6 Valuable Lessons To Learn From Today’s Emerging Sustainable Designers

The CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative focused their efforts on “socially and environmentally responsible practices,” choosing 10 brands to participate in the program. Designers from each brand sat down with Fashionista to talk about their process, shining a light on both their accomplishments and the struggles faced by a company looking to keep sustainability at the forefront of their mission. 

Several common themes came up during the discussion, some specific to small business practices, others reflective of industrial obstacles at large.

We’ve rounded up six valuable lessons anyone can learn from the emerging designers featured in the inaugural business development program. 

1.    When building a team. Designer Maria Cornejo has been steering her brand for the last 18 years, and just recently decided to shift her focus on fighting wastefulness during her time participating in the Initiative. Now that she’s identified the “heart” of her brand, she’s placing the same importance on material and production as she does making sure her team understands and believes in their collective vision, forming a stronger cohesive unit as a team driven to share the same message. “Everybody is responsible right now and they are the gatekeepers,” she told Fashionista. 

Yesterday when it was Spring🌞 @adelinemichele & the Springbok Mini Island 🙈

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2.    When dealing with investors. For Brother Vellies designer and owner Aurora James, staying independent has been the key to remaining sustainable, though it’s easier said than done. “It’s actually been really hard,” she says. Remaining loyal to the African artisans that make her footwear brand what it is, resisting the pressure to succumb to investor offers has been the key to maintaining the social initiatives her brand so values. "I've been really protective over maintaining 100 percent ownership of my company so that we continue to have the freedom to make sustainable choices.”

3.    When sourcing materials. “Conflict free” materials are a must for jewelry designer Wing Yin Yau, founder of Wwake, though there may be a lot left unsaid when it comes to sourcing jewels bearing that label, as not all areas of labor exploitation are always addressed. Now producing about 30 percent in house using recycled material and traceable stones, the desirability of working with artisanal miners comes with it’s own set of problems, as many small-scale miners work to produce one-of-a-kind items, making for a slow growth process. 

4.    When navigating production. Looking to create “mindfully made” wares with their brand Svilu, designers Britt Cosgrove and Marino Polo have their fabric choices and use of non-toxic dyes down, though finding a mill to produce them comes with a different set of challenges. “We do our best to research the origins of our fabrics and seek certification but it's been challenging to know which questions to ask our mills," Cosgrove stated. With production minimums usually running on the high side, it all comes down to a matter of scale. ”Pulling together a group of designers to reach a minimum would be a great solution,” she says. 

5.    When educating your market. In a world of fast fashion, department store turnover can make difficulties for any “upcycled and reclaimed” brands, such as Tome, specifically, their denim line. "They are very difficult to get around,” says designer Ramon Martin. When your brand relies on stockpiled denim, quick and identical reproduction is just not possible, making clear and upfront communication an essential aspect of maintaining a working relationship. “We have to educate the retailer to understand that these things work on their own calendar, and it's been very, very challenging [for] denim."

6.    When designing for a luxury market. When it comes to fashion, quality is everything, and since sustainable brands often hit luxury price points, consumers aren’t expecting less than high-end. “The woman who's buying the product wants aspiration, so we can't compromise just because it's environmentally friendly...if it doesn't feel great to touch,” says designer Prabal Gurung, who explores the use of bionic yarn, organic cotton, and wet-green leather to complete his looks. Because the tanning process of the latter isn’t up to luxury standards yet, sustainably appealing to the luxury market remains a work in progress.