There was a packed house for Monday’s “Real Fashion With Julie Gilhart” event as 180 people filled The RealReal’s Wooster Street store in Manhattan’s SoHo. The fashion industry-centric crowd came to hear a discussion about the social and ethical implications of sustainability with Public School designers Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow, and Carmen Gama, Renew designer for Eileen Fisher, which was led by Gilhart, founder of Julie Gilhart Consulting and a former fashion director of Barneys New York.
“You’re more socially responsible and transparent,” Gilhart said to Maxwell and Chow. “What happened?”
“I remember we were doing eight to 10 collections for DKNY,” said Maxwell, who with Chow in 2015, was hired as a co-creative director of the brand under LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. The designers exited when DKNY in 2017 was sold to G-III. “We were designing so much product, just to fill a line plan or accounts. We said, ‘What are we doing all this for?'”
Gilhart recalled that Osborne and Chow had gone to the 2017 Copenhagen Fashion Summit, and the designers described feeling a sense of epiphany after hearing Eileen Fisher speak.
“I have this responsibility to think about what I do for my children’s generation,” Chow said. “It all hit at the same time. We said we really have to change something. It has to be a joint effort, but you have to do your part.”
Fisher invited the Copenhagen audience to visit her company’s Tiny Factory in Irvington, N.Y. Osborne and Chow took her up on the offer, and requested a tour. Gama happened to be the guide. The Public School designers said, “Let’s do a collaboration,” and Fisher said, yes.
“My role is trying to be a solution for all this damaged inventory,” Gama said, referring to garments customers no longer want to wear and return to the brand as part of its apparel recycling program. “Public School came to the studio and we taught them how we sort and deconstruct pieces.”
“It was such a crash course,” Maxwell said. “Since the collaboration, we’ve wanted to do so much more.”
“Public School did a sweater, high-waisted jeans and a blouse,” Gama said. “They were really into learning. Eileen Fisher has a certain aesthetic and they took it to a different level. What you guys created was very cool and young streetwear.”
Maxwell said the brand’s collaboration with Timberland allowed it “to leverage partnerships with bigger companies that already have sustainability measures in place.”
Public School in 2018 began pulling all of its merchandise from its wholesale channels. “We’re only selling through our e-commerce channel,” Chow said. “We made a decision, we’re not milling any new fabrics. We’re using deadstock or recycled or upcycled material.”
“For all of 2018, we started from zero. We had to develop product for the site and do it in a completely new way. For us, it was really a plan for the future and our only choice,” Chow said.
“It was very hard to switch to a direct-to-consumer model,” Maxwell added. “It’s hard to scale. It’s taking steps backward as a business, but we feel good about what we’re doing for the planet.”
Chow emphasized that mentorship has been key and that he and Maxwell aren’t afraid to ask for help. “We’re kind of the emerging designers in the space,” he said. “We don’t have it figured out.” In fact, he admitted that he and Maxwell haven’t given up freelancing. “It’s really the mode of survival.”
Gama said Fisher romances the Renew products. “Customers are becoming more loyal because they know the story,” she said. “You have to tell the story of the beautiful business model you’re creating. You’re making them feel a part of the movement.
“I grew up with Eileen Fisher, thinking she was not cool at all and a brand that moms wore,” Gilhart said. “Then I came to New York and realized she’s the coolest brand ever.”