On Monday the CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative, hosted a half-day conference at the Andaz Hotel in New York as an ideas/feedback exchange between its participants, mentors and advisory board members. Sharing is caring. The 10 brands participating in the 17-month residency, which aims to increase sustainability, presented their sustainability goals and focuses as well as the challenges they’ve faced while implementing new practices.
The labels involved in the initiative range from jewelry to accessories to ready-to-wear. The full range of participants includes Aurora James for Brother Vellies; Sara Beltran for Dezso by Sara Beltran; Erin Isakov for Erin Snow; Katie deGuzman and Michael Miller for K/LLER Collection; Nicholas and Christopher Kunz for Nicholas K; Prabal Gurung; Marina Polo and Britt Cosgrove for SVILU; Ramon Martin and Ryan Lobo of Tome; Wing Yin Yau of WWAKE, and Maria Cornejo of Zero + Maria Cornejo. Panel members included Julie Gilhart, Melissa Joy Manning, Kristy Caylor and Linda Greer.
At the end of the program, which began in November 2015 and runs through March 2017, the jury will select one recipient for a $150,000 grant and two recipients of $50,000 grants.
Some of the most interesting feedback came from the higher profile labels not overtly associated with sustainability, a word with a very broad definition. Martini and Lobo of Tome have worked to decrease the impact of dyes and leverage organic fabrics with their white shirt project, a capsule collection of white shirts. They’ve also deliberately worked natural tones in their runway collections to eliminate the dye process from several items. They introduced a denim capsule made complete of upcycled or recycled denim. Some of the challenges that come along with their projects are meeting delivery times and incurring the cost upfront of buying materials without orders.
“What does sustainability mean to us?” Gurung said. “We look at it through social, environmental and economic lenses. Our focus is on materials, processes, factories and futures.”
He noted that 85 percent of his collection is made in New York; the majority of the knitwear is made in Nepal, where Gurung grew up. Much of his sustainable efforts are making a social impact in Nepal, where he established the Shikshya Foundation five years ago to educate and support underprivileged children. Two years after an earthquake devastated the region, he has raised over a million dollars for relief efforts.
As for joining the CFDA + Lexus Initiative, he’s focused on the more common notion of sustainability as eco-mindedness with materials. He noted that his spring 2017 runway collection will utilize fabrics made with Himalayan nettle fiber.
“There are a lot of workers [in Nepal] who have been trying to create clothing out of it but the finish hasn’t been really great,” Gurung said. “This time around they’ve been able to create something really amazing and it helps the local workers, it helps the environment, and it grows nonstop so there’s no deforestation.” He’s also launching a small jewelry collection working with Nepalese artisans, and will be working with recycled and eco-friendly packaging for his forthcoming e-commerce launch in the fall.
Among the challenges, he noted, were high minimums for organic cottons and vegetable dyed leathers that are still in the testing phase. “Since we are at a luxury price point, the product has to be the hero,” Gurung said. “We have a great presence on the red carpet….The woman who’s buying us wants that dream. We can’t compromise just because something is environmentally friendly and all of a sudden it doesn’t feel great to touch.”
Cornejo also talked about the struggle to find materials that are up to par with the luxury positioning of her brand. “One of the biggest challenges is to make desirable product [with eco materials],” she said. “Part of being sustainable is also having a business….We started doing this and, to be honest, I almost chickened out [of the program]. It’s been through one of the hardest years retail-wise and wholesale-wise. Trying bring the whole company on board while expecting all these changes…has been really challenging.”
But Cornejo didn’t chicken out. She and her business partner Marysia Woroniecka have always used sustainable fabrics where possible, but after being selected for the CFDA+ Lexus Fashion Initiative, they became more committed. Cornejo said one of the best pieces of advice she received was to get her whole team on board. In April, they introduced the Re-Fashion Recycling Bin, a textile-specific recycling bin that’s part of the City of New York’s official clothing reuse program. Cornejo also decided to design fewer styles but make them more enduring and less disposable.
She converted her shoe leathers to vegetable dyed leather; the viscose drape from which the majority of her collection is cut was redeveloped from a yarn that is obtained without illegal deforestation and utilizing no forbidden chemicals, either in its manufacture or in the way that it is dyed. She also has a series of knitwear initiatives, working with a group of women knitters in Bolivia and using only organic cotton for all cotton knits. She’s changed her hangtags to tell the sustainable side of the story.
Cornejo also pointed out that being sustainable is about company ethos. “Part of being sustainable is that after 18 years [in business] I’m going to be able to take three weeks off,” she said to a round of applause. “I pay people correctly and they have medical insurance. It’s about the whole process; it’s not just the materials.”