Earth Day 2019: Carmen Busquets explains why technology is the key to sustainable fashion
Nature, Qigong practice,meditation and yoga keeps Carmen's business life in balance.
Carmen Busquets opened her first business, a designer clothing store in Caracas, Venezuela, at just 22 years old. Since then, she has been a true forward-thinker in the fashion industry, advocating for change in the way we create and consume clothes - and putting her money where her mouth is.
Busquets was a key supporter of Net-a-Porter in the brand’s infancy, spotting an opportunity in online retail when others were still skeptical of the Internet’s longevity. Today, she boasts an impressive portfolio of investments that include Farfetch, Cult Beauty, Glamsquad, Unmade, Lyst, and many more.
However, the label ‘luxury fashion entrepreneur’ perhaps doesn’t do justice to Busquets’ crucial work pushing the industry towards a more sustainable, ethical future. She is also a WWF council member, and her tireless support of environmental conservation underpins everything she does.
In honour of Earth Day 2019, we sat down with Busquets to learn more about what’s wrong with the fashion industry, and why, almost twenty years after the birth of the Internet, the power of technology excites her more than ever.
You started your first business - at the time, the only shop in Venezuela to stock designer clothes - when you were 22. What gave you the conviction to work for yourself at such a young age?
I have always had conviction about what I am meant to be doing. When I was six years old, I went to the Chanel shop on Rue Cambon during a trip to Paris with my mother, and earnestly told her I wanted to live there. She looked at me funnily and told me that this was a store, but what I think I knew at that age, intrinsically, was that the essence present there was part of my future. It’s no coincidence, then, that when I opened Cabus (my store in Caracas) at 22, it was like a home to me - and I ended up working with Chanel.
What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?
My go-to for all entrepreneurs is ‘think big, but start small’. This is why I start with small investments, as a company needs capital. As an investor, I always say, “Why give a million dollars to someone if they have not proved that they can make a million dollars?” I learned this from my father, who would never give us more money than we could make. If I maxed out a credit card, he would cut it. As an entrepreneur, stay lean in the early days and seek to prove your commerciality to yourself and others, beyond just the idea. Be profitable as soon as you can. Lastly, be flexible to grow and learn. Surround yourself with people more experienced than you in areas you are not experienced in, and make sure they are honest. Have faith in people, but don't trust anyone fully until they’ve been proven worthy of your trust.
Is there another career you’d have pursued if you hadn’t become a luxury business entrepreneur?
A spiritual leader. In fact, spirituality was always a part of my journey. In the late nineties, I was inspired by Marshall McLuhan's vision of "the global village" - especially with the rise of the internet. So in 1997, together with my family, as co-founders and investors, we joined Deepak Chopra’s online community - a vision of a mind, body and wellness company named “My Potential”, started by his daughter. That experience was invaluable for me. I launched a second startup with four other co-founders to create a platform for women in Latin America to spread ideas. I am definitely a humanitarian and value mind and body disciplines, and also have strong spiritual values that go beyond traditional religions.
Carmen Busquets and Donna Karan united through the Couturelab Coalition to support global artisans and preserve traditional skills.
What is it about fashion that inspires you?
Fashion’s ability to help us reinvent ourselves. Also, as I have been deaf since I was small and no one knew it until I was 23, it definitely was a tool for me to understand and read people. You can tell a lot about people from what they wear. At different stages in life, I believe we have new fears and personas that are born, and we must conquer and elevate ourselves each time. I am a big believer in ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’, so at each stage when you surpass this, you are reinvented. Fashion helps this process.
You were at the forefront of fashion eCommerce in its early days, investing in and co-founding Net-a-Porter, even though people around you were advising you against it. Why does the merging of fashion and tech excite you?
