Photos and story by María José Contreras
I met Madara in April 2018 during the Fashion Revolution Week. I was conducting research for my thesis and I needed to interview someone who could share with me some insights about what the fashion industry was doing in terms of sustainability. The person who introduced us said to me: "she's your girl". And she was indeed. Two months, a bunch of interviews, and an (almost finished) thesis later, we started working together.
We have spent many hours organising events, we've drank many cups of coffee (London coffee shops were our meeting points), and we've done a lot of charity shopping, but we still have many things to talk about. This week, Madara Freimane - founder of What's Your Legacy - comes to Chiswick to do what we do best: talk, take pictures, and drink coffee. Read on for a conversation on the challenges of sustainability, being your own boss, and listening to podcasts to keep your stress levels under control.
From Latvia to London, and from London to What's Your Legacy...
So I come from Latvia, which is a very tiny country. I always knew I wanted to move somewhere else where I could have more possibilities. I did maths and science at high-school, which I loved, but I was missing the creative part so much; so I thought about studying graphic design, which is artistic, yet logical. Fashion seemed like a crazy idea back then, but I then moved to Vienna and I became part of a very creative crowd that allowed me to feel more free and eventually consider pursuing a career in fashion. I wanted to move to the UK afterwards, so I applied to a foundation degree in the London College of Fashion, which was followed by a BA in fashion styling and photography - which is now called Fashion Production - also at the London College of Fashion. A part of my assignments involved asking people working in the fashion industry about what they were wearing, and most of the time their answers revolved around H&M, Zara, and Topshop. And just like that, my fashion dream was completely ruined. Until then, I had thought that everyone in fashion was wearing these big cool brands - although now I know more about the salaries in the industry, it all makes sense. To me, fashion was never about buying the most expensive clothes, but about being fun and unique. But them you see that everyone is wearing the same thing that they have bought from these huge stores where everything looks the same. It started becoming too overwhelming and that led to buying less and less. I think it was early on the second year of my studies that I started meditating and became interested in how people reacted when something very hard happened near them. I did a project where I looked at war photography and artists like Ai WeiWei, who would still carry on with their projects even when that implied putting their lives at risk. I did another project later on where I decided to look behind the scenes of the fashion industry and started looking at it from a human perspective. It’s funny because I was already living in London when the Rana Plaza collapsed, but it didn’t affect me as much, I heard people talking about it but I didn’t connect. It was only later on, when I looked into it when it really hit me and I actually realized how bad it was.
So you got interested in sustainability for its ethical and human aspect.
Yes. But of course, the more you look into it, the more you learn. I said to myself that I’d keep buying new things, but only from sustainable brands, and I then realized that I had no idea what that actually meant. I didn’t know what to look for. I didn’t know where to source clothes from. I remember that I googled “sustainable fashion” and what I found was just so ugly. So I continued doing research and I started to find brands such as Stella McCartney, which despite I could not afford, helped me to prove my point that sustainable fashion could look cool. I kept finding more brands and I kept telling - or complaining - about them to my flatmate Anna, so we decided to start something to find and share these brands. So that’s how What’s Your Legacy was born. It also worked as a great excuse to approach brands and talk with them. I didn’t really know anything about sustainability and I have learned so much in the past years.
Tell me more about that - How have your knowledge and opinion of sustainability evolved since launching What’s Your Legacy?
It has gone from more ethics-focused to more innovation-focused. When I started, it was all about shopping less, being more minimalist - which I still am - but the truth is that I love colourful, crazy outfits. So building a capsule wardrobe with mostly black and white clothes, didn’t feel like me anymore. By talking to brands, I learnt that sustainability doesn’t have to look ugly. You can make beautiful clothing and simply make more sustainable choices when it comes to materials, for instance. I wanted to show that sustainable doesn’t have to be unattractive, and not everything in your wardrobe needs to be second hand. I wanted people to get excited about buy sustainable clothing. I’m excited to see new business models - such as rental platforms - that are helping the industry to be more circular; And I'm equally excited to see more innovation when it comes to materials. Brands need to give people what they want, but do it in a sustainable way. We all have our passions, and fashion and sustainability aren't a passion for everyone, so the information should be easy to find. This is actually why we created the brand directory, since it was the easiest way to show all the amazing brands out there along their sustainability credentials. I think it should be easier for customers, and the industry should think how to make fashion circular, how to make it sustainable, how to recycle the garments...
