The Business Of Ethical Fashion

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1 July 2013 By Tara St James

The Business of Ethical Fashion

Tara St James is the owner and designer of Study NY, a high-concept ethical brand that is primarily produced in New York City.

She will be joining us in Treviso, Italy this week, as one of our selected designer for the launch of ORIGIN — NOT JUST A LABEL's brand new collaboration with Fiera di Vicenza. Here she discusses and shares the systems she has developed to ensure her label is ethical in every way - from process to production. She is defying the seasonality trap that currently binds the fashion industry and fuels fast fashion culture. In the eyes of Tara St James - slow and steady will always win the fashion race. 

Fast Fashion

Fast fashion is a contemporary term used by fashion retailers to express that designs move from catwalk quickly in order to capture current fashion trends. Fast fashion clothing collections are based on the most recent fashion trends presented at Fashion Week in both the spring and the autumn of every year. These trends are designed and manufactured quickly and cheaply to allow the mainstream consumer to take advantage of current clothing styles at a lower price.

Slow Fashion

The fashion movement of designing, creating and buying garments for quality & longevity. Slow Fashion encourages slower production schedules, fair wages, lower carbon footprints and (ideally) zero waste.

Study started, as most fashion brands do, by joining the traditional fashion calendar. This meant designing, developing and producing 2-4 collections per year and showing equally as frequently. Designing one year or more in advance, showing the collection to buyers 6-8 months before the season, shipping Spring styles when it was still snowing outside, and Fall styles when everyone just wanted popsicles and sprinklers. This was how I was taught the industry works in school, this is how I had always operated as a designer for other companies. The calendar never made sense to me, and while I continually questioned it, I never thought I could challenge it. Until one day I just did.

In 2013 I decided this calendar was not suited to the way I create, nor to the way I want to run the business, and since I’m responsible for doing both, as most emerging designers are, I also have a responsibility to run the company in a financially sustainable way.

The new plan, what I’m referring to as the Anti-[fashion]-Calendar, is to release one capsule collection of 3-4 styles per month EVERY month of the year with each capsule being independent of the others, but cohesive in nature, creating a seamless “collection” at the end of the year. In theory, what I’m now trying to achieve, within a certain time period, is the ideal wardrobe, added to one month at a time as needed, in the same way a consumer might shop, rather than two isolated collections that may or may not relate to one another. This allows me more freedom with the design and development of each piece, and allows the individual pieces to stand alone rather than be tethered to a collection. It will allow me to expand my production outlets. Each capsule will focus on varying tenets of sustainability, manufacturing, craft, thematic and whimsy.

Design, development, sales and production will take place over the course of a 2-3 month period (depending on specifics of each capsule). The brand will continue selling wholesale to boutiques and direct to customer via online outlets.

Since implementing this new calendar in February, not only have I been applauded by my retailers for understanding their needs better, helping improve their cash flow while making them a more important part of the production process, but I have strengthened my relationship with these retailers by having direct and regular communication with them, and as a result have seen a drastic increase in sales.

From a production standpoint I have also been able to provide constant and predictable work to my sample makers and factory during "off-season" when they are less busy and would ordinarily be laying off workers. While there has been a drastic decline in the number of garment factories in New York City, those still in operation are catering to a growing number of designers wanting to produce locally for environmental, economic or aesthetic reasons and small emerging designers such as myself generally have to wait in line behing the bigger brands to find room on the production schedule when everyone is producing at the same time. In implementing this new model, I can avoid a majority of these issues, particularly because I'm producing a much smaller number of styles.

Phase two of this new business model includes a pre-order model so consumers can become part of the production process. We have reached a place in society where garments seen on a runway today are knocked off and available in stores tomorrow.

There is something inherently wrong with this concept and it feeds into consumer confusion about how garments are made. By adding a level of transparency about the production process and education about the craft of making clothing - both via web content - I hope consumers will begin to understand what is required of producing a well-made garment.

Ironically this new model follows the same calendar used by fast fashion megabrands, companies I deem responsible for the demise of consumer recognition of quality and longevity in clothing. By following their models and only producing what I believe to be necessary each month, the goal is to re-educate the consumer about consumption – a strange approach by a designer and business owner who depends on the purchasing power of customers.

Throughout the years, I have often been asked what I think is the new most important facet of sustainable design. If I were to be asked the same question today I would reply that the business model itself - not water pollution, waste, energy consumption, human rights - should be the next big tackle for any company wanting to improve their footprint.

Further Reading