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NEW YORK — The winners of the CFDA +  Lexus Fashion Initiative, devoted to the implementation of ethical and sustainable business practices, were revealed Thursday evening during a cocktail reception in the penthouse of the Greenwich Hotel here. Erin Isakov of performance line Erin Snow won the top prize of $150,000. Maria Cornejo of Zero + Maria Cornejo and Wing Yin Yau of Wwake, were the two runners-up, each collecting $50,000 to put toward the strategies they worked on over the course of the program.

There were 10 finalists in total, including Brother Vellies by Aurora James, Dezso by Sara Beltran, K/LLER Collection by Katie DeGuzman and Michael Miller, Nicholas K by Nicholas Kunz and Christopher Kunz, Prabal Gurung, SVILU by Marina Polo and Britt Cosgrove and Tome by Ramon Martin and Ryan Lobo.

During his address, Steven Kolb, president and chief executive officer of the CFDA, noted that the 17-month program was the “inaugural” CFDA Lexus Fashion Initiative, which may have confused some in the audience who could swear they’ve been attending this event for the past several years. “It’s not our first sustainable program with Lexus — we used to do the CFDA Lexus Eco Challenge.” said Kolb after the winners were disclosed, clarifying that the previous iteration required applicants to submit a business plan and portfolio demonstrating a percentage of sustainability. “It was like, ‘OK, we like you, this is great,’ but it didn’t have the connection to mentors and experts, workshops and resources that this program has.”

The finalists in the CLFI worked closely with a panel of mentors and judges including Julie Gilhart, Anna Scott Carter, Natalie Chanin and Lewis Perkins of Cradle To Cradle to identify environmental, social and financial challenges in the fashion industry with a focus on new materials, responsible sourcing, ethical manufacturing, supply chain manufacturing and scalable business strategies. The program is a bit like the crunchier, do-gooder cousin of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund.

Over the course of the program, Cornejo, who had previously used sustainable fabrics where possible, implemented a commitment to sustainability across her whole team. Last year she introduced a Re-Fashion Recycling Bin, a textile-specific recycling bin that’s part of the City of New York’s official clothing reuse program. In working on her collections, she 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.

Jewelry designer Yau focused on investing in the communities and supply chains that mine her stones. “We’ve made so many changes internally and learned so much about community building with designers in New York and at every level of people we work with,” said Yau. “Whether the education partners, our vendors, or the actual miners at the sites. It really makes you realize how one single purchase of a ring can impact the lives of an entire supply chain.”

Isakov’s business has been built on sustainability since she launched 14 years ago with skiwear. She’s since expanded into yoga, pilates and studiowear, as well as more lifestyle-oriented items. “Our entire business is run in a really specific way with a lot of rules,” she said. “We have a design process that starts with complete transparency — I know where everything comes from. What was great about this program is I got to hit pause and take time to look at the little things, like our zippers and trim vendors. I made everyone sign our bad chemical list and do full factory evaluations, which are things that are hard to take the time and stop to do for a small business.”

Kolb noted that the program was a learning process for the CFDA too. “We learned that 17 months is too long,” he said. “We’re opening CLFI 2.0 for applications next month and we’ll be shortening the program to 12 months.”

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