Kalkidan Legesse and partner Vidmantas Markevicius first met at university – the two like-minds beginning a journey that led to the creation of Sancho’s, an inspiring and inclusive ethical clothing and lifestyle store in Exeter, and online. We talk to co-founder Kalkidan to find out more…
Hi Kalkidan! How would you sum up the essence of your business, Sancho’s?
Sancho’s main shop is a beautiful little space in the best part of town, where you can discover some fantastic ethical brands, and also learn about how sustainable fashion works. The staff are brilliantly friendly, dogs are welcome and the clothes are all made with natural environmentally sound fabrics in fair trade conditions.
What inspired the idea of setting up Sancho’s, and what was your journey in making it a reality?
Our first objective with Sancho’s was to celebrate crafts from fair trade producer groups in Ethiopia. I had actually not really known how clothing was made until I first saw weaving in Ethiopia during a work placement. It blew my mind, like seeing a new colour. I suddenly got a sense for how the clothing, that usually is only associated with style and trend, comes from the hard work of individuals, and I fell in love. Weaving is like that – weavers create fabrics and clothes from things as simple as cotton spools. I thought that was amazing then, and I still do! As an Ethiopian I was also really proud to see this new culture, art and story from my home. A story so different to what I grew up learning about Ethiopia – centred on poverty and Bob Geldof. I wanted to share that with the world.
The idea developed because we learnt that we were not the only ones who didn’t really understand how clothing was made – and actually our ignorance was not by accident but by design. The industry is focused around selling customers new clothes – and presenting the idea that we all need to keep up with fast changing trends – whilst encouraging us to seek the lowest possible price. This of course comes at the cost of the makers in developing countries around the world. We wanted to change that, connecting people with makers and providing a shop for brands, makers and designers actually doing the process right, and transparently. That’s how Sancho’s became the ethical clothing and lifestyle shop that it is today.
What are co-founder Vidmantas and your backgrounds?
We were both students studying various forms of sustainable economics. I’m an Ethiopian immigrant, he is a Lithuanian immigrant, and we met during the summer working as part-time waiters at the university. We both had to work as students (I actually started working at 14, as a paintball marshall), and gained a range of experience, from part-time teaching to working for non-governmental and non-profit organisations. We first started Sancho’s at university, and opened a pop-up about one month after graduating.
Where does the name Sancho’s come from?
Sancho is a nickname used to describe girls who are strong and a little chubby in Ethiopia. It’s a household name that I picked up from childhood, having always been strong and a little chubby. As my name is unusual for the UK (although very common in other parts of the world), I have picked up various nicknames over the years, but Sancho has always stood out as my favourite!
What are the values that underpin your business?
We set out to create as much positive impact as we can through fashion. So our clothing is made with natural and sustainable materials, under fair trade conditions. We ensure that we source from suppliers that have these principles by looking for audits and certificates, like those provided by the Global Organic Textile Standard and the World Fair Trade Organisation.
We have a range of small scale, locally-made items which are not certified – however in these cases we deal with the makers directly and always follow prices set by them. We have also built a repairing service into our business, so that we can alter clothing for other people and repair small damages – this allows us to put no clothing into landfill at all as a business, and as a result we are quite pleased!
Being ethical and sustainable is a journey, and we try to ensure that we are always moving in the right direction by reviewing our purchasing decisions regularly and applying new information as we learn it.
How did you first discover your love for what you do, and realise the direction you wanted to take?
I’m not sure that I see Sancho’s as one direction. I, like most other people, am discovering myself and my goals for my life. Sancho’s currently is the gift in which my partner and I get to live our values and make our impact on the world. I love it because it is so freeing in direction, and takes me multiple places. Every now and again, I try to sit down with myself to make sure that I am living my values, and that Sancho’s is healthy and moving forward – then I try to align these two things.
What inspires you creatively in what you do at Sancho’s?
