Veronica Chou by Michaela Cordes | 5th March, 2021 | Personalities
A trip to Nepal changed Veronica Chou’s life. After years of experience as an executive and her deep understanding of the challenges in the fashion industry, the 36-year-old entrepreneur from a Chinese textile family now focuses entirely on sustainability.
The realization came in the middle of the night on a trekking tour in Nepal. Just after her 30th birthday and having spent seven years opening 1,000 fashion shops all over China, this young businesswoman decided it was time for a break. “A week of Vipassana meditation, then a weeklong trek surrounded by nature, to take time off for myself,” Veronica Chou explains in a Zoom call from Hong Kong to Hamburg. “The day before, climbing the highest peak on that trip, I woke up around midnight and suddenly had this epiphany and knew: Whatever I did in the future would have to do with sustainability.”
“I could see the particles in the air, and when I came home at night, my face and hands were black.” VERONICA CHOU
A conviction that grew over years of experience in the mass-market fashion industry. Having started when she was only 24, Veronica Chou introduced more than a dozen American mass market fashion brands into China, among them Karl Lagerfeld, Ed Hardy, London Fog and Candie’s. But despite the economic success, there were issues that she noticed while going about her regular business activities that increasingly made the young entrepreneur pause and think. Veronica: “Some of those experiences I’ll never forget, like stepping off a plane and feeling like I was walking into a sandstorm. I could see the particles in the air and when I got home after long days at work, my face and hands were black. Back then, everyone living in Asia was aware of the problem and was constantly talking about pollution.”
To fully understand the significance of what it meant for Veronica to change her course drastically and decide to focus entirely on sustainability, one has to dive into the history of the Chou family. Over the course of several generations, the family’s visionary ideas had turned a textile industry into an institution whose impact has spread far beyond the borders of China. Veronica’s grandfather is the celebrated, 101-year-old textile tycoon Chao Kuang-piu, who was the owner of the largest groups of knitwear factories and known as the “Wool Magnate.” Her father, Silas Chou, was behind the success of global fashion brands Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors.
“I grew up going to my family’s knitwear and denim factories,” Veronica remembers. “As a teenager, I interned in my father’s companies to learn more about both the organizational and the manufacturing side of the business. In the factories, I couldn’t help wondering: Why is it so dusty here? What is that smell? Where does the colored water go after the fabric has been dyed? At the time, though, that was just the way things were and nobody spent a lot of time thinking about the consequences. Later, mwhen I was bringing those U.S. brands to China and opening my stores, I realized that people were talking about the environment more and more and felt that I needed to learn all I could about sustainability.”
Another unhealthy aspect that she had encountered personally also motivated the young entrepreneur: “As a young Asian woman growing up in the fashion industry, I was constantly comparing myself to skinny American and European supermodels. When I was in high school in the States, my roommates at boarding school put up posters of these super skinny women and went on weird, random diets and exercised like crazy. It was really unhealthy! In American media, I hardly ever saw anyone who looked like me. Now there are a lot of Asians, but at the time, there weren’t that many represented at all. I really struggled, and for many years felt an immense amount of pressure. It affected me a lot and I had issues with self-esteem and body image. But all of these experiences taught me important lessons for the future, and I realized that a contemporary fashion brand would have to be inclusive and represent all nations, cultures and body sizes.”
“Growing up in the fashion industry, I felt under pressure to fit into a certain size. That’s why we’re size-inclusive today.” VERONICA CHOU
After returning from her trekking trip in 2015, Veronica Chou sold her company Iconix China Ltd and began focusing exclusively on the subject of sustainability. A courageous decision, but she didn’t know where to start, so she asked her two elder half-brothers, who are tech investors. “They opened my eyes to the possibilities that were out there, pointing me down the path toward materials science and introduced me to companies that were already actively researching alternative textile technologies.”
How did her father react to this sudden entrepreneurial change of heart? “He never tried to talk me out of it, but at first, he didn’t really understand what I was doing. And he didn’t welcome it either when I tried to switch all the food and cleaning products in his home to organic. You have to remember that organic and sustainable were not yet widespread concepts in the public consciousness. But over time, my father came to realize that all of us have to start thinking about things in a different way. He introduced me to Susan Rockefeller, a sustainability pioneer, who has been so very helpful to my journey.”
“Since COVID-19 people really seem to understand how important sustainable living is.” VERONICA CHOU
Almost a year ago – not long before the onset of the pandemic – the mother of five-year old twins started her own sustainable clothing company, Everybody & Everyone, based in the U.S. sells size-inclusive women’s fashions. But Veronica Chou also wants to use her company to help educate her customers about leading more sustainable lives, and supports research in materials science knowing that only true alternatives – new, sustainable technologies – will make the difference in her industry. To start with, at Everybody & Everyone, she does not sell party dresses. Veronica: “These are items you should rent or buy second hand, especially since they’re usually intended for a single occasion. There are so many great pieces out there that have already been made, and they’re just waiting for a new owner. Everybody & Everyone specializes in basics, essential, versatile pieces you can wear on many different occasions. For instance, we have a turtleneck sweater where the neck part comes off, giving you either a turtleneck or a crewneck in one item of clothing. We also have black trousers made of fermented sugar that have an adjustable waist and adjustable length, no matter what shoes you’re wearing. They have buttons at the hem so you can easily adjust them up or down. And then there’s our puffer jacket made of 330 recycled plastic bottles. It has a zipper that allows you to wear it as a short jacket when it’s not so cold out or turn it into a parka.”
