This article is part of a series that examines: responsible fashionand innovative efforts to address problems in the fashion industry.
DETROIT — When Tracy Reese introduced her sustainable fashion brand Hope for Flowers in 2019, she knew she had to do things differently. Previously, for her now closed namesake line, she released no less than 10 collections in an average year – without Plenty, her capsule collection and other project developments. That meant a total of about 30 collections per year.
Today, Hope for Flowers releases about five collections, each 15 to 25 pieces, including her colorful dresses, tops, skirts and pants.
“It just had to be a very different business model than the one we operated in before,” she said during an interview at her Detroit office. “And it’s not that the old one was that bad, but we designed too much, we developed too much, we produced too much.
Ms. Reese’s workspace is housed in the city’s YouthVille Center, a facility bustling with children participating in academic and cultural programs. Here she has a team of five full-time employees who handle everything from design to marketing to clothing making, surrounded by colorful mixed-print furniture, collage boards on the walls and clothes racks.
In 2018, after more than 30 years in New York City, Ms. Reese, 58, returned to her hometown. She knew she wanted to create an environmentally conscious fashion line that would take a slower approach to clothing making, asking herself: how do you make a desirable product that is responsible, accessible and profitable?
“You have the choice of trying to compete with fast fashion, which is almost impossible,” said Ms. Reese, “or trying to offer something that fast fashion absolutely cannot, that the customer recognizes as different from what they are getting. .”
The move from her first label, which she introduced in 1996 — and which led to her dressing Tracee Ellis Ross, Sarah Jessica Parker and Michelle Obama, hosting runway shows during New York Fashion Week, and performing at retailers in the United States and Japan — did. does not come without its modifications.
In the years leading up to the spring of 2018, when she released the original label’s final line, Ms. Reese increasingly noticed how quickly fashion was impacting today’s market – the middle lane of retail that attracts consumers who follow fashion but within relatively affordable. price points.
Fast fashion, with its cheap appeal, caught the attention of the typical contemporary customer, who sees it, among other things, as an opportunity to keep up with the latest trends and hardly break the bank, despite the production and material methods. But even with these changes in the industry and pressure from her two business partners to follow suit, Ms. Reese refused.
“A lot of retailers came to us and asked us to beat ourselves at lower prices,” said Ms. Reese. “It kind of went against everything I was taught to believe in and understand about our industry’s footprint.”
Although her name was on the label, Ms. Reese owned only 30 percent of the shares, while her business associates owned 70, which was sometimes challenging because she didn’t have much of the final say, especially the financial decisions. This, along with how fast fashion has “decimated the industry,” helped her explore the transition to a new opportunity.
“I felt so free,” she said. “I couldn’t keep a smile off my face. And I don’t mean that maliciously. It was just a huge relief.”
Originally from Michigan, Ms. Reese also wanted to be closer to her family and saw advantages in her hometown of Detroit, which has recently received more attention as a fashion hub. And while its production will be handled in China for now, the ultimate goal is to move it to the Midwest.
“It’s a less dog-and-dog environment. New York is very cutthroat and everyone is keeping up with the Joneses,” she said. “There are so many talented people here who have had the opportunity to see their work or collaborate or learn more about how to actually produce and distribute. That part is really super positive.”
To have a sustainable fashion brand, the focus is not only on eco-friendly materials, although that is an important factor. Elizabeth Cline, head of advocacy and policy for Remake, a nonprofit that focuses on climate and gender issues in the fashion industry, said it’s common for organizations and brands to view and focus on sustainability “in a silo.” on materials, but that’s not the whole picture.
Changes may be made to low carbon shipping methods; recyclable and safe packaging materials can be investigated; and workers can get a fair wage.
Remake, which rates companies based on their environmental and social impact and tracks scores in a brand directory, has not yet rated Hope for Flowers, but Ms Cline said that small businesses that produce higher quality products that don’t overproduce tend to score better. in his assessment.
According to Ms. Cline, the label Tracy Reese is a good example of a slow fashion line. “It’s not about producing as many styles as possible each season,” she said†
Ms. Reese, who was a fellow in the CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative 2018-2019, now works primarily with organic cotton, linen and various types of cellulosic fibers from wood sourced from sustainably forested trees.
