S2E28 - Deanna Cook, Founder of Liya Collective

Deanna Cook is the founder of Liya Collective a minimalist fashion brand for the modern women, sustainably made around the world. Deanna talks about functional minimalism as the answer to fast fashion, where perfectly good quality clothes are thrown away because people feel they are out of style or not trendy anymore.


  • Deanna’s background working with social enterprises and how it lead her to Liya Collective
  • Why Deanna is focused on functional minimalism
  • Working with local silk producers in Thailand
  • Why collaborating with partners is essential and the importance of transparency in fashion
  • The growing demand of vintage, second hand and rental clothes amongst millennials
  • The challenge of expensive and onerous sustainability certification in fashion
  • Fashion is part of a larger conversation around globalization, supply chain, politics, living wages and employment issues.

Useful links:

Liya Collective

Deanna Cook’s website


Listen to more podcasts here.


Intro  0:08  

Welcome back to the Green Element Podcast where we feature business leaders and innovators transforming their operations to be more environmentally and socially sustainable. I’m your host, Will Richardson, and I can’t wait to meet our guest today and help you on your journey of sustainability. 


Will 0:27

Today we’ve got Deanna Cook from the lira collective on and she runs a fashion company that’s produce silk scarves. And wow, you are just about to be taken on a journey of how silk is made from start to finish. It’s fascinating. I can’t wait to hear more. Welcome, Deanna to the Green Element Podcast. Thank you so much for joining us today. It’s a pleasure to invite you all the way from Canada. Love it. Canadian Canadian, aren’t you?


Deanna  1:03  

That’s right. I’m Canadian, but I actually am living in Costa Rica right now. So a little further. 


Will  1:08  

So living the dream. Do you surf?


Deanna  1:12  

I am amateur. I’ve tried it out a couple times, but I wouldn’t say I’m very good. It’s a blast anyway.


Will  1:21  

Whereabouts in Costa Rica Really?


Deanna  1:22  

So my partner and I live in a town called plan. So Coco, it’s in the northwest of Costa Rica and going across the province.


Will  1:31  

I have been be it’s peaceful. It’s FCPS. Yeah, me too. I and my knee went there to kitesurf. So we actually went to the south, no to the north icon now and my brain is just fried. I can’t remember anyway. It’s there is only one kitesurfing destination. And we went there and then ended up traveling around and going to lots of different places as well. This beautiful country absolutely is country.


Deanna  1:57  

It really is. I like feel so lucky to be here.


Will  2:00  

It’s actually really environmental as well, isn’t it is it’s been really progressive with renewables, energy and environmental legislation.


Thalia  2:10  

Yes, Costa Rica has been renowned for that and pushing a lot of policies creating change and kind of being a voice on the world stage. And as such a small country, it’s it’s great the kind of progress and the ripples they’ve been able to make.


Will  2:25  

We all going to get onto the collective at some points, and what it is the do and I’ll get you to introduce yourself. But is it the collective that brought you to Costa Rica or is it your other half job? Or was it the environmentalism and the fact that it’s so sustainable?


Deanna  2:42  

 Well, it’s kind of a combination of things. I have spent the better part of the past decade living abroad. And it’s been these experiences living around the world working with different sustainable businesses, seeing what sustainability means in different parts of the world. That led me to to start Liya Collective in the first place, the move to Costa Rica, of course, we were interested in living here because of all the great things we already talked about. But my partner did find a job. He’s a teacher and international school here. So that spearheaded the move to Costa Rica. And at this stage I’m at and Liya Collective where I can be flexible, do a lot of my work online work with suppliers and partners, and collaborators all around the world. It’s a great home base for me to have right now. But the first collection is actually being developed in Thailand. So it was Thailand that I was in just before Costa Rica, kind of working on product development and building the collection.


Will  3:49  

So tell us more about the Liya Collective and what it is that you do?


Deanna  3:54  

Absolutely. So Liya Collective is a new sustainable fashion and access rebrand, primarily creating minimalist accessories for the modern woman. So as I said, it was born out of my experiences working and living around the world collaborating with different producers and makers, sustainable businesses, social enterprises in different communities, and really born out of a desire to honor the traditional skill sets of the regions in which I worked, while creating economic opportunities and introducing products to the global market. So the first collection is a number of silk scarves that I have developed with my partners in Thailand and they will be launching this spring 2020. So we’re really kind of reimagining what it means to be a slow fashion brand in the modern era, what it means to be sustainable as a small business. Working with consumers kind of opening the conversation and taking a look at it at it from the ground up.


