Sustainability in fashion is a journey, not a destination, and also a word that's lost much meaning in today's green-washed world. It's notable, then, that Svilu's Britt Cosgrove and Marina Polo avoid that term, often preferring "thoughtfully designed" or "mindfully made" to describe their approach to creating effortless, everyday clothing in a conscious and efficient way. The designers were working together at Peter Som in 2012 when they decided to launch their own label, and now, in their seventh season, Cosgrove and Polo have honed their approach to transparent and responsible design.
Their first priority is fabrics, which requires extensive research. It's a challenge to determine the origins of materials and seek certifications — not to mention meet factory minimums as a small-scale brand. So Cosgrove and Polo have invested in core fabric groups that can work for multiple seasons, like recycled poly crepes and organic cotton shirtings. Fabric-dyeing is another major point of concern; for example, Cosgrove and Polo partnered with a dyer they found via Instagram on a capsule collection of organic cotton sweaters for spring 2017. The artist creates custom, non-toxic dyes made from foraged and found plants. "[The hand-dyeing results] are going to be totally unique, so each piece will be a little bit different," says Cosgrove. Minimizing waste is another key commitment for Svilu: The designers thoroughly pre-plan their pieces, and about 95 percent of their samples go into production. They cut to order, and leftover fabrics from past collections are used to create limited-edition styles.
Svilu's modern and mindful approach hasn't gone unnoticed by the industry. Cosgrove and Marina were winners of the 2013 CFDA/Lexus Eco Fashion Challenge and are currently participating in the CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative (a 17-month business development program), the second round of which has allowed them to consider their longer-term growth and goals. It has also prompted the designers to think about how they can better tell Svilu's story to consumers. The collection is available at 25 retailers around the world, but Cosgrove and Marina want the brand's site to serve as an information hub in a way that's reflective of the considered production process without being overwhelming. The designers understand that shoppers often find and buy Svilu simply because they like the clothes, so smart, timeless design still outweighs everything else. But the duo believes that reducing waste and minimizing toxins isn't just their responsibility as designers; it's smart business practice as well.
Read on for our conversation with Svilu's co-founders, Britt Cosgrove and Marina Polo.
How did you both meet and how did you decide to launch a brand together?
Britt: We worked for Peter Som and we knew worked well together. We had a common desire to take on making a collection with a thoughtful premise, and that's where it came from.
Marina: It sort of came to a natural place, and I think I was about to turn 30 — we were just turning 30.
You both had a lot of experience in fashion, but what surprised you about launching your own brand?
Britt: I think it's a little bit different when you're working for a company and you're really focused on being a designer versus doing everything [for yourself]. You're really learning the ropes behind the business. And the business side of things was really interesting — it took some time for us to get the hang of it. But you have a better understanding of your product when you'e looking at it not just from a designer [point of view], but knowing all the bottom lines and all the things that go into it. You make better decisions I think, when it comes to designing.
What have been some of the biggest changes to Svilu since its launch?
Britt: I think it's more and more about effortlessness and ease and the ability to wear it all year round. I think in some of the beginning seasons, we were really excited about "seasons" and we've realized that we have customers that live in LA, we have customers that live in Korea. We want to be able to not have to put something away at the end of a season that's overly heavy or overly light. We have some of those pieces, but it's about being more transitional and more timeless in a way.
What have you learned from the CFDA Lexus Challenge and Initiative?
Britt: When we went to the boot camp for the collection [in May], we really learned about the big questions — that was super-informative. We chose the mills that we worked with this season and tightened it up. We found some new mills and some new sources. I think maybe the timelessness as well, thinking about [being] less seasonal all the time.
Has anyone mentored you through this process?
Marina: Friends with business backgrounds.
What kind of mentorship have you had from Amber?
Britt: She's just great. We ask her a lot of questions and we run business ideas by her. And she's really passionate about responsible design and she speaks to it really eloquently. She's been a supporter and brings us in when things make sense.
How do customers find you? What's their entry point to the brand?
Britt: It's a couple different ways... through press exposure. Wholesale is really great because we get to spread our clothes though so many different markets, like Asia and Europe.
Marina: Yes, being in Japan, South Korea. Those are markets we don't otherwise have access to, so that's been great.
Britt: Sometimes people I think are searching specifically for responsible fashion and we get connected through [that] a lot, and they'll email us. But people tend to buy it because they like the clothes.
Who is your ideal customer?
Britt: I think it's a woman who really knows herself and knows how she likes to dress and is quietly confident. The clothes don't speak louder than the woman; it's about the woman wearing them — we just want to elevate her.
This interview has been edited and condensed.