A passion for fashion - ethical fashion that is - was apparent at the Eileen Fisher Soho store, Friday, April 28th, where a "Sustainability & Fashion" panel discussion was held. The discussion was the culminating event of a week-long kick-off of Eileen Fisher's new upcycled product line, Fisher Found. Champagne flowed and hors d'oeuvres were beautifully displayed in the sky-lit West Broadway store. The event was orchestrated by Roseann Ierardo and Rebecca Butler, the Soho store managers and fellow sustainability advocates. Rebecca moderated the panelists, who included Zita Bettig- Eileen Fisher Sustainability Ambassador; Andrea Reyes- NYC Fair Trade Coalition chair; Tara St. James- Production Coordinator at the BF+DA; Jessica Kelly- Founder of Threefold, and myself.
During the pre-panel period of champagne and mingling, I was drawn to the new Fisher Found line. The pieces were hanging across the front of the store. They were Eileen Fisher garments from season's past that have been returned to the company by their previous owners. Each piece has been renewed, repaired and refreshed. I felt like I was in an Eileen Fisher vintage shop, filled with EF classics and throwbacks galore. The styles, all in pristine condition, have had some creative hands working on them. Some pieces have been overdyed, others stitched with new buttons, some repurposed, and all like new- but one-quarter the price of new EF merchandise.
Will more retailers and designers go this route? For the most part, reselling has been the role for consignments and thrift shops. If more designer shops get on the resale bandwagon, they'll get sales and lower their impact by manufacturing less new items. It makes sense to handle your own reselling- as no need to design a lower-priced line with inferior materials and construction, just sell your own previously-owned goods and Violá... unique and affordable luxury direct!
Once it was time for the audience and we panelists to take our seats, Roseann explained we would begin with a moment of silence. She tapped a chime and the gathering of one-hundred chatty fashionistas went silent. For one minute all was still. This is the culture at Eileen Fisher, before every meeting or event there is stillness. Mindfulness is the goal. Roseann re-tapped the chime and the panel began.
We five presented our stories, thoughts and work in sustainability in the fashion industry. Zita Bettig began by discussing how sustainability is not a marketing initiative at Eileen Fisher, but simply the only right way to do business for the company and its owner. She mentioned fair trade partnerships with factories in Peru and Chile. She quoted 83% of their cotton is organic, with a goal of 100% organically sourced cotton by 2020. In terms of Fisher Found, Eileen Fisher has had over 75,000 pieces returned, repurposed and resold nationwide so far. Wow, this is a successful initiative. Giving the current bring-back rate, Zita estimates 1 million garments returning to Eileen Fisher for repurposing and reselling by 2020. Their goal at EF is to make waste a thing of the past.
I was up next and delivered the results of my survey on Fit Issues at Retail, and presented that under half the fit samples are created today compared to 25 years ago; yet almost thrice the women report they cannot find clothing that fits well at retail. This decrease in fitting samples directly correlates as well to the increase of environmental waste and loss of body image. (Exact results from the survey in next month's column!)
Andrea Reyes discussed her journey founding A. Bernadette, chairing the NYC Fair Trade Coalition, and working with artisans in Uganda. She reflected on the third year anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, and how we should promote the ethical treatment of workers and broadcast social equity and sustainability without shaming people for their purchase choices. Her story was inspiring.
Tara St. James reflected on her path from working for a mass merchant brand, to leaving that brand and starting her own made-in-New York line, Study NY. Tara rejects the contemporary fashion business model and produces a "uniform" collection with just a few additional pieces each season. To help slow down the fast fashion cycle she refuses to create more than two seasons/year.
Lastly, Jessica Kelly, who connects brands with ethical manufacturing facilities, and finished with a list of three ways to be sustainable: 1- Get educated and follow sites such as: projectjust.com; 2- Shop smarter and only buy items you will wear weekly or purchase second-hand; 3- Tell the story of your clothing. Tell how its manufactured and help others be conscious of their clothing.
What followed was an hour and a half of lively questions from attendees and their thoughts on fashion today. The last question, "Is there hope?" elicited a resounding "Yes" from us all. Hope is apparent from similar panel discussions occurring worldwide. Hope is seen by the many new sustainably-minded fashion brands. And hope is evident as more customers look at country of origin on labels. The pendulum is swinging away from the peak period of fast fashion and consumerism, towards a more resilient fashion industry. I agree with Jessica Kelly, tell the story of your clothing to whoever asks. Tell them where you bought it, why you love it and where it was made. Bring them into the sustainable-fashion conversation. The more dialogue, the more momentum the fashion revolution will have.
I ended the night excited, with many business cards from people who want to hear more, and an absolutely fabulous long black jersey sleeveless swing dress from the Fisher Found line. With a price tag of $55, and an impact that doesn't plunder the earth, I am ready to wear it and tell its story..... I bought it one night in Soho at Eileen Fisher....
- Andrea Kennedy, Founder fashiondex.com, New York May 5, 2017