We participated in the London Design Fair last September, and loved exploring the other artisans, craft- and design-led brands. We discovered Ren London on one of our many excursions from our own stall. There’s something about the natural simplicity of her clothing and homewares that draws you in. The warmth and earthy tones of the brand’s colour palette is similar to that of our most recent collection. We sat down for a chat with Ren Valuzyte, the London-based designer behind the label, in her East London studio.
Hey Ren, where are you from?
I was born in Lithuania and later brought up in the States, after high school I decided I wanted to come back to Europe for university. Being based in the U.K., with access to the rest of Europe for travel, is quite appealing as a young person, so that’s why I decided to come back. I ended up leaving the course I started and taking a year off, which was really good for me. It can be so difficult to find your place in London – it’s so vast – especially when you move from another country. It took me a while to find my feet and figure out what I wanted to do (or so I thought). I ended up going back to uni to study Film – and then realised pretty early on in my degree that I didn’t want to be in the Film industry at all!
Did you finish the degree?
I felt like I had to, for myself and for my parents. Three years is nothing really! It went by really quickly. I think university is an important stage [of your life] – it allows you to develop as a person.
So how long have you been in London now?
I had my ten-year anniversary three weeks ago!
It goes so quickly. Maybe in my 30s I’ll relocate somewhere else.
Would you ever move back to Lithuania?
Probably not, but I still have a nan there that I visit often – I actually went to see her the week before last. It’s also where I source all of my linen.
Is Lithuania a big producer of linen?
When I decided to go into textiles I had started buying up cheap deadstock fabrics, around the corner from here [in Hackney] – what I thought was linen, but you never really know what you’re getting with deadstock fabrics. I started playing with them and printing on them, and then thought, ‘Maybe I could do this as a business.’
It dawned on me that my grandmother had worked in a linen mill in Lithuania for almost 40 years, weaving the fabric. I gave her a ring and she put me in touch with a woman that she had worked with who was actually still working at the factory. I went to visit and she was so excited that my nan’s granddaughter had come – she was so supportive and interested in what I was doing. They had all of these black and white framed photos of old staff, and both her and my nan were in the photos. It was so nice to see. That's how I found my linen supplier! I always check in with the factory when I visit my nan.
That’s such a lovely connection – keeping the factory ‘in the family’ in a way.
The last time that I went to visit my nan I took her along on my factory visit and the two women saw each other again for the first time in many years. They were sharing stories about working together in the 60s and how the industry and the factory’s production has changed over the decades. Back in the day they used to primarily make linen bedding for export, but since the popularity of this hard-wearing fabric has grown they've diversified much more and now produce a wide variety of textiles for the home as well as clothing.
Have most all-natural fibres and fabrics become more expensive than synthetics?
French and Belgian grown and woven linen is very expensive, but you can find smaller suppliers around Eastern Europe and Ireland that still offer an accessible price point. I’m quite adamant about sourcing from Europe – if anyone ever approaches me for advice, my answer is always source as local as possible.
Is that because it’s easier to manage?
Yes, and you can meet the suppliers in person and build personal relationships with them. As your business grows that’s what will keep you going.
Backtracking a bit – you started with homewares. How did you learn to print?
Self-taught – I was sharing a studio with a friend who is a wood joiner. He had a lot of off-cuts and I thought it would be nice to repurpose them. I really liked African mud cloths at the time, and that’s what initially drew me to these simple, geometric shapes. I just started playing around, testing different paints, and it evolved from there!
And at what point did you decide that you wanted to design clothes?
I started with the homewares, and I was looking at the fabric and thinking how I’d like a simple oversized dress to wear in the summer. I thought, ‘Surely it can’t be that hard to do, surely I can find someone to do some sampling for me.’ I did some research and found a small sewing company in London that does fairly affordable sampling. I would take a drawing to them, measure some of my other clothes for reference, and they’d make up a sample. Then I decide what needs tweaking – maybe the length, a pleat, a tuck, or a different neckline.
It sounds like quite a nice, organic and simple approach.
It was a really nice way to start and I realised I didn’t need to know how to sew! My clothes were never meant to be complex – I want to make really accessible, easy-to-wear clothes in nice fabrics. I want to make clothes that will make people feel like they’re on holiday all year round.