I saw Natalie Massenet’s business plan, on paper, in 1999. As with many of the companies in which I have invested in the past 30 years, I knew immediately that her idea would work because I had already been selling clothes to international clients through drawings and polaroid photos that I was mailing. Prior to Net-a-Porter, many people believed in eCommerce, so they spent millions of dollars and put crazy valuations on startups. And many failed, as they thought big, but also started big. With that comes big mistakes, so by 2000, many had failed. When Net-a-Porter launched, it was at the time when the internet bubble burst and many businesses spiralled down, like a domino effect, but the bad timing for others became good timing for us. Sometimes, it’s good to be last, and this is the reason why I believe in ‘think big, but start small’ – that April 2000 crash. No one else believed in selling luxury fashion online at the time, so I had to be the first – and major – investor for some time.
Natalie was passionate about doing eCommerce and content, and I thought that together we could empower the consumer, as we had data, and as a retailer I knew the basic retail formula in luxury is similar in all businesses. I have always been very friendly with my competitors and we have always had helped each other a lot. At the time, the late Maria Luisa [Poumaillou, the legendary French fashion buyer] was my mentor, even though I was in Venezuela and her business was in Paris.
Empowering customers is something that still excites me about the merging of fashion and tech today. This is why I keep investing in other similar businesses which people could see as competing retailers, but I see them as complementary businesses that eventually could merge with each other because of how different they are internally and the way they are run. With Net-a-Porter and Natalie, we empowered the consumer with access, giving women all over the world the world the ability to shop the best designers from wherever they are. Now, as the tech has become more sophisticated, the empowerment lies in enabling many other consumer-led decisions. With new technologies, we can personalise our items with Platforme and Unmade Studio, we can rent out our closet with Villageluxe, or borrow pieces that we will only wear once on Armarium, or have your own virtual closet that looks like a store like with Vault Couture. Our decisions and data also inform retailers of what the demand is, decreasing overstock. This is why I invested in platforms such as Tagwalk and Ordre.
What are your predictions for the future of fashion tech?
Anything can happen. It will be very instantaneous and socially driven and bespoke. Rental will accessible to everyone from anywhere in the world. Our clients could be businesspeople renting out their closets or others selling their creative jewellery, such as local artisans on Instagram, eBay or Facebook. I am a big believer that Instagram could be a very good tool to help individuals and small-scale businesses be sustainable, as a social platform for sales. There will be an increasing shift towards a see-now buy-now model, and we will hopefully see some interesting developments between digital and brick-and-mortar shops, as we are seeing shops become more and more ‘experience’ destinations. The question of how to bring the offline experience online is also an interesting one, and I believe tech will be used to bridge those experiences in interesting ways. We will use tech for positive sustainable solutions, too, such as creating a greater circular and sharing economy to decrease so much production.
You’re passionate about sustainability, investing in companies that have innovative ideas and prioritise craftsmanship. If you could choose one statistic or story to illustrate what’s currently wrong with the fashion industry, what would it be?
Our world is reaching a boiling point. There are huge concerns about climate change and waste, and we need to move towards a more circular economy, where we see the value in objects we won’t only enjoy for the short-term. One statistic, which has been hotly debated and difficult to measure, is that fashion is the second-largest polluting industry behind oil and gas. The WWF, many NGOs and I believe it’s true. If you look at all the secondary statistics, such as that it takes two years of drinking water for one person to create one t-shirt, never mind the amount of water you need for a pair of jeans, it’s not such a stretch. This is without considering all the other issues – the pollution from dyes, the waste created from overstock, the carbon footprint and cattle pollution caused by immense leather production, and materials such as viscose and modal coming from the pulp of illegal deforestation of trees.
What should the fashion industry be doing to address these issues?
