Startup Diaries: Breaking Bad For Good, Trading Finance For Responsible Luxury
Alexandra Du Sold, founder of luxury label APOCCAS, shares with The NextWomen the inspiration behind her business, and offers advice on how to deal with the turbulent challenges and successes of the entrepreneurial journey, drawing on her own experiences of leaving a successful career in finance behind and founding APOCCAS.
In 2011, if you had asked me where I saw myself in three years, the last thing I would have imagined would have been to ever trade my metropolitan desk for the far-flung villages of rural Thailand.
My journey to becoming an entrepreneur began on a much-needed sabbatical in Bali, where I stood still and practiced yoga for nine months. When I wasn’t quite literally turning myself onto my head, I would venture out to the local villages, where traditional indigo dyeing was still practiced. Inspired to look further into the artisan culture of Southeast Asia, I headed to “The Land of Smiles” where I discovered handloom weavers and their traditional craftsmanship associated with a legendary ancient silk production heritage in the region. I couldn’t help but fall in love with the idea of taking these artisanal traditions under my wing and showcasing them to the world.
The mere journey to the source – the master weavers of Isaan and the North of Thailand – is a mission in itself, let alone getting access to their hearts. I befriended and, even more hurriedly, unfriended middlemen, mostly of the male kind; spent restless hours on night busses – not the VIP type – to travel to far away destinations; humbly (albeit wincing on the inside) ate fried crickets to honour a village matron’s hospitality; slept uncomfortably on floor mats with too few blankets in freezing January temperatures, right above a pig pen and a brood of rambunctious roosters; and learned a new language that involved wild yet gentle hand gesticulations, but most importantly, the proper use of a smile.
There is no doubt that my patience - along with much (needed) trial and error – was tested and stretched beyond the imaginable, but I was thankful to see the fruit of our labours when APOCCAS launched its maiden collection last year.
Today we are proud of our brand’s four-pillar foundation: luxury, empowerment, feel-goodism and promoting a sustainable earth.
At first glance, it feels not unlike ‘herding cats’, given that luxury and social (fair trade) or environmental responsibility are often populating opposite ends of the spectrum. At APOCCAS, they live in perfect harmony alongside each other. The only reason why our master artisans of Ancient Siam aren’t craftswomen for Hermes or Loro Piana is because they haven’t been discovered yet. The rural lands of their forefathers, which they still inhabit, are blessed with natural yarn materials and an abundance of botanical dyestuffs – be they the wildly harvested cotton or farmed Eri silk, indigo crops or Ebony trees bearing fruits that produce grey and black dyes, just to name a few. These women artisans, who either favour silk or cotton, indigo or bark dyes, two or four grill loom weaves, or yarn tie-dye (mudme or ikat) or piece tie-dye (mudyom), made it easy for me to grasp the possibilities.
I streamlined their skill-sets to make a direct and positive impact on these talented women weavers who love what they do. The kind of passion that runs through their veins made me rethink my own life, my own career. It’s absolutely catching.
The added ‘feel-good’ factor I have incorporated into our philosophy is drawn from my love for yoga. It is based on ancient wisdoms, which have since made way to a fast-paced life of overachieving and under-nourishing the soul. These near-forgotten wisdoms revolve around the human body’s conscious or subconscious attraction to colour. At APOCCAS, we have brought them back to life by integrating colours with matching semi-precious stones and embroidered words – all subtly appliquéd onto our scarf designs – to create a beneficial environment of peace and harmony for the wearer.
2013 was the year of raising our public profile and measuring the appeal of our creations. APOCCAS was picked up by the media, both in Europe and Asia. With catchphrases like “worthwhile weaving”, “scarved for life”, “the spirit of luxury weaving” and “ripping good yarn”, we created a bit of a buzz.
While making headlines is great, proof of concept really lies in winning over the crowds.
We hired renowned filmmaker Marisa Marchitelli and produced a short film, to pave the way into a successful crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. Nearly 40% of our new season collection £ goal was attributed to contributions by ‘random’ supporters; not first or second degree connections, but people who were blissfully unaware that we existed until they heard about our crowdfund efforts. 2013 was certainly a rollercoaster ride of surprises and events saying one thing: there is love out there for APOCCAS scarves.
Where do we go from here? What are our hopes and fears for 2014? We have set in motion a succinct concept of quality, mission, and passion. To put oneself on the map is only the first step. Staying in the game means selling, so our principal challenge this year has to be distribution, while holding all the ingredients together at the highest level.
The trials and tribulations of being an entrepreneur are well illustrated, but dabbling in venture philanthropy and triple bottom lines is a whole other matter. And when it comes to despairing of the sheer flurry of fires that require to be put out every day, it is imperative to assemble the right team and delegate responsibilities accordingly – in an effort not to lose one’s marbles altogether.
Time, combined with the willingness to let go of the reins, will tell what the future holds, and there’s that added pinch of ‘luck’, of course, to bring it all to fruition.
You might say to yourself right now, “Fair enough, but what’s that got to do with me?” Right you are. I am not here to share my story so I can prepare to leave a legacy.
Bluntly speaking, my reason for letting you into my journey of self-discovery is to instigate thought. Are you pursuing your dreams? Or are you still missing that mysterious ingredient to get started?
Believe | Breathe | Build
Recruiting groupies so you can bask in their celebration of you is a dangerous misconception; it will at best make for a shaky foundation. Uncovering your true passion for whatever inspires you, however, is an honest beginning of a true love relationship between you and whatever project that tickles your fancy.
Genuine self-belief is contagious. It will hold you through dark nights and guide you in moments of impatience and anguish.
You will likely attract people who will support you merely for conveying the pure passion of your vision.
Building a business is daunting. There is no nine to five. There is no human resource department you can drop in on to enlist in the mediation of a problem, no co-worker to blame your inefficiencies on. When the cauldron comes to a boil and smoke rises uncontrollably, it is best to withdraw and to breathe, as counter-intuitive as this may sound. Deep, conscious breaths of life-inducing, oxygenated air – ideally while standing on your head (that’s optional). I am not saying that it’s plain sailing, but this bit of advice has become essential to feeding me fresh perspectives time and time again. The art of controlling my breath has injected creativity into my work where the likelihood of solving problems, in need of a thinking-out-of-the-box approach, was bleak.
Believe in yourself and remember to breathe when you build the architecture to your business. When your dream is still a flight of fancy, roots will provide the anchor to weather any upcoming storm; the right foundation, vision and execution are critical ingredients to succeed.
But most of all, feel your idea in your heart. If you do, then it’s definitely worth putting your back into it with all you’ve got.
Alexandra Du Sold is the founder of luxury label APOCCAS, an acronym for ‘Ancient Power on Cashmere, Cotton and Silk’. Inspired during a 9-month sabbatical in Southeast Asia, Alexandra fell in love with the master weavers of Ancient Siam. She decided to follow her dreams, and took the bold decision to leave London's financial world behind in favour of developing and nurturing a fashion accessory brand. Her philanthropic venture inspires trade, not aid, to create a much-needed livelihood for the artisanal weaving communities in rural Thailand. It showcases these women's exquisite talents, and introduces them to a sentient, international world.
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