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How Give-Back Fashion Actually Works

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    The fashion world has long had an acquaintance-like relationship with philanthropy. But over the last decade, style-driven, socially conscious startups have become so mainstream that we’ve accepted the genre as a fact of life. And they're actually delivering on connecting their customers' credit-card swipes to serving the greater good, with results we can see IRL.

    Yet, we’re mystified when it comes to how businesses like these actually work. So we asked the owners of four such Los Angeles-based brands the burning question: How are you giving away so much and still thriving?

    Starting with TOMS, a name synonymous with the give-back movement, we found out what it takes to make that feel-good-fashion dream come true, from balancing a creative vision and charitable core mission to navigating operations in a foreign country (which, we learned, can get complicated real quick). Take a peek behind the sustainable, fair-trade curtain ahead, then roll up your sleeves to get involved — by which we mean, start swiping.


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    Blake Mycoskie, Founder & Chief Shoe Giver, TOMS
    TOMS, of course, is known for trailblazing the much-imitated One for One model: For every product it sells, the brand helps someone in need. As in, every purchase of its now immediately recognizable slip-ons means someone else receives their own pair of shoes. Since 2006, the company has also expanded into eyewear, coffee, and bags, which help restore sight, provide safe drinking water, and support safe births for people around the world.

    How were you able to launch TOMS, and what were those early days like?
    "Before TOMS, I had started five businesses. I didn't have experience in fashion or shoes, but I'd never felt as passionate about something I'd started, so I worked even harder to learn the ins and outs of the business. We had to be very scrappy. Our employees were all interns, we were working out of my Venice apartment, and we took advantage of free services like Craigslist and freeconferencecall.com."

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    To date, TOMS has given 45 million pairs of shoes to children in need. How are you able to maintain that staggering reach?
    "Rather than purely providing shoes or funding directly to individuals, TOMS Giving is incorporated into our Giving Partners' programs. Because of this, we're contributing to entire communities' access to health, education, and well-being. The fact that all of our products have a measurable give-back makes our customers feel truly attached to our products and the associated give."

    Do you think the charitable element is ever a turnoff to serious fashion consumers?
    "Consumers will always want to make purchases that are on-trend and fashionable, so that’s why we try to introduce new styles and designs each season. But we find they are drawn to us because we offer something much more than fashion; I think many people these days are trying to find a way to make their purchases meaningful."

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    What's your take on the entire category of copycats One for One has spawned?
    "I find it very humbling to see so many other social entrepreneurs inspired by our mission. At the end of the day, as long as one person buys something that helps one person in need — and it's done responsibly and sustainably — it's a win in my book. We actually launched Marketplace a few years ago to embrace other companies whose models and products were similar to ours."

    How do you respond to pressure to conform to a more traditional model of aid, like simply donating money outright?
    "I definitely respect, understand, and appreciate some of the criticism we've received over the years. When I started TOMS, I had no idea giving would be so hard. I am constantly asking myself and others, ‘What can we be doing better?’ I’m thankful for the criticism we’ve received because it’s made TOMS a better business."


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    Ariel Goodman-Weston, Owner & Designer, Knative Clothing
    "The whole collection is made using natural fibers like like hemp and cotton that easily break down," says Ariel Goodman-Weston of Knative Clothing, her two-year-old, island-vibe-inspired fashion line. She also uses what’s called a fully fashioned knit technique — working with pre-shaped pieces of garments instead of cutting them from sheets of fabric — to eliminate waste when making her artfully dyed crop sweaters and knit scarves.

    Why is it important to you to build a brand that's environmentally responsible?
    "After learning about what happens to clothing that doesn’t sell, I wanted to really be mindful of how much product there is already in the world and try not to add to that wasteful cycle of ready-to-wear clothing. One thing I’ve done is produced blank design templates, so if a color isn’t selling, I’m not stuck with it."

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    With such specific standards for the fibers you use, is sourcing materials challenging?
    "For a plant-based fiber like Tencel, the requirements for ordering yarn in bulk are massive, so it’s been tricky to get smaller quantities. And growing hemp in North America is controversial, so I’ve had to source it from a guy who imports it from China. But it’s worth it to me because it’s cutting down on pesticides and air pollution."

    How are you able to keep your pieces affordable when working with these high-quality, hard-to-secure materials?
    "To even be able to compete with people who aren’t making products in a similar way, I work with a production house. An automated machine knits me a panel, and then I have a linker who does the finishing by hand. What would take four hours on an old, hand-maneuvered knitting machine takes minutes, and it cuts down on cost tremendously."