YOU MAY NOT BE FAMILIAR WITH THE PHRASE LUXE-ETHICAL FASHION, BUT MODERN, DESIGN-FORWARD BRANDS LARGE AND SMALL HAVE TURNED IT INTO A BONAFIDE MOVEMENT THAT’S HERE TO STAY. IF YOU CARE ABOUT WHAT YOU PUT ON YOUR BODY AND THE FATE OF THE PLANET, IT TURNS OUT YOU’RE NOT ALONE – PARTICULARLY IF YOU’RE UNDER 40.
Until only a year or so ago, I might’ve assumed ethical fashion had something to do with not wearing fur and buying those vegan Birkenstocks. And of course, a part of it does, but do a little bit of digging on Instagram – THE millennial playground – and you’ll find yourself following account after account of emerging luxe-ethical fashion brands, those whose feeds feature very attractive people wearing stunning and sustainably-sourced jumpsuits, sweaters, and bikinis while doing stuff that all of us do, like meandering through cornfields or contemplatively high stepping across an overcast beach.
In other words, Generation Z and its slightly older millennial cousins are demanding that their clothes not only be made ethically and sustainably but that they look really, really good.
BIG PLAYERS RESPOND TO RISING ETHICAL TIDES
In the meantime, publicly traded companies like H&M, which has instituted a textile recycling program at every store, and Hugo Boss, who recently released a sneaker line featuring Piñatex (a textile made from highly sustainable pineapple leaf fiber), seem eager to ride the rising ethical tide. Eileen Fisher, though privately held, is a Certified B Corporation, setting a new standard for larger companies to join the luxe-ethical movement by redefining their businesses’ legal obligations to include the well-being of its workers and the planet.
Can big companies, even B Corps, ever really justify the scale of their production in light of the moral conundrums mass production raises? And, given the reach (and wildly addictive nature) of Instagram, are small-scale ethical fashion companies the most likely to survive and also the only truly sustainable way forward?
Whether or not you want to answer that, luxe-ethical fashion is undoubtedly here to stay, especially if we want to retain the planet we’re staying on. Buying thoughtfully sourced, sustainably produced, artfully designed clothing hopefully doesn’t just make us virtuous; it might also be a balm for what ails us.
INDEPENDENTS & INSTAGRAM
Erin Husted, who co-owns Minnesota-based Hackwith Design House, told me that their customers are generally between 28 and 38 years old but “our Instagram audience skews younger than that.” Hackwith Design House makes everything at their own facility in St. Paul, produces no more than 25 of each of its limited edition designs, and recently launched their Sustain Shop where they sell gently used and sampled HDH pieces.
“Social media is the reason we’re in business,” said Husted. This makes sense, given HDH’s 106K Instagram followers. “It has allowed small businesses to advertise for free, relatively speaking, we still have to create content and reach an audience that would be really hard to find otherwise. It’s basically turned the Internet into walk-by traffic. Small businesses used to thrive because people walked by the store. But now, with the Internet, that doesn’t happen.”
Hackwith Design House has ten employees, turned a profit for the first time last year, and expects to double it this year, though both its owners still only take modest salaries. “It is possible to turn a profit. It is not possible to become wealthy overnight, to do it ethically,” Husted told me. “If we had investors, I think we would not be able to do what we’re doing. We would have a legal obligation to turn a profit and we wouldn’t have had two and a half to three years here of not turning a profit in order to build us to where we wanted to be. So I think to be perfectly frank, I think corporations can’t do it unless they truly change the law.”
Perhaps it is access to the grim reality as well as its purported antidote that allows Millennials and their Generation Z to make peace with spending more and buying less. We can have an article open on Twitter about the financial and physical toll fast fashion takes on its primarily female workers while also scrolling through the newly sustainable swimsuits on Mara Hoffman’s Instagram.
Generation Z and many millennials have spent more than half their lives on social media, which has provided an equal opportunity marketing platform for luxe-ethical fashion lines like Hackwith Design House to emerge but is also part responsible for our heightened awareness of the problematic ethics of fast fashion.
According to Sadie Roberts, co-founder of Tradlands, maker of high-quality menswear-inspired clothes for women, “Although we have customers in every age group, our largest demographic areas are Generation Z and Millennials. They are also the most active on social media and it feels like they are tuned into not only trends but how the world is changing and their place in it.”
Tradlands works largely with sustainable fabrics and pays a living wage to garment workers in boutique clothing manufacturers in the United States, Mexico, Italy, and China. It was created in 2012 and Roberts noted that back then, “sustainable and ethical fashion was more on the fringe than it is now. Today we get so many inquiries about our process, the specifics of what make our products ethical, and what our plans are to expand on those values.”
“I think the biggest thing that people are afraid of with something that costs more is that they don’t feel like they authentically belong in that space. I think it’s less about having the money. People are able to generate income now where they want to participate but it’s really about feeling comfortable, accepted, and welcomed – especially in the fashion community,” said Ally Ferguson, founder of SEEKER, a gender-inclusive, age-inclusive, low-impact hemp fashion line based in L.A. whose majority demographic is 18-24.
I know what she’s talking about. I’m only an ethical shopper insofar as I don’t shop often, but when I do, I’ve always gotten anxious about spending more than $150 on anything. Despite me and people like me, Roberts, Husted, and Ferguson all confirmed that their companies are currently profitable, as did Devonne Niam, representative for MATTER Prints, a slow-fashion company with a six-month design process that involves working closely with the artisans creating the textiles and patterns and uses 100% organic cotton, which requires less water to produce and uses no pesticides.
When I asked if marrying conscious fashion like theirs with profitability was possible, Niam responded, “Yes, it is possible! MATTER is a great example but there also so many other brands that are working in a similar model as well. A few brands that we look up towards are Nisolo and Apolis which all have a very strong environmental impact as well as focusing on the crafts and social aspects of sustainability.”
“Much like slow fashion principles, we’ve had slow, steady growth over time,” said Roberts, of Tradlands, who also cited Nisolo, Elizabeth Suzann, Everlane, and Mejuri, among others, as inspiring fast-growth brands in “the ethical retail market.”
Ferguson, at SEEKER, noted that, “The wholesale business was what allowed me to make Seeker come to fruition but it’s the e-com direct-to-consumer business that is sustaining it on a daily basis. To make it work, is not rocket science, but it is knowing the right vendors, asking the right questions, being kind and having the right people on your side working toward the greater good. We’re in such an era of self-introspection, taking a look at what is happening inside of you and where you choose to spend your dollar,” Ferguson told me, “I think that’s also translating into purchasing clothing that is gratifying on all levels.”