Sian Rowlands, Founder & Chief Storytelling Officer, RETOLD

Reducing waste through recycled clothing.

“If we extend the lifespan of our clothes by two to three months per piece, we can reduce our fashion carbon footprint by up to 10%” declares Founder of RETOLD in Dubai, a consignment boutique that sells a curated selection of pre-worn, luxury and contemporary enduring, modern classics.

Below, Rowlands educates us on the ‘darker’ sides of fashion and what we can do as consumers to shop in more sustainable ways. 

1. Describe yourself as CEO of RETOLD.

Well, I consider myself CEO and Chief Storyteller! The CEO part is the hard part; making sure all the cogs of the ‘machine’ run smoothly (which isn’t always easy), balancing all the different aspects of the business in the micro and macro sense – constantly thinking about the big hairy audacious goals (BHAGs) as well as the teeny tiny details that make RETOLD so special to our customers and the community. As we’re a small team, we work really closely together on the different facets, Jelena our Retail & Events Manager focuses on the forward-facing aspects and so I handle all the behind-the-scenes stuff. I also oversee most of the marketing activities which is the fun creative part.

2. What made you get into the reselling business?

It all started pretty much a decade ago, when I was a successful hospitality interior designer, living a pretty comfortable lifestyle in Dubai with a disposable income (the good old Dubai days!), some of which I sadly fritted away on clothes – yes I will freely admit that I used to be a shopaholic! But like a lot of people, I was actually spending beyond my means, and soon realized that I needed to sublet the spare room in my apartment to cover the bills, and so I cleared out the spare wardrobe. Much to my horror I cleared out 5 packing boxes FULL of clothes, most had never been worn and still had their original tags. When I looked at the local market as to where I could resell these pieces (being from the UK originally, during my uni years I would regularly use local consignment shops and eBay), but quickly realized that there was nowhere suitable in Dubai – so that’s when it all started!

Along with 2 of my sisters, we hosted a ‘bring and buy sale’ which quickly gained momentum and within one month, I had written a business plan, won a new business award and registered the company to start trading officially. That was 2011, and for years I was running the concept as a ‘side hustle’ alongside my successful career, however in 2017 I decided I wanted to dedicate more time to the concept and so the new chapter in the RETOLD story was written. Over the years the concept for me has become increasingly about sustainability and helping raise awareness about the dark side of the fashion industry – giving customers a platform to make better choices, ones that have less negative impact on the environment and society.

3. Enlighten us how buying used clothing helps save the planet?

Well, the fashion industry is broken. Waste and pollution plague every stage of the fashion cycle; from the growing of cotton crops, to the discombobulated manufacturing process and supply chain, to discarded textile waste at each stage of production, to excessive use of toxins and chemicals, not to mention the astronomical growth of the disposable ‘fast fashion’ part of the industry. And these are just a snapshot of the environmental impacts – it doesn’t touch on the effects on the economy and societies; particularly communities that are integral to the production and manufacturing.

Every year over 150 BILLION items of clothing are manufactured. Every year over 150 BILLION items of clothing are sent to landfill – simply discarded. Despite there being only 7.5 BILLION people on the planet, we are vastly over-producing (not just fashion…) and capitalism and consumerism is a pandemic that mostly goes undiscussed – our societies encourage us to ‘buy more’, ‘use more’ and ‘dispose of more’ in order to feed the ever growing monster. However, if we extend the lifespan of our clothes by 2-3 months per piece, we can reduce our fashion carbon footprint by up to 10%.

Imagine if we started looking after our clothes, and if we started viewing them as investment pieces, rather than disposable fast fashion items designed and made to be worn once or twice. Not only would this reduce the inconceivable amount of waste, but also have positive socio-economic effects as well.

4. Describe the transformation and changes in adoption of buying from the secondary market in the GCC over the past 5 years. Why do you think it has taken so long to implement here?

Here we live in a society of many cultural impressions – and buying clothes on the resale market is not widely accepted in all cultures, so we have actually started on a back foot. One of the things to remember as well, is that we live in a relatively ‘new’ city / country. Dubai (and the UAE) feels so established we often forget that the city is decades old rather than centuries.  Elsewhere in the world, places that have well established resale industries, have had a lot longer to cultivate the concept.

So the ‘concept’ is still new in town, but we’re getting there! We all need to keep shining a light on brands like RETOLD and talking about sustainable living, and sustainable lifestyle choices.

5. Who is typically the most popular type of customer profile you see shopping with RETOLD? Please describe in terms of gender, age, lifestyle, purchasing patterns etc.

Our most regular customers are mostly Western expat women, mostly aged between 25-45. Within that wide bracket we have some sub-pockets of customers, depending on when and how they shop with us. We have daytime customers, after-work customers and weekend only shoppers. We also have ladies who only shop the luxury and designer pieces, or the women who prefer to shop during our sales.

But because we have such a huge variety of pieces, we cater for all sorts.

6. Are your customers opting to purchase online / via social or do they prefer to check the items in person since they are pre-worn?

We have both. Normally first-time shoppers prefer to shop in person, but once a customer becomes a regular with RETOLD they will often buy via our social media if they especially love a piece. They understand the sense of urgency when shopping preowned; we stock 1-off pieces, and once a piece is bought – it’s gone! And that makes them want to bag the beautiful pieces if they spot them on our Instagram Stories.

However the bulk of our customers love the experience of coming to our boutique – we have created a really unique experience in Dubai – they love experiencing the whole adventure.

7. Do you foresee more luxury brands getting into this pre-owned space in the future? How so?

Absolutely – it’s happening every day. In fact just a few days ago Gucci announced its collaboration with The Real Real – ok, this is in the States, but it’s a compass for the direction we are heading in.  There are several luxury houses that have already established ways to ‘get into’ the resale space, and I hope that more join the revolution (as long as it’s not just greenwashing for the brownie points) and hopefully we will soon be able to change ‘fashion’, and as a consequence, make the world a better place.

8. What makes RETOLD unique from other local, pre-owned stores?

Whilst there are a few other stores in Dubai, RETOLD’s price point and product mix are particularly unique. We stock everything from high-street to designer – we focus on perfect condition pieces, often new with their original tags. Another thing our community loves about RETOLD is the experience we offer.

9. What advice do you have for innovators looking to start a niche business concept that is still being embraced and developed in the region?

Stick with it. It is HARD work – every single day. People will doubt you, people will turn you down, but stick with it. The region needs more people willing to take a chance and make a change, especially if it makes the world a better place.

Believe in what you do. The customers in the region can be fickle and shallow, BUT there is also an incredible network of supporters and advocates and people genuinely interested in making the world a better place. The right people will find you.