Can a Swedish menswear start-up rewrite the rules for the whole fashion system? The founders of Asket, Jakob Dworsky, 28, and August Bard Bringéus, 29, are aiming to do just that. The two business graduates have tailored a commercial model that’s not just fit for purpose but, scaled up, could revolutionise the industry and change our relationship with clothes for the better.
The beauty of a start-up is that it doesn’t have to change bad internal systems or fix broken business models. It can build best practice from day one. Asket is not designed to serve the old fashion system of high volumes and low prices. “Less but better” is its mantra; beautifully designed product made to last is the reality. “Fashion has lost its value. We have no understanding of what it takes to create clothes and just do not appreciate them because it is cheaper to get a new T-shirt than to repair your old one,” says Bard Bringéus. “If it’s cheaper to buy a T-shirt than a Big Mac, then obviously we are going to feed a throwaway culture that is really hard to reverse.”
Bard Bringéus and Dworsky founded the brand (its name is the Swedish for “ascetic”) with a Kickstarter campaign in 2015. Back then, Greta Thunberg was yet to launch her school strike (before you ask, no, they haven’t met her) and Extinction Rebellion hadn’t even formed (that happened in 2018) let alone declared a climate emergency and urged everyone to #boycottfashion. The topic of waste and overproduction in the fashion industry was still a fringe issue when the Asket founders were studying for their business degrees, yet it bothered them. Quite apart from the environmental costs, it was just bad business – any smart student could see that.
Now, four years after Asket’s launch, awareness is rising but many top fashion brands still get rid of dead stock by burning it, and the norm for customers is to buy clothes cheaply, wear them a few times and then send them to landfill. Meanwhile, a rampant influencer culture chases likes with new outfits. Once a look is posted it is never to be seen again, reinforcing the throwaway fashion culture.
Bard Bringéus and Dworsky see Asket as the antidote to all that. They are part of a broader movement towards more moderate, considered consumption that goes beyond fashion. “Look at what has happened with veganism,” says Bard Bringéus. It has gone from a niche and often-derided lifestyle choice to a mainstream movement. Like the boy in the fairy tale who pointed out that the emperor was naked, Bard Bringéus saw the “the crazy margin structures in fashion”, and the shocking waste for what it was – a completely broken fashion system. If you bought £4-worth of water from a supermarket, he says, you’d only come out with a few litres, but a typical fast-fashion T-shirt costing £4 needs 2,700 litres of water for its manufacture. “That amount of water will keep a person alive for two years,” he continues. Add the 2kg of CO2 it takes to produce it and the end product simply can’t justify the price. The only way the industry has been able to make the numbers stand up is by exploiting natural and human resources.
Combining youthful idealism with the problem-solving approach of start-up culture, everything about the Asket business model is designed to further its founders’ aim of putting care and value back into the fashion system. The online-only brand focuses on the kind of pieces that we wear every day: perfect T-shirts, cotton knits, hoodies, raw-denim jeans, chinos and boxers. Smaller product ranges mean less waste and the Asket collection is described as “meaningful essentials”, not basics. Bard Bringéus and Dworsky want to design your favourite T-shirt – something you can bond with and care about, because if you care, you will wear it over and over and not throw it away, cutting down on waste.
Asket is seasonless, so the problem of built-in obsolescence, which drives the fashion system to create ever more unwanted garments, doesn’t exist. With its one permanent collection, which is continually tweaked and perfected, there’s no need to junk everything and start again for each new cycle.
All these good intentions wouldn’t work if the product wasn’t good. The clothes are designed to stand the test of time, both in craftsmanship and styling. Instead of creating new trends, the design team, led by Dan Vo, focus their energy on perfecting what’s there. “We will build a permanent collection that means every piece will be around forever, so we can improve it infinitely and we can invest infinitely into this piece to really make it perfect,” she says. Asket also has a wider range of sizes, offering three lengths on top of the traditional XS-XL (better fits cut down on returns and waste), and being online only allows them to keep costs down and sell superior-quality garments at prices that don’t sting.
“We want to end overconsumption and the era of fast consumption that has dominated the fashion industry for the past 20 years. We want to restore the value of clothing,” says Bard Bringéus. That means transparency about where the clothing comes from and what went into producing it. The Asket website allows you to click and view the factory where each piece was made, whether that’s T-shirts from Várzea, Portugal, cotton knits from Korba, Tunisia, or raw denim from Urbania, Italy. Their labels don’t just tell you what temperature to wash your clothes at. Every piece is clearly marked with its traceability journey – breaking down the components and tracing them back to their origin. You may have bought an Asket T-shirt simply because you liked the design, but when you turn it inside out and toss it into the laundry, the full story of the garment is there. “Our belief is that it will urge you to care about what it took to make that garment, and hopefully the next time you buy something, you will start asking more questions.”
Attitudes are changing and calls for radical change in the fashion industry are becoming harder to ignore. In the UK, where shoppers buy more new clothes than any other European country, and roughly twice as many as in Germany and Italy, ministers recently rejected a proposal for a 1p levy on fast fashion that would help deal with the 300,000 tonnes of clothing burned or buried in Britain every year. That was a setback, but the tipping point is near, says Bard Bringéus. “I think we will see soon some kind of legislation with regards to the responsibilities of the afterlife of our clothes, in the same way that the bottling industry was forced to take responsibility for collecting bottles and glass.” That said, we can’t recycle our way out of this problem. It’s simply too big. We have to consume less and get more wear out of our clothes.
The question of growth is fraught for sustainably-minded brand owners. To effect real change you need to grow beyond being niche, but get too big and you become the problem, not the solution. “I wouldn’t say we would want to become the next global fashion player. We don’t want to be the size of Zara or H&M, but we want to be an influential force in 10 years’ time,” says Bard Bringéus, whose company numbers 17 people. Traceability and transparency becomes more complicated with multiple supply chains. “But if anyone can do it, we should be able to do it with the permanent collection concept.”
In the next 10 years, he wants to introduce a womenswear line and also hints at an evolution in the business model that would focus on profound new ideas of ownership. “If we know that a T-shirt of ours lasts for five years not just five washes, then we can start looking at changing the way we pay for clothing maybe,” he says. That could mean renting (Asket’s well-made clothes could cope with multiple users), or even something as radical as a pay-per-wear concept. He’d also like to introduce a take-back system, where unwanted pieces can be returned to the brand to be recycled or repurposed. With ideas like that, it’s no wonder Asket has been turning heads in the fashion business community. Bard Bringéus welcomes the attention. “We want to lead by example and we see that we are able to do that already at this small scale we are at now.”
The Asket founders are part of a new generation of entrepreneurs across all sectors who want to make money and create jobs and success, without damaging the environment or people’s wellbeing. Instead, they are intent on recasting capitalism and redefining what success means. A profit that relies on exploiting natural and human resources all for an item that may be worn once before being thrown away is not a profit at all.
“We don’t need more fashion companies, we don’t need more clothing. What we do need is to start appreciating the clothing so that we consider our choices more carefully. So that we buy fewer pieces and make them last longer. And that’s kind of where Asket is right now. That’s our core mission.”
by Claudia Croft
Taken from Issue 14 of 10 Men – BOYHOOD, MAN, EVOLVE – on newsstands now. Image courtesy of @Asket.