Three years ago, Mara Hoffman hit a wall. Her then 15-year-old business was in expansion mode, driven by the print-heavy, beach-y, bohemian contemporary that put her on the map yet with which she felt less and less in tune. “I had really grown out of it,” Hoffman recalled last week in her Fifth Avenue studio overlooking Madison Square Park. “It’s a really hard thing to do when you’re a brand, when people know you for this thing, but you’re not that thing anymore, but you’re making money from that thing. Buyers are counting on you for that thing, and the idea of changing people’s mind in an industry like this is kind of a challenging one.”
At the same time, Hoffman, partly pushed by considering the world that her young son would inherit, felt her personal ethics were increasingly at odds with the more, more, more nature of a conventional fashion business in terms of manufacturing, production and pollution. “I felt it would be impossible to change because we had really built this moving machine with all these parts based on systems that were tried and true,” she said. “They were working, and I didn’t have any idea as far as what it would mean to make my company less harmful, like what that even really entailed.”
She considered closing entirely. “I really didn’t see a clear path of how to change, and I knew that I wanted to be something completely different or I didn’t want to do this,” said Hoffman. “I wasn’t being fulfilled on this worldly level of ‘OK, at least I feel good because I’m a known designer.’ It didn’t feed it, it didn’t matter anymore.” Her head of production Dana Davis, who Hoffman describes as “less emotional and more pragmatic” than her, redirected her energy toward problem-solving on a micro level, targeting fabrics in their swim business and finding a recycled poly and recycled nylon spandex that was strong enough and relatively easy replacement for their traditional spandex blend. The company also moved to a digital printing process, which used far less water and created less waste in cutting garments than the traditional wet printing process it had been using. “They were two of our major manufacturing components we changed really rapidly and it didn’t mess up the garment, it didn’t change the reaction from our customers, and it gave us the confidence to say, ‘OK, we can hit it with this,’” Hoffman said.
Expanding the shift from conventional to natural materials for ready-to-wear was a bigger investment, but Hoffman decided this was the time to double down and make a major shift in aesthetics and sustainability at the same time. It was a major risk that required what she calls “conscious contraction for a conscious expansion.” The business got smaller. Hoffman hired a new sales director and cleared out a good portion of wholesale accounts. Prints were minimized in favor of solids on natural, more sustainable materials. She eliminated silk (the worms) and polyester to work with organic cotton, hemp, no-dye alpaca, Tencel, linen, pre-consumer waste cotton and Tencel modal. She works with Canopy to vet viscose, Nest to source weavers and help with auditing a production partner in India, and produces in New York, Los Angeles, Italy and Asia. The look became less beach-raver, more refined, timeless and natural. Prices went up. Hoffman’s average $240 dress became in the upper $300s, lower $400s. Dresses now range from $300 to $700.
In the short term, this caused a conscious contraction to Hoffman’s bottom line, which she was able to manage because her business has always been completely independent. Her first collection reflecting the more pared-down aesthetic and sustainable fibers was spring 2017. “When you show up looking different, the buyers that have been buying you are disappointed because this isn’t what their customers are buying from them,” said Hoffman. “They’re like, ‘Where’s the tight fitted, superbright, crazy stuff? That’s what I buy from you, why would I buy solids from you? So what it’s organic? So what it’s less harmful, why would I buy these pieces from you that’s covered from another designer?’”
Three years later, Hoffman’s volume is still not quite what it was when she was deep into her print-heavy bread and butter, but she’s out of contraction mode. “We’re seeing that level of trust and the outside world believes in it and does not immediately think of Mara Hoffman as this one thing that they knew a few years ago,” she said. “We’ve been consistently showing up, and that was hard in the beginning.” Under the new direction, she’s expanded her business with Net-a-porter, picked up Matchesfashion.com, Browns in London and smaller boutiques like Bird.
“We see our growth starting to pick back up now,” said Hoffman. “What I get most excited about what we did, beyond feeling like we could change ourselves, was proving a point that you can change a company, and that it’s a doable feat.” She noted that sustainability is tricky territory. She’s been hesitant to tout her practices as a marketing angle, cautious to avoid “greenwashing,” and only in the last month has added more information under the “approach” section on her web site.
Hoffman acknowledges that sustainability is complicated, and to some extent you have to pick your poison. Aside from using responsible fabrics, her company has set a commitment to have a take-back system by 2020, so it can repair, dismantle or recycle garments from its customers. In the shorter term, she’s scouting retail locations in New York.