“Small And Honest”: How To Manage A Sustainable Brand And Personal Tragedy In A Pandemic
A quick peek at designer Mr Saeed Al-Rubeyi’s Instagram account (@saeed_storymfg) reveals a decent mix of ’fit pics, creative inspiration, dog pictures and jokes – a perfectly curated, cool-guy mix. Mr Al-Rubeyi, who is one half of the brand Story Mfg. alongside his wife, Katy, takes pains to present a candid snapshot of his life in Brighton on the south coast of England. Sometimes this means a snarky post about copycats (“here’s some more moodboard material for unimaginative brands that want our vibe without the care or consideration (or hard work)”). Sometimes it’s a picture of their well-curated living room (“I asked @katy_storymfg to describe my look and she said ‘you have the energy and vibe of someone that’s been bit by a zombie but is trying to hide it from the group as you deteriorate’.”) Sometimes it’s just a very cute picture of their startled-looking pup, Party.
His feed has always been this way, because this is how Mr Al-Rubeyi is as a person. “I think I’m missing an embarrassment part of my brain,” he says. This year, though, has been different – more moving, authentic and resonant than ever before. In April, Mr Al-Rubeyi announced that he and his wife had lost their baby very late in the pregnancy. It was a heart-breaking conclusion after months of joyfully posted pictures of Ms Al-Rubeyi looking increasingly round as she neared term. He felt that it was a necessary and important moment to share.
“I’m not trying to be particularly noble about it,” he says of why he’s been so honest about his experiences. “But when people know what you’re going through, they are more gentle with you.”
He found that, as often happens, sharing their experience brought support out of the woodwork. He received notes from people who had gone through similar tragedies. “I’ll see a message from someone saying the exact same thing happened to them last year and I’ll go and be nosy and look at their social media and there’s no trace of it. I wish I had known.”
It brings to mind the experience of Ms Chrissy Teigen, who shared her late-term miscarriage story on social media in autumn. Though some responses were hateful, most were from women who had gone through similar experiences and were relieved to have an excuse to talk about it. “You join this very sad club,” says Mr Al-Rubeyi. “But it’s nice to be part of one at all. Or you find out that someone has been through it and [now they] are completely fine and you aspire to be like that. It gives you hope, you think, OK I won’t have a heart attack tonight.”
Though he doesn’t say it, the Al-Rubeyis, through their openness and honesty, are doubtlessly giving that same hope to couples experiencing sadness and tragedy in their own lives.
Of course, while all of this was going on, the pandemic was kicking off around the world. Story Mfg. is a small business – the exact kind of business this pandemic has been taking out left, right and centre. But they’ve come through to this point feeling OK about their prospects, though the uncertainty remains.
“A lot of the stuff that people have had to deal with, we’ve been doing for a long time, we were ready for it”
This strength is likely due to the fact that Story Mfg. was almost purpose-built to sustain the altered working environments that have shaken so many other trades and industries. “A lot of the stuff that people have had to deal with, we’ve been doing for a long time, we were ready for it. Like working from home? We always work from home. Remote working? We always worked remotely.”
The fact that the people they work with – dyers, weavers, embroiderers and tailors – are spread around the world, mostly in India and Thailand, has presented particular challenges. When the UK went into lockdown, for example, India remained open and their vendors stayed optimistic. “We would call India and they would say, ‘Everything is fine here, and nothing’s really changed, there’s no government guidelines and we don’t think it is really going to change.’” Of course, it did change, and quite quickly. Today, India remains one of the hardest-hit countries in the world. But Story Mfg. was able to develop a new way of working, one that took their producers and vendors into account while maintaining a somewhat slower flow of production.
This again is in line with Story Mfg.’s brand ethos. “From day one, Katy and I wanted to make sure that, if we start working with someone, we were not going to one day take away employment from them,” he explains. “We've always been really small in our approach.”
The fact that they’re making clothes in small but highly sought-after batches, and not working with large, faceless producers, means that if things slow down at one end, they’re not panicking about fulfilling giant orders or, more likely in this period, disappearing orders.
This sustainable way of working, coupled with the brand’s moral code of kindness, not to mention that it makes exactly the kind of clothing you want to wear during a lockdown, has meant that this small business has come out the other side in fine shape.
And it’s not the only good news. In November, the couple announced on Instagram that they were expecting again – Mr Al-Rubeyi’s post garnered twice the number of likes he normally gets and scores of supportive comments.
“My account is me and Katy’s is hers and Story’s is us and that’s something that’s precious,” he says. “I want us to seem small and honest. It is my personal life and it is my public life. It’s vulnerable, but it’s good. And it’s so people can keep some sort of human connection with us.”
Illustrations by Ms Oriana Fenwick