When Meghan Markle and Prince Harry travelled to Australia, Markle wore a number of local designers, including ethically minded Outland Denim. While the jeans are undoubtedly fit for a princess, here’s much more to the Outland Denim story. We sit down with James Bartle, the founder of the brand that’s changing the world one pair of jeans at a time. This interview originally ran in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of STYLE.
James Bartle is about to board a plane to London when I talk to him. Without a doubt, heâ€™ll be wearing a pair of his companyâ€™s ethically made jeans. â€śI do a lot of travel, and I can sit in our jeans in a long haul flight comfortably. I think thatâ€™s a testament to the product we have created,â€ť he tells me. Since his Outland Denim jeans were one of a handful of Australian fashion brands the duchess donned when she was Downunder, I have to ask: will Bartle be sitting down with Markle for a cup of tea and a scone when he lands? â€śI wish,â€ť he laughs. While Iâ€™m well aware that Bartle has probably grown weary of all the Markle-related chat, letâ€™s face it: talking to the brain behind the jeans the duchess wore not once but six times is the closest Iâ€™ll get to royalty. Besides, the impact that the Meghan Markle effect has had on the formerly little known Aussie denim label has been phenomenal: the high-waisted Harriet jean which Markle wore is only now about to come back into stock.
Although Markleâ€™s wardrobe has been making headlines for her rule-breaking â€“ a too-short skirt here, a pantyhose-less outfit there â€“ the duchess is quickly becoming known as the royal family member with a penchant for ethical fashion. As for how the ethically minded jeans ended up on Markle, the story remains shrouded in secrecy. â€śWeâ€™ve heard she was presented a lot of products and her and Harry loved what we stand for and loved the product,â€ť Bartle says. The fact that it was Bartleâ€™s jeans that Markle wore when she was Downunder is still surreal to him. â€śWe knew she was coming to Australia, and you hope for it, but you never actually think itâ€™s an actual possibility,â€ť he says. Bartlet recalls waking up in the morning to a barrage of phone calls and messages. â€śYour jeans are on Meghan Markle. I couldnâ€™t believe it. And then when I saw what was happening to us from the sales and media attention, it all became very overwhelming,â€ť he says. â€śI had just landed in Cambodia as she touched in Australia, so I had to turn around and fly home because the impact was so profound,â€ť he says. â€śI found it very emotional. I have been working on this for 8 years and then for someone like her to wear the product and have such an insanely powerful impact through that. Itâ€™s so hard to express the gratitude.â€™Â Â
Although the impact on sales has been beyond what Barlett and his team could have ever imagined thanks to the Meghan Markle effect, itâ€™s only a small part of the story for Bartle. The sudden influx in sales meant that Outland Denim was able to hire 15 more Khmer women to work at the companyâ€™s denim producing facility in Cambodia. In Bartleâ€™s eyes, that means helping more women escape human trafficking and exploitation. So how did a motocross rider with no experience in the fashion world whatsoever manage to create a pair of jeans not only fit for a princess but is inspiring social and environmental change? Hollywood blockbusters are perhaps an odd catalyst for social change, but Bartle is honest about the impact that Liam Neesonâ€™s thrillerÂ TakenÂ had on him. For anyone unfamiliar with the film, Neeson plays a retired CIA detective trying to rescue his daughter from sex traffickers. Soon after watching the film, Bartle had the opportunity to visit Thailand and Cambodia with a rescue agency. He quickly discovered the grim reality that many young girls and women face. â€śSeeing the problem firsthand that changed everything,â€ť he says. â€śI saw a little girl on that trip that was for sale in Thailand, and thatâ€™s not something you can ever unsee. Seeing the fear and intimidation in her eyes was the motivation I needed to have a go at this.â€ť
James Bartle at work in Phnom Penh, Cambodia Â© samjamphoto
For someone foreign to fashion, I tell Bartle denim was a rather ambitious fabric to launch a new business with. He laughs and admits there was total ignorance involved. â€śBut we had to denim. Iâ€™ve always loved it. Itâ€™s the most brilliant piece of fashion ever designed; the way itâ€™s stood the test of time.â€ť In his eyes, there was no better product to create social and environmental change. Bartle says him and his team spent a very long time trying to create a beautiful pair of jeans people would want to wear. â€śThrough the process, we discovered the huge negative impact that fashion, and in particular denim, has on the environment,â€ť he says. â€śSo we started adopting environmentally friendly practices. You canâ€™t care about people if you donâ€™t care about the environment.â€ťÂ
Investing in research and technology has become an essential part of the Outland Denim story, and the business works closely with the Queensland University of Technology to try and mitigate the impact denim production has on the environment. â€śItâ€™s core to our business that we change everything to come from the point of zero exploitation,â€ť he says. â€śWe use organic denim; the dyeing process is organic, and then with our wash facility, we have the best technology available to help reduce wastage.â€ť Despite being ahead of the game as far as sustainable denim production methods are concerned, Bartle says theyâ€™re always searching for ways to do things better and is excited for what the future holds for ethical fashion. While he admits that the more educated him and the team became the more, they realised how deep the problem was within fashion. But thereâ€™s a silver lining says. â€śThe problem seems big and unachievable, but we are seeing technology solve problems every day like the ones we are facing.â€ť At the end of 2018, Outland Denim was shortlisted for the Thomson Reuters Stop Slavery Award â€“ an experience that humbled Bartle. â€śThe experience of being at the awards and learning and listening about how technology is playing a role in ending slavery; it opens your eyes and inspires you to create further change.â€ťÂ
A New Future
While Bartle started the Outland Denim journey to help women escape a life of trafficking, it didnâ€™t take him long to realise that everything came back to that the problem was much more complicated. â€śWe realised we werenâ€™t just fighting sex trafficking, even though at the beginning thatâ€™s what we thought it was,â€ť he says. â€śWe had to look much deeper, and we keep coming back to poverty over and over again. It is what makes people vulnerable, and itâ€™s what makes women and families vulnerable,â€ť he explains. With this in mind, Bartle knew he had to do something very different from anything that had done before.
Rather than create a model based on donations, Bartle decided he needed to create a product that people genuinely wanted. â€śWe spent five years testing the model; employing women, giving them jobs, and seeing what impact it had on the community,â€ť Bartle says in just two years he noticed a considerable change. â€śWomen were able to provide for their family, they could escape poverty,â€ť he says. Fast forward to today, and Outland Denim has women who have been able to buy motorbikes â€“ the most common mode of transport in Cambodia â€“ and homes for their families. Bartle says theyâ€™ve even had a woman who was able to buy her own sister back from a trafficker. â€śItâ€™s hard to fathom what itâ€™s like when youâ€™re living in Australia, but over there itâ€™s real stuff,â€ť he says.Â
Paying his staff a living wage turned out to only be one part of the equation, and since Outland Denim official launch two years ago Bartle has ensured that the company takes a holistic approach to his staffâ€™s wellbeing. Counselling, in-house development programs, financial assistance and childcare help, are all essential for creating a better working environment for his team. â€śUsing these other initiatives as a way to invest in people is more powerful. Now we are giving them the skills to manage their money, and weâ€™re giving them the skills that are transferable to other industries,â€ť he says. But at the end of the day, Bartle doesnâ€™t want to be seen as a hero. â€śWe are not the saviour. We are not the ones that go in and save the day,â€ť he says. â€śWe can make as many wonderful jeans with this wonderful story attached, but that doesnâ€™t change anything unless these women work hard. And they have to and do work hard. They create the change, not us. And thatâ€™s important to remember.â€ť
To find out more about Outland Denim and shop the brand click here.Â