me aware of the issue of human trafficking. Then a couple of years later at a music festival I got talking to a group called Destiny Rescue who find, rescue and restore trafficking victims around the world. They gave me the opportunity to join them in Thailand to see the problem first-hand. While there I was really impacted by the sight of a young girl who was maybe 12 or 13 years old standing on the street prostituting herself. She looked nervous and I wanted to do something, but it’s much more complicated than playing the hero cowboy.
Trafficking is a really complex, highly lucrative industry riddled with corruption – whoever was selling that girl had a business to run, so you would be putting her and yourself at risk. There is certain protocol to follow in keeping with the law. So instead of feeling impotent about the situation, I parlayed that frustration into what became known as the ‘jeans project’. I knew that the girls graduating from Destiny’s sewing school would need work, and so I created it for them so they could use their newly acquired skills and earn a good income all while being protected and cared for in a nurturing environment where they could get back on their feet and learn to trust people again.
Who did you work with to establish the business?
In the beginning, it was just me, a local lady with experience as a seamstress, a Brisbane-based jean maker named Nigel, and Robert and Judy Webber from Destiny Rescue, who were based in Cambodia. We literally had to teach ourselves how to construct a pair of jeans – and we got so much wrong in the beginning. They are a very hard garment to get right. Two years in, my wife and I decided to employ our International Operations Manager, who took care of the day-to-day running of the organisation while I tried to keep up the pace with my welding business. We had several volunteers and some freelance staff along the way, who always went over and above to contribute to the business.
But it was only in 2016, after finding an investor, that we were able to upscale and employ key staff for our official launch in September. My wife has been a part of the business since the get-go, playing devil’s advocate (she’s a journalist) and cheerleader at the same time. A trip to Cambodia in 2012 to see the project coming to life really sealed the deal for her – she was prepared to move there – but then we fell pregnant with our first daughter. We now have two.
Who are your production staff?
We have a brilliant production manager in Cambodia who came out of a large factory setting to see our vision come to life. His name is Phanith and the seamstresses call
him “uncle”, which is a term of endearment. He’s taught them life skills as well as sewing skills, and he expects a lot from the girls in terms of their work, but is also incredibly
patient and understanding. A room full of 30 seamstresses with varying pasts, including trauma, is not an easy thing to manage. We’ve also recently recruited two Aussies,
Caleb and Katie, who have experience in international development projects to oversee our Cambodian operations. Our production is concentrated in Cambodia.
Where are the jeans made?
At our workshop in Kampong Cham, Cambodia. We currently employ Khmer 30 seamstresses, and two other local Khmer management staff, as well as our two Aussie Business
Development Managers who are based in Cambodia.
Where and how did you source the designs and the raw materials?
This has been a long process, as initially we were all about the cause – giving employment to these vulnerable young women – so the idea of sourcing sustainable and ethical raw
materials hadn’t yet dawned. But as we’ve come to learn more about clothing production, we came to see that our raw materials ought to be sourced as ethically as the jeans
were being produced so as not to disadvantage anyone along the supply chain. So we have a requirement that all our suppliers sign a Code of Conduct, and we have visited
our denim mill in Turkey and our pocket lining factory in Vietnam, and our wash house personally to ensure everything is above board.
How are they available and how do you promote the brand?
You can buy our jeans at our flagship shop at the Brickworks Centre, Southport (we are positioned between Dwell and Cardamom Pod), or online at outlanddenim.com. We use
social media, our website, media and network to promote the brand, though often people stumble upon us in their search for ethically made jeans.
What are the brand values/ethos of the company?
We are first and foremost about creating sustainable work opportunities for those vulnerable to exploitation, but for that reason we are also about creating really excellent jeans
that our customers can be proud to wear. So we are about the craft as well as the cause.
How does buying Outland Denim help – what are the practical applications of the funds raised?
Sustainable employment opportunities are crucial to protecting vulnerable young women from exploitation, both in the sex industry and in the factories, so keeping our team
of seamstresses in work, and creating opportunities for more young women to join our team, is one of the immediate implications of investing into our brand. We also donate AU$50 from every sale made online or at our flagship store of our black jeans to front line agencies in the fight against human trafficking. Human traffickers make an estimated
US$150 billion in profits per year, according to the International Labour Organisation – that’s more money than Apple, Google, Nike and Starbucks combined, only instead of tech, shoes and coffee, these people are selling people for profit.
Undermining the trade is a matter of education (about human trafficking, who conducts it and how to avoid being coerced), employment (to stop the cycle of poverty, which creates desperation), cultural change (i.e. it is not okay to pay for sex with a minor in a foreign country, or anywhere), gender equality (the majority of sex trafficking victims are young women with limited opportunities and other disadvantages), and giving people a safe place to call home, which reduces the risk of them migrating, or paying people to facilitate their migration (often illegally), which can make them extremely vulnerable to traffickers.
What’s next for the brand? Do you have plans for expansion and international distribution?
Absolutely – this year we are expanding into the US, Canada and the UK, as well as New Zealand.
TRAFFICKING IS A REALLY
COMPLEX, HIGHLY LUCRATIVE
INDUSTRY RIDDLED WITH
CORRUPTION. SO INSTEAD OF
FEELING IMPOTENT ABOUT
THE SITUATION, I PARLAYED
THAT FRUSTRATION INTO WHAT
BECAME KNOWN AS THE ‘JEANS