We chat to the resilient and talented Alexandra Foster of A.C.F to find out what it means to start and run a conscious fashion company in the 852…
If you’re interested in supporting environmentally friendly, ethically responsible and vegan companies, it’s likely that you’ve already heard about the Hong Kong-based brand, A.C.F. Alexandra Foster moved to Hong Kong with strong core values, a resilient mindset, and a desire to create a meaningful shift in the fashion industry. From starting the journey – solo – in a new city, to running a successful brand with her own team of “ethical warriors”, Alexandra proves that hard work and dedication are key ingredients that make goals a reality. With her background in fashion and a sense of conscious entrepreneurship, A.C.F works to challenge fast fashion, gender constraints, and the use of animal products through it’s minimalist collections and collaborative pop-ups. Whether you’re looking for simple steps to live a more mindful lifestyle, or keen to set up conscious and sustainable structures in your company, this entrepreneurial influencer tells us it may be easier than you think.
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Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from and how long have you lived in Hong Kong?
I am the founder of A.C.F; a sustainable street wear fashion label, based in Hong Kong. I have been in this crazy concrete jungle for a little over 2 years now, having moved from Melbourne Australia where I’m originally from. I moved to Hong Kong so I could be in close proximity to my ethical manufacturing partners and closer to the global market.
Plus, I’d never lived overseas and that was on my bucket list! I had an idyllic childhood, either on the beach or riding horses in the expansive countryside of the Mornington Peninsula. Having three brothers all close in age, I was quite the tomboy growing up. We learned early on the importance of equality and feminism, these values have shaped A.C.F into the brand it is today.
You’re the founder and CEO of A.C.F, can you tell us a little more about the company?
‘A.C.F’ stands for my name: Alexandra Caroline Foster. Beneath these three little letters is a brand with three big principles: environmentally friendly, ethically responsible and vegan. Our company mantra is, “It’s better to do a little of something than a lot of nothing” and you’ll see that reflected in everything we do. I like to think of our team as “ethical warriors” and “eco ninjas”!
Equality and the environment is at the heart of the A.C.F DNA, which is why most of our pieces are gender-neutral and all of our fabrics have been saved from going to landfills. We procure our fabrics from what’s known as “deadstock”, textiles that would otherwise be thrown away by other fashion labels. This also means that we eliminate gallons of water from our production process, and avoid using harmful chemical dyes. Fashion is the world’s second most polluting industry – we want to be a part of this solution, not the problem!
We love animals and are vehemently opposed to using animals for fashion. We are against animal cruelty on all levels so we are proud to be a totally vegan brand. Another one of our values is giving back to society; we do this by collecting all the offcuts from our garment production and use them to create by-products for charities – such as dog beds and children’s teddies.
Finally, we love that we know the people who make each and every A.C.F piece of clothing. We ensure our manufacturing partners practice fair trade on all levels, and we spend every few weeks in China sharing meals and laughs with these important members of the A.C.F community.
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What encouraged you to start A.C.F? What keeps you inspired?
If you have a true entrepreneurial spirit, there comes a stage in life where you feel your conscious telling you to just “go for it”. I was young, naive and full of passion, so I decided to pack my bags and move to Hong Kong. Two of the hardest years of my life have passed and I can honestly say it was one hell of a ride, and worth every tear!
I was kept motivated by my inspirational family. Fashion and entrepreneurship is in my blood; my great aunt was the dressmaker for King Farouk of Egypt in the 30’s and 40’s. While my Grandmother (Nonna) grew up living in the Egyptian palace, her Aunt would travel to Paris to sketch couture fashion and bring them back to design and create the garments for the royal family. My Nonna immigrated to Australia and brought her skills with her so I learnt to sew early on. She always had impeccable style, and I look to her as an example when I need motivation.
Luckily, I got my foot in the door early; I’ve worked in every role you can imagine within the fashion industry, from warehouse pick’n’packer, retail, design and business management. Fashion is a really tough industry, and I think that you can only be successful if you love it – truly, purely love it.
Even outside the fashion industry, I had a wonderful family to look up to. My grandfather was a pioneer in the software industry in the 80’s, my father was an incredible visionary and my mother is a talented artist who does a lot of philanthropic work. They taught me the importance of having strong morals and following your vision, no matter how many people tell you that you’re crazy – even though I am a little crazy!
