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Interview : The Visionary Designer Empowering Women Through Sustainable Luxury Fashion

Emily Harbottle is a trailblazing designer and director whose journey from a childhood passion for fashion to the helm of her own sustainable fashion brand, Defied, exemplifies creativity, resilience, and visionary leadership.

From the early days of watching her mother craft clothes, sparking a lifelong fascination with design, Emily has seamlessly woven her artistic talents with a deep commitment to sustainability and quality craftsmanship.

Her work transcends mere fashion, serving as a medium for self-expression and empowerment, particularly for women. Emily’s designs not only turn heads but also inspire confidence, celebrating individuality and the courage to defy conventions.

Through Defied, she has carved a unique niche in the fashion world, championing eco-conscious practices and creating luxurious, timeless pieces that stand as testaments to her dedication to both art and the environment. Emily’s story is one of passion turned into purpose, inspiring others to pursue their dreams with unwavering determination and integrity. We spent some time with Emily to delve a little deeper…

Emily, your journey from a passion for fashion to founding Defied is incredibly inspiring. Can you share a pivotal moment when you realised you were meant to create your own brand?

Fashion and design have always been a part of my life. From a young age, I watched my mum make clothing and fancy dress for me and my siblings, which inspired me to learn how to use a sewing machine and create my own clothes. I am also a very artistic and creative person, and I love expressing myself through art and fashion design.

The moment that really stands out for me was when I showed my final collection at Graduate Fashion Week and was headhunted for a prestigious fashion design job in NYC. Although it wasn’t the right time for me to move to the other side of the world, it made me realise that if I wanted to succeed in the fashion world, it would have to be me and me alone who could make it happen. This experience inspired me to create my own brand.

Fashion often serves as a form of self-expression. How does Defied embody your personal ethos and values?

When I work through a design process, it always starts with a feeling or emotion that I want to express through the designs. This could be a sense of freedom and fluidity in the fabric’s feel and appearance, or in the cut and shape of the design. With DEFIED, the brand is all about empowering women to be true to themselves, with no rules to restrict how they want to dress, and to make themselves feel powerful and confident through the clothes they wear. This is achieved by using padded shoulders in some of the garments to create a powerful look, along with glamorous, luxurious metallic fabrics that catch the eye with their glistening in the light.

Each design is tailored to emphasise the beauty of the body’s curves and is lined with soft but strong firming premium power mesh to make you feel secure and fabulous. Quality is always the top priority for the DEFIED brand, and I wouldn’t want to put my name to anything less. In the early days of creating the brand, there was a strong focus on promoting environmental awareness and criticising the negative impact of “fast fashion” on the environment. This led me to reconsider how I could make my brand more environmentally conscious. I decided to have all production done in the UK, where I could oversee the process and maintain the high luxury quality of every design. Fabrics are sustainably sourced, and we strive to create limited stock designs using dead stock, minimising wastage and reducing our carbon footprint.

Your designs are known for turning heads and empowering wearers. Can you walk us through the creative process behind a Defied piece, from concept to runway?

Every design begins with an idea that evolves through the process of sourcing fabrics, leading the original idea in a completely different direction. It’s important to work on an idea and explore other possible outcomes. Some designs have evolved over time while others have transformed more quickly. The original idea may have come from finding an alternative fabric that caught my eye while looking for another fabric for a design idea.

Once I am satisfied with a selection of design ideas, I will then handpick a smaller collection of the most powerful designs. Fabrics are then sourced and designs usually change again as new ideas are sparked from the feel and look of the fabrics I have found to work with. This cycle can revolve a few times until I am completely happy with the design and fabric together. I then collaborate the designs and fabrics with my production team in London, where we create the first samples together. These samples may be tweaked and altered many times until they are perfect.

Only when this process has been meticulously dissected and critiqued are they approved to be graded in different sizes and tailored into the full collection we see today. Designs are created with passion and emotion, much like art, and evolve and change based on the mediums available, and the feelings and expressions being portrayed. Fashion design is not a product; it is art.

