Mess Magazine has had the pleasure of interviewing Jess McCleave, the Founder and Creative-Director of the sustainable fashion brand, Ilk + Ernie. Their collections are full of gorgeous designs aiming to empower and instil self-confidence in all women. Three distinct collections with eclectic styles, Ilk + Ernie aim to promote conscious consumerism as a form of self-care.

Ilk + Ernie curate beautiful pieces that prioritise the planet, marking our third article of Mess Magazine’s sustainable series, a series of articles spotlighting inspiring individuals, brands and platforms, all promoting and fighting for environmental and social justice.

From lived experience in the depths of the realities of fast fashion, we explore the challenges Jess faced that led her to grow her own fashion brand, and both the obstacles and joys of establishing a female-led, sustainable and ethical business, Ilk + Ernie:

“Based in Brighton, ILK + ERNIE is an ethical, female-led brand. We create quality, comfortable and sustainable clothes. Our vision is to see every woman wearing clothes that not only turn heads but have a positive impact on the environment as well. We are passionate about womanhood and invite you to join us on our mission.”

Ilk + Ernie

“I couldn’t understand why, in an industry that was so influential to so many people, we were not celebrating, uplifting and encouraging each other’s talents and ambitions, rather than squandering them.”

Jess – what is your background and what inspired you to launch Ilk + Ernie?

It’s been a journey that’s for sure! Like many others on a similar path, my career began after a somewhat rocky stint in the fashion Industry. I wouldn’t say I had the easiest start to my career, the fashion industry is TOUGH! My first job in fashion was as a visual merchandiser for Topshop. After quickly realising night shifts weren’t for me, I spent a couple of years bouncing around various roles, from styling to PR. An array of bad experiences and awful management eventually led me to a very low place. I couldn’t understand why, in an industry that was so influential to so many people, we were not celebrating, uplifting and encouraging each other’s talents and ambitions, rather than squandering them.

So I decided to go at it alone – and no, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing 🙂

When was it that you first became aware of the systemic issue of fast fashion and the social and environmental damage that it is causing?

The biggest wake up call for me was during my time working at Topshop as visual merchandiser. I was based in the flagship store on Oxford Circus, the workload was CRAZY. We would get in hundreds of new styles a week. Stock would fly in and out of the store at an incredible rate. It blew my mind how much people shopped. An endless flow of people, day in, day out. The stockroom at Oxford Circus was HUGE and it was constantly filled to the brim with clothes. This was 10 years ago, around the time that Fast Fashion was solidifying it’s permanent place in the market and changing our mindset and relationship with clothes. The problem being that this WAS the reality. Even I was momentarily sucked into the mindset that I needed more in my wardrobe than was necessary. I think we all have. 

That exact thought process is what drastically needs to change, not just within the industry, but as the consumers that have been marketed to this way of thinking.  My career in high street retail had opened my eyes to the quantities in which garments were being produced and when I started my business, I knew that I wanted to do things differently. 

Fashion is responsible for 10% of the world’s greenhouse emissions. That’s a pretty huge deal. Polluted rivers, landfill filled with clothes, millions of clothes incinerated every year and the horrific mistreatment and exploitation of garment workers worldwide. I realised we need to change or face up to the fact that we are aiding in the continual destruction of our planet.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced launching a female-led fashion brand?

I’ve been very fortunate in not having experienced much sexism within my business journey, but I’ve had a lot of difficult moments, I could list them for days! But the first super tough moment was when I started out. I actually launched my business under a different name some years ago. Six months into it I got hit with a cease and desist by John Lewis of all people. My brand had started to get some attention and unfortunately for me they were about to launch a concession in their department store with a similar name (Kin). It was a classic case of the big corps squishing out the little guys. They gave me 4 weeks to cease all trading and rebrand my whole business. I was devastated, but a year later, Ilk + Ernie was born.

“If you believe enough in what you’re putting out, eventually, others will believe in it too.”

Images Ilk + Ernie

What advice would you give to young women looking to kick-start their own sustainable fashion business?

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. I would say that nothing in life was ever meant to be easy. If you believe enough in what you’re putting out, eventually, others will believe in it too. Sustainability is very much a journey and something that you will always be working towards. The fact that you’re trying is a darn side better than those who don’t. 

Ilk + Ernie have three beautiful collections, Peace Parade, Self Care and Sorbet.

What inspired the style and design of these collections?

In terms of design, what drives my creativity is comfort and timelessness staples. I’m super inspired by workwear, for both collections I wanted to design practical, comfortable clothing without compromising on style. I avoid slim flits without an elasticated waist, I make sure there are plenty of pockets and if it’s not in a bold print, it will be a bold colour. Like many designers I design clothes that I want to wear, but I listen to my friends, I take inspiration from what I see girls wearing in the street and I make sure I’m putting stuff out that I know people are going to want to wear for years, not just a season. 

“I allow myself to think and feel what I need to think and feel. I find that helps me stay positive.”

The Self Care Collection recognises the difficulty of the times we are living in and encourages us to nourish ourselves and look after one another.

How do you personally practise self-care?

When we launched this collection, in all the chaos and stress of not having our stock, self-care was the biggest thing on my agenda. I think it’s something that all human beings can do more of. For such a long time people didn’t talk about their mental health, yet we’ve all suffered from poor mental health at some point in our lives. In this crazy time of uncertainty, self-care is the most important kindness we can give ourselves. We all need to find our own way to stay sane and healthy!

For me right now that’s routine, I wake up at the same time every morning (apart from weekends!), do a Joe Wick with my best mate and colleague Romy, eat a tasty breakfast and then sit down to work. I don’t work past 5 pm because I really rely on my afternoon stroll these days! When I’m feeling crap and unmotivated I let myself. When I want to eat junk food I let myself. When I want to sleep I let myself. I try to not allow myself to feel guilty, being overwhelmed is normal, especially when you’re running a small business. I have an amazing boyfriend and I live in a guardianship community with lots of incredible people, for that I am grateful. Basically, I allow myself to think and feel what I need to think and feel. I find that helps me stay positive.

In an attempt to persuade somebody to shop more consciously, what is the first thing you would say to them?

I would say that as lovely a gesture it is, it’s not enough to just buy second hand, independent or ethical fashion. If you’re still buying wastefully, without longevity in mind, it’s a problem. 

If you want to make some changes, try to buy consciously and aim for a long term wardrobe of staple garments you’ll wear for months/years to come. That includes buying from high street fashion. Not everyone can afford premium garments, but just because it’s cheap, doesn’t mean it’s life span in your wardrobe is any less deserving. It’s all about acknowledging and shifting habits.

There is research to say that extending the life of a garment by just 9 months can reduce its water, waste and carbon footprint by around 20%. That’s pretty amazing if you think about it.

And finally – what’s your go-to Ilk + Ernie piece (if you had to pick one!)?

I would say if I had to choose! My go-to Ilk + Ernie piece would be the Brooke boilersuit. It’s definitely a wardrobe staple of mine, it’s super comfy and easy to style and you can wear it all year round!

Thank you so much, Jess, for answering these questions and providing such honest and insightful responses.

I hope this interview inspires you to prioritise conscious consumerism in supporting small businesses and sustainable fashion brands like Ilk + Ernie. You need another reason?


Full of beautiful, colourful designs and styles that will undoubtedly give you that summer feelin’ we’ve all been craving, you don’t wanna miss it.

Find Ilk + Ernie on Instagram and their website.

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