“Really changing to work more responsibly and use only earth-friendly materials, it was a huge adjustment for me as a designer as we go from just choosing the pretty to a very short list of safe materials,” said Ms. Reese. “Then within that shortlist, to try to find the suppliers that are at least somewhat transparent about the source of their fiber.”
At the top of her list, according to Ms. Reese, are simple natural fibers like linen. She also uses organic cotton, which falls somewhere in the middle.
“There is a lot of discussion about cotton and organic cotton, but cotton is the number 1 used fiber in the world,” she said. “I prefer to use organic cotton and know that the people who harvest this crop are safer than those who harvest a crop that has been treated with pesticides. So that’s a choice there.”
She also works with recycled wool and nylon fibers for fall and winter, as well as organic cotton with small amounts of spandex, a synthetic material usually added for stretch. It is an imperfect choice that she makes with some consideration.
“Finding responsible spandex is no joke,” she said. “I look at percentages, and I have to weigh the usefulness of the garment. So I say, ‘Okay, I agree to use this 4 percent spandex in this organic cotton blend because this garment will fit better. It will fit more people than if it didn’t stretch.’”
In the past, it was normal for her previous label to send sales and fitting samples, color charts and swatches back and forth to factories in China and India for testing a few times a week, which would cost $30,000 to $40,000 a month. charges through FedEx. The arrival of Covid-19 was an extra layer of pressure. During the worst of the pandemic, Ms Reese had to figure out how to transfer work so it could be done digitally.
That meant using digital color matching systems to get the exact shade in the lab, which she had resisted for years. Mrs. Reese had always collected samples of yarn and fabric for inspiration. The digital color, she said, just wasn’t that vibrant.
But there were benefits. It’s actually easier for the factory to work with digital color. Otherwise, she said, they take a physical fabric sample and cut it into pieces, “for themselves, one piece for the printer, one piece for the dyer.”
Making this shift, she said, resulted in less waste and a smaller carbon footprint. Now the average FedEx shipping cost for its sampling and production in China is falling, but it is in the $1,500 to $3,000 range.
Ms. Reese’s goal is to move her production to Detroit, traditionally a manufacturing center, but not for textiles. Some small-scale production is taking place at the offices, but this is still in its infancy. For example, in April, the company released its first batch of T-shirts with organic cotton mesh from Japan.
It was painted with Shibori by one of Ms. Reese’s students in a Japanese hand dyeing technique that bundles fabric. She sells about 30 units for $150 each and estimates that a shirt probably cost “three times” what she could sell it for.
It’s not always clear to consumers what goes into making $250 pants or a $400 dress or a $150 t-shirt, and many would find $150 too expensive, but Ms. Reese explained that she also looks at paying her team’s price appropriately and everything that goes into thoughtful production.
“The dyeing was absolutely handicraft and there was trial and error,” she said. “Our fabric changed from sample to production. Even coming up with the color formulas took a week. So we’re thinking of a weekly wage to come up with color formulas and then a few more weeks to painstakingly paint all these units by hand.”
A global fast fashion market currently valued at $99.23 billion has pressured many companies, especially smaller ones, to meet comparable price levels by working with harmful materials and factories that don’t pay a living wage.
“They don’t compete on a level playing field,” said Ms. Cline. “The companies that cheat their employees strive for a low price at all costs. They are the ones who should reward the market and the fashion industry.”
One of the things Ms. Reese finds most rewarding is collaborating with other artists and designers in the community to create micro-level opportunities. On most weekends she works with art teachers to teach children about art and design. Their workshops in June focused on caring for and repairing beloved garments by replacing buttons and finding alternatives to dry cleaning to extend the life of garments.
In the fall, Ms. Reese hopes to move her office into a large space currently under construction in a green building in the city’s historic Sugar Hill district. There she wants to expand her production and continue the workshops.
“It’s so important that we show different examples, especially to young people, of how to live more responsibly,” she said. “Because every bit of marketing, everything they see on social media, tells them to consume and throw away and get some more.”