Will  5:08  

So silk scarves first and will you be going on to other things? And yes, yes. And I know this is starting to happen more and more with locally produced clothing. I guess one way to put it is it’s having input from the country that it’s going to be imported to because it’s starting to be known that actually, it’s brilliant to buy local where as from Thailand in this case, but it will be slightly different and people won’t buy. I’ll buy it for novelty and go. Yes, this is brilliant, but if it’s influenced by you, and then therefore it is going to be more longer lasting because you’re almost using the reasons why you’re buying in Thailand and influencing the market that’s that you’re selling to?


Deanna  6:04  

Of course, and that’s why I say that this has products have really been developed in partnership. I am not the expert in silks. Thailand has a very rich history and tradition in silk production. And it’s been a huge part of the culture and history, especially in rural areas for millennia. So while I’ve learned a lot about silk, I’m not the expert in that area. But when I’m working with my partners, I do have experience in marketing in product development and community engagement. And so I’m bringing different ideas to my potential consumers. And something that I have been really passionate about and as a core tenant of the brand is this idea of minimalism. So there’s both functional minimalism having less and aesthetic minimalism. Simplifying like having a classic, simple look and silhouette. And I think one of the problems with the fast fashion industry, of course, there are many from environmental problems to the lifecycle of products. But one of the problems that often gets overlooked is that trends are changing so quickly that someone who wants to be fashionable, quote, unquote, is out to buy a product that they can’t wear six months down the road, because it’s no longer in style. And for me, as someone who you know, I’m constantly moving and traveling all over, in and out of different cultures. I’ve just always found that a bit insane that our clothes, maybe they are perfectly good quality. There’s no damage or ware, but especially with women, I think this is less the case with men’s fashion, it seems to evolve more slowly. But women’s fashion changes at such a rapid pace that people are throwing things out or feeling that they can’t wear their clothes, because they are out of style or not trendy anymore. So that’s what I mean by functional minimalism. And in working with my partners, I really wanted to focus on the basics focus on a classic look, this simple aesthetic that will last people for years and years to come something that they can pair with anything in their closet, and not something that they’ll find they can’t wear next season. So the process has been a really collaborative one, pulling from human centered design and, you know, prototyping, design thinking and getting feedback from both the makers and the consumers. But that’s something that I feel very strongly about and I think it’s something that needs to change with the fast fashion industry.


Will  9:06  

Absolutely. And we’re seeing quite a fundamental shift in the UK with that I think that possibly mainstream not but there’s there was no underlying shift that is clearly going on. And you can see that happening with newspapers and the media talking about it and even more high street brands actually starting to think about renting clothes. And it’s there’s a quite big High Street, women’s brands. I call remember what their name is, but they’ve actually got a clothing line that you can rent now.


I think it’s that is being addressed.


Deanna  9:50  

Quite there are a lot of new business models out there in the fashion industry like Rent the Runway is a big one for clothing rental, but the second hand industry has also really seen a huge revitalization? Whereas maybe a decade ago, the younger generation millennials, which I am, one might have thought that thrift shopping or vintage clothes weren’t cool to buy. that’s becoming a lot more in vogue. And so there’s a lot of emerging business models. It doesn’t have to be buying new. You know, consumption in itself isn’t inherently sustainable. If someone is going to buy new, they want to make sure they’re doing it as sustainably as possible. But there are lots of other ways to be sustainable with what we’re wearing. It doesn’t always involve, you know, something new.


Will  10:40  

Do you think that I mean, you say 10 years ago people didn’t buy secondhand as much but if I remember going into second hand shops, and then going in second  hand shops now, the quality and the depth of what you could buy in the shops really wasn’t that good anyway, so you can went into them when I don’t really want an army jacket or a old banner Clark, I don’t know, I’m just, it was kind of second hand clothes that you call it actually, my granddad might had chuck those out. But actually now you go into them. And I think I think the quality is much better. I don’t know whether the quality is much better. Maybe it’s because I’ve become less fussy as I’m getting older. I don’t know.


