How James created Outland Denim to help the fight against human trafficking.

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  • Outland Denim
  • Founder - James Bartle
  • HQ based in Tamborine Mountain, Queensland, Australia. Production Facility in Kampong Cham, Cambodia.
    Wash and Finishing Facility in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
  • Started in 2016
  • 1 founders, 100 employees between Australia and Cambodia
  • outlanddenim.com.au

We caught up with James Bartle, the founder of Outland Denim. James has created a company tackling the fight against human trafficking.

This is a story of people saved from human trafficking. It's a story of people who've survived and are now thriving. They're looked after, trained, and given work to create a new life.

Outland Denim is so much more than a denim company. Have a read and enjoy. This story is inspiring.

James, what's your backstory?

I grew up in Longreach in central Queensland. I spent most of my free time racing motocross on the weekends. While I have always been entrepreneurial in nature, I didn't see myself working in the fashion industry at all! 

Before Outland Denim, I founded an extreme sports tour group that travelled around Australia, promoting healthy lifestyle choices to mostly youth. I was first exposed to the idea of creating apparel through merchandising for that business, though denim and sustainability weren't on my radar. 

This was back in the mid-2000s. I had worked in various trades to supplement my income, including as an electrician and as a welder, so I had a very practical skill base and was never out of work. That came from my father; he's a painter by trade and a pastor but has run a farm for as long as I can remember. My father always took the time to demonstrate how to fix machinery. 

Adapting my skill set to the requirements of jean making, the mechanics of jean making and setting up shop in a foreign country where I didn't speak the local language was a learning curve.  Once you appreciate how things work, how to do things well, and be flexible in your learning and skill set, you can more easily move sideways into different fields. Outland was very hands-on from the beginning.

Tell us what your company does?

We are about #DenimForFreedom. Offering premium garments made with revolutionary social standards and the most environmentally sustainable methods available.

We have a unique business model designed to create a cycle of empowerment for those in need. We provide opportunity and a safe and supportive working environment, a living wage, training, health care, and education to people who have experienced or are at risk or experiencing modern slavery, exploitation, or abuse. 

Employment with Outland Denim can be transformational in the lives of their team, and each Outland Denim garment is finished with a 'Thank you' message from one of the people who made the garment, so you know exactly who made your clothes.

How did you come up with the idea?

Jeans aren't a throw-away item (or, they shouldn’t be), but something you keep for years if they're good quality and the right fit. They wear with you. 

For most people, jeans are  the foundation of a wardrobe that you build upon. People are passionate about their denim and loyal to their favourite denim labels. The universal, egalitarian appeal of denim speaks to our core as a humanitarian brand.

Our product and brand came to be in a very unconventional way. About ten years ago when my wife and I saw the movie 'Taken'. While a fictional film, it introduced an industry that exists today, where people are stolen and sold for profit. About 40.3 million people are caught up in modern slavery.

The name “Outland” speaks to our appreciation of and our origins here in rural Queensland, a setting known for its beauty and off-the-beaten-track lifestyle and our tendency to draw on the heritage of denim in designing our range.

How did you go about building and launching the business?

Our product and brand came to be in a very unconventional way. About ten years ago when my wife and I saw the movie 'Taken'. While a fictional film, it introduced an industry that exists today, where people are stolen and sold for profit. About 40.3 million people are caught up in modern slavery.

As we began to research, we soon discovered the complexity of the problem and its prevalence worldwide. No nation is untouched. 

I had the opportunity to travel through Southeast Asia, where I saw what the problem looked like on the ground. We discovered that in addition to sex trafficking, trafficking for labour was also a common threat within vulnerable communities. 

Once a woman has been rescued and reintegrated into the community, we learnt that a sustainable career path is vital for securing her future. 

Outland Denim was founded to offer that sustainable career path. From the initial five seamstresses, we have grown to welcome nearly 100 production team members in our stand-alone production house and expanded our social mission to include at-risk young women of various backgrounds.

In 2019, we opened our stand-alone wash and finishing facility, equipped with state of the art water and energy-saving technology.

