Building a sustainable brand with conversational clothes

27 June 2023 | Conscious Fashion, Interviews

We are at a precipice moment for the planet, living through precarious times, so what is it like running a small business right now, let alone a sustainable fashion brand? I first met Sophie Dunster over five years ago. I interviewed her just three months into launching Gung Ho, which makes conversation-starting fashion with irresistibly bold prints about issues that deserve our attention. In a beautifully impactful way, Sophie’s collections have campaigned around environmental and societal topics, including food waste, plastic in our oceans and endangered insects. But she doesn’t sugar-coat anything, so I knew it would be an honest insight for people looking to buy better or do business more sustainably. 

Gung Ho Sustainable London fashion pop up

Since we last spoke, Sophie has freed herself from the traditional fashion system by adopting a more circular, bespoke, made-to-order model, giving both the brand and its customers more flexibility. 

“Beforehand, I was trying to fit in. I was still in a mindset of – this is how the industry works – how can I make a more sustainable version of that?” Since then, she admits she has gone “more rogue.” 

Gung Ho sustainable bespoke made to order fashion

All of the different challenges – from the pandemic to the cost of living pressures – challenged Sophie to delve deeper into what sustainability means to her personally and her belief that people don’t like how the fashion industry has been running. “I have my own brand for a reason,” she says. This entrenched model, where a lot of stock is created with a guessing game about what colours, sizes, and styles will sell, is well suited to fast fashion, which works on big volumes at small prices and instant availability of new options. “I wholeheartedly don’t believe that the sustainable world should act that way, so I decided to change the system.”

Transforming her way of working allowed the brand to enter the reuse space, with offcuts and garments at the end of their lifespan remixed with antique furniture and vintage fashion. It also gave Sophie the time to create Gung Ho Studios, a design and consultancy arm that partners with people and other businesses to communicate their stories visually. 

Gung Ho Studios stamp

Gung Ho Studios’ projects range from personal commissions to designs for brands and include award-winning chef Chantelle Nicholson’s Mayfair restaurant, Apricity. The team wanted uniforms that matched the high sustainability standards of their food, so the print created illustrates the restaurant’s core values. The front-of-house uniforms are made from recycled plastic bottles, printed in Gloucestershire and made in London, while back-of-house wear organic cotton, made in Fair Wear certified factories close to the origin of the cotton production and printed in Oxford. Concepts do not end at clothing though; think branding, wallpaper, or interiors, the ways to communicate positively are endless. 

Gung Ho Studios uniforms at award-winning chef Chantelle Nicholson’s Mayfair restaurant Apricity

Gung Ho’s Food for Thought collection changed my daily choices for the better. I’ve been a subscriber to Oddbox, a fruit and vegetable box that fights food waste, ever since I took part in Sophie’s fashion show at Grow in Hackney (decorated in deliciously rescued wonky veg that would have been rejected). 

Sara Morel aka Reclaimed Woman wearing Gung Ho Food for Thought collection

Food’s impact on the planet particularly struck a chord with Sophie, and the collection led to meeting like-minded people that are now some of her closest friends. “I think it’s because when I decide to do a collection around an issue, I’ve never said that I’m the knowledge of that. I’d have to research into it, talk to people who specialise in that area and then go from there in terms of what I would design around and what people need to know more about.” 

The other collection that made the most personal impact on her was displacement. Leading on from the massive cause of climate change – Gung Ho delved into climate refugees, something nobody was really talking about at the time. 

Gung Ho Displacement flag print on Reclaimed Woman

“I got in touch with Jazz from The Worldwide Tribe, and it was really nice to have her opinion.” Having looked further at the different sides contributing to the forced displacement of people, Sophie didn’t want to exclude those displaced for other issues, such as conflict. What is incredibly clear is that multiple factors often contribute to the displacement of people, and these are not always exclusive. For example, countries suffering from drought and unable to grow food tend to have conflict over resources. 

“You look at stats to do with the planet, and they’re overwhelming, and then you talk to people whose story it is, and you hear it directly from them. Obviously, it’s way more personal than just reading a report.”

The collection’s print weaves together individual stories, highlighting the humbling conversations Sophie had with people that have experienced it. 

Gung Ho Displacement stories print on Reclaimed Woman

If you are keen to support one of the causes (10% of profits go back to charities working with the issues in the designs), get Gung Ho with your wardrobe. Stay tuned for collaborations like the most recent one with poet, author and YouTuber Leena Norms. I love this story because it’s a brilliant example of the power behind an exchange that starts with one woman complimenting another women’s dress. “I met Lena just randomly at a bar at an event, and she came up to me and said I really like your dress.” The meeting of minds led to two dresses in limited-edition ethical, sustainable silk. With so many small fashion businesses closing, Sophie explains that collaborations are a solid way to share communities and for new people to discover the brand. 

Leena Norms x Gung Ho on Reclaimed Woman

At its best, fashion is inclusive and can bring people together in fast waves of change. The debate started in this week’s Sunday Times by Trevor Neilson, founder of the Climate Emergency Fund, which financed Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil, and his comments on what’s gone wrong with the movement gave me more food for thought. Calling for an evolution of climate activism, he labelled the current methods counterproductive. “I admire their intentions; I just think the tactics are, at this point, harming the cause,” he said. 

While the most radical may advise buying nothing new at all, fashion does engage a coalition of people and, therefore, can help move the conversation forward. Sometimes clothes speak louder than words.

Explore Gung Ho

Shortly after publishing, Sophie shared a big decision that presented itself for Gung Ho.

“For now, this is the end of our fashion adventure. The last day for you to order anything Bespoke will be the 31st August and anything from our In Stock collections by the 22nd September. Then we will be wrapping ourselves up into a cocoon preparing to emerge in a new form at the end of October. 

It’s been a journey full of love, laughter and a bucketload of colour(!) but sadly our current fashion form doesn’t quite fit with where the world is at. As always, being 100% transparent, our London makers and fabric suppliers are having to up their pricing (as they should) and without upping ours too (which we feel would isolate a lot of our community) we reach a point where we can’t continue.  Working in bigger volumes doesn’t align with our ethos and we don’t want to source cheaper labour, we pay our incredible makers by the time it takes to make our garments and we pay them for their skills. Making locally and paying fairly is a big part of Gung Ho and if we can’t do it right, we’ve decided we won’t. 

If you are around and London-based, please ink in the evening of Thursday 24th August in your diaries. We will be having a LAST CHANCE party and to raise a glass to celebrate how much fun we’ve had the past 6 years (full details to follow). 

Gung Ho will continue to exist in a new form, transitioning into a wider lifestyle direction. We will continue to tell stories, inspire and campaign for change in a new chapter – one we can’t wait to share with you later this year.”

 I wish Sophie lots of love in her new, more interiors focused direction – which is certainly where my heart is these days. And hopefully celebrate with you too at the Gung Ho evening in August.

© Photographs and illustrations courtesy of Gung Ho

Reclaimed Woman

Sign up to receive my Reclaimed Woman Column straight to your inbox