Sexy & sustainable retail. A new concept store for responsible luxury opens in Byron Bay, Australia.
Warm slices of seasoned pumpkin, and a zero-waste chutney made from left-over carrot pulp saved after making her morning juice, Luchi Alfonso welcomes me into her home - a joyful Costa Rican swimwear designer with sustainable living in her soul.
Luchi now calls Byron Bay home in the northern rivers of NSW, Australia. Her passion for sustainability was the driving inspiration behind her new concept store, Chia. Low-impact fabrications such as hempcrete, magnesia bench tops, recycled post-consumer plastic garment hangers and up-cycled towel curtains put the store on par with the international players in this space (a comparison to Stella McCartney's flagship on Bond St, London, comes to mind). This place is a must-visit.
Here, over a beautifully prepared vegetarian feast, Luchi and I chat casually about the inspirations behind her project, dive quite deep into alternative building materials, alternative ways to shop and that it's cool to care.
Celeste: I haven't prepared anything. It's not going to be like, 'proper'.
C: So, Luchi, for Chia, your store, how did you start dreaming that up?
L: Um, I guess I knew it had to be very sustainable because otherwise I wouldn't be happy with it- so that was a must. And then I wanted to make sure that the design of the fit-out was able to communicate that it's a sustainable shop without a sign, you know? That you went in and you could see the break from being a linear, static space. So then we started sketching concepts and elements around circles and curves.
C: Yeah. But the funny thing is, and I don't know if you knew this when you did it, but the curves also relate to non-linear fashion models…
L: and a non-linear economy...
C: Also biomimicry… all of that connects so beautifully and is so obvious. So what was your process? You're like, “I know I'm going to take on the store. I want it to be sustainable. I want it to be obviously sustainable without being garish.” So you started with the curves?
L: Yeah, the curves were the first concept and the strong signature of the store I feel. And then everything started revolving around that. Once we had that concept, we started digging into the materials, which was the other very important thing.
C: And you already knew a little bit about the materials, right? Because of your background in recycled plastics?
L: I knew, yeah. I knew I wanted to use recycled plastic for something - I didn't know what yet.
I have to say, my partner, Jordi, invested a lot of time in the research of materials and he had been working with Balanced Earth (a construction firm designing through their values of sustainability, community, ingenuity & artistic creativity) who do hempcrete. So he had that experience and we were wanting to use the hemp for the furniture, and then (Jordi) started experimenting with magnesia for the bench-tops.
C: Amazing. So it wasn't even a product that existed! You literally made the stuff from scratch?
L: Jordi got a book on it and it's actually a material that was invented in the 19th century. It was invented by a French guy, Sorel, so they also call it Sorel cement. The problem is that the material doesn't react well with water…it can lose its qualities with water, so that's why it isn’t popular in the market nowadays.
C: So if someone spilled a bottle of water on the countertop…?
L: No, it's more if the exterior receives direct rain. But the samples were beautiful and the grain was like - crazy. I loved it. You know those grain filters that you add to photos? It was like it had that grain already on it naturally.
C: Yes it looks so beautiful in-store. So back to your sustainability journey - how long have you had Chia in Costa Rica?
L: Since 2016. I started with my sister Andrea in Costa Rica, and then last year I partnered with a friend and another plastic-free living enthusiast, Amaia, and started the business in Australia.
C: And what is it about sustainability that really drives you? Like what made you go, "I'm going to spend way more time, and probably a lot more cash making this sustainable because I care." Why do you care? What's that thing for you?
L: I think it's personal, to be honest. My parents taught me how to love nature and now that's something that's in me. Nature and the ocean, especially, are like my religion, you know? So it's very hard for me to see that being affected and it hurts me.
I tried to move away from the fashion industry because I struggled to work in that consumeristic environment, but I always ended up being driven back in. And I decided, well, if I'm going to do it, I'm going to try to do it the most sustainable way that I can and grow from there, like I did with my life. I remember the first day I stopped using plastic bags, and that seems like ages ago and so simple. But now I can say, I have a plastic free kitchen and bathroom. So I feel if I replicate that in my business, then I will be able to get into a good place and be able to affect other businesses and especially affect people, you know? Cause we need people to make the change.
C: Yeah. Do you find it hard? Because it's amazing that you have a zero plastic kitchen! I'm not a hundred percent sure I've got a zero plastic kitchen or bathroom, despite trying very hard to! Like toothpaste for example…I made my own but after a while I felt it wasn't cleaning them properly, so we now use toothpaste tablets but they recently went soggy from the humidity this summer and we had to go back to buying toothpaste.
L: It's that constant battle, of your morals and quality. And it's so hard with fashion and retail to be a purist. You know, without making any compromises.
C: Totally. In many areas, I don't think the technology or the quality is up to scratch with sustainable alternatives.
L: Yeah. It's also a challenge to change our mindsets. I remember when I lived in Barcelona and it was the first time I was exposed to Zara. I was 19, going crazy, and I shopped a lot. It’s that mentality, you know? It’s very hard to change your way of behaving. Now I just don't walk into Zara at all. I just don't go in. I wouldn't find it hard now, but before I struggled not to - ‘cause it's cheap and easy.
