“It’s responsible shopping.” That’s what made Sonia Martin leave a career in New York fashion and move to San Francisco in October to become vice president of Design for Everlane, the direct-to-consumer fashion brand founded in 2011. With ambitions to be the next Gap, the brand offers its own minimalist-chic spin on basics, including glove-leather shoes, 60 percent recycled cotton Ts and high-waist denim, all manufactured with a commitment to transparency.
With experience honed at Banana Republic and Juicy Couture, Martin joins San Francisco’s budding tech-fashion community, distinguished by brands with a polished-casual aesthetic and a mission to tackle industry problems of sustainability, sizing and retail experience. She is one of several women in chief executive or leading creative roles at the top of the city’s stylish start-ups, which are starting to come of age, broadening product offerings and opening brick-and-mortar retail.
WWD visited her at the 24,000 square foot, 150-employee Everlane headquarters in San Francisco’s Mission district, not far from the brand’s Valencia Street store, which on a recent Monday morning had people waiting to get in at opening time. Martin shared her experience supervising a 13-person (and growing) design team, her views on San Francisco style and the priorities for the brand that has made a commitment to go virgin plastic-free (down to packaging) by 2021 and is on it way with the recent launch of its virgin plastic-free Tread sneaker.
WWD: Are there any similarities between working at Everlane and Juicy? Both seem to be of a particular moment in time, culturally — Juicy at the dawn of the celebrity fashion era, and Everlane at the dawn of the sustainability conversation in fashion.
Sonia Martin: The entrepreneurial nature is very familiar, defining and making things happen and then defining and building processes for the first time. The focus on product is familiar but the end product is completely different.
WWD: How did you fall in love with fashion?
S.M.: I grew up on a pig farm in England. My mom created what she thought was the perfect setting for a child, however I loved fashion and all I wanted to do was go to the city. Also, I grew up on secondhand clothes, that’s just what our family situation was. So for me, new clothes were really desirable, so from age 13 I had my first job, from age 16 I was getting the bus down to London to buy my very first designer Katharine Hamnett T-shirt; it cost 40 pounds.
WWD: You’ve held VP of design positions at Banana Republic and Juicy. What was your last job before this one?
S.M.: Consulting. When I left my last role, I wanted to open myself up, so I did everything from working with a fabric mill striving for sustainability in China, to working with a marketing company in New York on building a stronger female voice in the workplace and acting as a role model. I threw myself in everything to figure out what was exciting.
WWD: Did you have reservations about moving to San Francisco?
S.M.: Initially, I didn’t want to come to San Francisco but I wanted to come to Everlane. For me, that was the carrot. Now, we live in Mill Beach, which is very close to nature, and I’m so glad we took the risk and decided to do it. When it comes to talent, because a lot of people want to be part of Everlane, it’s been easier than I thought. Do they want to live in San Francisco maybe, maybe not, but they want to be part of Everlane. When I’m interviewing talent I can have that conversation because it’s my experience.
WWD: How is your design process geared toward the brand mission of sustainability?
S.M.: As a design team, all of us set the challenge that everything we do goes back to raw materials, looking at all of our ingredients and how can they be cleaner or more responsibly sourced, from organic cottons to regenerated wool, to non-virgin plastics. That’s our day job focusing on fabrics, the latest innovation and technology and applying them to modern silhouettes.
WWD: What’s coming up for fall?
S.M.: We launched this tailored jacket last year and are bringing it back. We have a mid-length, double-breasted wool coat that is insane, and a cocoon coat. We’re playing with shape and volume. Sleeve volume, proportion and length — just pushing it a little more.
WWD: Are you going in more of a fashion direction?
S.M.: A little bit more energy, I wouldn’t say fashion. We are very aware of what’s going on, that’s our job, to have the conversation and be able to identify things that have longevity. Talking about trends is part of our day jobs, what we do with it is the work. We’ve seen volume, we’re exploring longer lengths, a dropped shoulder, but our filter is one to two to three years. Where is the place in the wardrobe, what’s the rotation, how often are you wearing it?
WWD: What do you understand about your customers, what are they like?
S.M.: We go a lot to our two stores (the other is in New York), and every time I see someone wearing Everlane I ask them questions. Our customers are very engaged, every person cares about what we’re doing. That’s the first thing that comes up, they identify with the brand and purpose, quality and fit. I feel like the day glove [shoe] and the straight crop [pants] are the entrance and the tease to the brand, especially for female customers. And watching men shopping for themselves, and their engagement, is also fascinating They really identify with the brand and know the brand.
WWD: How much do you use data when you design?
S.M.: I love data, as designers we are not artists, we are here to solve problems. When we are looking at data about what we’re doing well, or there’s an opportunity to do something because of data we are seeing, that’s just smart design. It’s the way of the world. Because we are a tech company, data is just across the room, we can pull in information about shopping behaviors, how they are shopping, when they repeat. It is embedded in our culture and we have access to everything in live time. We know in the moment when something has sold. The moment a product has gone live we can watch.
WWD: Some fashion people are snobby about using too much data.
S.M.: I think you do both. It’s easy to be snobby. Ultimately, designers should use creativity to solve a problem. You have to bring it back to what people want to wear and why.
WWD: What’s the culture like here compared to fashion companies in New York and L.A.?
S.M.: When I first got here, I was struck by how friendly people were. They look up and give you eye contact and say hello, which is different from other companies where you get a grunt. Because we have communal breakfasts and lunches, everyone knows each other. We do things to foster culture, from massages to fireside chats to celebrations when things do well. I’ve been struck by that here and it’s not something I have had a lot of exposure to at the other brands. That’s part of what makes it special here. It’s a very kind company.
WWD: More democratic than “The Devil Wears Prada.”
S.M.: We all do everything, if you have a large ego or are used to others doing things for you, it wouldn’t fly. You are the beginning and the end.
WWD: Is there a specific fashion aesthetic coming out of San Francisco?
S.M.: San Francisco style, which is broad because there are tons of slices, is a desire for comfort, practicality and ease. There are things you’d feel preposterous wearing here. It’s a thinking and entrepreneurial city and the weather is constantly changing. It doesn’t mean people don’t have style, their choices are just different. It’s above trend or flair or needing to create an identity through what you wear.
WWD: What’s something exciting you’ve been working on recently?
S.M.: We are focusing on being virgin plastic-free by 2021, and taking new, regenerated wools and putting them into new product categories that we can’t talk about just yet.
WWD: Is there any limit to where Everlane can go?
S.M.: It needs to be grounded in basics, the foundation of where you’re living your life, but I don’t like to put limits. We need to be open-minded, timeless, modern, simple and relevant and look at how that folds into men’s and women’s. There are trends we follow, such as people wanting to be active and more comfort-based.
WWD: Do you feel the need to engage with the New York fashion community or have a presence at fashion week?
S.M.: Not really. People are curious because we are engaging consciousness, and modernity touches the fashion audience. But I just think we should keep eyes on what we’re doing and make sure that each product stands the test of time.