The Dreamers.

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Kelly Elkin

As you clamber into bed and settle in to the warm hug of your blankets, it’s important to set the right tone for your nightly dreams by filling your mind with happy, grateful thoughts. Conducive to sweet dreams, the ethereal sleepwear made by Kelly Elkin (pictured right) and Betony Dircks of ALAS is crafted by happy artisans using organic, sustainable materials. By making their range of sleepwear in an ethical and eco-friendly manner, Kelly and Betony hope to restore respect to every stage of the fashion supply chain and also raise awareness of the environmental impacts of the clothing industry. 

As humans, we have a responsibility not only to the environment, but also to each another. This philosophy has always been part of Kelly Elkin’s outlook, but fusing her personal ideals with a fashion career that would satiate her creative streak was never going to be easy. Even now as Kelly is preparing to release the sixth collection of her organic sleepwear label ALAS, she muses that her job would be a lot easier if she put the label’s ethical and environmental considerations aside and simply focused on design. But then, she admits, it just wouldn’t be worth it.

Her love for the environment began at a young age. Calling a property in rural New South Wales home, Kelly spent her childhood days jumping out of trees and swimming in dams. As national park rangers, her parents always took the family on camping trips for holidays, further enhancing Kelly’s awareness of how her actions could directly impact the environment.

While she was at high school, her penchant for creating things began to inspire her, and it was then that she began to consider how she could indulge her creativity while also helping the environment. Fashion seemed to be
the answer.

Upon arriving at Queensland University of Technology for the first day of a Bachelor of Fashion Design, Kelly met Betony Dircks, a kindred spirit who had grown up on a property not too far from Kelly’s childhood home. “We both looked at each other and realised that we came from similar backgrounds and we had similar tastes,” Kelly recalls of meeting Betony. “Ever since we have been pretty much inseparable.”

Bound by their backgrounds and shared ideals of sustainable fashion, the two designed their graduate collection together. They were impervious to warnings from their mentors that they might have to compromise on their environmental ideals to be able to work in fashion and, upon graduating, decided that they would start their own ethical, eco womenswear label. But first, there was something more pressing to tick off the bucket list – living abroad.

Moving to the UK for two years became an important stepping stone that gave Kelly and Betony confidence that they really could start their own label at home in Australia. While living in London, they were both designing for a label called My Only One, which repurposed old clothing and materials into new garments. My Only One was stocked in Topshop, and its mass-market appeal led Kelly to the realisation that people from all walks of life could appreciate ethical fashion. “It was really important and a real eye-opener,” she explains. “We learned to not be afraid to just give it a go – that there is a market and that we’re not crazy.”

In 2010, Kelly and Betony moved to Sydney, still holding on to their dream of starting their own womenswear label and inspired to continue along the path of ethical fashion in Australia. At the time, ethical fashion wasn’t commonly on the lips of the local fashion set, but that just made the girls even more determined to find a way to make it work.

“For us it had always been commonsense,” Kelly explains of why they were so determined to create an ethical label.“If we can minimise our environmental impact and maximise positive social impact, it’s a win-win. For the integrity of the design and to create something beautiful, it’s really important for us that it has a beautiful history.”

Their goal was to create a product that there was a need for, rather than just something that they would like to wear themselves. When they began looking into sleepwear, the girls couldn’t find any organic labels in Australia. “I think part of the sustainability aspect of things is not just producing for your own ambitions, but actually trying to fulfil a bit of a purpose or niche,” she says. “Everyone sleeps and no one will stop buying sleepwear, so we thought if we could provide an ethical alternative and have fun with the prints then we were on to a good thing.”

By early 2011 they had launched ALAS. An acronym for All Light All Shadow, the name ALAS plays with the idea that sleepwear takes the wearer from the dark of the night to the light of the morning. Their garments, which embrace a bright colour palette and dreamy designs, also reflect this idea. The label’s moniker also alludes to Kelly’s dream of a fashion supply chain that is completely transparent.

As Kelly prepares to launch Telescope, the sixth collection of ALAS sleepwear, which is now stocked internationally, she reflects that her journey to this point hasn’t just been a whir of whimsy.

Some of their greatest barriers have arisen from their manufacturing process, which mostly takes place in India. By basing their operations in India, the girls are able to source some of the world’s best-quality organic cotton from local growers, and also provide new employment opportunities. But the initial search for a manufacturer that could produce quality garments proved harder than Kelly had imagined. “At the beginning there was a lot of miscommunication, because the manufacturers are so drilled with ‘cheap, cheap, cheap’,” she recalls. “We don’t want cheap, we want quality. The Western market has hounded this idea into their heads that the cheaper the better and the faster the better, but that’s not what we want.”

As well as producing quality garments, another ongoing challenge is ensuring that every step of the process is transparent and fair. This involves considerations such as visiting their factories and suppliers in India, using certified-organic cotton and ensuring that dyes don’t end up in rivers. “The whole fashion industry has such a huge, long supply chain and it’s so important that we actually consider all of the different actions instead of just the finished product,” Kelly explains.

But all of the challenges are worthwhile for Kelly, as she is living her dream of doing something she loves while also creating products that have a purpose. “We could run our business a lot easier if we didn’t have to consider all of the things we do, but it just wouldn’t be worth doing,” she muses.

Her hope for the future is that ethical fashion will become more prevalent, and, with this mind, Kelly is determined to heed the lessons she has learned along the way and continue to champion ethical fashion. One of her greatest lessons has been to question everything, but, most importantly, she has discovered the virtues of perseverance. “Never give up,” she says. “If everything was easy, everyone would be doing it and then it wouldn’t be so special.”