There’s so much that comes with starting a new company. Can you share your most meaningful milestone?
Starting A.C.F alone in my tiny apartment in Hong Kong was great, but also made me almost lose my mind! Anyone who has worked from home understands just how difficult that can be. Multiply that with starting a business, moving to a new country and being completely bootstrapped, but it got me to where I am now. An exceptionally momentous milestone for me was moving into an office and hiring my first employees (we call ourselves ‘A.C.F Army’). About 18 months after moving to HK, I found two amazing staff members; this was an incredibly satisfying moment and continues to be as we grow together.
What does a typical (or ideal!) week look like for you?
I always have a fabulous week when I’m designing, and contrary to popular beliefs, I really love going to China to develop a new collection. It’s when I can be most creative and where visions truly come to life. Otherwise, I head into the new A.C.F HQ, a fabulous office/warehouse/showroom in Wong Chuk Hang, where we have lots of space and green mountain views! If I’m not designing or preparing for a collection launch, I’m focusing on what the next few months will look like for A.C.F. It’s important not to get bogged down on the everyday, looking up every once in a while. Planning the 3, 6, 12-month roadmap is super essential for the health of the business.
During the week, if I’m not at a networking event or panel discussion, dinner is at home (I love to cook). On the weekends, if I’m not working at one of our events and I can have the time off, my boyfriend and I try to get out into nature. We jump in the car and take it for a spin, with our dog, Mr. Cooper on my lap! If we’re feeling a little lazy, we’re lucky enough to live in Tai Ping Shan in Sheung Wan, so we’ll chill with a beer at Craftissimo or go for tea at Teakha (Mr Cooper in tow).
What are three things you do to maintain work-life balance in your day-to-day?
I start every day off with having my morning coffee out on our terrace, it is my sanctuary and just so peaceful. We have filled it with plants and are surrounded by birdsong around 7am, so I try to have some quiet time to run over my thoughts and prepare for the day ahead.
Our dog, Mr Cooper, accompanies me work as much as possible – he’s such a character and keeps us all thoroughly entertained and lightens the mood. No matter how stressful the day is, we all need a little bit of puppy time!
Another ritual that brings balance to the day is home cooking. I absolutely love to cook so, if I am super organised, I will get up extra early to prepare lunch (and dinner) for the day. Knowing that you made your meal from scratch is hugely satisfying and it is also a way to lead a more conscious lifestyle.
How have you found having your own brand in Hong Kong? How is the fashion industry compared to Australia?
It’s difficult to compare, they’re just so different! Hong Kong is fast paced, competitive in a fantastic and inspiring way and native to digital brands. Australia moves at a slower pace, competitive in a more traditional sense and still very heavily relies on brick & mortar retail. I was shocked when I came to Hong Kong that it was incredibly hard to find sustainable fashion labels, whereas the Australian fashion is taking a stand as world leaders in sustainability. This was a wakeup call to me and it really pushed me to try to engage with consumers in Hong Kong to educate them about sustainable fashion.
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We love that A.C.F is all about promoting conscious decisions. What are the main challenges about having an environmental and ethical brand?
I would call them ‘considered decisions’, because the truth is: it’s not that hard to have a conscious brand! Akin to living a healthy lifestyle, it’s all about being passionate, driven and organised.
There is a great misconception that ‘conscious’ brands have more challenges than regular businesses but I can truly say that this isn’t so. Sure, it takes me a lot longer to find manufacturing partners who uphold high ethical standards and sure, I spend more time in china than the average business person – but this is just how we’ve set up the business in an operational sense. I am always talking to other business owners about ways in which they can adopt different practices within their company to become more sustainable and people are always surprised about how achievable it is. All you need to do is change your mindset from a negative challenge, to a positive one… then you’re really onto a good thing.
We just heard that you’re launching your Summer “Up-Cycle” Capsule collection in July. Tell us a little about it.
Yes, it’s very exciting! It all started when we were moving our warehouse into our new – amazing – HQ and I realised we had built up quite the collection of previous season stock. So, instead of creating a summer collection from scratch, I decided to practice what we preach and take 15 existing A.C.F styles and give them a new lease on life. We can’t wait to show you the new up-cycled line!