Today, our amazing workforce have honed their skills to become experts in the premium denim jean making process. Each is made with organic cotton, 100% traceable denim, zero harmful chemicals, 100% vegan materials, and the most sustainable raw materials sourced carefully by suppliers who share our social and environmental sustainability priorities.

How have you grown the business?

Outland has come a long way since we launched five years ago with only black denim in the hottest QLD summer of the past 100 years! Some highlights that both accelerated and also marked our growth include:

We launched in 2016 focused on building solid relationships with customers and local media to support our story and mission to be shared through media and WOM.

We took Outland Denim global in 2017, with our first stockist partners in Canada, Holt Renfrew and Harry Rosen. Close relationship with stockist partners has been critical in introducing the brand to new communities, and growing this business area further is a key goal for us in 2021. You can now find Outland in over 40 locations, primarily in Australia but around the world.

The development of partnerships with like-minded activist organisations and research bodies has been crucial to our social mission. Working with consumer-facing certifications and bodies such as BWA’s Ethical Fashion Report, B Corporation, and Good On You, help to build trust and brand accountability with consumers.

In 2018, Meghan Markle wore our Harriet Black jeans during her and Harry’s Australia and New Zealand tour. The impact was incredible and touched every area of our business, introducing us to customers, media, and potential stockists partners around the world overnight. The style sold out in just a day which led to a 6-month waitlist. But more importantly, the demand allowed us to welcome a further 46 seamstresses to our team in Cambodia.

In 2019 we launched our first collaboration collection with Karen Walker and this year with Spell. This provided the opportunity to collaborate on the product and introduce our customer base to each brand and further our impact. 

We have recently completed two successful Equity Crowdfunding raises with Birchal, inviting the public to own a slice of Outland Denim. Our goal has always been to build a brand by the people, for the people. Through this, we were able to welcome 1600+ like-minded individuals to our shareholder community, allowing us to grow our business and impact.

Currently, we are in an exciting stage of growth, with the release of our RTW range, a focus on accelerating our digital strategy, research and development into textile waste technology, and welcoming other brands into our manufacturing arm, branded MAEKA. v

What’s your biggest selling product?

Our women’s range would have to be the Harriet high-rise skinny jean and the Lucy jean - two of our original styles and two of the most popular to this day. 

For men, it would be the Ranger relaxed-cut jean and the Smith denim jacket.


What have been some of your biggest failures along the way?

Our knowledge about the denim industry and its impacts on the environment was an uncomfortable realisation for a company with social justice at its core. 

The idea that you could help people while contributing to environmental harm was something we couldn’t ignore. We set about cleaning up our supply chain pretty quickly. Every aspect and person within our supply chain, from the cotton pickers to the denim mill to the  courier company, were utilising the most environmentally responsible practises. We now have a team dedicated to this side of our business. 

With that has come the cost of doing business ethically. Getting the correct start-up investors with the right amount of capital to fund the infrastructure, staff, product and brand development is crucial. All while  ironing out the teething issues associated with doing a different kind of business, is essential.

What day to day digital tools do you use?

On the average day I would use:

What books have been a great inspiration to you as a founder?

Building brands on purpose by Chris Hogan

Any podcast/websites that help you run your business?

I’m inspired by people and organisations that are working to eradicate modern slavery. People like Kevin Bales and also Grace Forrest of Walk Free. And I do enjoy ABC’s Landline too, haha!


What do you do to look after your mental health as a founder?

I would say exercise is the number one thing I do to look after my mental health.

In a few words what does it mean to be the founder of a business?

"It’s a privilege. It’s challenging and sometimes scary (in a very necessary way)."

What are the biggest pieces of advice you’d give to other founders?

"I would say that fear of failure is your greatest enemy - it prevents you from moving forward."


Where can people find out more about your business?

People can find us:

www.outlanddenim.com.au

Instagram - @outlanddenim         

Facebook - @outlanddenim

LinkedIn - @outlanddenim

Twitter - @outlanddenim

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