That’s a pretty good mission statement!
When I work I listen to podcasts, and I've come across interviews with many other people who run successful businesses, including in fashion, without specific training. Sometimes the thing you love manifests itself later in life and there isn't necessarily the time to go back to uni and re-learn stuff. If you're intuitive about business and can find skilled people to help your ideas come to life, then why not?
Having said that, my Film degree taught me storytelling, and I think an element of that has come through now in both my production and in the brand story. For example, the linen sourcing from the factory that my grandmother worked for. I’ve recently sourced fabrics from India that are handwoven, and hand spun. It’s a very laborious process from start to finish, from spinning the thread to weaving the fabric. It’s important to me that small artisan communities have these stories for me to share with my customers. I want to bring awareness to the beautiful organic cottons that I use – if people support my business then I can source my fabric from these small communities and help them maintain their craft and skill to continue it through the generations so that it doesn’t die out, as so many labour-intensive crafts have.
How do you find these small suppliers to work with?
I did a couple of pop up shops with a group of other designers, and they put me in touch with their suppliers – we all share contacts.
It’s nice to have that community when you’re working for yourself or on your own.
When you’re freelance and your hours are all over the place, you naturally surround yourself with others who are also freelance, usually in creative industries. I’ve been lucky to find this close-knit community, we’re constantly on our WhatsApp group exchanging information and organising events together. It’s a great support network.
That’s so important to have, no matter what industry you’re in or schedule you have. So what events have you got coming up?
I run regular block printing workshops; my next one is on the 21st April and is focused on Matisse’s style. I think people find the workshops quite therapeutic – it’s simple, you get to learn something new and it’s rewarding because you get to keep something at the end of it. Immediate results.
A huge benefit for the Instagram generation that wants instant gratification!
It’s funny you say that, because I do all my clothes on a pre-order basis, which is the total opposite of instant gratification.
How do you find that works? How long does a customer typically have to wait?
To my own surprise, it works well! The current wait is about two months; it’s a lengthy period of time to wait for something, these days. That being said, my pre-orders do really well and quite often sell out. There’s something to say about that – we all think we’re in this age where everyone wants things now, now, now – same day deliveries, whatever you want. But it still is working when you go against that.
I guess it's true that good things come to those who wait!
I think there are still customers that appreciate small-batch production, and that to keep things in a sustainable way I have to gauge production quantities on a pre-order basis. There’s also less risk financially, but it’s fantastic to be able to go to my sewing team and tell them our product sold out!
On the sustainability note, I think our generation is becoming more conscious of waste management.
Right – a key way that I manage waste is by not over-producing garments and trying to make sure I don’t have left over stock. Fabric never goes to waste – I produce to order and then keep additional fabric for future garments. Every time something sells through then I can order another small batch.
There’s always more than you can be doing in terms of ethics or sustainability, but I try to do what I can.
Is it something you try to be conscious about in your personal life as well?
Yeah, I’m quite conscious of it – it translates into all areas of my life. My partner and I are looking to get an electric car next year, we’ve already switched both his studio and our flat to green electricity. I obviously make my own clothes and if I do shop elsewhere I’m very selective – my mum taught me to read garment labels from an early age, to check the fabric content. I was banned from shopping in the fast fashion stores that became popular at the time.
Final question – any local haunts you can recommend?
My daily routine is to have a coffee at Wilton Way Café and take Otis for a walk in London Fields. I like to pop into Artwords on Broadway Market and browse their magazines, maybe pick up a few favourites – I love publications, I just don’t know where to store them!
Having Otis [Ren's dog] is great because even if I have a lot of work to do he still needs to go out for walks, so it makes me get out of the house, get some fresh air and have a walk.
That’s nice – it’s important to take breaks and re-centre yourself when you’re busy.
I've learned that if I push and overwork myself then I start making mistakes. I think it's important to slow down in London; I catch myself sometimes being stressed about trivial things and that's when I know I need to pause, reflect and put it in perspective for myself. After all, my brand promotes a slower approach to life and I sometimes really need to remind myself to practice what I preach.
And get a dog. Great recommendations – live slow, get a dog!