Isobel Davies is the founder of Izzy Lane, one of the world’s leading ethical fashion brands. Her multi-award winning fashion label uses wool from her flock of 500 rescued sheep. She’s an ambassador for the British textile industry and produces stunning knitwear that has graced the catwalks globally.
“…engage in some creative activity to find your soul and find your passion and then start a business that you are passionate about, a business that is about you and who you are. This is what will make you happy. There can be satisfaction in pursuit of money and financial success, but it doesn’t run very deep…”
You’re a businesswoman who has extensive experience in ethical food and fashion. Please tell us about your work history
Many entrepreneurs start young and that was definitely the case with me. I was passionate about horses and spent time at the local stables, when the owner got married and moved away, aged just twelve, I carried on running the riding school with my friend. Then I started engaging in all sorts of activities to make money – breaking in ponies for people, buying and selling horse tack, bagging up manure to sell and regretfully breeding rabbits in a stable to sell to the local pet shop. I was a bit too independent for school. Life outside it was far too interesting.
I started A-levels, but quickly dropped them and went to live in France aged 16. When I returned a couple of years later, I went to live with my sister who was art college. It was then that I started to dabble with painting which led into exploring other art forms. I learned to play the saxophone and played in avant garde jazz bands then started learning other instruments and became a singer/songwriter. I had various bands, a record and publishing deal and toured a lot in Europe.
Eventually I decided it was time to get serious and take control of my own destiny, and I came up with the idea for the organic box scheme. It was the first of its kind, but it was quickly copied and there are now thousands across the world. Through Farmaround, I became immersed in the ethos of organic agriculture and in particular to preserve wildlife habitats and it became an imperative thereafter to use business as a way to improve animal welfare. In 2003 I founded Izzy Lane the fashion brand after rescuing 600 lambs from slaughter and then in 2011 food brand Good Food Nation, pioneering slaughter-free eggs and slaughter-free dairy.
What gave you the inspiration to set up Izzy Lane?
Whilst visiting organic farms I became aware that farmers were burning their wool in protest at the low prices they were being paid. What they received didn’t even cover the shearing costs. This horrified me since I had always loved wool as a fibre.
The more I researched, the worse the picture became. Our ancient mills of the textile industry which had fuelled the industrial revolution were closing down by the day, machinery scrapped, skills lost, communities devastated and any wool we were producing was either being shipped to Asia or just being used in carpets. What wool was being used here had been imported from Australia and New Zealand.
I also discovered that there was no traceability whatsoever of animal fibre in the fashion industry. Everyone wanted to know where the meat on their plate was from and how the animal had lived and died, but the same questions were not asked of wool or leather, yet the origin is the same. Most lambs wool is shaved from the dead carcase of the lamb after slaughter, many of our sheep are live exported to the Continent and re-traded, ending up being religiously slaughtered in places like Iran and Gaza.
I decided I had to address this and it is why I started Izzy Lane and why I rescued 600 lambs and old ewes from slaughter. I would support and help revive the British wool industry and I would make beautiful wool clothes guaranteeing that the fibre would come from animals which are loved and cared for and would live out their whole natural lives.
What have been your greatest professional achievements so far?
If rescuing 2000 animals from slaughter is a professional achievement, then that is my greatest achievement. And to have been acknowledged by the respected animal welfare charities in twice, winning the prestigious RSPCA Good Business Award and the Compassion in World Farming Good Egg and Good Dairy Awards.
What have been the most difficult times for you with the business?
Of twenty years in business, the graph would be one hell of a wiggly line of good times and horrendous times. But that’s what business is about and you have to be ready for that ride. There is nothing more satisfying than overcoming challenges. No-one goes into business to have an easy life (or do they?). I suppose my most difficult times were when my parents died, seven years apart, but in both cases, trying to manage the businesses when all I wanted to do was die too, they were difficult times. But on the other hand, it was maybe the businesses which saved me!
How would you sum up the Izzy Lane brand?
Izzy Lane is an intelligent brand. By this, I mean it is considers the implications and consequences of its actions – it seeks to alter the world, to help define the future.
How do companies ensure they stay true their brand values as they grow and expand?
If there is no underlying strong conviction there to start with, then brand values can easily be lost. We can’t know the future and sometimes compromises have to be made for a multitude of reasons, but they have to be reasonable compromises. Having said that if a brand’s values stink, then it is desirable that they don’t stay true to them as they expand.
