Meet K/LLER, Winners of the 2014 CFDA/Lexus Eco-Fashion Challenge

The designers of  K/LLER jewelry were awarded $75,000 by the CFDA and Lexus to grow their business. But will demand for sustainable luxury goods grow, too?
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Dhani Mau
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The designers of  K/LLER jewelry were awarded $75,000 by the CFDA and Lexus to grow their business. But will demand for sustainable luxury goods grow, too?
K/LLER designers Michael Miller and Katie Deguzman. Photo: BFA

K/LLER designers Michael Miller and Katie Deguzman. Photo: BFA

A number of fashion industry heavy-hitters — Steven Kolb, Maria Cornejo, Mickey Boardman and Coco Rocha among them — filled up The Modern in NYC on Wednesday afternoon for a luncheon to honor the winner and runners up of the 5th annual CFDA/Lexus Eco-Fashion challenge.

Each year, the CFDA assembles a selection committee — this one included Julie Gilhart, Cornejo, Timo Rissanen (Parsons' assistant professor of fashion design and sustainability), Melissa Joy Manning and more — to narrow down a pool of applicants to seven finalists. The committee then met with each one and picked one winner and two runners up based on design credibility, business acumen and eco-commitment.

Four-year-old jewelry brand K/LLER took home the top prize of $75,000, while runners up Reformation and Study NY took home $5,000 each.

The finalists. Photo: BFA

The finalists. Photo: BFA

While the money is a major help — I sat next to last year's winner Natalie Chanin who said her business has grown tremendously since she won — the program's overall mission is bigger, and the designers get that.

Brooklyn-based K/LLER designers Michael Miller and Katie Deguzman make everything in the U.S. and the majority of their jewelry is made out of 100% recycled metal. They told Fashionista that they plan to use the money to continue to grow the brand and fulfill orders (they're already stocked at Barneys and Of a Kind), but it's also important to them to promote the tradition of sustainability and the fact that, "you can still be a luxury fashion brand and be sustainable and be cool, it can go hand in hand," explains Deguzman.

Of course, it's something customers and buyers need to care about, too: "A tough thing for us is that a lot of retailers don't give mind to the fact that [some product] is sustainable or is recycled. If the retailers are asking for it, then the customers are asking for it; it makes it so that it can be a broader thing across the fashion industry. If there’s demand, it continues on."

Photo: K/LLER

Photo: K/LLER

Andrea Lim, Lexus's engagement marketing manager who helped conceive of the program, says her goal is to "build the awareness for these amazing designers who are doing thoughtful, responsible creations without the sacrifice to luxury."

She, too, stressed the importance of this domino effect: "They deserve the spotlight and hopefully the incentive that we provide can change their life because that’s going to create that domino effect."

While there are exceptions of course, most shoppers are going to lean towards the pieces they like the most or are best able to afford, without necessarily considering how those pieces were made. For these brands to reach their true potential, sustainable fashion will have to become something that everyone — designers, buyers and shoppers alike — care about enough to seek out. Hopefully, programs like this one, and the attention they get, will help make that a reality.