Drawing people’s attention to new, innovative and sustainable materials and selling them to customers is something Veronica finds very exciting. “Early this year, our label introduced its first collection of athletic wear made of biodegradable nylon! Normal nylon takes up to 100 years to degrade, ours take three years.”
Together, she and her family support research in new, sustainable textiles. For many years, they have been investing in companies such as Modern Meadow, which grows leather in a lab “so that you don’t have to kill a cow in order to have leather,” as Veronica explains. Both she and her friend Emily Lam Ho have also invested in the Sneaker Company Thousand Fell, the world’s first circular sneaker. Customers send in their old pair of white sneakers and get them back, transformed into new ones. As Veronica says: “Things are developing extremely fast in this area. When I started looking into sustainability in fashion about six years ago, there was only one company selling leggings made from recycled plastic. Today, it’s considered good form to be environmentally aware, and big companies like H&M and Adidas are producing items made of recycled ocean plastic.
What fascinates me the most are innovative new companies producing materials that are not just ‘less bad’ for the planet but actually do more good – like those that come from regenerative farming.” Regenerative agriculture is a method of farming aimed at conserving nature and creating biodiversity, based on what we see in the natural world – without the use of synthetic pesticides. This approach creates and maintains healthy soil, which in turn traps more carbon dioxide – and provides a way for local farmers to make more money by growing a variety of plants rather than just one crop. With regard to her company, Veronica says: “We offer shirts made of silk from regenerative silk farms, for instance. We also ensure that the shirts are sewn in the same place where the fabric is produced to keep the carbon footprint as small as possible. I want to give our customers the assurance that by buying our products, they are not only doing something good for themselves but also for the planet.”
What company does she regard as a role model and leader in the sustainable fashion sector? “Patagonia!,” she exclaims. The California- based specialist for outdoor clothing and gear (“We’re in Business to Save our Home Planet”) boasts 4.6 million followers on Instagram and employs around 1,000 people. An example that shows by selling sustainable, fairly produced products, it is possible to conquer the mass market. “I admire the way Patagonia treats its workers and the way it has grown as a company. I also like how they use their platform to make documentaries and educate people about how to live more sustainable lives. Businesses of this size have the power to influence governments and their policy. I think it’s not fair to put pressure solely on consumers. Companies and businesses should also do their part. It’s important for governments to create and maintain sustainable practices by setting new rules and regulations.” Veronica Chou seems to be on-trend: Since the outbreak of COVID-19, consumer behavior around the world has in fact changed drastically according to a recent study by the Capgemini Research Institute. When deciding what to buy, 79 percent of consumers worldwide base their decision on values like social responsibility, inclusiveness and impact on the environment, according to the study, while 69 percent of consumers choose sustainably produced products.
“We can make the right choice three times a day about what we eat – and what we wear. It’s important to keep that in mind.” VERONICA CHOU
Has Veronica personally noticed a difference when looking at the sales figures for her new company? “Absolutely!,” she says. “We’re still young, but we have sold to customers in every one of the 50 U.S. states. My typical customers are women my age who carefully observe what is happening in the world and around them. I think the pandemic has produced a kind of reset within many people. When everything closed during the first lockdown, we had no choice but to go out into parks and on hikes and spend more time outside in nature. So all of a sudden, we realized how important it is to have a healthy environment, and learned the urgent need for a more sustainable world! We humans cannot remain healthy if the world around us isn’t. Studies show that nature has an important effect on our psyches. Even going out for a walk among the trees improves our mood and is psychologically beneficial. Experiencing this again and again has aroused people’s curiosity about what sustainable fashion is all about, coupled with the awareness and mentions generated by the media, and as a result, we are seeing that customers are now quite willing to spend more money if it means they are doing something to keep our planet healthy. It’s important to keep in mind that each one of us can make the right choice three times a day when we decide what to eat – and every time we put on something to wear.”
What’s fascinating about Veronica’s business model is that she lived in London but relocated to Hong Kong with her family when the pandemic broke out. She launched her company via Zoom. Everybody & Everyone is headquartered in New York and currently only ships to customers in the U.S. Veronica: “Because the U.S. is innovative when it comes to fabrics science, but China has better manufacturing technology. In the past, you had to send physical fabric samples back and forth, but today we can reduce the number of samples by utilizing 3D technology.”
And has fashion production in China changed for the better since she started her new business? “I can see a drastic change. The factories we work with have been certified in many different ways. They use renewable energy. Also, the Chinese government is pushing green technologies. Take the regenerative farm from which we get our organic silk: When that farm switched to organic production the neighboring farms would knock on the door and ask: Why are you generating income while we’re suffering from setbacks due to COVID- 19? It’s a trickle-down effect. Because the conversation is changing, the factories are under increased pressure to change their methods. Globally speaking, there are now more initiatives and models to help factories with their financing. One of the biggest U.S. organizations is the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC). It has a program called Clean by Design, which also operates in China. It’s a 10-step program that helps factories and mills change even basic things like switching to LED lighting or putting electric trackers in place to find out how much electricity they are using. By insulating their buildings and learning how to treat waste water, companies that follow this program start saving money within just one year. So yes, I can definitely see that China is moving towards more sustainable production.” Her goal? “I’m not interested in making as much money as possible, I’m interested in having a purpose, which I have found.”