*takes a deep breath*
There is one brand, within the world of sustainable fashion, that really seems to get people’s goat – and that brand is Augustine (and all its associated brands, including Alaska tees, which promises to release a new tshirt design every day – surely more tshirt designs than any society could ever possibly need). However, it also seems wildly popular with the general population in New Zealand, despite being pretty out-there in terms of design and styling (let’s just say it’s not a brand that goes for minimalism or that is afraid to mix a pattern or two). I wanted to know more.
I’d never bought a single thing from Augustine or any of its associated brands, so I figured I’d do what the young people do and get myself educated. To Augustine! And the expenditure of my own money so I could write this blog post.
I intentionally chose to go to the bricks and mortar store here in Wellington. A couple of observations: now, I love a bit of flair in fashion but this shop has never appealed to me because (a) I’m horribly prejudiced on this issue and (b) the merchandising is such a riot of…everything. Similar to the website, the styling is super OTT. If that’s your thing, all good in the hood, but I am put off by stores that look like they’re going to be jam packed and I hate a hard to navigate experience – I want to be able to find things easily without sifting through tons and tons of stock (the obvious exception is thrifting, where it’s par for the course). The sheer visual experience of the Augustine storefront from the street had me convinced I was walking into a full-on warren of clothing.
In actuality, the in-store experience was really good. The customer service on the day I went into the store was really pleasant – just enough interest, not too invasive when they realized I was happy having a browse. Yes, there is a lot of stock in the store, but I guess the good thing about distinctive designs is that you can skim the racks pretty fast. I’d also done an online deep dive before I visited the store, so I already had an idea of what types of things I might be looking for.
I found three pieces I wanted to try on. To the fitting room! Unfortunately for me, I’d worn a pair of vintage trousers – fully lined, crepe trousers – and a fitted jumper on this particular day. Between taking those off while standing in a carpeted space, and putting on a skirt made of polyester, the static electricity was out of control. It was difficult to tell if the dress fit me purely because it was glued to me. That’s not a major issue – we have invented anti-static spray for a reason – but worth keeping in mind if you’re going in store.
In terms of what I ultimately chose: I liked the colours and fun cut in this dress. It has flair, but it’s wearable flair. It also picks up some of the colour trends we’ve seen recently, which is why I could wear my delightful caramel boots with it. It is a huge square (comfy) and belted in well with this vintage snake belt. As predicted, some anti-static spray had it under control. The construction looks fine for day to day wear (I didn’t do an intense wash test, for reasons that will become clear), and it has a lining, which I approve of.
However – it’s polyester. Now, polyester has many great attributes. It doesn’t fade, it won’t rot on the hanger, it’s easy to wash, you don’t need to (and shouldn’t) iron it. It’s also cheap, relative to other fabric types like silk or viscose, which means that clothes in this fabric can be more cost effective. From a production stand point, it takes less water than cotton and there are arguments to be made that polyester production is a friendlier scenario than production of some natural fibres.
On the other hand, as we know from my blog, I think polyester is terrible. I wore this dress on a winter’s day and still managed to get sweaty underarms (she is not breathable). There’s no way in heck I’d wear it on a legitimately warm day. And, as we all know, polyester post-production is garbage for the environment – quite literally. It sheds micro plastics every time you wash it; it breaks down as a plastic and therefore you can enjoy knowing this dress will exist for hundreds of years. In fact, because polyester doesn’t biodegrade, I think this dress will exist – albeit in micro bits – for eternity. Is this dress so excellent that it needs to firstly, exist as a dress for hundreds of years and then, latterly, exist in its micro-state forever?
