It’s hard to write the perfect introduction to Outland Denim.
In the first draft we talked about how transformative a well-cut pair of jeans can be on your psyche. About how a properly placed rivet and stitch can make all the difference to your confidence as the fabric shifts to fit your body over years of love and wear.
And then we started on how the ability to ‘buy’ that feeling of confidence is a privilege not everyone in the world gets to enjoy.
We also talked about how the fashion industry usually doesn’t usually earn points for best practices when it comes to production. How most of the time the cheapest items in store usually come at the most cost when you dig deep into where they’re produced.
But we had to strip it back and start again because there’s so much more to this brand than just great design and ethics.
The Outland story is complex, saddening, heartwarming and overwhelming to the point where we felt like we couldn’t sum it up when it means so much to so many.
To you and I, Outland Denim are an indie brand that specialises premium denim jeans. They fit and feel amazing, like a pair of design jeans should.
But to the seamstresses who stitch and sew every thread it provides sustainable employment, a proper living wage, a family network and a direct avenue to build a future from a past in sexual in slavery.
See what we mean? It’s a heavy topic to unpack.
And so it’s for this reason we’ve been wanting to talk to Outland Denim founder James Bartle so he can share — in his own words — the story behind the brand and the inspiring work they do.
How do we start… this is tough territory. How did you first get involved with the human trafficking group that inspired the creation of Outland?
Well, I was at a music festival doing a freestyle motocross show when I met the organisation Destiny Rescue. They told what they did, which was of great interest as I had watched the Liam Neeson film Taken a few years earlier and had been greatly impacted.
A trip to Thailand and Cambodia to see their work followed and it was there that I witnessed the sex trade at work and met some of the victims.
During the trip I saw a particularly young girl lined up to be sold, and that was the moment I knew I wanted to be a part of helping to solve the problem.
We understand employment is important in the rehabilitation process but do good working conditions make a difference to these women?
Many of the women and girls that find themselves trapped in the industry got there because of poverty and the pressure that puts on families.
They might have been told they could have a job changing sheets in a hotel, so they move to the city only to find they have been tricked and are now kept in a brothel.
Some are willing to make the sacrifice to be there so they can support their family, and others are forced to be there and have trafficked for this purpose.
So the reason employment with good working conditions and financial remuneration is so important is because that for most of these ladies, their economic position is so poor that they are vulnerable to the point that they have no other choice but to fall into or be sold into the trade.
And why did you choose fashion as the medium to provide help?
Research demonstrated the need for employment, so we knew jobs were the answer but fashion came about for a few reasons.
I love denim, and garment making was a profession they (the young women) understood, because they were learning sewing as a vocational skill while in their after-care programs.
And tell us about the focus on denim over any other item of clothing?
Who doesn’t love a good pair of jeans?
We reasoned that denim jeans were something quite egalitarian, worn by people across the world, and therefore could get to more people and have a greater social impact than other garments that perhaps aren’t worn as universally.
Did Outland have to look into educational/personal development classes for the women who work for the brand?
This has actually been one of the most exciting parts of our business. We offer all sorts of courses and training, from weekly English lessons, finance management, infant care, and a range of personal enrichment classes.
We believe in giving our seamstresses the tools they need to be the ones to make the changes needed rather than being the “white saviour” that races in and saves the day; this is key in making lasting change.
Our staff are courageous and intelligent women from a large range of different backgrounds that deserve all the success they are having and will continue to have.
By giving them education and employment with good working conditions and living wages, rather than minimum wages, we see them prosper.
Something I love about Outland is the design and look and feel doesn’t feel ‘charity’ in the normal sense. From the photography on the site, to the cuts and colours you sell, everything feels very ‘cool’ and on trend.
How much have you learned about denim cuts and colours through this process?
It has been a really steep learning curve as we started to explore organic production and vegetable dying to recycling.
We use organically grown cotton vegetable dyes in our production, but one of the most challenging parts of the process has been to follow our supply chain back to the cotton fields ensure no one has been taken advantage of in the process of producing the raw materials.
From there getting the women’s cuts right was extremely challenging but also very rewarding as our first women’s jean, “the Isabel”, has been a great staple for us. It’s named after my first daughter.
No doubt you’ve seen and heard some painful stories throughout this journey but what about some of the happy moments that have sprung from this project?
I remember walking into meet one of our newest seamstresses, who we had hired while I was in Australia. She had a severe disability and wasn’t able to get employment, so she was trying to make enough as a seamstress on the streets, but couldn’t. Her face said it all: grateful, hopeful and determined. She is now one of our best seamstresses.
Other stories include a young woman purchasing her sister back from a man who had bought her, to the women buying rice fields for their families, and having the ability to educate their children.
What kind of response have you seen from the local community in Cambodia but also consumers in Australia (and around the world)?
The locals in Cambodia have responded by looking to gain employment with us. Our International Operations Manager is fielding calls daily from hopeful women wanting a job.
In other parts of the world we have had a powerful response. People are not only wearing our jeans, and buying one of each colour, but large department stores in North America are committing to stocking us in our first season after trying the fits and seeing our range.
It’s only been just over a year since launching the brand (though we spent a good five years before that training staff and proving the social impact of the model), and we couldn’t have wished for more.