But I think the quality is getting better.


Deanna  11:27  

Yeah, and I think part of that is, you know, the marriage of supply and demand. More consumers are interested in purchasing second hand so they’re second hand shops are really stepping up the game, but also a lot of it I think people are really more considering the end of life of their garments. Whereas a few decades ago, perhaps someone would have put something in the trash or donated it to a thrift shop that would have not resold it locally, but export it to a developing country. I think there’s a growing awareness about the end of life cycle of our garments, and what we can do with it. There’s still huge growth to be made. But I am starting to see these conversations happen more and more often. And people are asking questions, and there’s definitely more interest across the board.


Will  12:26  

So can you take us through without go, I guess without giving away any trade secrets, but take us through this process, say from growing the silk all the way through to you and so I understand, you know, the sustainability part of it. And so our listeners understand how you put things together.


Deanna  12:47  

Yes, absolutely. And first, I want to say that I am not a fan of trade secrets. I think that’s a big problem with the fashion industry with many industries, but I think it’s something that that needs to change. Consumers have a right to know how their products are made. Yeah. And it’s not it’s not available or accessible knowledge in many industries. So with silk, the beginning of the process is really with the mulberry plant. So farmers are grow huge mulberry crops, huge fields of mulberry, and that is the plant that silk worms feed on. So the farmers are growing this plant the silk worms will feed on mulberry, and after a few weeks of feeding. Once they’ve reached maturity, they will spin themselves a cocoon, the cocoon is produce out of this silk fiber. Now, in traditional self production, the farmers take the cocoon and put it in boiling water. So this kills the silkworm and loosens the saracin that binds the silk fiber together so the farmer can unroll it. So this is something that consumers should have knowledge of traditional self production is not vegan. It is a natural protein fiber and the silkworms die and traditional self production and most of the silk around the world. There are some types of silk piece silk as it’s commonly known, where the farmers will wait until the silkworm has left the cocoon naturally, although that breaks the fiber so it creates a silk thread and a silk textile that is has more pills and it’s not a continuous fiber. So going back to the traditional method of silk production, the farmers then unweave the silk fiber and put it through a machine that’s able to take about a dozen pieces of the fiber And twisted or spin it into a single thread. The thread is then often it’s dyed at this stage whether using natural or chemical synthetic dyes, depending on who’s making it what the processes are. And then after the dying process it is woven into fabric the silk textile that you are probably imagining in your head. Once the textile is made then it basically can go on to kind of garment workers cut and sew workers to make any type of self textile products that you imagine scarves, pillows, dresses, etc. and finished


Will  15:44  

And so at that point, it is then shipped. I mean this is your product is then shipped to Canada.


Deanna  15:53  

Right so that’s the traditional silk process for my process. It’s a little different because with Liya. We’re kind of at the intersection of using small scale farmers and some established companies. It’s very difficult as a foreigner to break into the silk industry in Thailand, and to work with some of the artisans. So, in my process, we do work with some established companies that are able to help us with the export process and finish it. So our products are woven. By machines, we use machine looms, they are dyed after the weaving process, we actually use a water based silk print, an ink a water based ink to dye it, and then we have a group of sellers a collection of artisan so hand rolled hands. Our partner then does the quality control. This is the headquarters in Bangkok, where I was living before and then from Bangkok. They’re able to ship it to Canada. Okay, so that is the the full lifecycle of Liya.


Will  17:04  

I’m the payment process because I’m now thinking about it from an ethical point of view and the people that are being paid to do the work. How is that representative across the board from Canada through to Thailand? Do you have a living wage? And is there a or fair wage or what do you call it? And how does that work? And how do you know that that’s being? That’s happening as well?


