How FreyZein is rethinking and revolutionizing the clothing industry
erial entrepreneur and outdoor enthusiast Jan Karlsson set up his first business aged just twenty-six. Having grown that company successfully, he was looking for a new challenge. He became interested in products that were sustainable and circular and, after much time spent researching, prototyping and learning all about the circular economy, he launched FreyZein with his cofounder Sabrina Stacherl.
FreyZein is committed to creating hard-wearing and design-led outdoor clothing products that not only look good but also do good. All of its products are made from sustainable materials that do not harm the planet and can be either reused or recycled. Jan is passionate about rethinking and revolutionizing the clothing industry, strives to always be learning, and is steadfast in the belief that fast fashion has no future or value.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I started my business when I was just twenty-six years old. It was a beverage business called MAKAvA, and it became very successful, so much so that I was keen for a new challenge. During a trip to the Azores, I was surfing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and I started to wonder and think about all these people who love to enjoy time outdoors but actually wear clothes that harm the environment. It really struck me, as I was in the ocean surrounded by all these people who were in the water with me, wrapped up in plastic clothes. They would probably regard themselves as being environmentally conscious, yet they were all wearing clothes that were really bad for the planet and made out of plastic and petroleum. I saw a real opportunity to change this and was motivated to create clothes that were “radically natural.” They should be sustainable and circular but also look great too. I feel we have a responsibility to do better in business, to work more sensitively and more responsibly, and that was how FreyZein came into being.
What keeps you motivated?
Being able to turn out products that meet and fulfill basic needs (such as beverages or clothing) and make those products both beautiful and of an excellent quality–and, most importantly, having the chance to make them sustainable–really excites and motivates me. I also love the fact that I can turn my passions and hobbies into a business. Nature is us, we are nature, and we have a duty of care to the environment and each other. So, I get really excited and motivated by the circular economy, what we as a business can do to help the planet, and how we can promote a different way of thinking and consuming.
What is it like working within the circular economy? And what is it about that way of working that excites and motivates you?
I was really excited by the idea of Cradle to Cradle, or, as we at FreyZein like to call it, an Earth-to-Earth approach. The idea that during the whole design and production process, you can actually use materials which, when being used, cause no harm, and which are compostable and biodegradable once they’ve been used, is something I am so passionate and excited about. Obviously, it’s not possible for all products to be made this way, but with clothes it’s definitely possible, and I was really motivated and excited to explore this idea further and turn my passion into a business.
What’s been the most difficult part of setting up the business?
I actually believe it’s an integral part of creating a business that you encounter challenges and problems. When you run your own company, there will always be times when you encounter obstacles or stress, but the most important thing is to then use those experiences to your advantage and learn from those struggles. I truly believe it’s all part of the process and part of the journey. And I think one of the greatest lessons I have personally learned is how to deal with stress and how to shift my mindset. I prefer not to see them as obstacles but ultimately as opportunities for learning.
I think encountering challenges and problems is an integral part of creating a business. For me, it’s all part of running a company.
What was it like working on the FreyZein concept and products?
To be honest, it was really messy because we were both career changers. Neither of us had ever worked in the clothing industry, and overnight were suddenly clothing designers, despite not having any experience. We were absolute beginners and had to learn so many things the hard way. For example, the first prototypes we created weren’t very good, and we really didn’t like them – we wouldn’t even have worn them ourselves – so we had to go back to the drawing board and make them again. So that was a very costly and time-consuming experience.
But it turned out that there was also so much positivity to be gained when setting up the business and working on the concept. We were very lucky that we had a huge amount of support from the EU to help develop our products and concept, and this was particularly helpful as it was during COVID-19 that we were all learning these expensive lessons. Although it took a while to refine and hone our concept, in doing so we really learned so much, and our business is all the better for it.
What has been your best decision so far?
I think the decision to go “radically natural” with our company and place that at the heart and center of what we do. We only have one Earth, and if you look at the news, sustainability and the climate crisis are arguably two of the most pressing issues that we need to address globally. Sixty-nine percent of all clothing is made out of petroleum-based plastic. When synthetic clothing items are no longer of use, they end up as rubbish. You really can’t get rid of them or even break them down into component parts that can be recycled. So I truly think that by finding our niche to go “radically natural” and leading the way with using BiCircular™ materials is one of the best decisions we’ve made.
What has been your biggest mistake so far?
Actually, that’s quite a funny story. Our first products were jackets, and the website was first ready and live when it was actually thirty degrees in Austria! We very quickly realized that there was no demand for jackets in that weather and we’d got the timing completely wrong, but it was also a great lesson to learn and one we definitely won’t forget.
What do you wish you had known before starting? And is there anything you would have done differently?
I think it’s important to understand and realize that it is your own unique journey and even when there are struggles that may stress you out or distract you, the journey is actually just as important as the end goal or ambition. It helps make you the person you are today. In fact, there is nothing that I would necessarily do differently. I love the quote by Ram Dass, “Our journey is about being more deeply involved in life and yet less attached to it.”
What do you enjoy about running your own business?
I really like the fact that I can follow my passion and make a business out of it, and this to me equates to success. I love that I can organize my time and determine my days and work out what I want to achieve. Obviously, running a business is a huge amount of work, but I really do find it to be an incredibly rewarding and enjoyable experience.
We only have one Earth, and if you look at the news, sustainability and the climate crisis are arguably two of the most pressing issues that we need to address globally.
What do you enjoy about working in Graz?
I love it! Graz is what I would call the “largest village in the world.” It’s a city and yet it has only 300,000 inhabitants, so the more time you spend here, the more people you get to know, and they are so friendly. In a larger city, I often feel you are somewhat anonymous, but that’s not the case with Graz. It’s also in a fantastic position, surrounded by gorgeous greenery and lush countryside, and the city itself is really beautiful. It’s ideally located close to everything and just a short distance from Vienna. It’s also a student town, so it has a really young vibe, and there are a lot of cultural events that take place. I really like living here!
What excites you about the future of the clothing industry?
With FreyZein, we are leading the way as pioneers in the circular economy, creating a sustainable future for fashion with our Earth-to-Earth approach. We are disrupting petroleum-based synthetics, and that feels like the right thing to do!
What advice would you give to someone starting their own business?
Quite simply, whatever happens, no matter where your journey takes you, don’t forget to keep on keeping on, and to do so with flexibility.
What’s next? What are your plans for the future?
I love creating and want to keep creating. I want to push the boundaries with what is possible with a startup and see how like-minded people can work together. Our designer-in-residence, Lea, is moving to Portugal for several months soon, and I am really excited to see how that experience will impact and improve her creative approach and what it will then be like working together.
A version of this article is included in Startup Guide Graz, alongside more founder stories and expert insights. Order your copy now!
Written by Lucy Beckley
Repackaged by Anastasia Ilcov
Photography by Kurt Remling