Fashion

How the founders behind Florence & Fortitude are moving the needle on sustainable luxury

Article by Fashion Quarterly

Following in the footsteps of their late great-grandmother, the founders of new label Florence & Fortitude are creating fashion for keeps.

Elizabeth and Anna James’ new venture Florence & Fortitude is as much about respecting the past as the future. Named after their great-grandmother, a seamstress in the late 1800s, and the strength of her lineage, the sisters create elevated womenswear in a return to time-honoured, sustainable practices for those who want to put their best foot forward.

Their mother, Linda Ritchie, was Miss New Zealand 1971 and, as well as providing pageant gowns for dress-ups, she instilled in her daughters a belief of the transformative power of fashion. They practically grew up in her mini department store La Rouge in Rotorua – as babies they napped in the drawers and later helped with staging window displays after school. “It really became the focal point for our youth,” says Anna. “We were surrounded by fashion and style.”

Having learnt a strong work ethic from the family businesses, both went on to study a Master of Laws degree in Auckland. However, Anna, who had been battling long-term chronic illness, had to defer hers when she became bedridden for several years at their family home. The sisters’ world was turned upside down, but it only brought them closer together, as they dreamed of starting a fashion label when Anna returned to full health. To quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, they say they were “breathing dreams like air”.

 

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Nineteen months ago, with Anna in her final stages of recovery, they started to develop Florence & Fortitude in earnest. Today, in a scene that seems straight from the pages of the same Gatsby novel, Elizabeth and Anna have arranged for an abundance of flowers to surround us in a greenhouse location for their first press interview.

Realising the owners’ plants had gone to seed at the last minute, a florist brought in snapdragons, bluebells, sweet peas and the largest lilies I have ever seen. As the rain raps on the glass roof, at times falling through to land in our tea, Elizabeth says, “It is very surreal, especially through the adversity that Anna has been through over the last seven years. We often catch ourselves thinking, ‘Gosh, is this real?’”

Elizabeth is wearing the brand’s elegant ivory suit made with traceable-origin wool, with a sparkling statement cuff of recycled Oeko-Tex crystals. Anna has on a minimalist double satin dress made from deadstock materials, with intricate tailoring to subtly enhance the female form. Down to the trims and offcut accessories, the new designers are moving the needle in sustainable fashion.

 

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To ensure thoughtful purchases, and to reduce waste, their online store will take orders on limited-release styles every Wednesday for 24 hours only, following their launch in late November. These are available in sizes 4 – 24, with bespoke details on request. “You can’t have community without inclusivity,” Anna says of their commitment to ensuring women of every size and age can feel fantastic in their fastidious designs.

The intended investment pieces are created by a local team with a lead time of about three weeks. Fittingly, when en route to their Auckland patternmaker, the sisters pass by Florence’s former home.

As they strive to make heirloom pieces anew, Elizabeth and Anna intertwine four generations of style. Their great-grandmother’s 1800s puff sleeves and corseting detail, grandmother’s fondness for ’50s suits, and their mother’s ’80s bold shoulder and penchant for snake print are all stitched together with their modern sensibility. Elizabeth brings a focus on feminine tailoring, while Anna has a knack for combining trending shapes with a classic aesthetic.

 

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Under their sophisticated eyes, such opposing elements are turned into refreshing and refined pieces. Take, for example, the exceedingly flattering Florence jacket, which is sharply proportioned with a romantic puff sleeve and utilitarian pockets and comes in double satin or denim.

As well as starting on their second collection, the sisters are working towards becoming carbon neutral and completely traceable and circular in their supply chain. Anna plans to continue pursuing environmental law with a PhD focusing on their industry, and both hope to use their expertise to be part of the conversation on policy and legislative change to tackle systemic sustainability issues and future-proof fashion.

Words: Jessica-Belle Greer

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