Deanna  17:30  

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Right? That’s a great question. And, of course, there are certifications like if a company is a B Corp, or if they have the global organic textile standard, there are a number of certifications that can help inform consumers or buyers about a company’s working practices. But what I found is that a lot of these certification bodies, the process is quite expensive and, and it can be onerous to do all the paperwork and, you know, often the paperwork and everything is in English. And if that’s not the language of the company, it can be a really difficult process. So what I’ve learned is, just because a company doesn’t have a certification doesn’t mean it’s not operating sustainably, you have to do a little bit more work in order to kind of tease that out and do some investigation. So the companies that I worked with, there are companies that work for the factories, for example, the factory that mills our fabric and the factory that processes the original silk fibers. But a lot of people along the supply supply chain are what we would call independent contractors. You know, they’re the small scale farmers, they’re the individual artists ends. So for me, it’s a matter of visiting the workplaces getting to know people along the supply chain along my supply chain, people are setting their own rate, I don’t negotiate the price, they set the fair price based on what they need to make. And as it goes along the supply chain, I’m not setting the price of silk the, you know, company isn’t setting the price of the silk fibers. So it happens differently in the developing world sometimes. We don’t you know, the companies I’m working with are very are often small family owned businesses and they don’t have these kind of certifications. But with a bit of investigation, getting to know people building personal relationships and in person visiting, I think you’re able to get a lot better understanding of how they actually work. And it’s not perfect. It’s not a perfect system. I’ll be the first to admit there’s a lot of improvements that could be made to you know, prove to consumers that what I say is true, or what my suppliers say is true. There are definitely,


Will  20:08  

that’s quite hard, though. That is quite hard. I mean, the communications and the as you say, I mean, it’s a different world. And yeah, it’s not the same. You can’t compare like for like, so I get what you’re saying. And I think the fact that you have been along that process yourself and serving people is credence in itself. And that’s got surely going to help people understand that you do know what you’re talking about.


Deanna  20:33  

Yeah, I hope so. And, you know, if I think that conversations about this kind of stuff is changing, and it’s evolving, because of the emergence of so many more small businesses and small brands and people are understanding, you know, I trust the person who sells me tomatoes at my local farmers market, not because they have an organic food certification because I know that farmer and I have have a relationship with that farmer and I trust them. So it’s kind of going back to how business was done before. Before all of this, just building those relationships building trust. And I think the key piece of it is transparency.


Will  21:15  

Yeah, absolutely. Transparency is definitely the key to pretty much everything. I’m always surprised about how, I guess it’s not transparent people are but the questions that they don’t ask because they’re worried about asking those questions. And I am one of those people in meetings that will just ask a question, I don’t care. It’s not that I don’t care about the person. Or if it’s more, I don’t actually care about what it makes me look like. I know the longer term is going to be much better to understand the answer that I’m asking. And right. That falls into that transparency, I think, and it’s, but I think more and more people are starting to actually, it’s not that you’ve got egg on your face. It’s just that actually it’s magical in its own


Deanna  22:00  

I think the goal with anything and sustainability, the goal can’t be perfection from day one. You know, it’s there’s always going to be ways to improve. There’s no such thing as a perfectly 100%, sustainable company, product, person, anything. There’s always ways to improve. And if you ask that question, and you get an answer that isn’t ideal, or isn’t what you’re expecting, you know, the things can change. And maybe that what that means is there’s an opportunity for improvement.


Will  22:33  

Yeah, absolutely. And so, where do you see the fashion industry going? Because we’ve talked about sustainable fashion. Where do you see, you know, we can’t carry on producing these. We’ve got all these companies in these Western countries that produce and I don’t want to name any names to be honest. fiato I don’t know if I’m allowed to or whatever. But it doesn’t really matter. It’s fine. fashion. But do you see that stopping at some point? Do you see us?


Deanna  23:06  

I think there will always be corporations that are pushing the capitalistic model of rapid consumption that is inherent to fast fashion. But as we’ve seen over the past 5,10 years, there is a growing interest in sustainable fashion, ethical fashion, slow fashion. And I think that shift is happening more and more with younger generations, who are quickly becoming, you know, quickly getting buying power, and quickly becoming the largest sector of the market. So I think that if brands want to keep up if they want to stay relevant, they’re going to have to make some changes. There’s going to have to be major shifts, whether that means being more transparent about their production, whether that means slowing down the rate at which they’re releasing new collections. Another thing that I think really has to change, and as a major problem is that fast fashion is cheap. and sustainable fashion is often expensive, because, you know, if we’re paying people living wages, if we’re using quality materials, that’s going to be more expensive. But that can sometimes put fast fat or slow fashion at a price point that feels inaccessible to a lot of consumers. So I think they are our mindset shifts are going to happen. There are economic shifts, shifts on both the corporate and the consumption side of things. I think we’re going to be seeing a lot of change in the next few decades.


