The Slow Way
The Slow Way
Five fashion designers make patience a virtue.
Everybody we know wears clothes – and where do they get those clothes? Typically, they buy them from chain stores stocked with apparel shipped from overseas factories. Who makes the clothes? Anonymous, sometimes exploited, workers, whose wages are kept low to keep prices attractive for consumers. It’s called “fast fashion.”
But there are exceptions – and perhaps even a trend in another direction. In the following pages, you’ll read about five American designers operating with a different paradigm. One weaves cloth from fiber produced by local farmers. Another calls the Tennessee factory workers who make his jeans “people that we trust and love.”
If the success of these designers is any indication, more people are seeking alternatives to fast fashion. And that’s a trend worth celebrating. ~The Editors
Fashion designer Juliana Cho limits her Annelore collection to 30 pieces per season, and that’s probably just fine with her customers. “They are interested in investment pieces to add to their wardrobes,” she says, “not in trendy, mass-produced clothing they see in every magazine and store.” Gretchen Mol, Julianne Moore, and Keri Russell are among the Annelore clientele more interested in quality than quantity.
Cho’s business is based entirely in New York City, from design to production to two retail storefronts. She launched Annelore in 2002, after a stint working with French designer Catherine Malandrino.
Helping Cho craft dresses, skirts, blouses, and pants is octogenarian patternmaker Jean Wnuk, who’s been with her since the beginning. (Wnuk may actually be in her 90s; “It seems she has been 87 for a while now,” Cho observes.) Next up? Cho is searching for a domestic shoemaker to produce the first Annelore shoe collection.
Do you see yourself in competition with fast fashion?
No. “But I do have to stay one step ahead of the mass producers who generally knock off small designers. Though they are quick to copy styles, they can never duplicate our fit and the quality of our fabrics. Our timeless clothes will endure and stay in our customers’ closets for a lifetime, contrary to the disposable nature of fast fashion.”
When it came time to produce Noble jeans on a bigger scale, finding partners was not enough for founder Chris Sutton; he wanted deeply simpatico partners. “We want a real relationship and connection with the people who make our clothes,” he says. “They are doing the most important work, and we see them as full members of our team.”
That’s why Sutton was so excited to discover a factory in Tennessee, six hours from his Cincinnati studio, that can produce Noble Denim products with the same regard for quality that he has. “Now we’re pretty much family,” he says. “We go down there and stay at the sewing machine mechanic’s house. It’s exciting to be able to start something very personal and see it expand to include people that we trust and love.” Sutton began sewing only three years ago, just seeking “a hobby that was more hands-on,” he recalls. “I decided to give [it] a try on a whim and ended up loving it.”
He spent the better part of a year developing the brand and fit of the jeans. In November 2012, Noble Denim officially launched. That first year, he and an apprentice made all the jeans in the Cincinnati studio. Now they’ve got the production operation in Tennessee, with an eye on other like-minded factories.
Do you see yourself in competition with fast fashion?
No. “Noble relies on individuals who are already educated about the importance of buying fair-trade, well-made, and sustainable products.”
Emily McMaster doesn’t care what motivates people to buy small-batch children’s clothing. “Whether people are buying things from small designers because of the uniqueness and wanting something that their friends might not have, or because they want to know exactly where and how [an article of clothing] was made, it’s just so nice that they’re buying,” she says.
McMaster, the brains behind Mabo, has been making clothes, off and on, since she was 12 or 13. When her first child, a girl, came along about 7 years ago, she started making clothes for her. “We didn’t have a lot of money to spend on kids’ clothes,” she recalls, “but felt strongly about dressing her in natural fibers and clothes that were made with ethical practices.”
About four years ago, after the birth of her second daughter and a move from New York City to Salt Lake City, she started Mabo as an online boutique. “I had really been enjoying making dresses for my daughters and my friends’ kids. I decided to figure out how to have them made locally but on a bigger scale, and grew from there.” She used to draw her own patterns but now outsources patternmaking; nearby factories handle production.
“I’m hoping to open a brick-and-mortar store in the fall selling Mabo, along with other small, well-made products for kids, women, and home, along with expanding the online shop into some other areas. I want the business to grow, but never so much that it’s not still a small, artisan company.”
`E ko logic
Kathleen Tesnakis sees her customers as walking, talking advertisements for sustainability and local manufacturing. When a client tells a friend how his sweater was made, she says, he is “furthering the reach of [green] concepts in our society and creating a new movement of American-made.”
Her company `E ko logic makes sweaters, hats, dresses, skirts, and scarves out of recycled cashmere – about 2,500 pieces a year. Brad Pitt, Catherine Keener, and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo are among the people who’ve been spotted in `E ko logic garb. Tesnakis has run the business for 18 years; her husband, Charlie, joined the company in 2000.
She is passionate about her process. “My clothing is a feel-good product all the way around,” she says. “I save 97 percent of the energy and chemicals required to make a virgin item by recycling post-consumer clothing.”
For years, Tesnakis has sold her fashions through Etsy and craft shows. Now she has a new retail space connected to her studio in Troy, New York. “I love that my community can actually purchase work created in their hometown,” she says.
Do you see yourself as part of a movement?
“Definitely! I joke that my clothing is like organic food. At first you shy away because it is more expensive than mass-produced, chemical-laden fashions. But as you develop a sustainable conscience you begin to seek out small-batch, responsibly made items like mine.”
Voices of Industry
Adele Stafford’s Voices of Industry online store blends traditional craft methods and innovative business thinking. Her process suggests days past: “We hand-weave all of our cloth on mechanical looms using mid-1800s technology,” she says, “and all of our fiber comes from independent American farmers who demonstrate a particular excellence in agriculture.”
Strategically, however, the business school graduate is focused on the future. The hardest part of her work is “balancing growth decisions with financial constraints,” she says. “Despite what I know about the entrepreneurial journey, I find the financial risk-taking to be the most challenging.”
Voices of Industry officially launched in December 2013, though Stafford says the work has been “organically taking shape for many years.” Her customers are the antithesis of the fast-fashion consumer; “we resonate with consumers who are particularly interested in our connection to domestic fiber farmers and the extension of agriculture into textiles,” she says.
Stafford definitely sees Voices of Industry as part of a larger movement; the company is part of a collective of small-batch manufacturers in the Heath Ceramics factory in San Francisco.
“We are hiring our first production weaver to help scale production so that we can accommodate a few select retail relationships. We are also purchasing our second production loom.”