At Motley, sustainability is at the heart of our design. Every piece is made from materials that will stand the test of time, with processes that seek to minimise waste at every stage. And it’s not just us. Climate-positive period pioneers, DAME, have been pushing for greater sustainability and accessibility for all people with periods. To understand more about the journey to this incredible goal, Motley Co-Founder, Cecily, sat down with DAME Co-Founder, Alec Mills, for a conversation on creativity, customers and bloody good design.
So, what is DAME all about?
Alec: DAME makes sustainable period products, and our mission is to get them into the hands of every person in the world. We kicked off our mission with making the world’s first reusable tampon applicator and now, we’ve gone on to make organic tampons, reusable pads and we’re about to launch some packs, so the idea is to have a choice for every period out there.
And what is Motley all about?
Cecily: Motley is about design democracy. It’s about creativity being the most endemically human thing we have, being celebrated the right way and re-jigging the value chain of a creative industry that has traditionally seen the creatives at the bottom. We want to put them at the top, with great design available to everyone – at a price that everyone can be part of.
The Motley x DAME partnership hinges around design – how is design important to DAME?
Alec: It’s vital. In order to take periods out of the taboo realm, a big part of what we’re trying to do is make them more aspirational; to try and lift the category out of being some sort of sanitary pharmaceutical and into the realms of beauty and more everyday existence. So, we believe that in order to be sustainable, one has to be aspirational, because otherwise, people don’t want to pick your choice. You can have the most sustainable pair of shoes in the world, but no one’s going to pick them unless they look good. So, I really feel that change has to come hand-in-hand with design.
And then, on a really practical level – if you have a really disgusting box of tampons, you will put it in your bathroom cupboard, because you don’t want anyone to see it. But, if you have a beautiful tin of tampons, you will take that out of the cupboard and put it on display. And I think, psychologically, having your tampons and your period products on display says a lot about what you feel about your period and about what is happening with your pride and things you possess around your bathroom. We can’t all afford Mercedes-Benz, but we can afford a little Lysol bottle or a nice beautiful tin that makes us feel good about our lives. There’s no reason why period products can’t be the same.
What makes design at Motley different to other brands and competitors?
Cecily: There’s quite a technical answer to that and fundamental to it is how we work with the designers. Other middle-market jewellery brands will not have a product designer – or maybe they’ll work with someone externally. What they’ll likely do is buy the easiest things to make of the factory line and then tweak things, to make them different from other brands. We take the exact opposite approach.
We get the designers to dream up the most ambitious designs they can and then we build the technical designs and work with the best manufacturers to create them – who sometimes look us in the eye and say: “we can’t do this – please don’t make us!” – but they persevere, using innovative techniques, and we get a brilliant quality product as a result.
I think Alec slightly alluded to this: function and form are what design truly are. People sometimes think that design is just aesthetic, but it’s not. It’s about how something functions. To be a good jewellery designer, you need to be part sculptor, artist and engineer all-in-one, because you have to make something that looks good and works.
When you glance at Motley, because of the price, which is comparable to others in the industry, you might not realise how much additional work has gone into the back end. Because, in the same way you have alluded to, Alec, as well, price is really important in buying something sustainable that lasts.
We felt very strongly that margins of the jewellery industry have been extremely greedy – if we could sell things for less money by going directly to the consumer, so more people could be part of it… it’s really important. We can’t have Cartier because it’s too expensive, but you can maybe save up and have your Motley £500 that will last and is by an amazing designer.
How much do customers lead your designs at Motley – and how much do you lead your customers?
Cecily: That’s a really good question. So, whenever I think of customer-led design, I think of something that isn’t maybe design-first. I think of maybe a response to a need – but actually, that’s not true for what we do, at all.
Our customers inform a huge amount of what we develop and why, so, if there’s huge demand, our customers will be the ones telling us: “can we have it in this size?”, “can I have this?” – then, we go to the designer and they can respond to the brief that’s given to them by the customer.
So, I would say, you might think we try and drive them down a road, but actually, it’s very much an open feedback loop. And I think designers shouldn’t ever try and make things that they think people want to buy. Normally, they make things that they think are good – and because they think they’re good, people want to buy them. But I think there is much more nuance in that, about how closely-related the customer and the designer are in the end. And what we will do is constantly going back to the designer and saying: “someone’s had an idea around extending this range into x” and their response is normally like: “ooh, that’s a great idea – let’s definitely do that!” So, I think there’s more of a relationship there. I think Alec might have a better answer there.
Alec: The fortunate thing about D2C (direct-to-consumer) is that you own that relationship, in a way that you can’t do if you’re in retail or wholesale – and for us, feedback loops are incredibly important. So, within two months of launching our reusable applicator, we quickly identified that there were some major problems with it. 20% of people said that the applicator wasn’t opening properly. And if we didn’t have that relationship, we wouldn’t be able to make iterations – immediately, within a month, we extended some of the petals on the product and proofed it. Now, it works brilliantly and has done for the past couple of years.