There is so much we need to think about to tackle the issue from different angles. We need to think about packaging, textiles, production, where the product comes from, water waste and pollution, dyes, cattle and leather alternatives, microfibres and ocean pollution, consumer waste and repurposing, its carbon footprint, irresponsible marketing and the constant pushing of newness, and also, economical waste and overstock. Thanks to low sell-throughs, dead stock represents $50bn each year in the US alone. The good thing is that consumers know all this today, and the younger generation also knows this fact. As a result, the change will happen thanks to a movement of consumers, who will put pressure on designers and brands to change. Already, lots of brands are taking action, and many luxury brands and groups have sustainability professionals in place. For example, LVMH has had one since 1992 - they just don't talk about it so much, as they consider it a given that it has been part of their responsibility and mission. They’ve not needed anyone to point it out.
How can consumers cultivate better habits to protect the natural world?
Invest in buying from brands that are proven to have sustainable or ethical practices, and buy from artisans directly when you can. Know yourself and only buy pieces that you really love and will wear for a long time. And whatever you do, don’t throw clothes away to sit in a landfill. Donate, recycle or repurpose them. And above all, rent! I can’t wait to soon start renting from my friends’ closets in different cities, and we are making this happening soon.
Name 3 sustainable brands or initiatives we should be following right now.
Rent, rent, rent. You can use Villageluxe, the Airbnb of fashion, and Armarium for renting fashion, both coming soon to the UK.
Unmade, which is London based, for personalised knitwear. If you want to ease the sustainability issues of brands producing overstock, pre-order on Moda Operandi or create bespoke knitwear with Unmade. If you want to be 100% sustainable and concerned about human labour, don’t buy, as you really can’t guarantee where things come from unless they are emerging niche designers, artisans or very established luxury brands that own their supply chain production. So you need to educate yourself well on the story behind the product if you want a good conscience.
As well as looking after the rest of the world, how do you look after yourself?
Meditation, trekking, yoga, long walks - I can walk for hours - and swimming. I grew up with the Gurdjieff discipline and travelled around the world with my parents to learn different philosophies to balance myself. As a Latina, I am very extremist, a true black-or-white thinker, and it has taken me a long time to learn that between black and white there are all kinds of grey shades and a rainbow of colours too.
Pilates mixed with yoga, and Qigong, are key for me. They help me move my body and breath as a way to improve flexibility and practice a moving meditation.
Also, reading and practicing the principles of A Course in Miracles, which I try to keep every day. I try to learn something new every day and let go of something every day. I eat a gluten-free diet as I have Celiac disease, so I’m intolerant. And I love IV vitamin drips, especially as I travel a lot. Lately, I have also been following the Mayr method of eating and lifestyle.
If you could give your younger self advice on her skincare regime, what would it be?
Use sunscreen! And don’t wait so long to start a skincare regime. I started way too late.
What is your desert island skincare product and why?
The Dr Jackson’s Coconut Melt – I can’t have enough jars of this! It’s truly multi-purpose. I put in on my face, body, lips, cuticles and even the ends of my hair.
I also love the 02 Night Cream, a wonderfully rich moisturiser which I use a lot during the winter, and that I also apply when I take a long distance flight.
How will you spend Earth Day this year? Why is it important that we have an Earth Day?
I spent it in my London residence, with the lights off, doing a light meditation. But Earth Day is something in my mind every day - this is why I became a council member at WWF.
Where is your favourite place on Earth to enjoy nature?
It’s a hard task to pick just one place – I have three. First and foremost, in the Caribbean, as I grew up in Venezuela, which is very rich in natural beauty and resources. There is an island off the coast that we would always go to. These days I sadly don't go to Venezuela, but enjoy the same tropical ambience and Caribbean sea from the Turks and Caicos, St Barths and Miami. Secondly, my residence and the place we chose to live after my brother died, is Verbier, in the mountains in Switzerland. For many decades now, my family's home base has been there. Thirdly, Bhutan - there is undoubtedly something magical there. I have been going on Qigong retreats and trekking there, and I also got involved in helping support the Bhutan Nuns Foundation. I was so happy to take part in Bhutan For Life – a large conservation project along with the WWF, of which I am a council member.
Thank you for sharing the profile of such inspirational woman. The world needs many more like her.
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