Launching a new series dubbed 'Genuine Action' - where we profile independent labels innovating new ways to deliver sustainable and ethical product - BasementApproved visit Sean Cosgrove of MARA at his studio in Glasgow.
It’s mad sunny in Glasgow when I meet Sean Cosgrove, founder and designer at streetwear label MARA, outside his studio. If you’ve never seen Glasgow in the sun (rare ting) then trust that the vibes are immaculate. Based in a labyrinthine sandstone building with windows for days, the MARA studio is overlooked by a 5 story mural of Billy Connolly – Glaswegian legend and internationally renowned funnyman – keeping a watchful eye over the brand’s operations. Surveillance from ‘The Big Yin’ himself is no issue for Sean and the gang, though: keeping it transparent is their bread-and-butter.
Hot off the heat press of an in-store customisation link up with Nike, where Sean produced a range of Glaswegian-inspired graphics based on vintage Swoosh logos, Sean and MARA are taking their vision of a genuinely sustainable, cyclical and ethical supply chain to the industry heavyweights. Breaking new ground in how to deliver newness without the heavy human or environmental cost, more and more we’re seeing the underdog take the lead on setting a new standard in an industry long-overdue a reality check. “Nike are hopefully going to arrange a delivery of defective garments for us to repurpose to continue the partnership as phase 2,” Sean says – showing me the graphics he’s worked on for an upcoming in-store event. “They sent me over a big PDF with 300 Nike logos from the archives to work from. A lot of them I’ve based on the early ones.”
Kicking things off after a post-school stint playing and touring in bands, MARA came to fruition the way so many of the best things do: part fate, part necessity, and a whole lot of passion. “I left school at like 15 and thought maybe one day I’ll do the uni thing, but for now I’ll be a rockstar. Then a few years ago the singer in the band I was in had a heart attack on tour. Thankfully he’s fine, but it was a scary moment and obviously put a full stop to what we were doing. I was in this moment of pause and decided it was the right time to start MARA,” Sean explains. “There’s obviously a massive DIY element to being in bands. There’s a figure it out energy and you get familiar with creating your own graphics, logos, flyers, merch. I had that experience and the knowledge of small batch production was just ingrained in me. I had a foundation and from there I just found people in Glasgow to help plug the gaps. I learned pattern cutting, learned about fabrications, I already knew how to sew because I make blinds as my other job, and that’s how we got started.”
A double entendre, playing on the name of the Bhuddist demon associated with lust and disrupting the status quo and the Spanish word for a gang or collective, like everything at MARA: the name is intentional. ‘It’s hard naming a brand, you know!?’ Sean laughs, ‘I wanted to play on this idea of taking staple streetwear products and making them more alluring and pulling people into a conversation about how they’re made and what they stand for.’ A good fit, given that MARA and similar indy brands exist as a thorn in the fashion industry’s side, providing a blueprint on how to create out-with a paradigm which prioritises margins and shareholder value at any cost. ‘Plus the idea of community and being a collective is really important to us, so that dual meaning made a lot of sense.’
"I wanted to play on this idea of taking staple streetwear products like tees and hoodies and making them more alluring to pull people into a conversation about how they're made and what they stand for."
In terms of sustainable practises, MARA’s approach has always been holistic. “A lot of bigger brands are sort of saying ‘we use organic cotton. Job done,’ but there’s this whole other side that brands with huge operations avoid talking about because it’s almost insurmountable.”
The insurmountable chink in the supply chain Sean is talking about is the human cost of mass garment production. Amid an endless swathe of #Greenwashing and decoy ‘sustainable’ products or collections, the industry consistently deflects conversations around garment workers conditions – a conversation which reached fever pitch in 2013 when 1,134 garment workers died at the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. What followed amounted to little more than ‘hopes & prayers’ platitudes and performative action before the tragedy slipped out of western consumer consciousness as quick as it entered. “Real change will only come from the top down. Governments need to be regulating this shit. Ultimately, garment workers in Bangladesh need to work the same as anyone else anywhere else in the world. Without government’s stepping in to protect their rights to fair wages for their skills and safe conditions, brands won’t step up properly,” Sean says. “Without the people who can actually make the clothes or shoes, the products and the culture we all love wouldn’t exist. We’re fully transparent, we pay everyone involved at MARA above the living wage and that’s just how it should be.” Growing up, Sean’s mother worked as a buyer in high-street fashion and so his knowledge of garment worker conditions goes back to his childhood. “I didn’t realise that people didn’t know how bad it is. I grew up with my Mum travelling to countries across Asia and coming back and telling me about how bad the conditions can be. It’s just always been part of my ideology that we don’t want to have a part in that.”
