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Photographs by Becky Elliott
Stephanie Lawson is an English designer, based currently in Shanghai, China. Stephanie founded Zodiac Active initially as a solution to her busy lifestyle working as a fashion designer in Asia, seeing an opportunity to use new 4-way stretch denims to combine daily denim essentials with activewear functionality. We caught up with Stephanie to gain an insight into her innovative brand.
How did Zodiac Active begin?
I’m English, born in Staffordshire but now based in Shanghai, China. I’ve been a fashion designer in Asia for the past 8 years, first in Hong Kong, followed by Beijing, and now Shanghai. I have a product development background and the experiences I’ve had in factories meant learning to solve problems and design right there on the spot. Everything I design starts from the fabric – specifically denim fabric – and I go from there. I’ve always travelled a lot for work and around Asia, usually trying to squeeze in as much as possible. Alongside work, my trips often included outdoor activities, socialising and I was constantly trying to find more efficient ways to dress and to pack. I found it strange how my active wardrobe didn’t work together with my day-to-day ‘designer’ wardrobe and most non-sportswear doesn’t have much functionality. Denim has always been an underlying passion and it was when a friend encouraged me to start my own brand that I decided to go for it! Zodiac Active is an experiment in creating functional, super comfortable denim that can take you from meeting to hillside, yoga to nightclub. So far it seems our customers are wearing them to do just that!
Have you always been interested in fashion?
I definitely was not ‘born’ to work in fashion. I see fashion as a way for me to be part of a complex and fascinating industry that operates on so many levels. I meet interesting people almost every day, I get to be creative and solve problems. I was creative, hands-on and quite an ‘outdoor’ person from a young age, as well as being well-travelled, so what I do now suits me perfectly.
What have been the highest and lowest points on your journey so far?
The first high point was getting a mention in Jing Daily and then Business of Fashion after just a few months of selling; that was the first time that I felt I had achieved something I could be proud of. Secondly, the brand was launched as part of a collective project I took part in, named ‘Uncover’, for Beijing Design Week. It was great to create a unique design ‘lab’ concept that hadn’t really been done before in Beijing, alongside three other talented and experienced creatives and consultants. Low points come more often than high points, so you do have to become immune to failure! Starting a brand single-handedly without a partner is extremely tough, and although I wouldn’t recommend it, the experience was the right path for me. One of the lowest points was going through winter in Beijing during the worst months of pollution, telling myself I was running an active lifestyle brand but not being able to go outside. There were absolutely no orders coming in because of winter and so it was quite a depressing time!
What was the inspiration behind your latest collection?
For each collection inspiration is nearly always a combination of fabrics and cities. I am greatly inspired by our movement in and around cities. I get new ideas from being out and about, listening to people and trying to find better and more convenient ways of living and moving from one place to another.
Do you ever struggle to stay inspired?
I think if a designer struggles with inspiration then they either need a holiday or they might be doing the wrong job. I understand that is an issue when pumping out 12 collections a year, that’s why I enjoy making trans-seasonal collections that offer design to suit any year/different time of the year. It’s also much more sustainable to design for longevity than just for one season.
Where is your go-to meeting spot?
My new home studio is currently my favourite place for meetings, since I have a lovely outdoor deck that catches some afternoon rays. In general I’m hoping to start using workouts and morning jogs for meetings, though it requires suitably ‘keen’ attendees with a great deal of flexibility, so it’s not a regular thing so far!
How would you describe your customer base?
My customers are a varied bunch. The one thing that ties everybody together is an active lifestyle and an interest in buying into good design. All of the styles have been very carefully designed to be as stylishly understated and as functional as possible, offering maximum comfort at the same time. My customers get this and so far appreciate it a lot.
Is there anyone you would love to see wearing your designs?
Daenerys Targaryen, naturally. Seriously, I would love to see every woman who is owning it wearing Zodiac. It’s very hard to pick out any single person because Zodiac fits many different personalities and there are just so many wonderful women out there doing their thing at the highest level and inspiring us all.
What are the morals you run your brand by?
Denims are washed without any sandblasting or chemical finishing and are eco-washed using Ozone technology. One of the Zodiac factories source all of their fabrics straight from the organic cotton farmer and this is something I am discussing with all factories about doing in the future. I decided to focus primarily on a high standard of design and to set long-term goals of sustainability including use of organic cotton, seeking cotton alternatives, recycling and upcycling. We have just finished making a range of limited edition bags out of waste denim fabrics.
Do you have a mentor?
I have many mentors in business in life, most of these relationships are constantly in flux due to travel, people coming and going around the world. I am really lucky to have a great network of wise people who are often linking me up with other fantastic people!
If you could only wear one piece from your collection, what would it be and why?
Difficult! The style I wear daily is the Downtown Denim Pant, it’s a regular jean but with the highest level of comfort you could wish for. Once you have a hidden pocket for your phone it is very difficult to go without.
What’s the biggest style mistake you’ve ever made?
Style-wise I was a late bloomer, it took a while for me to settle on my style. I am definitely of the mind that rules are made to be broken! I would say that having an under-cut on one side was the biggest style mistake I ever made. During the few years I only caught the sun on one side and now I am permanently more freckled on one side. I’m not convinced it ever looked good on me either, beware of asymmetric hairstyles!
Is there another designer whose work you particularly admire?
In China I love Fixxed Studios and my friend’s menswear brand Capitale Nord (menswear but great on women too). I enjoy wearing vintage items atop my own designs, classics such as my Whistles leather jackets, a few special pieces picked up whilst travelling and also my own experiments in customising and upcycling denim! These days I am getting more excited by tech innovations such as Adidas’ sneakers made out of sea plastic and leather made out of pineapples etc. We need more of this, the day brands can use these new technologies will be game-changing.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
As somebody who is constantly over-doing and over-thinking my Mum’s advice is the best. She has always said ‘if you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything’. That was golden and always holds the answer.
What drew you to Wolf & Badger?
As a young start-up brand it’s invaluable to find a store like Wolf & Badger to work with. Working with retailers can be tough in the beginning for small brands. Wolf & Badger’s beautiful stores combined with a flexible approach makes it a perfect start for Zodiac Active to come ‘home’ to be sold within the UK.
Where do you see the brand in 5 years?
I hope that Zodiac Active will grow slowly but steadily to become a wardrobe staple for style-conscious, eco-conscious active women. There has also been quite a bit of interest from customers in a possible menswear line, therefore men’s denim styles are already in the pipeline. I would definitely hope to see the brand stocked in Europe, Canada, and the US soon in order to make it easier for new customers to find and try on in-store.
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