So many brands have closed or declared bankruptcy due to the financial pressures of the global pandemic that it's hard to keep track of them all. And though some citizens have pointed to this moment of unparalleled change as an opportunity to build back a more equitable, environmentally-conscious fashion industry, the truth is that small brands with a focus on ethics and sustainability are also often dealing with equally small margins, making them less likely to be able to weather the economic storm of this moment.
Even amidst news of cult favorites like Elizabeth Suzann and Matter closing, other small labels that have built their reputations on ethical production and sourcing are finding ways to hold on. Among those are Maggie Marilyn and Mara Hoffman, which have each explored new business strategies to stay afloat through the ongoing pandemic.
For New York-based Mara Hoffman, it started with scaling back. The team opted to not produce the already-designed Fall 2020 collection, instead focusing on merchandising and selling existing inventory, as well as debuting a smaller number of pieces for the Spring 2021 collection.
"My team and I looked at the amount of existing inventory we were currently sitting on, and made the challenging decision to do what was ultimately most in alignment with our internal mission of doing less harm," Hoffman wrote in a letter shared with Fashionista. "We committed ourselves to working with what we had as opposed to creating newness to pile on to an already existing mountain."
To that end, Hoffman's team released a very minimal lookbook and linesheets for buyers to consult for the Spring 2021 collection, and created a lookbook of collaged and remixed looks to showcase what the brand is calling the "current" or "pre-Spring 2021" collection, made up of existing inventory. But seasons themselves are about to become pretty flexible, Hoffman said in her letter.
"Our plan is to add styles to our offering in season and be able to be more responsive to our customers and business as a whole," she explained. "Within this time we also realized we were being given an opening to implement a lot of the things that we had been longing to do for years, such as restructuring our calendar to embrace a 'buy now wear now' philosophy."
Opting out of the traditional fashion production calendar is something Kiwi label Maggie Marilyn plans to do, too. A representative for the brand told Fashionista via email that the label will no longer produce new collections for every season. Instead, it will release seasonless collections that never go on sale.
"Clothing does not devalue over time or season to season," the brand wrote.
This leads to another similarity between Maggie Marilyn and Mara Hoffman's strategies: Both are pulling away from wholesale and leaning into their direct-to-consumer channels. This will allow the brands to build on the strong fanbases they already have while minimizing the discounting that happens when working with wholesalers. Maggie Marilyn in particular has committed to selling exclusively through DTC channels online or in person at the first Maggie Marilyn store (or "Home," in the brand's parlance), in the designer's home country of New Zealand.
The most visible change Maggie Marilyn is making, though, is in the clothes themselves. Designer Maggie Hewitt introduced Somewhere, a line of lower-priced basics like sweats and tank tops, last year. The idea was originally that this collection would complement the more pricey suits, dresses and blouses that Marilyn has become known for. But now, she says, she plans to convert Maggie Marilyn so that it's 95% those Somewhere pieces, and only 5% "Forever" pieces, a.k.a. the aforementioned designer goods.
Though some may be sad to see Maggie Marilyn become a brand that sells more gray sweats than fanciful pink suiting, the move makes good business sense. A representative for the brand claimed that since Somewhere launched, "Maggie Marilyn has seen a 140% revenue increase and 90% web traffic increase each quarter alongside a 95% increase in conversion rates year on year." It's hard to argue with those numbers.
Beyond leaning into DTC and bucking the traditional fashion calendar, another thing that both Maggie Marilyn and Mara Hoffman are focusing on is making clothing from regeneratively farmed materials. Hoffman introduced her first ever Climate Beneficial pieces — a unisex sweater and hat, which are certified by Fibershed to have been produced in farming systems that have a net carbon benefit. This desire to embrace regenerative agriculture is part of what prompted Hewitt to go all-in on her Somewhere line, too: Since it's the part of the brand offerings that's growing fastest, she reasoned, it has the most power to influence the supply chain for good.
"For the brand's partners to feel supported in investing in the transition to regenerative agriculture Hewitt needs to buy more from her growers, guaranteeing them a large enough portion of business," a Maggie Marilyn rep said. "It is Hewitt's aim to transition all fibers in this line to come from regeneratively farmed sources."
That move towards regenerative agriculture pushes both brands deeper into their ongoing commitments to sustainability. Considering that some surveys suggest that the pandemic has increased customer commitment to so-called "ethical consumption," that could end up being a smart business decision, in addition to being good for the planet.
Of course, the pandemic isn't over yet, and it's hard to guess what other surprises may still be in store in 2020, which has seemed endlessly capable of springing new madness on the world. But for now, these brands are charting the best path they can to make it through to the other side. As Hoffman wrote in her letter: "I firmly believe though that we are on our way (as spiraled as it may feel) to another side of this, and I am holding that vision firm."
Photo: Somewhere by Maggie Marilyn/Courtesy of Maggie Marilyn