Will  24:53  

Yeah, this will be a good thing. It’s such a interesting subject, isn’t it? And it’s talking someone today. And I don’t know if it’s slightly controversial is controversial because people don’t like Trump. But to be honest view, it’s not particularly. What he was saying to me was one of the things that Trump has done with Mexico with these trade wars, is he’s actually raised the living wage in Mexico, because they’re less likely to come to the US if they’re paid more in Mexico. And no one’s actually talking about that. I found that really interesting, because as much as and I’m guilty, as well as the next person of Trump, this Trump that, but that’s surely a good thing. And I think we could learn from what has he done in order for that to happen. So, you know, we could learn from that and actually go right what you’ve done this in you very small circle, let’s face it Mexico in the USA, you’ve got a very good relationship. And they are very circular. But other countries can do that with, like we could do with India and China understanding what has happened there and looked at that shift in trade dynamics in order to raise the wage, and whether it’s possible as well.


Deanna  26:25  

Yeah. I mean, the fact of the matter, some people, you know, if you’re not a fan of fashion, you might just brush it off as something trivial aesthetic, not relevant to the bigger issues facing the world right now. But really, if we’re talking about supply chains, if we’re talking about employment, living wages, fashion, and lots of industries, they’re innately tied to politics, to trade, to globalization. This is really part of a larger conversation and it does actions in one country can have huge implications and another and I think, as business owners in this era, it’s good to be aware of, you know, maybe something that I do with Liya Collective isn’t going to have the same kind of implications as something Trump does. But we do have the power with business to make these kinds of changes.


Will  27:20  

Yeah, no, absolutely. And I think one of the things that I see is the conversations aren’t international enough. Like, and I can only speak from the UK and from what I read in the UK, so I’m, I may be wrong from what I’ve read as well. But I feel that it’s quite an in sustainability can become quite an insular way of thinking, Oh, look, what we’re doing in the UK. I mean, they’re not saying in the UK, look at the look at the world what we’re doing in the UK, it’s more, not what we’re doing. We’re trying to do this. We’re trying to do that and trying to be more sustainable, but actually, it’s bringing the conversations in from everywhere and it’s quite possibly does happen within the larger fashion houses, but from a local producer, and I think it’s we liked when we read your bio, and we looked at what you’re trying to do and what you’ve done, the Liya Collective was that, that trail through that you described of actually understanding what’s going on in Thailand and going all the way through to Canada.


Deanna  28:24  

Yeah, it’s important to understand that it’s all connected and that, you know, just because I am the voice of the brand right now, doesn’t mean that I am the only person behind this brand. Any product that you have has gone through hundreds of hands and has had input from likely all over the world. And just being able to step back reflect on that. Listen to the conversations have been around you, I think is so key. 


Will  28:56  

No, absolutely. Thank you so much for being on today. Spirit interesting talking to Deanna. Thank you. What time is it where you are? Just out of curiosity?


Deanna  29:05  

It is 2:30 in the afternoon.


Will  29:07  

Nice. Nice 30 in the evening here. Yeah. All right, brilliant. Thank you. Thank you so much for coming on today. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you and actually understanding where silk comes from. it dawns on me when he said Mulberry I now know where mole break the brands, fashion brands, obviously comes from because I’ve never, ever knew that.


Deanna  29:32  

A number of other products that Mulberry and make as well. When I was in Thailand, visiting the silk fiber factory and seeing some of the farms I actually was treated to mulberry ice cream from the same farm that the silkworms feed on. So yeah, mulberry its a big thing. And there’s always more you can learn


Will  29:53  

Brilliant. Thank you. Thank you very much for your time.


Deanna  29:56  

Yeah, thank you so much for having me.


Outro 30:01  

Thank you so much for listening to the end of this episode of the Green Element Podcast. Do take a moment and share this with your friends and colleagues rate and review the podcast. Wherever you get your podcast. I’d love to know what has been your biggest takeaway from this conversation? What are you going to do differently? Please share your thoughts across social media and tag us so we can see them to at GE underscore podcast for links and Show Notes for this episode, visit our website greenelement.co.uk/podcast. Thank you again. I hope you’ll join me on the next episode and together we can help create a better world.


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