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Image / Agenda

Meet the Cork radiographer who launched a sustainable activewear brand

by Katie Byrne
10th Aug 2020

In 2018, Cork-born Lauren Olivier came up with the idea for a sustainable activewear brand. Two years later, Olly Olly & Co was born. Here she chats to us about setting up a business with a social conscience — and launching in the midst of a pandemic. 

When Lauren Olivier vowed to embrace a more sustainable way of living in 2018, her thoughts naturally turned towards her wardrobe. 

As a diagnostic radiographer who spends most of the day in scrubs and a devoted gym-goer, activewear made up the majority of her wardrobe. The trouble is that she couldn’t find any activewear brands that were both sustainable and stylish.

Lauren, who lives in London with her twin sister Emma (pictured left), decided to do something about it. Two years later, Olly Olly & Co was born. 

IMAGE sat down with her to chat about setting up a business with a social conscience and the challenges of launching a brand in the midst of a pandemic. 

You work full-time as a diagnostic radiographer in a children’s hospital in London — how did you find the time to set up a business alongside your 9-5?

I question it myself to be honest! I’m someone who doesn’t like staying still. I don’t really like having quiet time. It was something I was really interested in and I think, because I enjoyed the whole process of it, it hasn’t seemed like a job to me. It’s more like something fun I can do in my spare time. 

I do have a lot of shifts so there are a few random midweek days off when I’m able to focus on the business. Obviously the last few months have been a little more hectic than usual with Covid…

When did you come up with the idea?

I’ve always been into sustainability and the environment but then, a couple of years back, I went travelling. I did a couple of months in South America and then I worked in Melbourne for a year as a radiographer

When I was travelling in South America I did a couple of weeks working in this bar in Peru and we used to do this beach clean-up — it was kind of a social thing. Locals and travellers would come to the bar and we’d start from there. Then we’d have a few beers and watch the sunset afterwards. 

But the amount of plastic bags we’d pick up — just so much rubbish! We were doing it week on week and it was never getting any less. It was shocking. 

Then, when I was in Australia, I did the great Barrier Reef and the first time I went I had this picture in my mind that it would be all bright colours but the spot they dropped us at first was completely bleached out — completely white. They explained that it was because of rising sea temperature and pollution in the ocean, and that it’s all man-made. 

So when I came back to London I was really looking into ways that I could change my habits and become a bit more eco-friendly. I go to the gym 24/7 and I live in activewear and because I’m a radiographer I wear scrubs a lot of the time.

So I started looking into the process of how gym wear is made and I couldn’t find any brands that ticked all the boxes for me. 

One of the big things with the brand I’ve made is that I’ve tried to make every aspect of the supply chain as sustainable as possible. I manufacture in Portugal where there are really high standards of welfare for the factory workers. We ship everything instead of flying to keep our carbon footprint down and our packaging is compostable.

The material is made out of regenerated ocean waste like discarded fishing nets so when people buy this range they’re not only buying something they’ll look good and feel good in. They’re helping to get rid of ocean plastic and supporting ethical workers’ rights too. 

Were you worried about launching a company in the midst of a pandemic?

I started the process over a year-and-a-half ago — nearly two years — and I finally had everything ready to go in March, two weeks before we went into lockdown. But I think when you put so much work into it and you really believe in what you’re doing, it was like, do you know what, let’s just go for it. 

And I think as well, with the timing, people weren’t going out and spending their money in bars. They weren’t going off on holidays and stuff. People were trying to fill their days by trying different workouts at home and trying to stay active, not even just for the physical benefits but for the mental aspect of being trapped at home. 

In some ways, compared to other companies that might have launched at the same time, I was actually quite lucky in that there was a massive interest in that style of clothing. 

What aspect of setting up the business was harder than you anticipated?

Everything! I kind of thought you go find a factory, you find your fabric, you put it in production and there you have a clothing line. But there are just so many other aspects and I think it’s almost good having a bit of naivety to it because when you realise the gravity of how long everything takes…

I would definitely still do it but I think I would have taken a bit more time to consider all the options

At the same time, I think it is so much easier now than it was in our parents’ day. If there is something I don’t know I just Google it pretty much. 

I don’t have any design background. My Dad owns a car dealership that I did part-time jobs in when I was younger, but in terms of actual business training, management or anything like that, it’s all been kind of self-taught. And it’s really interesting learning how to do everything from scratch. 

Olly Olly & co

Was any aspect of it easier than you anticipated? 

The actual design bit of it I think became I wear so much activewear. I was very specific about what I knew I liked. For instance, I knew I wanted something high-waisted — something that made you feel sucked in. 

I also wanted something that was not see-through at all — squat-proof. All the pieces were tested in different lighting. I think we did seven, maybe eight rounds of sampling. I feel when you do it yourself you know that it’s right. 

Did you apply for any funding or grants to get the business started?

I applied for a start-up loan with Virgin StartUp — a Richard Branson-led programme. It was just for the first bulk order — the majority was self-funded. They gave me a business mentor who helped me with my financial forecasting and business plan.

It normally takes a week to 10 days to get approved but within two hours of my mentor submitting it they said, yes, we’re 100 per cent happy with it. This is a goer. It was nice to have a bit of confidence from external people working in business. 

You mentioned that the majority of your wardrobe is activewear — how often do you wear it?

To be honest, I would say 80-90 per cent of the time! I wear gym clothes in the gym, obviously and to and from work commuting. On Saturdays, when I’m meeting the girls for brunch, I’ll wear gym leggings and maybe a nice top. 

I think people have really embraced it and are even starting to style it up a little. Instead of gym runners they might wear fashion trainers but with activewear leggings and maybe a crop top or something. So I definitely think it’s infiltrated into normal and accessible daily fashion.

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