There are no hard and fast rules about calling a fashion brand “sustainable” or “ethical.” The simple fact is every brand should be creating clothing with as little waste and environmental impact as possible. We’ve all heard the stats, “The world uses 1.3 trillion gallons of water each year for fabric dyeing alone, enough to fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools”; “The average costumer bought 60% more clothing in 2015 than 2000, but kept each garment half as long”; “The average American now generates 82 pounds of textile waste each year. That adds up to more than 11 million tons of textile waste from the U.S. alone.” This all adds up to a double faced issue: the first is that manufacturing clothing is like a bitch slap to Mother Earth and the second is that an entire generation of consumers views clothing as a transient purchase, to be worn limited times—or not at all—and thoughtlessly discarded.
The trick then lies in either not buying clothing, buying only used or vintage clothing, or being incredibly choosy about the clothing we do buy. If we choose the latter (and if you’re a reader of this site, let’s be honest, you’ll probably shop again) it’s about making sure that what we buy is coming from brands that limit their use of natural resources and overall impact on the environment. Perhaps even more important than that, though, is actually loving the few pieces we put our dollars behind so much that we plan on holding on to them for years to come—perhaps long enough to pass them along to a next generation. Here are four brands that hit the mark in four very different ways.
Who They Are:
Founded in 2014 by designers Nicole Heim and Chelsea Healy, this New York-based brand makes ultra-special pieces locally and builds seasonally on a foundation of basics. Their latest collection for Fall is equal parts chic caftans, flirty animal-print dresses and lavender suede trousers that somehow feel like closet basics—but so much more. Gigi Hadid, Gwyneth Paltrow, Emma Watson, and Naomi Watts are fans.
What are the key differences in how you work versus a traditional fashion brand?
Chelsea Healy: I think one key difference is the idea of purpose. We try to be purposeful in everything we do, from designing to producing to interaction with customers. This is something we felt passionate about from the very start and how we operate on a daily basis. We also hope that this comes through in our creative output.
How did your prior work in the industry lead you to creating Cienne?
Nicole Heim: After years of working as a designer for a large fashion brand, and spending a lot of time in overseas factories, I became intimately aware of what mass consumption looks like. Everything is digested in large amounts and at such a fast pace, and that comes at a cost. It personally started to really affect me—both as a consumer and as a designer. I began seeking out quality, creativity, and meaning in both my work and my life. I decided to quit my job and take a sabbatical in East Africa. It was a really transformational journey, and that work is what laid the foundation for Cienne. Thinking about how, why, and what we make is really important to me, and we set out to build that ideology in Cienne. I also felt the sustainable fashion available in the market had a specific aesthetic and messaging, I was really passionate about creatively reframing that.
CH: When Cienne was coming to fruition, I had already been working in the industry for 10 years with a major fashion brand. I was able to gain experience in many areas of the industry over that course of time; including textile design, styling, and concept-color-apparel design. I fortunately was able to travel overseas and work on factory floors, so I really got familiar with the process and how garments were made first hand. At a company like Cienne, you have to be 100% hands on in every area of the business- so my knowledge and prior experience was critical for this next chapter, and I’m not sure how I could have done without it.
What did you feel was missing in the fashion conversation, what did you want to do differently?
CH: I personally didn’t think anything in the market looked very unique, or it was very trend driven and overpriced. I value high quality pieces you can invest in and have as a part of your wardrobe for years. We wanted to create fashion that felt both interesting and necessary; with the idea that you could build a foundation for your wardrobe that could be enhanced upon season after season.
What do you dislike about how people talk about eco/sustainable/responsible fashion?
NH: Sustainability in fashion is still a very new thing, and we’re all still learning. It’s incredibly complex and still lacks simple definition, so it’s going to take education and time for us as an industry to accurately address what sustainability means to fashion in a more mainstream way. With that being said, what I dislike about the responsible fashion conversation is that if you’re a fashion brand that cares about people and planet and treating both fairly, you fall into this bucket of a ‘sustainable’ brand, and that can be the only thing people talk about. It’s also a specific conversation that often involves the same words which lack definition and aspiration. I’m very much a purist when it comes to design and creative. We put a great deal of effort and emotion into our creative process, and when we talk only about sustainability, it neglects the core of what we do – design. Fashion is about fantasy and emotion and discovery; I believe those things still need to be at the forefront of a brand, while values and vision and sustainability should be the foundation and a tool to how you do business. In my opinion, we will be successful when we can stop talking about sustainability as it’s own category or niche spot in the market, and instead come to expect it from the brands we buy from.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
CH: There are many words we use to describe Cienne’s aesthetic but my favorites are “Boldly subtle. Clean and feminine. Eclectic.”
NH: Our aesthetic is a mix of masculine and feminine, refined and playful, clean and bold. It’s the juxtaposition and nuance of these traits that inspire us.
What do you think the future of fashion should look like? What is “ideal consumerism?” in your opinion?
NH: Honestly, I’m not yet sure how we balance the concept of “ideal consumerism.” I do think we must find new ways and models of operating. We have been in an age of excess and carelessness for so long that we have done irreparable damage. In my personal opinion, waste is my biggest concern, and the future of fashion must be about making and consuming only what we need, in addition to finding innovative ways to put what we’ve already made back into the system.
CH: I believe the future of fashion is going to be about breaking free of all the old codes. Right now, fashion is a machine! How much we produce, how often we produce—these are areas that need innovation. I feel it needs to slow down to speed up; meaning, how can we do more with less? Striking that balance is the future. To me, ‘ideal consumerism’ is about steering consumers to make investment purchases and see the value in paying more for a higher quality garment that they will get more use out of.