As buyers are increasingly aware of the environmental impact of fast fashion, the sustainable garment industry is expected to grow from USD 6.35 billion up to USD 15.17 billion in 2030. Different fashion brands are taking part in this new trend, and one of them is Lontessa, a Singapore-based company launched by New Zealander Tessa Lont. Lontessa has appeared on the runway at New York, Paris, and Melbourne fashion weeks.
Yet, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to a regional fashion brand. In this interview with Oasis, Tessa explains the backend details of building her company, from the ideation to racking the garments needed for her designs. She also shares her thoughts on the importance of an evolving brand strategy for a fashion company.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Oasis (OS): Can you share a bit more about Lontessa and how the company started?
Tessa Lont (TL): I started in New Zealand in 2014 as an industrial designer, but then I eventually started my business and moved to Singapore. We took over another older company, which gave me a good head start with clientele and the Singaporean market. Now, I focus on custom clothing. However, I want to improve my online strategy to make my products more accessible and help people find their own style. We like to take care of our clients and bring out their individuality. Based on my love for expressing my Maori culture, coming from New Zealand, the goal is to help other people identify themselves and create garments that suit them, their needs, and their modern culture.
OS: I’m really interested in how being Maori influences your work, and how you meld European and Asian cultures?
TL: I’m sensitive to my culture, so I try to be sensitive to other cultures as well. In the last show that we had, we used local fabrics. So, I went to Arab Street In Singapore to find fabrics, and I learned more about what traditional fabrics mean to different cultures. Then, I tried to create modern-day looks that everybody could relate to. I don’t want to make traditional clothing, but I want to be able to embrace different cultures to make clothes that are more suitable to wear in modern day life.
OS: That brings me to the idea of cultural appropriation in fashion, which I understand is a huge gray area. Some people are really against it, but on the other side of things, it could just be seen as another element to play with. What are your thoughts on that?
TL: I have strong opinions about cultural appropriation myself, because I saw a lot of Maori designs get abused growing up. What is most important is understanding the value and meaning of what you’re using before you use it. It’s all about questioning their importance, and balancing that. It’s a touchy subject, but I try to be very careful about how I use other cultures in particular. As a designer, it’s all about how we honor whatever culture we use.
I don’t design clothes that aren’t representative of me and my own culture for myself, but sometimes I get clients who want certain details and elements of their culture in their garments. They have to educate me a little bit, but I make sure everyone’s happy and gets the kind of clothes they want.
OS: What I’m also curious about is the backend—from operations management to logistics. Could you tell me more about that?
TL: We mostly work from our studio. I have done productions in China and New Zealand, and we source fabrics from all over the place to tell a story. The last collection I did, Unity, was about exploring Singapore and the convergence of different cultures. It depends on what my project is at the time, and what products are appropriate.
It’s good to have a team close by, so I also work with a factory in Singapore that can do small productions for me. These are the sort of products that I want to focus more on putting online, as I can manufacture them for lower prices. There are parts of the operational processes and paperwork that are more tedious and brain-draining, but still extremely necessary.
OS: That sounds tiring, which leads me to my next question: What are some common misconceptions about being a fashion designer?
TL: People don’t realize how difficult it is. It took around a decade to get to where I am, and it hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to have a lot of passion and make a lot of self-sacrifices. I don’t think people realize how tough it can be, having so much competition. There’s also so much you need to know. It’s not just about designing the clothes. It’s all the marketing, the operations, learning how production lines work, etc. It’s not that easy.
I think a lot of people don’t realize that most fashion designers are quite small businesses. If you’re not big, you’re not making a lot of money, and many people give up.
OS: How does the cost carry forward from fabrics to consumers?
TL: Many people want to buy certain things because they are cheaper. It’s unfortunate because the actual cost of fashion isn’t like that. It may be cheap, but it means that somebody else is paying for it somewhere else along the line: workers, maybe, or the environment. What I like about having my system local is that I know who I’m working with. People forget how difficult the whole craft behind making something is.
However, there are many clients who are aware of what’s going on in the world that come to us, saying, “hey, we want to see who’s making our clothes!” It’s kind of like healthy food, some people don’t care what they eat, but other people want organic or fair trade ingredients. So there is a shift. It’s coming a little bit slow with fashion, but I think it will get there.
OS: What’s a piece of career advice you would give to a young passionate designer?
TL: If you’re that passionate about something, you just have to do it. However, don’t expect it to be easy or cheap! You have to invest quite a lot of money into being a fashion designer. I’m primarily self-funded, but that’s not enough. It’s not just about being creative; you need to be financially savvy, which I’ve learned over time. It’s better if you know every aspect of the business, not just how to design a dress. I think that’s so important. As I said, the misconception is that you just have to be creative, but there’s a lot of backend work that goes into this.
Many people graduate and think they can become fashion designers right from the beginning. Yet, most design businesses aren’t really interested in hiring fashion designers; rather, they look for other gigs; for instance, a good quality seamstress is really hard to find. I’m grateful that I learned how to sew because I can visualize and create a particular piece myself, instead of relying on a sewist to figure it out for me. It’s true that you don’t need to know how to sew to be a designer, but from my experience, I think that it’s one of the best skills that I’ve had in producing my looks.
OS: A lot of the glamor has a lot to do with marketing, but, how have you’ve tackled the marketing side of things?
TL: I’ve been working with a PR company in Singapore, which has been good. However, when I go to a show, I have to be on Instagram Live so that all my clients can see what’s going on. At the same time, I need to network, which is difficult, so I usually bring someone with me.
I’m very lucky that one of my best friends is a marketing guru, so she has helped me a lot. Having a brand strategy has been very helpful. It is essential for the foundation of your brand. I do many different things, but at the end of the day, everything ties back to my three philosophies: honoring yourself, honoring women, and honoring the world.
OS: In terms of upcoming future brand strategies, what does that look like? Are you pivoting in some way?
TL: For now, we’re sticking with my original strategy, but pivoting is always something I keep in mind for every collection. My collections are always quite different, but they all tell certain stories that I think are important at the time. Those values always come back to the brand strategy.