Mara Hoffman is ringing in her business' 21st birthday in a somewhat unexpectedly old-school manner: by opening her first store.
"Our original intention was to open it in 2020, to mark our 20-year anniversary, and I don't need to let you know what happened," she says over the phone in December.
Back in early 2020, Hoffman explains, she and her team had been looking for a space, but had trouble locking down a spot for the first-ever Mara Hoffman store. In the end, "rejection is protection," the designer says: "Bigger forces were definitely happening, ultimately in our favor, so that we wouldn't have been locked into a lease and then gone into what would soon be the largest contraction that we had see as a company in our history."
The original concept was tabled, but it wasn't completely thrown out: The 20th anniversary came and went, and in the summer of 2021, Hoffman's commercial vice president came across a spot in Hudson, New York that would be well-suited for a seasonal pop-up. The team said, why not?
So, from May to October, Mara Hoffman got its first taste of stand-alone retail, a few hours' drive from its official HQ (and from where the founder originally envisioned she'd open up shop). The experience relit that hunger for an IRL space, and pushed the team to sign a Manhattan lease and make it official.
"We never let go of the understanding that what we do is a physical exchange," Hoffman says. "There's alchemy in walking into a space and feeling things and smelling the space you're in. It's an emotional interaction, and it should be that."
Mara Hoffman opened its doors at 183 Lafayette Street at the end of November, in a former foot massage spa that was opened up to let natural light in and was filled with plants, all by Hoffman herself. It was in the face of a global pandemic (not to mention a new variant), an extremely difficult landscape for brick-and-mortar and a notoriously tough time for this kind of business. It might be a while until the team is able to use the space at its full capacity, but for now, the possibilities within those white-washed walls are enough.
"Humans go back to longing for connectedness. It's how we're built," Hoffman says. "The fact that we now have a space for people to come together, to be in interaction with what we actually make — we knew that that desire wouldn't go away, that it would only grow, especially from the separateness that we've been in and the isolation, that having a place to bring people together would be that much more important."
Even before having the store, Hoffman and her team were constantly hosting in their old studio — guests, collaborators, groups, organizers. "It was such a gift that we had space to give people or space to hold for people, and that became a part of our DNA," she says. "When we contracted into this smaller space a year ago, it felt like a temporary loss of, 'Oh my God, our place. We don't have that to give anymore.' The store felt like remembering, 'We can bring people here. We can give this space to people. This can be a place for community and gathering.'"
There's a lot to come for the Mara Hoffman store — integrating its peer-to-peer resale program Full Circle into retail, merchandising in vintage pieces, bringing in artists to display their work (through a collaboration with Lisha Bay's Studio Archive Project) — but even in the short time the doors have been open, the designer has felt an impact.
"I can already tell that my relationship to the product is changing," she says. "Living with it in person is different than living with it in your studio while you're designing it, because then it leaves and you're into the next — but now you're living with it while people are interacting with it, while people are putting it on and talking about what they like about it or what doesn't work. And that has been awesome."
The designer is exhilarated by the first-hand feedback she gets in real time on the floor, from customers new and old talking about what’s working, what's not and what could.
"We have this one customer, she's our size 18, and she came in and knew exactly what she wanted, how she wanted it to fit, what she'd bought from us," Hoffman says. "I go back to my design team and I reference her by name — like, 'Well, actually, so-and-so let me know that she's looking for this.' It's actually changed the course of what has gone into the upcoming line sheets."
Out of the products currently hanging on its rack, it's the Amy dress, a stretchy long-sleeved bodycon style made from black-and-white popcorn fabric, that's surprised Hoffman the most.
"We're seeing so many different women with different shapes and aesthetics come in and gravitate towards it," she says. "That's always fascinating because, again, you see it — you don't see who's buying your clothes online, but spending time in the store, you actually do. It's our top-selling dress."
Even though the intention for the store had been there for a few years now, the idea of actually opening up a location felt "overwhelming" at times, the designer says: "We were always working on different parts and it felt less important, less urgent."
One such part has become a crucial, defining step of the business: its sustainability practice. It's been six years since Mara Hoffman started working towards production that was more mindful and less harmful on the environment, from the materials it used to how it manufactured its clothes. (You can read all about it on the brand's website.) Since then, "sustainable fashion" as a concept has moved more towards the forefront of the industry lexicon, tossed around much more frequently and freely, even as the climate crisis becomes more and more urgent.
