If you walk into Bloomingdale's and start browsing through bomber jackets, jumpsuits and T-shirts from the brand Uniform, you'll find a similar quality of design and construction as you'd expect from a brand sandwiched between A.P.C. and Alexander Wang on the sales floor.
But if you look at the price, you might be surprised. At $88 for a bomber or $22 for a T-shirt, Uniform's wares are cheaper than Zara's. Even more surprising than the price-to-quality ratio, however, is the fact that Uniform makes Zara-priced clothing without any of Zara's ethical shortcomings.
"We know so many amazing people that will canvas for Greenpeace or be the first person at this protest or that one," Uniform founder Chid Liberty explains. "But when it comes to shopping, they'll go for fast fashion or high street brands, because they have cool clothes that are really affordable. We want to give those people the opportunity to buy what they want and be ethical and not have that cost them more than it should."
The seed for Uniform was planted in 2010, when Liberty started the first fair-trade certified factory in Africa. After a childhood in Wisconsin and a career in Silicon Valley, the Liberian-born entrepreneur was ready to find a way to give back to his war-torn country of origin. While he and his business partner Adam Butlein initially toyed with the idea of starting a microfinance bank, visiting Liberia convinced them that what local Liberians needed most were jobs.
"There was more than an 80 percent unemployment rate and more than 80 percent poverty rate," Liberty says. The apparel manufacturer he and Butlein set up hoped to address that issue, specifically by providing jobs for women — and for awhile, the plan worked. Liberty & Justice, as the factory was called, did booming business filling orders for American brands like Prana, Whole Foods and Haggar.
Then the devastating Ebola outbreak happened in West Africa. The World Health Organization declared the situation in the Liberian capital of Monrovia "catastrophic," calling it "the most severe acute public health emergency seen in modern times." The factory, like much of the capital city, shut down entirely for nine full months. When the situation had stabilized enough for workers to return to the factory — many of whom desperately needed the work — most of the large contracts with American companies had been lost as a result of the halt in production.
At that point, Liberty and his partner knew they had a choice. They could admit defeat, or they could start over completely from scratch. They chose the latter.
They decided to found Uniform, thinking it would be a good way to use the excess fabric they still had lying around the factory from unfulfilled past orders. They had also learned during their time in Monrovia that many Liberian children were unable to attend school simply because they couldn't afford a school uniform, and they decided to address that in their business model, too. In a similar model to Toms or Warby Parker, for every Uniform item purchased in the U.S., the company would donate a school uniform to a child who couldn't afford it.
"There's great research from MIT saying that if you gave a child a uniform, [school] attendance goes up by 62 percent, test scores go up by a quarter standard deviation and teen pregnancy is drastically reduced," Liberty explains of the reasoning behind this move.
While the "one for one" business model has received much criticism from international development experts for the way it can undercut the economies of the communities it claims to help, Uniform's model was built to address those failings. By producing uniforms locally rather than importing them and donating something that has a measurable impact on its recipients, Uniform was able to take the old model and improve it.
Luckily, the "one for one remix" was no less appealing to Western consumers, and Uniform's first Kickstarter reached its $50,000 funding goal in the first five hours. The brand was able to expand beyond its initial offering of simple T-shirts and oxfords to introduce the range of cool loungewear, pants and dresses that it includes today.
The brand's positive impact doesn't stop at donating uniforms or providing Liberian women with jobs. It's also committed to sourcing textiles in as environmentally friendly a manner as possible, and the original Liberian factory where it all began is 49 percent worker-owned. Liberty has also worked to develop a Made in Africa network, which is comprised of a collection of factories committed to conservation and empowering workers. Liberty hopes that Uniform's success in manufacturing with these ethical partners in different African countries will set an example that shows what's possible on the continent.
"People are looking to Africa as the next big manufacturing hub, which makes me really happy," he says. "But I think if the goal were to be 'let's re-create China,' we'd be missing a big opportunity. What I would like to see is that these factories are operating with workers and the environment as a big part of the equation."
As the brand continues to grow, celebrities from Shaquille O'Neal to Whitney Port of "The Hills" fame have joined the Uniform fanclub, and A$AP Ferg has signed on to collaborate on an upcoming capsule collection. Liberty is confident that what's catching on is about more than just the mission — it's about practical, cool and affordable clothes that wearers actually feel and look good in. "In many ways the clothes speak for themselves," he notes.
"I think people see our best-selling bomber jacket and they go, '$88? How is that possible?'" laughs Liberty. "But we think that when you overcharge people for ethics, that dissuades them from buying an ethical brand. And we're big believers in moving markets and the ethical apparel space. We're not as cheap as the fastest fast fashion brands, but you know when you buy something from Uniform you're not overpaying."