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Five Questions for Repair Rebels

WHU start-up takes old clothes and gives them new life and greater significance

Sustainability has had a profound impact on consumer behavior and, unsurprisingly, become an increasingly important topic for today’s companies. One branch that has been trying to make strides in this area (but which still has a long way to go) is the textile and fashion industry. And this is where Dr. Monika Hauck has chosen to focus her attention, repairing clothes and shoes and ensuring them a longer life. The WHU alumna and former model, who earned her doctorate at the school and later was Managing Director of the school’s Entrepreneurship Center, knows the playing field inside and out. With her start-up Repair Rebels, she seeks to offer an online repair service that offers an alternative to today’s fast fashion culture—and motivates consumers to appreciate the clothes that they already own more.

1. Today, we get a lot of our clothes from discount shops for just a few euros. And yet, clothing is such an important part of our identity and how we show who we are as people. Do we not appreciate our clothes enough? Do we simply prefer to buy new items rather than getting the old ones repaired?

That is absolutely the case. Over the past 15 years, the fashion industry has more than doubled its production. Unfortunately, the level of quality has simultaneously continued to drop. While most other products and services in that time have become increasingly expensive, clothing has only gotten cheaper. And that has resulted in us losing a fair bit of our appreciation for clothes. In school, kids aren’t being taught how to repair things, make things themselves, or how to sew. Many simply think that t-shirts today are produced by machine. They don’t realize that there are people behind all that work and creativity and that clothing production requires a lot of natural resources.

Because clothes are so affordable now and the quality so low, many people aren’t interested in getting their items repaired. And, at the same time, the fashion industry has conditioned us to always want to buy new things—things that quickly end up getting thrown out and replaced. As a result, we lost the repair culture in Germany and other developed world countries.

2. Your start-up Repair Rebels wants to increase the level of sustainability in the fashion sector. And one can schedule a repair for damaged jackets, shoes, pants, and much more through your website just as easily as one can shop online. How does that work exactly? And how does that help both the customer and the craftsperson?

The goal of Repair Rebels is to make getting your clothes fixed as easy and as convenient as buying something new. Our focus is on sustainability, social equality, and offering services locally. The idea for Repair Rebels did not only come from the fact that buying clothes is so cheap these days; it also came from the fact that buying new is also very easy. Big e-commerce platforms send out their products, sometimes with next-day shipping. For an online retailer, the process is optimized very well. And so, we started wondering how we could offer customers a comparable service, that is, an online- and delivery-based service. And that’s what we’re testing right now in Düsseldorf. With Repair Rebels, we want to offer a one-stop shop that covers the treatment of all fashion completely—from kids’ pants to luxury handbags. So far, people tend to get their luxury items repaired. That being said, many also send in items that have sentimental value for them. Customers can also get jewelry repaired through us now. With our service, customers no longer need to wait until shops open to book a repair. They get a transparent overview of our prices and can then pay online. We also vouch for the skills of the craftspeople in our network and aim to build a strong brand that people can identify with.

Repair Rebels is also interested in starting a discussion about repair work and getting people to be proud of wearing restored pieces. Ideally, this would lead to a whole community of like-minded people. And this is all beneficial to the craftspeople as well. A recent study from Greenpeace states that about half the population in Germany have never had their clothes or shoes repaired before. Through modern marketing, our start-up is giving crafters a chance to access a whole new customer base. And, with our digital offering, we’re offering the customer more convenience and motivate them for more frequent repairs.

3. A lack of skilled workers is being felt across all industries. And because of globalization and the low cost of clothing in recent years, many specialists in the field, such as tailors or cobblers, have walked away from their vocation. How do you plan to help fight back against this trend? And have you found enough crafters to be able to offer repairs in a suitable timeframe?

It is very true that Germany and western Europe as a whole has lost many crafts businesses due to globalization. All the more reason to start a dialogue now. We select our crafters and test their skills very carefully. We also want to help them hone their skills even more. In the end, working with us shouldn’t just be a source of new customers. Rather, we hope that they will be able to optimize their own processes as well. Generally speaking, handicraft remained the same as it was 100 years ago. When you go to get something repaired, you receive a paper slip that tells you when you can pick the item up. Little has gone digital there.

We also offer them a chance to join our network and learn from each other, which allows them to better position themselves also with the manufacturers and suppliers. But we also need support from the political sphere. In Austria, as well as in other countries, there are efforts being made when it comes to value-added tax. In Germany, we still pay 19% VAT on repairs. From where I’m sitting, that’s not appropriate, as we all benefit from repair work. Small businesses that offer repairs should only have to pay the reduced VAT rate, as they directly contribute to waste prevention. And that, in turn, lowers municipal disposal costs. Cheap clothing getting tossed after only a short amount of time increases environmental pollution—and then we all end up paying the price for it.

4. In the future, you would like to work more with large fashion retailers and convince them to become more sustainable. Those same retailers release new collections and make new trends many times a year, and that’s all designed to spur on consumption. Are those two points reconcilable? And what could you offer these retailers?

I believe that large fashion retailers understand that sustainability is important for many consumers and that it influences their purchasing behavior. If companies that are proud of their products and designs offer repairs, then they are also showing respect for their own brand. Repairs can also increase customer loyalty—at least for those companies interested in having a long-standing relationship with their customers and not merely wanting to sell them something quickly. Patagonia, which offers lifetime free repairs for its products, is a great example of this. And notably, the company has not gone bankrupt as a result of offering those repairs. In fact, Patagonia is one of the world’s most popular brands and has seen financial success as well.

Another important trend we can see happening all over the world is the circular economy. For companies, the future will be less about selling products and more about selling a lifestyle, and many sectors—from production to service provision—are already reorienting themselves. In the fashion industry, this includes renting products, selling second-hand goods, and repairing clothes. Legislation is already being planned within the European Union to address what is called “extended producer responsibility.” In other words, manufacturers will have to ensure that the textiles they produce are recycled or repaired. And that increases the pressure put on the fashion industry.

In Germany, we are pioneers in this market, and we offer fashion retailers access to our booking system and to our network of tailors. Additionally, we make our own expertise available to them, as an online repair service such as ours did not exist before. By working with us, fashion companies can improve the image of their brands. Our motto is “repaired clothes are loved stronger!”

5. Younger generations are often more conscious of sustainability and the responsible usage of resources. Is there a way you could make repair work cool? And how would you increase that awareness even further?

Vintage has only increased in popularity among today’s youth over the past three years. And vintage or second-hand items often need alterations or repair. We hope that this trend will continue to grow, as the aesthetic of repaired clothing has already been used many times in fashion lines in the past. For example, patches sewn onto jeans or denim torn to get that used look. Repaired clothes, by their very nature, bring that used look with them, as well as the many stories and memories of how they came to be that way. To wear such clothes is to say, “I’m proud to have worn this piece for years and to keep getting it repaired.”

We know that there is a lot of work to be done to make repairs a trend. With our Super Rebel Loyalty Club for members of our network, we’re hoping to motivate people to get more items repaired and, most importantly, to start talking about it. Getting things repaired is a life philosophy. And if we can get our clothes fixed, we can get everything in our lives fixed and make the world a little better.

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