Do you see ethical consumerism filtering through to other areas of fashion?
When I first started Izzy Lane, whilst I had tons of press and interest, I despaired generally at the lack of interest in ethical fashion.
But that really is changing now and it is becoming mainstream. I am communicating all the time with fashion students from colleges around the country. It is high on their agenda, and these students are going off to work in industry and taking that with them. If you aren’t ethical then you are inevitably unethical and brands and retailers cannot hide their practices any more. There is increasing transparency. They can’t get away with it in the internet age.
How does your Yorkshire base influence the way you do business in a global industry?
I moved to Yorkshire from London and I still feel London in my blood, so it’s a good juxtaposition. Part of me will always be London and metropolitan yet I can live here in one of the most beautiful regions in the world – close to my sheep, close to the mills and I can be on the internet communicating with people from all over the world. It’s quite perfect really, I’m everywhere.
Who are the people in your professional support network who’s advice you value most? (E.g. accountants, bankers, lawyers etc.?)
I don’t value anyone’s advice.
What advice would you give to other women who are considering setting up their own business?
I would probably say, engage in some creative activity to find your soul and find your passion and then start a business that you are passionate about, a business that is about you and who you are. This is what will make you happy. There can be satisfaction in pursuit of money and financial success, but it doesn’t run very deep.
Which female entrepreneurs inspire you?
None that I can think of. I always want to do things that have never been done before, so I never pay much attention to what anyone else is doing, says or has done. It’s not to say that I don’t think there are lots of incredible women out there doing things I greatly respect and admire. But inspiration is something else.
How do you switch off from work at the end of a long day?
I don’t really, I never stop thinking. I often take a newspaper to bed to stop thinking about the businesses and stop having ideas and to engage my mind with what’s happening in the wider world. Otherwise my mind can rage and keep me awake into the early hours. I get visions for new businesses in those early hours and one of my problems is that I usually feel compelled to act on those ideas.
My black Labrador starts whining in the afternoon for me to take her out. That helps me to switch off as I get lost in the drama of the landscapes and watching her galloping around. But generally, I think too much and I think too big. Every business idea has to be big, it has to be pioneering and world changing and that puts me under a lot of pressure. But life is short and I want mine to have been worth something.
How do you ensure you maintain a sense of work/life balance?
There’s not much balance, but it’s how I want it. Results are usually proportionate to effort (well one hopes). I decided a few years ago that I would stay single until I had achieved many of the things I wanted to achieve – and many that I haven’t thought about yet, but that will occur to me to want to achieve. I spent many years in highly charged relationships which took too much of my energy. Now I just want to put all that energy into my projects, my businesses and into campaigning for animal welfare – and it is working. One day I expect to want something else from life, but not now.
Which have been the most important networks for you as you have developed your business?
You probably already know the answer to this one. I suppose I am a bit of a maverick, a bit of an outsider, I’m not a networker. But that is fine. Business accommodates all sorts of people. I see business as an art form, a form of self-expression.
You have more than twenty thousand fans on Facebook. How do you keep them engaged?
I keep asking them to sign petitions against live exports, against angora fur, against anything animally – I’m having problems posting anything else at the moment! I also have 21,000 supporters of Farmaround. I think we have all come together because we really care about animals to the same extent and it is fantastic to have so many like-minded people in one place and interacting with each other. We are all exposed to such horrors of animal abuse on the internet, there is a tidal wave of revulsion – people are seeing things they had no idea existed. I think the time is now to harness that horror and turn it into something positive. There are thousands of animal welfare groups, charities, pressure groups etc. round the world, but all disparate with no unified voice. This is why.
I am trying to organise a global Live Aid type event for animals to take place in July 2015 to link up with the US and Australia and bring all the animal welfare groups together and all the supportive celebrities and for it to leave the legacy of a Treaty for Animals which individuals, fashion brands, supermarkets, other organisations and even countries can sign up to. I have it all visualised in my mind, now all I have to do is do it!! ‘If’ I can pull that one off, then it will probably be the biggest thing I could do in my lifetime and I might even think I would deserve a break. I could relax a bit knowing I had make a difference.
How do you see Izzy Lane developing over the next few years?
We plan to open a boutique in London soon and will broaden our range into other fabrics – organic cottons, jersey and linens for spring/summer collections.