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7 Challenges Facing Emerging Designers Who Don't Want to Sacrifice Sustainability for Growth

The 10 brands of the CFDA + Lexus Fashion* Initiative shared their progress and frustrations on Monday.
Tome's White Shirt Project benefits the Freedom For All Foundation. Photo: Tome

Tome's White Shirt Project benefits the Freedom For All Foundation. Photo: Tome

In October, 10 brands were chosen for the inaugural CFDA + Lexus Fashion* Initiative based on their focus on socially and environmentally responsible practices. The new business development program and competition evolved from the annual "Eco Fashion Challenge" on which the two companies partnered previously; and the three brands that see the most evolution over the 17-month program stand to win monetary prizes: $150,000 for the grand winner and $50,000 each for two runners up. On Monday, halfway through the program, the participants gathered in New York City for a series of short presentations and Q&A sessions with their fellow participants, mentors and advisory board members.

As the designers of each brand explained their challenges and highlighted their strides, several common themes emerged that were both specific to small-scale businesses and reflective of the industry-wide barriers to more socially and environmentally conscious practices in design and production. And everyone was grappling with how to best educate the consumer and communicate the stories behind their products. Overall, we left impressed by the actions that designers like Aurora James of Brother Vellies, Maria Cornejo and Wing Yin Yau of Wwake are more were taking in an already challenging retail environment to stay committed to their goals.

Read on for a selection of the biggest lessons and frustrations, each exemplified by one brand, that were discussed on Monday. 

Investors aren't interested in sustainability so remaining independent is important

Aurora James started her footwear brand Brother Vellies with an intimate connection to the artisans that produce her designs in South Africa, Kenya, Morocco and, beginning recently, Ethiopia. In addition to speaking about social initiatives for her workers and investing in vegetable-tanned leather, she said remaining an independent business owner is essential to maintaining her sustainability goals. "I've been really protective over maintaining 100 percent ownership of my company so that we continue to have the freedom to make sustainable choices," she said, addressing pressure from potential investors. "It's actually been really hard."

Progress is stronger when the entire team is on the same page

Maria Cornejo started her brand 18 years ago, and while participating in the Lexus program she has decided to refocus her business on fighting wastefulness, extending the life of the collection's individual pieces and finding the line's "heart." In addition to changes to materials and production, Cornejo stressed the importance of making sure everyone in the company understands that mission and takes ownership of it. "Everybody is responsible right now and they are the gatekeepers. And they have younger brains than I have and are actually becoming really proactive," she said. 

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Going straight to the source for materials can be unreliable

Wwake founder and jewelry designer Wing Yin Yau is focused on clarifying her material supply chain, which has been challenging because the "conflict free" labels she had been relying on don't address all types of labor exploitation or the colored gem stones market. Now all in-house production, about 30 percent, is made from certified recycled metal and Yau is using traceable calibrated stones and certified diamonds. Working directly with artisanal miners on some stones brings its own problems, however, even though there's much more transparency: they produce mostly one-of-a-kind gems which makes scaling her business difficult. And there are limitations in quantities, color ranges and consistency in terms of deliveries. 

Ideal fabrics often require higher minimums than a young brand can handle

Britt Cosgrove and Marino Polo started Svilu with the goal to design a "mindfully made" wardrobe and have focused their sustainability efforts on fabric choices and using natural, non-toxic dyes, though mills are often not transparent. "Continuing to expand our fabric library is always a work in progress. We do our best to research the origins of our fabrics and seek certification but it's been challenging to know which questions to ask our mills," said Cosgrove. "As a growing business we often run into issues of scale," said Polo about high minimums on fabrics they want to work with. "Pulling together a group of designers to reach a minimum would be a great solution."

There's no alternative solution to poly bags for jewelry

Katie de Guzman and Michael Miller of K/LLER Collection use recycled metals and organic materials such as quill and horn that are by-products of the farming industry to produce their jewelry collections. And even though they've changed their shipping and wrapping materials to 100-percent recycled boxes and tissue, the small plastic poly-bags standard throughout the jewelry industry remain a challenge. "These things drive us crazy," said Miller, adding that they reuse all their bags. "There hasn't been much of a way to solve this problem."

Departments stores and customers struggle to understand up-cycled product

Tome designers Ryan Lobo and Ramon Martin are focusing on pushing the sustainability of several parts of their business, especially denim. They debuted an "up-cycled and reclaimed" denim line for pre-fall, which has proven hard to price and scale and requires payment upfront in a way that's stressful for the small business. The first collection sold out, but they are not items that can be reproduced quickly or identically because they are produced from stockpiled denim. "We've been finding that the roadblock for us is our wholesale accounts," said Martin, stressing the longer lead time for the denim line. "It's also trying to educate the retailer, especially the big department stores. They are very difficult to get around... We have to educate the retailer to understand that these things work on their own calendar, and it's been very, very challenging [for] denim." Martin added that, as a result, Tome is expanding its core collection of items that are available every season and never go on sale. 

Some eco-friendly techniques aren't up to snuff for the luxury market

In addition to the vast social impact through his Shikshya Foundation Nepal, Prabal Gurung is exploring the use of organic cotton and bionic yarn (though high minimums for both have been a problem) as well as wet-green leather, an ecological leather tanning process which he says isn't up to luxury standards yet. "Since we are at the luxury price point, the product has to be the hero," said Gurung. "There's no doubt about it, it has to feel sensual, it has to feel glamorous... The woman who's buying the product wants aspiration, so we can't compromise just because it's environmentally friendly... if it doesn't feel great to touch. I know, it has been rejected before." 

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