At MIMMO Studios, we always want to share what we are learning along our journey. If there’s one key lesson from the research we have been doing and the conversations we have had throughout our first nine months, it’s that we can’t solve the climate crisis alone. If by sharing our experience we can help to inspire another business owner or customer, then we absolutely want to do that.
We were lucky enough to be asked to present a talk this month at ‘From the Ground Up’ Festival of Sustainability in Cheltenham. The event itself was very inspiring - it was a very busy day with many local businesses both giving talks and sharing knowledge at stalls in the venue. It was a great opportunity to hear from businesses across all industries including farming, brewing, conservation, energy supply and many more.
We want to share the topics we covered in our talk for those interested who weren’t able to attend.
For context, we’ll begin by telling you a little bit about ourselves - Katie & Lil, the co-founders of MIMMO Studios - and what led us to starting our business.
Firstly, from Lil’s perspective:
“I guess I always knew to some extent I wanted to start my own business as I studied Fashion Design with Business Studies at Brighton University. I have always been interested in design but at the same time I always knew I didn’t want to be a designer. Once I graduated I never wanted to go near another sewing machine ever again. I took a break and went travelling by myself.
Without realising it, this trip was really significant and it has ended up playing a huge part in the making of MIMMO Studios. I would go to museums, galleries, design festivals, cafes, see live music, meet other creative people and try all the food. I came across my favourite store in Antwerp called St Vincents and realised I wanted a store of my own one day, but also felt that would never happen and it was too big of a dream.
I carried on travelling until money ran out and my dad asked me “Lil are you ever coming home?”. At that point, I packed my bags and flew back to London with my friend and ended up staying there for two years. I worked for a few independent retailers and learnt the retail game, but also felt very uninspired. It was becoming more and more apparent I had more to give and wanted to work for myself and have the opportunity to create more of an impact. I guess I fantasised about building a legacy of my own one day. There wasn’t really a job out there that was multifaceted and gave me the freedom that I desperately wanted to explore. It felt like it didn’t really exist, wasn't accessible and I wanted a place that involved everyone.
Eventually, I moved back home to Gloucester to spend time with my family. In the time between then and figuring out what I wanted to do, I have had a few jobs. I was a baker, an ice cream lady, and spent some time living on a lighthouse island in Norway.
I had been thinking about MIMMO for so many years and becoming more and more frustrated for not taking steps towards it. So, I started doing research, contacting brands, talking to other inspiring women in the industry for advice and made myself vulnerable for the first time, I realised it was okay to not know all the answers at the beginning.I knew I wanted the business to be as sustainable as possible, and so reached out to my friend Katie for some consultancy about the ins and outs of starting a business and how to make it sustainable.
We then realised that we made an excellent team, and we were already great friends - and at that point I asked her to be my business partner!”
And here’s Katie’s journey:
Like Lil I’ve always been into fashion and design - ever since i was a teenager poring over my Vogue magazine collection - reading and re-reading and memorising the names of the designers. When I was 14 I started taking trips to London and Brighton at the weekends to take ‘street style’ photos and post them to my blog - this was before Instagram even existed!
Like Lil too, I knew I never wanted to be a designer - which led me to studying Fashion Management at London College of Fashion - this was essentially a business degree with a really specific focus on retail - which generally leads graduates to a career in Buying or Merchandising. That’s the path I took - and was lucky enough to end up working for some amazing brands over the years including The Conran Shop, Urban Outfitters, Whistles, Selfridges and Margaret Howell.
Although - something at the back of my mind was bothering me about the industry (not just the pay and the antisocial work / life balance), but also the environmental impact. In my first week at one job, I placed an order for £100,000 of lipsticks - all the same shade. That really signalled a problem to me in the way retail was operating and consumers were behaving, and it never really aligned with me morally.
In March 2020 I finally decided enough was enough - I packed up, sold all my stuff and booked a one way ticket to Australia - I was leaving the industry for good - for a new life on the beach! I think lots of people’s COVID journeys have taken them to places they’d never expected - but after working as a greengrocer for a year and relocating to Cheltenham - I’m so pleased to say that it’s brought me here to Lil, and then to MIMMO. It’s a bit different to life in Australia, but when Lil asked me to be her business partner in June last year I said ‘yes!’ without a second thought.”
