Helena Farstad is a qualified Chartered Institute of Management Accountant who swapped financial services for fashion design.
It is not a route she originally aimed to take. Born in Norway, she started her financial training at Imperial Chemical Industries in 2003 and by 2006, was a senior manager at Lloyds Banking Group working on the integration of TSB and HBOS. When the recession hit in 2010, she resigned but that was the extent of her plan.
“I realised my personal values [for environmental, social and economic sustainability] no longer corresponded to my day-to-day work, but I didn’t know what else I should do,” says Ms Farstad, who had by then experienced three acquisitions – Uniquema/Croda, ICI/Akzo Nobel and HBOS/Lloyds – and witnessed the consequences of a chemical industry in decline. “I resigned anyway and started to do research.”
Today, she is chief executive of Multemyr (which means “cloudberry marsh” in Norwegian) a womenswear label that aims to provide customers with a high- quality, classical range of responsibly sourced garments. She is also the co-founder of The WISE Creative, a non-profit organisation of independent labels based in and dedicated to manufacturing their products in the UK.
“My parents call it ‘nonchy’ [as in nonchalant] elegance,” says Ms Farstad, 34, describing the style of her women’s clothing with a family expression for someone who knows how to dress flatteringly for any occasion. “[The] overall aesthetic offers effortless and sophisticated dressing from day to night.”
Elegant blouses, chic pencil skirts and classic cut jackets are all made from 100 per cent natural fabrics, including organic silks, cottons and virgin wool. Colours range from black and grey to gold and guava pink.
Having been tied to wearing suits in her former career, the ex-City worker also hopes to provide some functional relief to women in business. Her dresses and skirts have little pockets on the waist that fit business cards, for example.
“Have you been at an event and not known where to put your cards after handing in your coat and bag?” she asks. “It can be frustrating. After years working in industry – continuously looking for clothes that satisfied both my wardrobe essentials and my desire for sustainable business practices – I decided it was time to create my own. Every piece has a specific function [making them] as stylish and hard working as the women who wear them.”
Despite moving away from financial services, the contacts Ms Farstad made during that time helped her find direction. When starting her research, she spoke to Lloyds’ head of sustainability who introduced her to the chief executive of Pure Leapfrog, a charity that acts as broker between professional services and renewable energy projects. “I ended up working there for two years which gave me a fresh view of the third sector,” she says.
Ms Farstad continued working with old friends from the City, talking their language but also translating it for organisations with no financial or legal expertise. Coupling this knowledge with a desire to make things that were more tangible than spreadsheets, the disengaged accountant finally found her niche.
The first Multemyr collection debuted in 2012, designed in collaboration with Neliana Fuenmayor, a designer with experience from Burberry Prorsum and Stella McCartney. The WISE Creative launched six months later.
“I could not have done all this – and so quickly” she says, “had I not had project management skills and financial planning knowledge. I was part of it, but I was supervising it.”
While Ms Farstad’s training helped surmount business challenges, she still made mistakes.
On one occasion, she spent hours cutting the plastic handles off 100 shopping bags to replace them with more ethical material, having failed to notice the plastic when placing the order.
Overall however, Ms Farstad is happy with her switch. She thinks sustainability demands a new business model – in which profit and shareholder returns are not the only criteria for judging performance but where transparency and co-operation also matter. All her customers, for example, are fully informed about each piece, from the source of the fabric to the final mark-up. “Real change can follow, if people become emotionally engaged,” she says. “The clothing industry has an adverse impact on the environment. As our relationship with clothes is often emotional, [such transparency] makes perfect sense to me.”