Hoffman is quick to acknowledge the tireless, essential work that had already been done by her peers in this space, that allowed her and her team to learn and make the changes it has so far. ("Honestly, that's the whole work of this: If you're actually in and dedicated to it, you understand that if one ship rises, all ships rise. It's not a competitive sport. And if you're doing it for the right reasons, you really want everyone to do it.") Then, there are the major strides that have happened in the past few years, which have allowed for some significant changes in what the brand can do on a fiber level: First, it was swapping conventional poly-spandex-based swimwear fabric to a recycled material, now it's working towards shifting out of petroleum-based fabric entirely; it was moving away from conventional cotton in favor of organic cotton, now recycled cotton; it was releasing a cashmere and wool product group made entirely from post-consumer materials. Most recently, Mara Hoffman has been expanding its climate-beneficial offerings, and, ultimately the goal is to use "as many recycled fibers, but especially recycled natural fibers" as possible.
"Just to think about how much has been offered, how people have jumped on it, how mills have responded — those projects are so important to us and so exciting, but they've been built over the years," she says. "They were not there."
Hoffman pays it forward by being as transparent as she can, whether it's with customers or with competitors, about where the brand is at, what it has learned and where it wants to go. Again, this is a group effort: "Nothing can be proprietary if you're working towards the good."
There are different approaches, especially when you consider the scale of the business. If you're a small operation, she says, the first step is all about "going in and vetting your company, actually getting really sober about it and understanding how the parts are working and where you're contributing to something better and where you're not. That's how we approached it, by examining what was okay, what was urgently needing to change and what we could take a minute with and work towards as a goal."
Everyone in the business of making product, though, has to answer a tough, existential question: Why are you even doing this?
"If you don't have a particular point of view right now and you're just making clothing to be in the business, you shouldn't be here," she says. "Are you solving a problem? Are you part of a solution within your own design? How is the design itself actually warranting taking up space? Because the bottom line is, we don't need any more clothes. We don't need to be here. We're not sustainable just for the mere fact that we're manufacturing new clothes. That in itself is a fraught system. That in itself negates sustainability."
Once you're honest about that, the issue becomes what you're doing to, at the very least, reduce your impact on the world around you, Hoffman says: "Are there ways within your company that you're able to do that? Is it through your waste management? Is it with stopping using petroleum-based fabrics? It's really individualized, depending on what a company is making and what they're producing, where they're doing it and how they're doing it."
This is an ongoing process and commitment, one that requires not just self-reflection and humility, but constant reevaluation. And for Hoffman and her team, it goes beyond digging deep into fibers (though, that's been a big slice of it).
Take its recent efforts to recalibrate the business, placing less emphasis on wholesale and more on direct-to-consumer (DTC): It began when the team decided not to produce its well-received Fall 2020 collection after experiencing Covid-19-related delays from their manufacturing partners in China and Italy even before New York went into lockdown, which resulted in them only being able to ship out about 30% of the spring line.
"It left us with a ton of inventory that so many of our wholesale partners canceled on us," she says. "We were like, 'We're going to have to work through everything we already made first. If you want to partner with us, here's the clothes we have to offer.'"
It was a difficult call to make, but one that ultimately aligned with the brand's values: "It sets some more discipline. You can't get out of having a pile of things by making more things — we just can't do that." It also ties back to the idea of community and caring for one another, ensuring that everyone that contributes to your business, all the way down the supply chain, are looked after.
"Discomfort, as always, is the best catalyst to get you moving towards something that can be just a way better system," she says.
It's a difficult time to be in business — and it'll likely continue to be a difficult time to be in business in 2022 — but Hoffman remains optimistic. And, crucially, inspired.
"I always go on vogue.com to see all the shows. I love watching what everyone's creating," she says. "I love seeing this one-of-a-kind movement again. I came up in the '90s. I graduated in '99 and started my business by making all one-of-a-kind pieces. I see that there's this return, this circular cycle within fashion always, to what it means to be using the materials that already exist."
There's also the young designers coming up, the "connectedness between different brands and people and ideas" and this sense "that we could work with each other and collaborate on things" that Hoffman loves. Then, of course, there's her new "baby" on Lafayette.
"There's so much possibility and potential," she says. "The store really excites me. This is something that I will give my heart and soul to. I feel really alive right now. I know my voice sounds worn, but I'm really alive."