"Without the people who can actually make the clothes or shoes, the products and the culture we all love wouldn't exist."
Keeping the same energy when it comes to fabrication and waste, Sean developed the ‘Altered Futures’ initiative which uses fabric scraps from main-line product to produce a diffusion line of patchwork cut-and-sew pieces. The scraps from the diffusion line are then shredded to create sustainable ‘down’ stuffing for a range of puffer vests and jackets (soon come!) The product bangs, too, parting ways with the antiquated idea that sustainable product is garb exclusively for the Granola-mums and swagless homies. “We’re a small batch company doing this, but if you think of the waste from companies like Shein who have unfathomable levels of production, the amount of waste is unbelievable,” Sean says. With 600,000 products on site at a time and an average garment price of £7.90 according to the BBC, Shein is the capital F fast fashion giant making Pretty Little Thing and Boohoo (nightmare blunt rotation) look like the little guys. A subset of worryingly influential digital retailers all saying “we all have the same 24 hours in the day to destroy the planet.”
For a closer look at the reality of these companies, you only need to dive into an episode of Chanel 4’s docuseries ‘Inside Misguided: Made in Manchester’ (lowkey one of the most tone deaf things Channel 4 has produced in years). A particularly questionable story arc sees the design team unashamedly decide to dupe a dress worn by Hailey Bieber on Instagram over a leisurely morning meeting and then use the might of their buying power to pressure their suppliers into delivering the product on an insane timeline. The viewer is then (I think?) meant to cheer on a buyer as she enters into an absurd negotiation with a factory over pennies per unit production cost in the worst example of ‘Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss’ energy I’ve seen in a minute. The final dress inevitably retailed at 19pence (not fact checked, but you know the vibes).
Perhaps more shows like this are exactly what we need, though? As Sean rightly says, “I just don’t think people realise the extent of it. The industry is deliberately built on smoke and mirrors and secrecy to keep consumers out of the loop.”
And let’s be clear: it’s not easy to run a business this way. The barriers to entry to new brands are already stacked massively against them (see 19pence dress dystopian fuckery above). It takes dedication and commitment to doing what’s right; not what’s easy or most profitable. Just one example is Sean and the team’s latest textile cop: ECONYL®. A fabric made entirely out of waste dubbed ‘infinitely recyclable nylon’ which MARA have used for their upcoming drop of fit-to-perfection shell tracksuits. “Sometimes the fabrics themselves feel like a big secret. I had to sign NDAs and all sorts and it took 6 months to get set up as a vendor. There’s loads of rules around how you’re allowed to refer to it or describe it. But as soon as I saw it, I knew we had to make something with it.”
Taking the community aspect of the MARA moniker a step further, the gang are tapped into the wider socio-cultural zeitgeist they exist within. Frequently partnering with grassroots organisations and agents of change to fight for a more equitable and just society overall, Mara raised a near £25k for Black Lives Matter UK, generated by their ‘Hot Summer Nights’ drop following the murder of George Floyd. The brand has also raised funds for Sheku Bayoh’s family’s legal fund. Bayoh was murderd in police custody in Scotland in 2015 and his family are still fighting for justice. “We’re talking about community, about being a collective. It’s important that we follow through and do the right thing when it matters,” Sean says.
It’s easy to wax lyrical when you find a brand you fuck with. So I won’t. But as the live, laugh, love, brigade would tell you over a glass of Lambrusco: “you only regret the things you didn’t buy.” We love product, we’re mad for it. It’s what made The Basement. But we need genuine action, and at least with MARA’s ‘solutions for a dying planet’ you’re buying into something you can feel good about.
‘Genuine Action’ is an ongoing series profiling independent brands making strides in sustainable and ethical production in an industry long overdue a wake up call.
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