Likewise, on our website, we will announce that we’re going to launch a product and then immediately start collecting the data. So, we will have waitlists that people apply for, they then tell us the size and colour that they’re after, and by the time it comes to launching, we already know what the customer is looking for. Then, the most important one is to bring customers in on the journey, especially if it’s a negative one. So, if someone says to you by DM on Instagram: “you know, I find my pad slips a bit” – well, then we invite them into the customer feedback sessions.
If we can win over those customers and make them feel like they’re not only being listened to but are actually improving the products with their feedback…well, that’s an incredibly powerful bit of community-building, as well as just improving on the design. So, yeah, customers massively feed into everything. It tends to start with our hunch and our data and then we speak to our customers just to validate all of that, and then they lead on all the design. So, yeah, it’s very much a two-way relationship.
As your businesses have grown, how have you found handing over the reins to some of your respective brands’ look and feel to other people?
Cecily: I very much accept that while I think that I have a good eye, there are many people and professionals much better than me. And I feel that in the same way as bringing in more customers and having more voices to get a better outcome, you start with a kind of hunch and then it’s refined. I feel that as a team structure, often, there’s an idea of a brand being static, but I think that’s absolutely not the case. Often, as each person comes in, they bring more depth, more richness…more ways of articulating it – these things aren’t static. I think, if you have a very rigid structure – yes, we have brand guidelines, etc. – I think they should be flexible, and part of handing over the reins is appreciating that ultimately, it gets richer and it gets better.
If you’re too strict on what you think it is, then you’re not listening to people and ultimately, that’s the most important thing, because what we are trying to build is something that more than ever, everybody feels part of. And you can direct to an extent, but there are moments where you’re like: “this feels a little far away” and often, there are so many ways to test whether that is the right thing to do. I think you get more and more comfortable – and more and more grateful with people taking the reins.
Alec: It’s something I really struggle with!
When it’s your brand and you’re on the visual and aesthetic side of the business, I find that it’s very hard to hand your baby over to someone else, because that trust element just isn’t there. So, my team probably chastise me for being a little too autocratic in this department, but I think as I’ve gotten on a bit – as you were saying, Cecily – if you give people boundaries from which they can operate, well, then, within those boundaries, they can do a lot of very good work. And if it does occasionally spin out, then it’s sometimes worth exploring that and thinking: “well, actually, is that a direction we want to push the brand in?”
This is an ever-evolving thing, but I guess so much of what we do is about function, as well as just the look and feel. That’s a whole different kind of skill set and with that, luckily, it’s just a case of iterating and iterating and iterating. So, it’s really more of a mathematical thing than a taste thing. But yeah, it is difficult, but we’ve got a good set of brand guidelines and we’re hopefully well-known for having a good aesthetic.
Quick Fire Round:
You’re both very creative – what are your respective creative outlets?
Alec: Oh god, everything: writing copy, writing newspaper articles…I am always doing sketches, I have notepads sort of everywhere, I design emails – I can’t let go.
It’s like the thing that gets me up in the morning is how to improve the aesthetic of things. So, whether it’s like the shape of a button or how our wave pattern might be integrated into our poppers – it’s literally in my frontal lobe at all times. So, everything is a creative outlet, as far as I’m concerned.
Cecily: I read a lot. I believe you have to refresh your visual palette all the time and that means you have to see as much as you can see. My background is in the art world and when I was at Christie’s, I feel like I learnt, very clearly, that the valuers are only as good as what they’ve seen.
You can only tell an early sketch, normally, if you’ve seen the sister sketch from another collection. And I think about that a lot. About like, different ideas. I think ideas come from everywhere and I think – it sounds like an odd creative outlet, but – sometimes, if I’ve got in a bit of a rut and I can’t come up with any ideas, I try and like, change the way I walk somewhere. I’ll get off the train somewhere really, really early and see different things and it will make me think about different things. And I also think one of my biggest creative outlets and something that gives me the most pleasure in my job is working with other creatives.
I often feel in great awe working with jewellery designers, because the way they are able to frame a creative problem and solve it, the way that they are able to articulate such complex ideas – and most of them are very complex ideas around: “I’m interested in this and that’s taking me to this” – and that every form has layers and layers and layers in it…I find it a real joy to watch them work and know that I couldn’t ever do that.
Even though I’m creative, even though I make stuff, I know that I could never do it to that level and that intensity, at the expense of everything else. And when I often think about what an artist is, I know that it is someone who cannot do anything else. It’s like a compulsion – and it’s quite a fun madness to be around, I think.
Final question: do the best things come in small packages?
Alec: I would say yes. Small, tampon box-sized packages.
Cecily: (laughs) Jewellery hidden inside it – you’ve just described the best package!
Alec: I think when things are small, you have to strip them back and have less elements in there to make it work. I think it’s incredibly difficult and it’s much harder to achieve simplicity and beauty. So, I would say: yes. The best things do come in small packages.
Cecily: I would agree with that, and I think the best things come in small packages because you have to. We are shown so much stimulation these days and to get somebody to come in and concentrate on something small…I think there’s magic in that. And there are so many big things, so therefore, small moments – as well as small packages – ultimately, I think, are what define the individual’s life. Often, life is the small things. That’s what I think.