As the founder of Defied, you’ve emphasised the importance of sustainability in the fashion industry. How do you integrate eco-conscious practices into every aspect of your brand?

I have become very conscious of the devastating effects of the mass production of clothes for cheap brands on the environment. As a result, I want my designs to be luxurious and long-lasting. Remember when you were a child, and clothes would last years!? Even centuries!

This isn’t the case anymore, unfortunately. I am dedicated to reducing our carbon footprint and setting an example for other fashion brands, encouraging them to be more environmentally conscious. At DEFIED we use recyclable and reusable packaging with our branding. I source fabrics in the UK whenever possible, using dead stock to reduce landfills and avoid creating new fabrics in factories.

I am also exploring organic fabric sources and handmade fabrics for future collections. Luxury designs crafted with the highest quality, built to last. We are committed to minimising our carbon footprint whenever possible.

Handmade in London with the finest fabrics—Defied exudes luxury. What inspired you to prioritise quality craftsmanship over fast fashion trends?

When you’re emotionally invested in creating art and fashion designs, it’s not acceptable to bring your ideas to life in the cheapest way possible. This approach doesn’t reflect the time and creativity invested in the design. Any creation infused with your pure emotion and heartfelt pride deserves to be crafted with the utmost quality. If you’ve created art, why settle for anything less?

If it’s not executed with the same desire and quality that went into the design from the start, then you’re just producing a product. I wanted my brand to speak quality and inspire. This can only be done with the very best quality throughout each design.

Defied encourages people to embrace their uniqueness and be unapologetically themselves. How do you hope your designs empower individuals to express their authenticity?

When I started thinking about what my brand would look like and its meaning, I was going through a healing journey myself, following abusive relationships. I was told I couldn’t do what I wanted or wear what I wanted; instead, I had to conform to their desires. This made me question my identity, eroded my self-trust, and shattered my confidence.

After a period of healing, I rediscovered inner strength and confidence, allowing me to express myself as I wanted. I want to inspire other women to break free from uncertainty and dress with confidence. My designs aim to empower women through powerful shapes, high-quality fabrics, and comfortable garments. When you look and feel great, you exude confidence.

Your journey involves overcoming obstacles and societal norms. What advice would you give to aspiring fashion designers facing similar challenges?

If you’re passionate about something, go for it! If it inspires you, inspire others with your work. Believe in yourself and make it happen. Someone’s got to design the next fashions of tomorrow, it may as well be you. When you want something bad enough, you’ll make it happen. Never give up on your dreams.

The crispness of the cold air on the Alps inspired one of your designs. Can you share a memorable experience or place that has profoundly influenced your creative process?

I have always been fascinated by opposites and mixing contrasting combinations to work in harmony in a creation. One of the creative concepts showcased in my collection involves the use of a durable, solid metal material that conveys both strength and firmness, yet captures the elegance, flow, and gentleness of silk. This presents both soft beauty and glamour in the designs and a combination of empowerment with something so stunningly strong. The metallic shiny surfaces of silver, gold, and black metal-like materials used in the collection convey a feeling of hardness and power alongside beauty.

Rachel Zoe once said, “Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak.” How does Defied help individuals amplify their voices through fashion?

Fashion is a way of expressing who you are: the sophisticated you or the creative side of you; whether you’re feeling happy or sad. We wear our emotions and how we want people to perceive us through our clothing and how we style it. My designs aim to empower the wearer through powerful shapes and the feel of the cuts and fabrics, ultimately elevating any mood.

Graduating in Fashion & Textiles in 2000 marked the beginning of your professional journey. Looking back, what advice would you give your younger self as you embarked on this path?

I only wish I had done it sooner! But then again, this has been a journey, a work in progress to become DEFIED Brand and to define the meaning and brand ethos. I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. If I had started a brand years earlier, it would have been called something totally different and maybe wouldn’t have had such meaningful roots.

