BRINGING VALUE BACK TO CLOTHING
With Geoffrey B. Small
When I met Geoffrey B. Small to speak with him on Wednesday August 7th, he was dressed, as he always is, in his own clothing. It was a suit in sharkskin grey with a subtle weave pattern accompanied by a shirt and tie of his own design.
The hour and a half we spent together provided some truly eye opening insight into Geoffrey’s goals and why he operates the way he does. His business model is based upon the work of another heritage Italian brand though it is not one that makes clothing. Instead Small turned to Enzo Ferarri for inspiration. Like Ferrari’s cars, Geoffrey’s clothing is entirely constructed in a small Italian factory, which he owns and operates, from the best components available. Whether it be textiles from Piacenza, the world’s oldest still operational wool mill (recently taken over by its seventh generation), research fabrics by Geoffrey’s close friend and collaborator Luigi Parisotto, beautiful printed silks of Como, or hand made buttons by the Fontana brothers, there is no higher quality available.
Much of Geoffrey’s energy is focused on the idea of bringing value back to clothing. As he mentioned in our conversation, fashion has largely devolved to become governed more by Wall Street than it is creativity. Geoffrey stands opposed to this and has remained true to the vision he set for himself when he started his brand four decades ago. He chooses to chase a business model that does not rely on a changing consumer base but rather one that knows and trusts his design tendencies.
Throughout his schooling, Geoffrey felt he was constantly justifying his passion for clothing to both his classmates who would say, “That’s lowly work, immigrants do that,” as well as his family of doctors and intellectuals. It has been a struggle “since day one” to prove that there is honour in making beautiful clothing. One major point of incongruence in fashion today is the ultimate value proposition. The idea of a luxury sweatshirt that bears a status signifying logo is one that baffles Geoffrey. When compared to a similar garment by a brand like Champion, the 10x price point is hard to justify. The result is an exponential value curve where minute differences in quality make for astronomical price increases. Geoffrey is operating at one extreme of a proposed correct graph where quality and price are more naturally connected.
In order to continue making “the best clothes in the world,” Geoffrey needs the support of his many artisanal suppliers, though it is a trying time for them. With more production being outsourced from the former manufacturing titan of Italy for the sake of higher margins and higher profits, the industry is beginning to die. The goal of the Geoffrey B. Small brand is to inspire a new generation, who understands the beauty of clothing, to carry on this legacy. Making clothing has been a part of every culture since the dawn of civilized man yet it is continually being pushed farther away from those who buy and use it. If we are not careful with how we proceed in the near future, we may lose what remains of our centuries long connection to sartorial artisanry: “Culture only takes one generation to die…”
For this reason, Geoffrey has integrated mentorship into his business model in a very powerful way. Every artisan that works in the small Italian atelier is a student of Geoffrey. He wishes to teach them skills in the old ways of making clothing such that they may either carry on his legacy at his own label or leave to spread the message elsewhere; “Whether they go or stay makes no difference, the goal is to have them spread the message.” This culture of communication that permeates Geoffrey’s work is the most powerful part of his business. He stated numerous times over the course of his visit to Vancouver how much he enjoys this aspect of his work - the chance to connect with both his dealers and his customers. He sees face to face communication as “extremely powerful, even though it is not necessarily the most efficient way to communicate today.”
For many, the prices of Geoffrey B. Small clothing may be shocking but unlike many luxury fashion companies, you are paying only for parts and labour. Your purchase does not fund the glamorous lifestyles of upper management when you buy from Small - it only funds the continued creation of his clothing. The lives of those that make his clothing possible, like weavers and sewers, are also at stake and they too must be supported. It is difficult to digest the reality that you should not be able to buy a pair of jeans for $20. In order to begin teaching consumers this truth, Geoffrey has chosen to market to those for whom money is not an object, for them “... excellence is the object.” WIth this in mind, he is able to begin to change people’s perceptions and prepare them for the realization that all things come at a cost. Paying $20 for jeans today, will only shift the true cost of the garment to those that come after us. The plastic that has been shed from the billions of garments made every year has infiltrated nearly every global water supply at the microscopic level. Each item of Geoffrey B. Small clothing could replace tens or even hundreds of cheap discount items, and you will only pay for it once. We have grown accustomed to questing for temporary solutions to ongoing needs and the obsession with cheap clothing is a prime example of this. We no longer buy for value, now the product is irrelevant and all that it stands for is the outward message it projects.
Sadly, the options for truly sustainably produced clothing are not easily accessible. As Small noted, “The cost of sustainability is tragic.” At both the high and low end of fashion, brands are selling recycled polyester as the ultimate solution to fashion’s plastic problem. Though, in the same way a $20 pair of jeans is a temporary solution, this is too. This practice does not remove any plastic from the overall system, but merely gives it another chance to shed pollutants. It is a way to make the customer feel good about their purchase and present some form of change but really “... it’s more opaque, and at the core of the company every operation is being taken to maintain the status quo.” For Geoffrey, the only course of action is to remove plastic from the system entirely.
With the geopolitical turmoil that has taken hold across the globe, in addition to our climate crisis, it can feel daunting to help solve the problems we now face. Geoffrey himself feels as though it is difficult to solve them on a global scale when there are people in proximity who are suffering. The village of Cavarzere where Geoffrey now works employed nearly 10 000 people in the garment industry 20 years ago - it now supports only 400 jobs due to manufacturing outsourcing. As such, the town has become depressed and Geoffrey is doing everything in his power to stimulate its local economy. “First you gotta help the people in your backyard before you go solving the world’s problems.”
The future of the fashion industry is uncertain, as it continues to be saturated with brands whose primary goal is profit. We can only hope that more people begin to wake up to the pollution crisis that fashion’s current system has created. With any luck, the future will bring about a new age of designers whose goals and outlooks align more with Small’s. “There is a deep need for designers with real skills in the production of clothing with backgrounds outside of it. Culture, journalism, art history, art itself, and even science all provide highly valuable angles to design.” It is time for a perspective other than business to return to garment production. Since the inception of his brand, Geoffrey B. Small has been sending ripples of change through the still water of the status quo that will soon become fully fledged waves. He is not only a designer and a businessman, but a true modern philosopher, and activist for the coming cultural shift that he is hopefully here to witness.