What is MIMMO Studios?
First and foremost we are a womenswear and homeware store. We’re proud that we are female-owned and love being part of the group of independent businesses here in Cheltenham. We opened the doors to our pop up in October 2021 and had an amazing 3 months there. We always wanted to be a space for the creative community, and wanted people to feel inspired and welcome with us.
We already felt like we had quite a clear vision for MIMMO from the outset which aligned with what was important to both of us. Lil’s focus was more on design, and Katie’s on sustainability - but we both share these priorities which was a perfect combination - so they are both key pillars of everything we do.
We both agreed we weren’t willing to compromise on either design or sustainability. We knew that some of the ways of doing business in the traditional way don’t sit well with a sustainable business model - but we wanted to move away from that blueprint and make our own - despite what we had been told was ‘best practise’ or ‘industry standard’. We wanted to write our own rule book - and even though some of the rules might not make perfect business sense - that was never the point of MIMMO Studios.
So - in essence - we see ourselves as a bit of a guinea pig for a new way of doing retail. By no means are we claiming that we are a total solution to the issues in retail - but we felt so strongly about it, and built ourselves the freedom to test our theories - that we are hoping the way we are doing things can be used as an example or a case study to prove that it can - and needs to be - done differently.
This is what led us to start using this phrase to explain what we are aiming to achieve:
“Retail is broken - let's mend it.”
What problem are we solving?
So we’ve mentioned that the way things are being done by retailers these days is far from perfect - so what is it that is wrong about retail in its current form? This photo is from one of our brainstorming meetings in the early stages of setting up MIMMO - where we wanted to make sure we were acknowledging and actively tackling some of the core issues.
From an outsider's perspective, we do just look like a normal shop, but we operate quite differently behind the scenes to what you’d expect.
That is intentional because it creates a familiar and accessible environment for us to be able to speak to our customers. It was always important to us that our store should be unpretentious and friendly, so that we can have deeper conversations with our customers about the topics which are important to us.
Good Shop / Bad shop
The best way we came up with to show you the most obvious differences between us and a normal shop is playing a game of ‘good shop’ vs ‘bad shop’. This is obviously very simplified and there is a lot more nuance to this - but with a combined retail experience of around thirty years (yikes!), we feel we are in a reasonable position to dissect the ins and outs.
So let’s start with the bad… think of any shop you have been into recently. You can apply this model to most shops you would find on the high street. We came across this phrase for this linear model which describes it as ‘Take, Make and Waste’ - which sums it up quite well. It’s a very resource intensive operation.
Buy new: Your job as a buyer is to achieve the best profit margin possible. Your job depends on it, as does the success of the business. There’s a lot of pressure to make as much money on each item as possible. Often, growth targets increase every year - and that squeezes the margin even more. The easiest way to make more money is by buying goods more cheaply and selling them for more money.
So, often, especially in a fast fashion scenario, this results in both quality and factory wages decreasing. Garment worker exploitation is rife in this model as these are the stakeholders in the supply chain who are bearing ‘the true cost’ of making these clothes - making a saving for retailers and customers - but forcing that cost to be absorbed by other more vulnerable parties. There’s very little room for quality and longevity in this model.
In terms of design, the easiest way to sell is to cater to trends. Businesses are looking for the next best thing. Sometimes it leads to innovation - but can also contribute to the ‘throwaway’ mentality consumers have around fashion.
Sell some stuff: This is a good time to squeeze in a spot of greenwashing. Brands can get away with using weak environmental actions to try to sell consumers things they don’t need - while at the same time convincing them that they are making a sustainable choice. The example we always use here is H&M’s ‘Conscious’ collection. Because fashion marketing is not regulated in any way, brands are essentially able to lie to customers and wildly overstate the benefits of their products. Shopping from H&M will realistically never be the most sustainable choice, because they are one of the world’s largest fast fashion retailers.