My advice to anyone younger looking to start their own brand is: don’t try to cut any corners. Greatness cannot be rushed or made easier. Trust your path, stick to the quality you adhere to, and stay focused. And most importantly, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t! Show them you can.

Defied garments are designed to last, challenging the throwaway fashion culture. How do you envision the future of sustainable fashion, and where does Defied fit into that vision?

I think people are gradually starting to consider ways to make things last longer and buy better quality. We are all gradually thinking about the effects our actions have on the environment. I hope to see more people turning to buying better quality clothing and realising that cheap throwaway fashion isn’t sustainable or the way of the future. At DEFIED, designs are thoughtfully created and crafted with the best tailoring quality and timeless looks that will last for years.

Pharrell Williams said, “Fashion has to reflect who you are, what you feel at the moment, and where you’re going.” How does Defied reflect these elements in its designs?

DEFIED designs aim to empower you to wear whatever makes you feel fabulous. The brand inspires women to dress and express themselves unconditionally, against any rules!

You’ve mentioned being self-taught in fashion design. How has your journey of continuous learning and growth shaped the identity of Defied?

After leaving university, I realised how challenging and competitive it was to break into the fashion industry at the level I aspired to. I didn’t want to start at the bottom and work my way up; rather, I wanted to showcase my creativity and have the freedom to create my designs. The only way I could do this was by starting my fashion brand.

So, I began by pursuing my passion as a hobby in my spare time. I’d sketch design ideas and create art pieces to fuel my inspiration. This led me to experiment with different ways of working with fabric and expressing my emotions through paintings and colour. It was only as my confidence grew over the years that I felt empowered enough to start my own fashion brand.

Back in 2000, I would never have had the confidence or knowledge to create my own brand. This path eventually led to the creation of the DEFIED brand.

The fashion industry is ever-evolving. How do you stay ahead of trends while maintaining Defied’s distinctive identity?

I am always looking at new designers showing their new collections on the catwalks around the world. You get a feel for what’s current and what’ll stick for the following seasons. This has been something you have to be in touch with. Also, it’s important to have the initiative to be a leader and start trends. I’m always looking for new inspirations. Which also involves what the street fashion is currently and what the trends are among the general public. What is current and what are the trends evolving into?

What legacy do you hope to leave through Defied, both in the fashion world and beyond?

I strive to motivate people to have more confidence in their clothing choices and to be more environmentally conscious when purchasing fashion. It’s important to consider the journey of the design, its production process, durability, and value for money. Additionally, I aim to spark a movement towards more responsible buying, encouraging people to invest in designs that can be used repeatedly over the years. For instance, a beautiful dress that can be worn to various events, both formal and casual, requires high-quality craftsmanship to ensure longevity.

Our readers love to travel, what destination is at the top of your bucket list?

I used to travel all over the world to some of the most exotic places. One of my favourites, from before I had my teenage twin sons, now nearly 16, was a holiday I took to Olhuveli in the Maldives. It really opened my eyes to a real paradise. With my full and active day-to-day life, a holiday for me has to be relaxing in order to recharge my soul. My second favourite place to visit would be the Greek Cyclades. It has become close to my heart for its natural unspoiled beauty and the tradition of these islands. The islands are uncommercialised and offer a peaceful, tranquil experience, with something different to offer on each one.

What’s your go-to quote when you are lacking motivation?

Always look forward and believe in yourself. You are stronger than you think. You can do anything you put your mind to.

Where can people follow you and find out more?

For the full collection and to sign up for the newsletters and get “Hot off the press” news! Sign up to the newsletters at: www.defied.co.uk or follow us on Instagram: defied_fashion_brand.

For more inspiring stories like Emily Harbottle’s, visit House of Coco and discover the journeys of trailblazers transforming their passions into impactful brands.