I’m very much motivated by trying to live out the words ‘be the change you want to see in the world’. A lot of our decisions come from asking ourselves what is the best we can do with the business as our tool. For example, over the past year or so, the real cost of single waste plastic use on the environment is becoming clearer. We’ve been learning alongside our customers that we have to change our habits. As a result, we did some research and found that people find it quite challenging to source alternatives to single plastic products – things as simple as wooden tooth brushes or traditional steel razors. There are a whole host of products that people might not even consider to replace, such as sanitary products (the average women uses over 1000 tampons in her adult life!). After we had done this research, we knew we wanted to at least provide a small alternative, which is why we launched our zero waste range. Most of our decisions happen organically like that, and because we hope that they will do a little good.
Is the online community integral to your work?
Most of our communication happens on social media and it is a hugely useful tool for building a community and staying in touch with them. We spend quite a lot of time on our Instagram, and love using it.
Do you have any creative pastimes and passions?
I wish I could say that I had many other pastimes, but I spend most of my time working on Sancho’s. Happily so, currently. I am also a keen (amateur) runner, and feel really lucky to be so close to the green spaces near Exeter. If I want to unwind, I will paint – currently privately but one day this is a skill I’d like to hone in on.
How did you go about designing Sancho’s spaces?
We want our stores to feel inviting and inclusive, like the home of a radical and loving aunty who has great sense of fashion! We did this by mixing in slogans – our affirmations – with natural materials, bright spaces and of course, beautiful clothes. We hope that people find the shop easy and welcoming.
How do you source and curate pieces for Sancho’s?
We source our stock a few different ways, from going to shows, to scrolling through Instagram, and also sometimes travelling out to areas where makers excite me. A range of things really, and this constantly evolves depending on what is being made where, and my budget for trips!
What are the joys, and the challenges, of working as an independent retailer?
I love the freedom there is in making so many decisions on the basis of personal goals, taste and values. Whether that is as simple as the music to play that day, or as complex as launching a collection. But of course, the freedom also comes with responsibilities, and sometimes I wish that there was someone to tell me what to do (although whenever anyone does, I am immediately reminded as to why being independent is hugely important to me personally).
I would be lying if I said that it was not financially challenging, or that it did not require long hours – because of course it is and it does. But when I am worried about finances, I try to remember that there are people in this world that have always had so much that they’ve never had to worry, and I’m reminded that my worry is a reality that I can navigate through. And recently, I’ve learnt to rest when the hours become too long – so these challenges, like others, are manageable.
What have been your business highlights so far?
Opening our second store was a huge triumph – I believe this is when it felt like we actually had a business for the first time – I am not sure why.
How does your typical working day look?
I usually get up around 7.30am, then check emails and Instagram, shower, drink coffee, and sometimes I’ll go for a short run. Then during an average day – I review plans for the day, send out tasks for the team, head to the shop, check online orders and deliveries, respond to emails, speak with our lovely customers, find out how our designs are progressing, read about sustainability, project objectives for the next day/week/year and write a plan, have a meeting with a client, supplier or colleague, serve customers, answer phone calls, hop on Instagram again, tell a joke, do a little dance, get super hungry, head home, edit the website, watch Vidmantas cook dinner, eat loads, have a shallow bath or hot shower, watch some Netflix, text my mum, and finally – sleep!
How do you find juggling an online business with a physical shop?
It’s very natural to me, given that we live in a digital era, to have a presence both in store and online.
Which are your bestsellers or favourite products?
We are super excited about our Foundation collection, which is being made here in Devon! The shapes are so flattering and the colours are really rich, so they have proven to be popular with our customers. We are also in love with the minimalist range of jewellery from Clare Elizabeth – the styles are so chic and made so well, they always make a huge impact.
How do you approach marketing and PR?
We simply try to get as informed as we can, and then follow up leads that excite us.
Any tips to share with aspiring independent store owners?
I think the best things that anyone looking to start their own store or business can do is learn how to trust their gut, learn how to take good advice (wherever it comes from) and learn how to ignore fear and self-doubt long enough to get started.
What’s up next for you and Sancho’s?
We are exploring design and producing our own collections! Our goal is to bridge the gap in sustainable basics between affordability and style. The collections will all be made in the UK and will be an inclusive fit in size.
Find Sancho’s at 117 Fore Street (womenswear) and 126 Fore Street (menswear), Exeter and online.
Follow them on Instagram.
Photography: Harry Cooke