Sale: We’ve deliberately put ‘sale’ in black as we think it’s a very problematic part of the retail world. It seems to be sale time forever. Years ago, you might have to wait for Boxing Day for a sale once a year. These days, you might see a ‘mid-season sale’, followed by ‘further reductions’, followed by an ‘end of season sale’ and maybe a ‘Black Friday’ sale thrown in for good measure. It doesn’t even stop there as brands have started to do ‘New Arrivals’ reductions too.
Where do we go from there? It sounds like a joke, but Prettylittlething ran a ‘100% off’ promotion on Black Friday 2021.
Customers become so used to seeing clothing sold for a reduced rate, that it devalues the whole process. Customers become used to cheap clothing being sold for even cheaper - in a system that barely makes any sense. Retail really is broken.
Wear once: This is unfair. You might wear it twice if you don’t get a photo in it the first time round - usually your fast fashion item will fall apart after one or two uses, and so it goes to the bin.
Bin: Each week, in the UK 13 million garments end up in landfill, and every piece of plastic that has ever been created is still in existence, unless it has been incinerated - this is especially relevant to fast fashion, as often it is made from synthetic fibres (plastic) which are much cheaper to produce.
There is no such thing as ‘away’ when we throw clothing away. Often, clothing waste ends up being shipped abroad to countries who are not equipped to process the sheer volume of clothing waste we create - we are essentially using other countries as extended landfill.
We came across this image of a pair of stretchy jeans which had been left to compost for a year - you can see that the natural fibres have decomposed, but the synthetic composition still remains. There’s so much left which won’t degrade that you could almost still get away with wearing them.
Buying: Unlike the ‘Bad Shop’ example which is very linear - we wanted to at least try to move towards a more circular retail structure.
One of the easiest ways of achieving this is by sticking to our non-negotiable design criteria. Each item should be crafted beautifully, with care and have a timeless, seasonless design. That means each item has the best chance possible of lasting a lifetime.
We don’t just choose brands because of how eco-friendly they are. We really want to work with innovative brands that are pushing the limits and making changes. In terms of ‘slowing down’, we take our time when selecting the brands we stock and cherry-pick the best.
People often ask us how we find the brands we work with - some of them are our longtime friends, and some of them are brands we have been personally interested in for many years already. They are always brands we have thoroughly researched before approaching. We are very proud of the relationships we have with all of our brands and would consider this one of our most unique business practises.
In the very beginning we decided we wanted to try lots of different business models under the umbrella of ‘MIMMO Studios’ to test out what works. We wanted to give everything a fair chance, and if something wasn’t working as well as we had hoped, we wanted to be able to make adjustments to how we were working to see if we could improve.
As an example, something Katie was really keen on integrating at the beginning was including secondhand clothing. We have been so happy with the response to this in store - and have definitely come across customers who would never have looked twice at buying something secondhand - but by creating an edit from Curate & Rotate, and by positioning our secondhand items in the context of a ‘luxury’ store, it was a really successful way of getting customers to reconsider their shopping behaviour.
When we do buy ‘new’ items, it is always with care and consideration. This might mean using products made from natural fibres and ingredients, recycled materials, innovative materials, products which directly benefit the people manufacturing the items, zero waste, plastic free, artisan or hand-made. We are keen to support these kinds of businesses and are always really proud to tell the stories of these brands in store.
Here’s a few examples we’re really proud of:
- Auor makes their sunglasses from innovative biodegradable cellulose acetate. They also work closely with factories in Italy, helping to preserve the skills and labour force which is at risk of being lost.
- Goods of May cushions are handmade in London - the pattern design is such that they are a zero-waste product - designed with love and care by Lucy.
- Cutting Floor Cushions repurposes fabric waste to create luxurious and voluminous cushion fillers.
- Riley Studio are innovators in terms of materials - finding creative ways to use recycled materials for example using food waste to dye garments. When virgin materials are used, they are always natural and organic.
- Formulated and manufactured in London, Homework proudly uses all natural ingredients and plastic-free packaging.
- Wax Atelier uses traditional methods to create their contemporary candles. They provide employment and training for their local London workforce.
- Little Collective is handmade in South London. The brand works on a made to order basis, using deadstock materials - so each item is made custom - meaning it’s perfect for the person owning it.
- Curate & Rotate is run by Melanie in Brighton. She curates high quality secondhand garments and resells them in order to extend their useful life. She’s often running to her seamstress or dry cleaner to breathe new life into the garments she resells.