It honestly blows my mind when I think about how much polyester Augustine is contributing to the NZ environment. The website states “our labels are stocked in 60 boutiques throughout the country as well as our own 5 stand alone stores that carry our full collections”. They also say “Each Augustine style is made in a very small run with most styles that end up on our shop floor only being one of 50 pieces throughout our stores”. What this doesn’t outline is how many styles there are across the various brands – 50 pieces times what? And when you say “our stores”, does this also count boutiques? That doesn’t really seem possible, when you consider that 50 pieces into 5 stand alone stores would already be only 10 of a style per store. How would you then stock 60 boutiques, even if they were just getting one or two styles each (but with a range of sizes)? (Keep in mind: I did a review on the website, and I’d estimate that a solid 80-90% of the clothes I randomly selected were made of polyester.)
Again – I do understand why polyester would be a popular choice both for the brand and its customers. However, I think Augustine should be making an effort to educate its customers on how to look after their clothes and minimize their environmental impact. I can see a world in which you sell a pair of washable/reusable dress shields (in a fancy fabric? oooh) with every polyester item that has sleeves, for starters. In fact, that’s a project I’m bringing to the blog in the near term, so stay tuned if you love a bit of polyester (70s garments, for example) but also love sea animals. Augustine could encourage their customers to think about the fact their dresses will last forever, and educate them on making fewer, better, long term purchases instead of hyping new seasons. Please note if I owned a retail business I would obviously go out of business in 2.3 seconds.
Moving on from my rant regarding polyester, I also chose this parka, which is cotton and – get ready for this – which I truly love. I was so excited about this that I did the nerd thing where you hang it on a hanger and then go and look at it from time to time. I like the colour palette, I really like the sleeves that are gathered at the cuff, and I think overall it’s a great way to make a street style accessible for Kiwi ladies. I can definitely see this being popular on the side of the cricket field this spring/summer as a casual yet somewhat jazzy way to deal with any brisk breezes. The hood is so big! I love a generous hood, due to my generous head.
Now, cotton is also a tricky fabric unless you use cotton that’s produced as responsibly as possible (look up how much water is used in a pair of jeans and feel yourself die inside). It also biodegrades poorly in many landfills because the conditions in those landfills aren’t right for speedy and clean biodegrading. I mean – please don’t throw your clothes in the literal bin, for starters. I just want to be fair to the polyester lovers among us and mention that even cotton isn’t without issues, especially when you don’t know anything about its provenance. Have I mentioned all the Kiwi designers using organic and/or sustainable fabrics? Have I mentioned that you can buy clothes second hand?
In terms of cost – I think Augustine and Charlo are expensive for what they are, and let’s be real, I am not shy about spending money on clothes. I don’t have access to the costs of making these items so I can’t comment on the margin. If you love bright prints and patterns like this, and you don’t have the moolah for the NZ designers who have that kind of approach/the time to find things secondhand, then I can see how this would be alluring. What I can say is that if you have $180 to spend on a dress, I’d recommend you buy something from a sustainable designer (even if that’s on sale).
Ultimately, I guess my review is: if you’re buying something from Augustine then you need to be sure you want to keep it forever (and therefore that construction-wise, it will last forever), and you need to be committed to making it wearable without washing it frequently. I will wear and enjoy the pieces I have, and I totally get why it’s popular. For me, there are better places to spend my hard-earned. If I’m buying something special – which, judging by the designs and the price point, is what a good chunk of Augustine designs would be for a lot of Kiwi ladies – I’d rather save up for longer and buy something made locally from more sustainable fabrics. However, I recognise that I am spoiled by Wellington’s strong contingent of local designers and my ready access to (and time for) excellent secondhand shops.
As an aside, I also couldn’t find much information on the website about their approach to sustainability, workers’ rights, or any of the other key issues in the fashion industry. The most I could find was “We are lucky to be manufactured in such small factories that care about our quality and we care about the workers that work there”.
I do think it’s great that Augustine offers a “label to cater for the curvaceous lady”, Stella Royal. It offers sizes from 14 through to 22, which is about a thousand times better than most NZ brands – so props on that. Again, a lot of polyester features in this collection – again, understandable if your target market is “ladies who are busy and just want some fun, bright clothes to wear that are otherwise low fuss” (my summary, and in no way a quote from the brand!).