For many fashion designers, landing a plum gig at a powerhouse brand like Victoria's Secret would be a dream come true, especially early on in his or her career. While this very thing happened to Nicole Heim — and proved to be an invaluable learning experience — the realities of working for a mass market company helped ignite a desire to do something more grassroots, and eventually, to launch her own label, Cienne New York, exactly one year ago.
"I grew discouraged with the sheer volume at which we were creating and the waste that came along with that," Heim says of her observations while traveling to China, Korea, Sri Lanka and more for corporate supply chain and product development visits. "You see that firsthand when you're on the factory floor." In addition, her role evolved into a more managerial and business-driven one over the years, which didn't leave her a lot of time for the creative process. "Aesthetically, it didn't line up where I was supposed to be," she adds.
So, after a lot of soul searching, she left her job in order to spend some time in Africa, following her lifelong passion for travel — specifically, through developing countries around the world. Heim soon teamed up with Charity: Water as part of a field assignment, falling in love with Ethiopia in the process. While on the ground, she learned that the nation has a rich textile community, and watching local artisans weaving on mills — the polar opposite of the mass production factory environment — helped to spark the idea for Cienne.
"The concept was that we could look to a global marketplace and source something it's specialized in," Heim says of her initial mission, which would adapt artisans' traditional, indigenous materials into chic, modern pieces. After a year of research and building a business plan, Cienne was born with the goal of merging minimalist, sophisticated design with a purposeful mentality. The label launched in June 2015 with Ethiopia and India as its first artisan partners, and over the year, it added Japan and introduced Peru. "We plan to stay with artisans long-term and build only as we need to based on seasonality," Heim explains. (For example, Cienne is hoping to introduce Alpaca wool from Bolivia in the fall, when knitwear will be a key part of the collection.)
As these artisan materials are limited in quantity (and high in quality), they can be a bit expensive, but Cienne's direct-to-consumer model helps to keep costs down — price points top out around $500 for Alpaca outerwear. Pieces are custom-designed around the fabrics to bring them center stage, and all production is based in New York City. When it comes to the clothes, silhouettes are streamlined with clean lines, and they're meant to make up the building blocks of a woman's wardrobe. "We are certainly trying to do less with more; versatility is a big thing and everything's meant to be worn together and innovate using new materials," Heim says.
In addition to tightly edited collections that fall in line with the fall/winter, spring/summer fashion calendar, Cienne also follows a more consumer-focused calendar by pushing "see now, buy now" capsules within those seasons. (The summer capsule just went live on the brand's site.) Though the company is still a tiny operation, Heim's just as focused on building a cohesive brand as she is developing well-made product. To that end, Cienne is prioritizing offline experiences — like trunk shows and summer pop-ups at the Montauk Beach House and Gurney's in the Hamptons — to give customers a chance to interact with the collection and check out both the fabrics and fit firsthand.
While Cienne boasts a rich story and purposeful message, Heim tries to keep the eco-friendly aspect as subtle as possible to instead focus on the sophisticated design. "Aesthetic comes first; that's why I didn't want to market the sustainable angle as much," she explains. "It's an extra and it's cool, but probably not why you're buying something. I appreciate those values, but will not sacrifice quality for them."