I agree that the information needs to be easier to find, but don’t you think there’s also a lot of work to do when it comes to educating consumers?
Yes. They need to know the why, because there are so many misconceptions. On our platforms, we pick a few materials and provide our audience with a summary of the key points. The information needs to be there, in a way that allows consumers to learn without investing too much time, but I completely agree that people should be more educated.
You mentioned before that during your second year of university, you started meditating - is that the reason why you cope so well with the stress that comes with living in London?
I don’t think it’s only meditation. I also like listening to podcasts, reading books, watching videos...I love biographies about successful people. I’m not always on this zen mood- I also stress out when things go wrong. But when that happens, I like to ask myself if there’s anything I can do about it. If the answer is yes, then I do whatever it is that I can do, but if the answer is no, then it’s not worth stressing about it. Of course it’s not easy to learn to control that feeling and it takes time.I also love London because to be honest, being somewhere too quiet gives me a bit of anxiety, as if things were not moving forward. I need that constant feeling of things happening around me, which also gives me more energy. Another important thing is to always surround myself with people who have a positive attitude; I tend to get very influenced by the energy of whoever is around me, so if they are very excited and happy, I’m going to get very excited and happy; but if they’re down, I’m going to go down as well.
What’s your favourite part of being your own boss?
Honestly? Never have to work 9 to 5. That idea scares me. I grew up in a family where my parents were running their own business, so they could be working on weekends and then have Monday off, or they could also be working weird hours, or maybe there were more stressful times, but then were followed but more relaxed ones. So there was always a fluidity that I liked. I don’t mind working on a weekend, or working late at night, because I'm then able to sleep until later the following morning. I love being able to define my own times. I’m also very good at being by myself and working on my own.
Did you have a dream job when you were a kid?
I don’t think so, but when I moved to London I worked in fashion editorial, in some magazines. Now I’m obsessed with technology. I think that when it comes to sustainability it’s much more interesting to see how other industries can bring the solutions to the fashion problem.
Which books and podcasts are you reading and listening to at the moment?
I like to listen to Gary Vaynerchuk to learn about marketing content and strategy. I’ve been listening to him for years and all this thing about not complaining, it just makes so much sense to me. I mean, I find myself complaining sometimes as well.
I think sometimes it’s ok to complain and speak up!
I think so too, but speaking up and complaining are two different things. I think you cannot complain unless you come up with a solution, which is a very proactive attitude. But going back to the podcasts and books, after I read the Elon Musk book, a few years ago, I just listened to a lot of interviews with him. The book is great, but I feel is a bit outdated now. I also read Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which is a very good one, with a lot of smart ideas on it. For example, it talks about this rule of always asking ‘why’ five times, just to get to the root of the issue - because otherwise, you are just scratching the surface. Another podcast I’m listening to - because I’m totally obsessed with space - is Daniel and Jorge Explain the Universe - super fun because they take different interesting concepts and explain them for 30-40 minutes; Another one Tech Stuff, and also Masters of Scale by Reid Hoffman, who is the co-founder of LinkedIn. It's a very well-produced podcast that gets really really smart people, such as Mark Zuckerberg.
Where do you see yourself and What's Your Legacy in five years?
I want to take the company to the next level, so I want to turn What’s Your Legacy into a marketplace where people can come and buy the clothes they like. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but it’s important to think big. I have all these ideas in my head, but I want to start one thing, and figure it out well, and from there create more and more. I don’t only want to be successful but I also want to have a positive impact and show people that you don’t have to compromise your values to create something exciting and big. When I started I was talking to Anna, and I was telling her how I didn’t want to go work for someone else, and I wanted to have my own project. And she told me how the first ten year would be shit, all my friends would be living better lives whilst I would be struggling more...and I’m not going to lie - it was kind of scary. But now I realise that I love it, that I don’t need to most beautiful apartment, because what I’m really excited about is the idea of building something big and crazy. So when I listen to all these podcasts, and how these successful people struggled in the beginning, I think “that’s going to be my story”.
Madara is wearing the Helmut top in black, the Joseph dress, and the Bernhard trousers.