10 April 2021
Interview & Text: Celine Lika
Pictures: Courtesy of non
NON ECO DENIM
NON-PLASTIC, NON-WASTE, NON-BRANDED
When Pete Hellyer couldn’t find a pair of sustainable jeans he liked, he made his own instead. With his conscious brand non, Pete has developed a new approach to eco-friendly and ethically produced denim. Using organic and recycled cotton, being vegan, using recyclable packaging – non employs numerous ways to have the smallest environmental impact possible while producing timeless yet modern jeans that you can have in your wardrobe for many years.
To introduce non at The Wasted Hour, we talked to Pete about his work in the fashion industry, how he decided to start his own thing, the importance of sustainability, and his wish to be an advocate for change.
Growing up in the South of England, Pete got into fashion ‘by accident’, as he puts it. Thanks to his mother’s record collection, he got into music and started DJing at 14. He used to buy music magazines and was fascinated by the imagery: ‘London, people out clubbing, the fashion editorials – it was such a world away from where I grew up.’ To become part of that world, he went to university to study magazine journalism and ended up doing a lot of fashion journalism. After 15 years in the fashion industry, Pete started his own brand in 2020: non.
When he was 21, he got his first job as a photographer for OKI-NI, the cult menswear store in London. Pete eventually became creative manager there and stayed for 6 years. ‘It didn’t really feel like I joined the fashion industry at that time. Some of my best friends to this day and me, we were just selling jackets and jeans, throwing parties. It was just what we were into, which turned out to be fashion.’
After that, Pete worked as creative director at SSENSE in Montreal, Totokaelo in Seattle, and the Outnet in London. He was also editor-in-chief at eyewear company DITA in L.A., before going freelance several years ago. Independent shops, luxury fashion, sustainable clients, big companies – Pete’s experience of working on the whole spectrum within the industry enabled him to start his brand non.
But how did he get the idea? When Covid-19 started spreading around the world last year, a lot of work disappeared, and freelancer Pete found himself with time on his hands. ‘I wanted to buy a new pair of jeans, and I wanted them to be sustainable.’ He started engaging with sustainability while working with ethical clothing brands in the last couple of years. ‘As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more conscious about my own decisions and the world around me. Most things I wear are from eco-friendly brands, but I realised my denim wasn’t.’ As denim production is one of the most harmful areas within the fashion industry, Pete looked for a pair of sustainable jeans. However, he couldn’t find anything he liked. ‘So instead, I made my own, and that’s where it’s all grown from.’
For his denim brand non, Pete did extensive material research to find out what he could do that would have the smallest environmental impact. Therefore, non denim is 50% recycled cotton and 50% organic cotton, which makes the fabric easily recyclable. Moreover, he doesn’t use any metal rivets, which are commonly a problem for recycling. To reduce plastic pollution in the ocean, zippers and thread are made of recycled polyester. Not only are no aggressive chemicals or treatments involved in the washes of non denim, but it is also vegan. ‘There were many small things too which seemed really obvious to do: We don’t use any plastic in our packaging, and it’s all fully recyclable.’
Apart from putting effort into recycling, Pete tries to keep the carbon footprint of the production processes of non as small as possible. The mill and factory in Turkey, where the denim is produced, are very close together. Additionally, they ship the products directly to the stores rather than via a middleman.
Moreover, Pete makes sure that the businesses he works with respect human rights. The Turkish company ISKO, which mills the selvedge denim, ensures that all workers are paid a living wage and are represented by trade unions. The Dinateks factory also pays its employees a living wage and pays special attention to Covid-19 safe production. ‘Ethical production is definitely a focus for us, and all our partners share the same high regard for social and environmental standards.’
Wishing to be part of the solution instead of the problem, Pete is also looking for how he can advocate for change within the fashion industry. ‘I believe that brands need to consider the end of the life of a garment rather than just putting it out in the world.’ non therefore offers a take-back scheme. ‘I want to encourage people to not just put their denim into landfill.’ Pete has also partnered with EON, a company which works to track the life cycle of a garment: There is a small tag on non products, which you can scan to get care instructions and information on provenance. ‘We’ve got radical transparency – you can see the factory and the mill we’ve used, and we’re working on tracing all components.’ Currently, unknown composition of garments hinders recycling, and Pete hopes that this technology will facilitate the process by showing what an item is made of.
In the future, Pete wants to further embrace sustainability. ‘There are a lot of things that have been difficult to do as a self-funded, independent brand. Eliminating plastic entirely from our products is the next main goal. Using recycled polyester is better than using normal polyester, but for me, it doesn’t go far enough.’ So, he plans on doing more research to find a more sustainable material that is equally durable. To minimise non’s carbon footprint, they are also working on using locally sourced cotton in Turkey: ‘I want to keep everything closer together.’
Despite his efforts, Pete doesn’t identify non as a sustainable brand, but he describes it as ‘conscious’ instead. ‘I think a sustainable fashion brand is a contradiction because it’s an industry based on newness with built-in redundancy. Something is really desired one day, and 6 months later, nobody wants it.’
In Pete’s opinion, this culture contributes to the problem of the environmental impact of the fashion industry. ‘People want things rather than need things. We don’t do it in other parts of our life, like buying endless amounts of plates. But with clothing, there’s the need to keep on buying and buying.’ He believes that this culture needs to change: ‘I love fashion as self-expression, as identity, but we need to work out how to reconcile that element and climate protection. I wouldn’t say I have the answer but non is an attempt to show how it could be done.’
With non, everything is non-branded. ‘It’s called non for a reason: It’s essentially clothing rather than fashion.’ Pete believes that if you remove the brand from the world of fashion, you remove the desirability that drives people to want new things they don’t need. Moreover, non products are a modern take on classics, not ‘driven by new styles. We’re creating pieces that are designed to last and that aren’t going to date. You can have them in your wardrobe for a decade or more.’ Pete therefore refers to non as ‘anti-fashion’ in a sense, ‘but we’re still very much pro-creativity and pro-expression – all the great things that fashion enables in people.’
Looking back on his decision to start non, Pete has been enjoying doing his own thing. ‘Every creative business decision is mine. So, non is a reflection of my believes and my passion. A lot of friends have said, “It looks exactly like what I thought you would do.”’ It has also given him ‘purpose’, Pete says. ‘I believe that change within the fashion industry is of utmost importance. The climate emergency is very real and poses big challenges all around the world. If non helps even a tiny little bit, if we present an idea or show a path that some of the bigger brands can follow – that for me would be success.’