These are just a few examples of the brands we work with and their unique ways of working. We absolutely love discovering all the ways they are integrating sustainable business practices - and could easily write a full essay on all of them!
Something else we do differently is that we only buy a limited amount of stock - i.e. what we think we will sell out of. We’d much rather under-buy than over-buy - which is the opposite to how many high street retailers operate. There’s a much lower likelihood that there will be leftover stock at the end of a season which would usually go into sale.
Actually, you’ll notice that ‘sale’ is entirely missing from our business model - because we disagree with it as a concept. We don’t agree with the implication that just because something has existed for a period of time, that it is automatically worth less - so we operate without using discounts in order to move away from that rhetoric.
Sell some stuff: This presents a bit of a problem to us because we wouldn’t want to sell something to someone that they don’t actually need. We want MIMMO Studios to be a place where people don’t feel pressured to buy. However, by having conversations about rethinking retail in an environment that feels familiar we are hoping to educate our customers and in the longer term, to inspire change.
Another step we take to reduce our impact is limiting our shipping to the UK only. While there might be demand for our products outside of the UK, we realistically sell products people can live without. This is one of our major “this makes no business sense!” moments - especially from a financial standpoint - but this has the potential to keep our carbon output very low, and we feel good about that.
We always wanted to be a low-waste business - but we have found that because of the nature of the brands we work with and their prioritising the environment - we have actually been a plastic free business from the outset. None of our products arrive packaged in any plastic, and we don’t sell any either - even our Christmas cards come unwrapped! Our packaging (carrier bags and postal bags) is something we are constantly working over - and we are researching innovations in this area as much as possible.
Transparency is very important to us - and sharing these dilemmas feels like a big part of our mission.
Another part of the system we don’t include in our business model is ‘the Bin’. We don’t see why any of our products should ever be thrown away. We try to choose timeless and seasonless products that can be worn forever, and where that’s not possible there are lots of alternatives. Because what we sell is made with care and quality, it can be repaired easily - or can be resold for a good price.
Most businesses seem to only value profits and growth, but this has become a very outdated way of doing things. George Monbiot calls capitalism “An economic system that puts a price on everything and a value on nothing”.
For us, aside from design and sustainability as priorities, we also really want to create a hub for the creative community in Cheltenham. There’s a lot to be said for the power of a local community - one person can't be a movement, it takes a community to make change happen and that’s what we are hoping to do with MIMMO Studios.
We have been doing this so far by trying to create accessible events in store which reflect our ethos - for example; hosting a free clothes swap with Extinction Rebellion as an anti-Black Friday movement, hosting exhibitions, a Christmas Market, hosting artist residencies, having life drawing classes in store - and many more! We really hope this is something we can grow in the future of MIMMO Studios.
As part of reimagining our business structure, we really wanted to move away from the culture of ‘toxic productivity’. The 40+ hour working week is a product of a growth-obsessed society. We’d much rather prioritise and nurture the activities inside and outside of the workplace which make us feel energised and fulfilled.
We’ve taken care to build those activities into each of our job roles so that we are able to do the things that we are passionate about. We really notice the benefits of this. For Katie that means making time to educate herself on activism and environmental issues and for Lil, that means creative direction and having space to feel inspired in terms of design.
We are really interested in the concept of ‘Degrowth’ in terms of businesses moving away from relentless growth and using measures other than GDP. Much of the research we have been doing suggests that a 4 day working week is actually more environmentally friendly (and we’re very willing to believe it) - as it means people have more time to themselves where they can indulge in activities they might not ordinarily have time for. For example, they might go to a farmers’ market rather than to the supermarket and buy some local produce, they might tend to their garden and grow some of their own vegetables, or they might simply have time to go out for a walk. We think this is a really important part of transforming our society and we’re really excited to be part of that mindset shift.
OK, we’ll wrap it up now…
Finally, we wanted to share this quote from George Monbiot, as we think it really summarises what we are trying to do at MIMMO Studios.
"We are better than we are told we are, better than we are induced to be. By recognising our good nature and coming together to express it, we can overcome the multiple crises we face that cannot be solved alone"