We were so proud to be media sponsors for your last Conscious Collective event. What other sustainable lifestyle events or pop ups have you got planned?
We were so happy to have Sassy as our official media partner for The Conscious Collective – thank you for being a part of the movement! It was such a fantastic event that we’ll be doing again in September, so stay tuned.
As a digital brand, it is so important to engage with the Hong Kong community, and offer a physical presence. Hosting our pop-ups; Project Pop-Up and The Conscious Collective, let us build face-to-face relationships with our customers. We curate the best conscious and independent brands to come together and showcase their products to collectively show Hong Kongers how easy it is to consume consciously. We have our next 3-day pop-up on Hollywood road from the Thursday the 21st to Saturday the 23rd of June, and another on Thursday 26th to Saturday 28th July, so come down and see what we’re all about!
The primarily unisex collections of A.C.F really do blur the lines between feminine and masculine beauty. It’s always great to see fashion challenging conventional norms. How has that been received in HK?
The concept has been received really well in Hong Kong (and globally!). The best part is that most people just see the garment and want to buy it because they love it… rarely am I asked if something is for men or women. I have always been perplexed by the fashion industry’s obsession with labelling products for different sexes when, really, there’s little difference between the majority of our style. This is simply down to trying to sell more. I understand there may be occasions for a dress, but who is to say that men can’t wear a dress too? I think we’re way past the point of setting boundaries for other people!
What advice would you give to brands (and people!) looking to make sustainable, ethical, conscious choices?
My words of encouragement would be that it’s really not as difficult as you may think, you just need to consider your actions and decisions – what you buy, what you eat, how you discard things. I’ve been trying to live a more conscious lifestyle for a couple of years now and it’s all about making small, easy changes such as ditching plastic water bottles for reusable metal one.
For brands, just do the same! Switch to printing on recycled paper (if you must print), only carry 1 business card and implore people you meet to simply take a photo of the details (there are some great apps that do this). If you want to learn more about ways to live more consciously, join us at the next Conscious Collective and check out our blog posts on our editorial page on our site!
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What other brands and designers do you find inspiring in Hong Kong?
So many! I’ve come to meet lots of amazing founders since we started hosting our multi-brand pop-ups and I’m always so impressed and inspired by what they do. For example, a couple of friends who joined us at The Conscious Collective, kben&hol, have gorgeous lifestyle products handmade by women in Cambodia and they support, educate and give back to these communities – I think that’s pretty amazing!
How do you envision A.C.F growing in the next 1, 5, 10 years?
Over the next year we will be hosting some pretty amazing events in Hong Kong and overseas. Our largest online customer base is in New York, this happened very organically. I saw all these orders coming from the Big Apple and we just couldn’t ignore it, so we’ve had a plan in the works for a little while now to do a pop-up event over there early next year.
Five years is a tough one… hopefully we’ll have a bigger team and will be able to make a much larger impact with our sustainability mission. I see A.C.F as becoming a real competitor to the fast fashion street-wear counterparts. In 5 years my vision is to be a completely accessible and viable alternative for consumers.
Hopefully in 10 years, sustainable fashion will be the norm and not the exception! A.C.F has always been a sustainable brand that pushes the boundaries and leads by example and I don’t see this attitude changing anytime in the future, so I can’t wait to see what new technologies, such as AI and VR, can do to aid us in our mission. I know it sounds cliché, but I firmly believe in our mantra “It’s better to do a little of something, than a lot of nothing”- and a little bit now, can have a huge impact on the future.
At the end of the day, I’ve come to learn that no matter how much you plan and strategise, life can take you in a completely different direction!
If you had one piece of advice to give to aspiring entrepreneurs out there, what would it be?
Keep hustling. It would have been so easy to throw in the towel and give up – there were many times when I was close to that, but I just kept going because I believed in my business. You really can’t be precious, you need to work your butt off and never switch off. I hustle everyday, every weekend, and every networking event (Hong Kong is great for that). You need to unashamedly stand behind your brand and tell anyone who will listen – eventually, they will stand behind your brand too.
Thanks to the talented Michelle Proctor of Michelle Proctor Photography for all of the beautiful images above! Follow her on Instagram @michellejproctor and Facebook at www.facebook.com/MichelleProctorPhotography.