Dao-Yi Chow, Maxwell Osborne

As the winner of the top prize for this year’s CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative, Public School’s Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne are ready to accelerate a sustainability-friendly plan that was months in the making.

While the program’s winner takes home a $100,000 grant, all of the participants considered their efforts to be an everybody-wins kind of situation. In advance of Thursday night’s wrap-up party at Intersect by Lexus in New York, all of the contenders discussed the upsides of being part of the program. A few addressed the potential to share and scale up their ideas with others. “Designed to inspire commitment to transformative leadership, sustainable innovation and positive change,” the initiative consisted of a nine-month virtual residency with an emphasis on sustainable innovation. In addition to the Public School duo, Abasi Rosborough’s Abdul Abasi and Greg Rosborough; Araks’ Araks Yeramyan; Jonathan Cohen’s Jonathan Cohen and Sarah Leff, and Tracy Reese were vying for the $100,000 grant. After Thursday’s presentations, Lexus and the CFDA upped the ante — deciding to award Reese with a $5,000 social impact award for her passion toward sustainability and social impact.

The industry is the second biggest consumer of water, generating around 20 percent of the world’s wastewater and releasing half-a-million tons of synthetic microfibers into the ocean annually, according to the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion. The average consumer buys 60 percent more pieces of clothing than 15 years ago, but only keeps each item for half as long.

Despite sustainability being an industry buzzword in design studios and board rooms, there is considerable work needed for circularity. Public School’s Chow said, “I think everyone’s best intentions are there. But until we can have some kind of institutional knowledge and practice for it, it still feels really segmented. Everyone is really wanting to do their part — what’s specific to their business. It doesn’t feel like there’s any momentum ever. And maybe that’s what change is,” he said. “It just feels really segmented. Maybe it’s supposed to be that way.”

Through its new V-to platform, Public School will offer sustainable garments and, at a later date, fabrics. The company’s strategic partner Alan Mak described the project as “an overall blank program” that will be opened up to the entire industry to use. The aim is to have a “wide-reaching impact” beyond its own business, he said. “The idea is to be able to create a program that is brand-agnostic to us. It’s something that is universal that people can really get on board with. It’s not necessarily tied to Public School.”

Making the point that sustainability is “kind of a loose word that doesn’t mean a lot,” Osborne said, “It’s important to create a bigger call to action for people. That’s why this other platform and brand is inclusive. It’s not just about Public School. It’s about everybody getting on board to try to make changes.”

One lesson Reese has learned through the initiative is “that you definitely have to partner and collaborate in order to be successful. That’s not something I have always been good at. I hate the term ‘using connections,’” she said. “I think it’s more about gaining friends who are like-minded and collaborating on ways to affect positive change.”

She has also figured out how to incorporate social responsibility into her company’s DNA and mission, instead of “having to hack out” free to work for causes that she believes in. Reese will open an artisan studio in Detroit with the help of an organization that is bringing industrial manufacturing into the city. The slant is state-of-the-art and sustainable fashion with an emphasis on training and new technology. “It’s really about taking the industry forward in this country in a sustainable way,” Reese said.

Her to-do list includes hiring a director and trainer to help manage the studio, and joining the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. Reese also plans to visit the China factory that she uses to work one-on-one on sustainable solutions and discuss labor and human rights issues. Reese also is intent on sourcing more organic and sustainable materials from China. “That’s a bit of a challenge, so you really need to be on the ground to see the facilities for yourself. I also want to travel to India to source organic fabrics and get inspired by some of the incredible embellishments and techniques,” Reese said.

All too familiar with media reports of “how the wholesale model is crumbling with every season, bringing deeper discounts, longer sales seasons, excess inventory and waste that is part of the system,” Abasi Rosborough’s founders decided that virtual design could be a solution. The routine of working with a patternmaker, making prototypes, developing a final collection, flying internationally to meet with buyers, aggregating production to make everything in New York, shipping to stores four or five months later no longer works — never mind how unseasonable weather may affect sales, he said.

Virtual design and vertical manufacturing saves time and resources, they said. A design can be created and released the same day with a photorealistic virtual asset. In turn, orders can be taken and tested in the market to create a more strategic sales model. “The idea would be every single thing we make would have a home and it would be a wanted or needed garment. It would not be something that is meant to go sit in a store with the hope that someone comes across to buy it. The key component would be 3-D design technology backed by vertical manufacturing,” Rosborough said.

To put this business model in motion, they offered fabric samples so that people could choose which fabric they wanted for fall. For future collections, people will be able to see all designs and all fabrics will be digitized. “It sounds like sci-fi stuff, but it’s actually achievable and easy. We can provide VR headsets so that anyone can see the collection in a virtual space anywhere in the world without having to fly there to show them the actual garments. In a few years’ time, looking at a VR headset will be like looking at our phones right now. It will be commonplace,” Rosborough said.

Abdul Abasi said, “Essentially, it will be more like a tech company where we are more about integrating design efficiencies using a computer. What we want to create is to have a vertical business model. We will have laser-cutters in our office so that we can transfer the physical patterns into digital patterns very rapidly. So we would be cutting out a lot of the processes that we use now to save resources, time, human effort and cost. That would also be cutting down our carbon footprint and making us more efficient…but essentially we believe the idea is super viable. A brand like H&M could take the same model and completely revamp the way that we do business. We are creating a new paradign for how clothes, consumers and designers are all looped in.”

While his company’s first industrial sewing machine was being delivered Wednesday afternoon, Cohen said he has already adopted plans developed through the initiative. Digital sketching has replaced sketching on paper, and a new system is in place to upcycle fabric scraps. The American-made label has always been conscientious about how its apparel is made and factory workers’ well-being, he said. Using his apartment for a studio for the first five years of his business, Cohen said how to reduce waste was a frequent topic of conversation. “Now when we’re cutting all the textiles, all of our factories have hampers to save all the scraps. We collect the scraps and weave them into new textiles to make new products. So nothing goes into a landfill and we’re making money from it,” Cohen said.

After doing a case study, he and Leff determined that a production run for 120 units of a dress resulted in $2,400 wasted and 96 yards of fabric wound up in the trash. As a luxury business that is made to order, Jonathan Cohen will use any excess fabric for a direct-to-consumer model. The material can be recut into existing shapes and sold. A test of the concept at a few trunk shows resulted in 30 dresses being sold in a matter of weeks. The upcycled looks will be sold under “The Studio” label, which is different from his signature collection and will not compete with existing accounts, Cohen said. The upcycled collection will launch in partnership with Farfetch next month.

Cohen is collaborating with the Weaving Hand, a Brooklyn weaving studio and healing arts center that uses weaving to enhance development skills of emotionally, intellectually and physically challenged individuals. His company has also teamed with Luisa Cevese of Riedizioni, which recycles textile scraps into polyurethane.

Yeramyan said the CFDA-Lexus program helped sharpen her priorities. Her goal is to be entirely circular by 2030. Having always incorporated organic elements and recycled nylon for her collection, she has started changing all of her fabrics to organic ones wherever possible. When that is not an option, Yeramyan ensures that they have the same dyeing and finishing that organic ones have. For example, the mesh nylon she used to use for lingerie is now a recycled nylon. And a newfound recycled nylon lace will be included in next season’s collection. Fifty percent of her label’s swimwear is being made from recycled materials, she said. Recycled options are being added to her company’s lingerie, too. She said, “I have been doing recycled swim since I started. But I didn’t really talk about it until I was in this program. It was just something that I did because it was important to me.”

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