MILAN — While the fashion industry is increasingly messaging to consumers that buying secondhand and renting are the ways forward to disrupt fashion’s waste circle, expanding clothing’s life cycle by way of repair and alterations has not gained the same traction as a solution.
Tommaso Melani founded the RfForPeople men’s and women’s apparel and footwear brand last September to address this, on the strong belief that repair should be embedded in fashion’s business models. A seasoned businessman, Melani is also cofounder, president and chief executive officer of luxury footwear company Stefano Bemer; as well as CEO of tailor Sartoria Vestrucci; member of the board at leather goods atelier Scuola del Cuoio, and president of Schola Academy, a workshop for leather artisans, all based in Florence.
After running the New York marathon in 2005, he had a pair of Nike shoes he simply could not throw away. It took him around 15 years to find a solution, but when he asked the Tuscany-based artisans of Stefano Bemer to refashion them the finished product was “very cool,” as he put it.
The memory-filled sneakers got him thinking about challenging the traditional fashion manufacturing model and put circularity and repair at the center of the conversation.
“I started thinking about circular fashion and how to turn upcycling into a scalable and worthy business…my goal was to avoid clothing ending up in a landfill, or at least to find solutions to recycle every other component that needs to be disposed,” Melani said speaking over Zoom from New York, where the brand has recently wrapped up a pop-up shop at Doors, a retail platform for emerging design talent at 27 Greene Street in SoHo.
Clean and sleek sneakers, as well as understated and timeless basics, including T-shirts, jeans and peacoats with a normcore bent, are manufactured within 300 miles from Florence where the company is headquartered and Melani carefully selects his suppliers, which include denim company Berto and Manteco, a woolen mill with a sustainable vocation.
While producing more fashion sounded counterintuitive to Melani’s mission, each sneaker (designed to be resoleable) and garment comes with a return label for customers to send back their damaged or worn-out items and apply for the company’s Refashion program designed to give a second chance and extend the products’ lifecycle via alternations performed by the company’s artisans. This also applies to sneakers — and clothes — from other brands.
“It’s a low-margin business, but I believe in this so much that I’m committed to keep the service alive no matter what,” offered Melani, noting that he also plans to introduce personalization services on refashioned items in due time.
Pieces that cannot be reworked and upcycled are managed responsibly, their components recycled for new productions. RforPeople has also pledged to offset its logistics-related carbon footprint by planting trees in partnership with Treedom. It avoids overstocking by carefully monitoring its inventory levels and does not plan sales or discounts.
As for the new clothing and footwear, the entrepreneur explained that the brand’s sustainable pillars are centered across four areas, in addition to the Refashion-powered recycling. They include the use of GRS-certified and circular fabrics, such as recycled cotton, denim, wool and recycled rubber; sourcing of deadstock material from local artisanal ateliers; use of secondhand fabrics offered by luxury and premium labels, and animal welfare, guaranteed by supplying leather from the Leather Working Group ethical consortium of tanneries.
“The brand was built upon and around the key [sustainable and circular] message and [unique selling proposition] we wanted to telegraph,” Melani explained. “We managed to tick all the boxes we had set and so we’re confident in communicating what we have achieved so far.”
RforPeople already applied for the B Corp certification and it expects to obtain the seal in 2023.
“Sustainability is the face of the brand. Whoever helms the company in the future, they will need to comply with the statute and its values,” he underscored.
With clothes retailing between $105 and $1,190 and footwear priced at $340, or $390 for Refashion-ed editions, the brand launched direct-to-consumer via its proprietary e-commerce site, but Melani is in talks with showrooms to test the wholesale channel by landing at select boutiques starting in fall 2022.
After the Green Street’s pop-up, there’s more retail experimentation in the pipeline with similar activations in New York and Milan.