C: I think it's a bit of a process for sure. I remember doing so many design trips and buying trips for brands and going to H&M and Zara and trying on 500 things, probably buying like 50 things and not questioning it at all. And in reality, most of the clothes never made me look that good. I would try on pants, and they'd always make me look a little bit fat. And I was like, oh, maybe I just shouldn't be wearing pants? And then it wasn't until I started shopping from more expensive brands, where the pattern would be made by an expert pattern maker and the fabric is actually good quality that I put pants on and was like, “I look amazing”! I was never the problem. The cheap clothes were the problem.
L: Yeah, but how do you tell your 19 self not to buy there, right?
C: That's the challenge.
L: Cause we need change in our generation. And I don't feel it's happening. Like I feel pretty alone. In that sector, everyone still shops wherever.
C: Yeah. It's a really good point because 19 year olds might find sustainable brands ‘too expensive’. And I hear that viewpoint a lot. I mean, I'm very against it because cheap clothing isn't actually the true cost of the garment if you factor in the ethical and environmental factors and we're just used to clothing that's too cheap. We're used to a price that's actually wrong. The sustainable price is what it's meant to be. I don't think the switch of a $20 dress to a $200 dress will happen easily, but I think it's through new ways of shopping…
L: Like renting..
C: Yes, like renting and secondhand, (like Depop is frigging huge for Gen-Z).
And so your store from the beginning has those options…
L: Yes, true.
C: And so you are, in my opinion, covering a few different generations, and how they want to shop. Because I don't think millennials are to jump on hiring, whereas Gen-Z will.
L: Yeah. It's true. If I try to convince my 19 year old self to not shop in Zara but go and rent all these amazing, designer, colourful clothes from HURR for example, I would do that.
C: But so what made you do these different models from the beginning? I know obviously it's that intrinsic sustainability…
L: I guess, again, coming to the circularity around it. Like for example, our swimwear now is made with Econyl, that is the most sustainable Lycra, but it's not a circular material so there is always more that can be done.
C: Agree. There is always more to be done! That's what makes this space so exciting!
So, now that you're open and you've had a chance to hopefully breathe a bit after launching, what's the next thing that you want to do? Is it expanding how many brands you have, or is it minimising? Is it more rental?
L: I'm pretty open to see what the market wants more of. Like for me it will be ideal if the rental kicks off cause I feel that's probably what you could say is the most circular fashion initiative. And expanding our range of apparel. At first I only wanted clothing that used certified fabrications, but I am learning more and more how difficult that is.
C: Yes, especially for smaller brands, certifications can be expensive and unrealistic…there are also flaws within certifications anyway. I remember producing organic clothing in Bali and the supplier ran out after I had already sold the styles to wholesalers. I had to cancel all my orders but when I asked him what his other clients do he just smiled and said “they just buy regular cotton and say it's organic”...So getting true transparency unless you've got the money to do proper audits is so hard and that's hard for people to understand- because unless you have had a brand or tried to do it, you won't realise how difficult that is.
L: When did that happen?! That's so wild to me. People don't understand how hard it is, but it’s about getting that communication out in the right way…
C: Totally. I mean, it made me think, am I his only customer that cares? Are we crazy to care? Imagine not caring - how blissful! (laughing)
L: But I feel, we have to care and there has to be a change. I do feel there's a small change. Maybe it's not fast enough, but you know, I feel a lot of my generation is doubting if they actually want to bring children to this planet for example. That's already a big thing.
C: It is for sure. I did a paper on this recently, because I really wanted to know the answer.…I feel we all have to choose our battles (laughing).
L: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And sometimes you think about it and it's like, all right, then I'll have to go and live on a little island and grow my own veggies and live a very humble life. And if people are privileged enough to do that and can figure that out themselves. Amazing. But it's not reality.
C: It’s not the reality. We need solutions for the mainstream. What about in Costa Rica, is the sustainability conversation prevalent over there?
L: Yeah, it is. It is. A lot of the brands that were not sustainable are shifting. Especially with swimwear. A lot of them use Econyl now. I think it's because swimwear is very linked with the environment, to nature and the ocean. But the information has been less, it's not part of the education system over there.
C: That's cool to hear that the brands are progressing. I think it's almost to the point where it's becoming expected. I still think the most important thing for shopping though is that the retail experience and pieces are still beautiful. That's why your store is so great. Because even if people aren’t searching for something sustainable, they walk in and buy something they need because it's gorgeous - then get the second endorphin hit when they realise it's also better for the planet! So you're able to relate to people on that amazing retail level. I feel up until recently, sustainable stores are really obviously earthy or brown with bamboo and hemp linens for example- but your store makes it a new luxury.
L: It is. The fact that it's becoming expected is so good. 'Cause when all these shifts to be sustainable started a lot of people were like, “oh, it's just going to be a trend”, but it's not. It's stayed much longer than a trend and it's just going to be the new normal.
C: Totally, I agree. It is the new normal.
For a more responsible place to shop, head to Chia in Byron and support Luchi and the team on their journey to bring sustainability into the mainstream, through beautiful, luxury retail.
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Shop Chia here