Selva\Negra is one of 11 woman-led businesses nominated by Refinery29 for 99 Days of Design — a program working to empower small businesses through graphic design support and financial aid in collaboration with 99designs by Vistaprint.
We all want to be ethical, conscious shoppers — but finding affordable, trendy fast-fashion alternatives is hardly an easy task. Fortunately, that’s where Selva/Negra comes in. Founded by Kristen Gonzales and Sam Romero in 2016, the Latinx-owned, ready-to-wear label is still in its infancy — but the duo has already amassed a following for their sustainably crafted, comfort-forward designs, many of which fall under $200.
Gonzales and Romero first met in New York City after graduating from design school and immediately bonded over their shared heritage and likeminded design ambitions. Soon after, the concept for Selva\Negra was born. Without a traditional office space, local bars became conference rooms, Brooklyn apartments turned into design studios, and park benches were home to pitch meetings.
Now, in 2021, the label has traded in its East Coast digs for a larger LA-based office space, and they’re operating a full-fledged brick-and-mortar shop alongside their booming e-commerce business. But amongst these major changes, many things have stayed the same: Selva\Negra remains entirely self-funded, which gives Romero and Gonzales full control over all the brand’s key decision-making — so they have time to focus on goals other than revenue, like protecting their workers, sourcing new, sustainable textiles, and further expanding their sizing.
For a closer look at the up-and-coming brand’s origins — and their future plans — we partnered with small business-oriented design platform, 99designs by Vistaprint, to chat with Gonzales about shaping Selva\Negra into what it is today. Below, learn how the label came to life, how it’s grown, and how it’s re-conceptualizing “slow fashion” as we know it.
Where exactly did the concept for Selva\Negra come from?
“We always like to call it a ‘happy accident,’ because we were young post-graduates — Sam [Romero] went to Parsons, I went to FIT — and we met in a bar. Afterwards, we were spending a lot of time together sketching at bars late at night in New York City. I said that I wanted to move back to Los Angeles where my family was from, and she was like, ‘Well, what if we just show people what we’ve been working on first?’ I had this studio apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and we just started sewing and pattern-making there.
“I ended up using all my savings from the past six years to put on a show at Tictail, which was this great store on the Lower East Side. Fortunately, it was worth it, because, from that show, we got our first consignment order — and then we were like ‘Okay, I guess we’ve got to figure this out. This is really happening.’ We didn’t have a business plan or a target audience, but we did have our design sensibility, and an idea of what we wanted our brand to be. We weren’t trying to cater to a specific audience, we were just making cool stuff and hoping that people would like it. And it took off. That’s basically how Selva\Negra started.”
Can you share more about the design sensibility that informed Selva\Negra?
“Sam and I have very different design sensibilities, but speaking for myself, I was mostly inspired by my family. I don’t necessarily come from a high-fashion family or anything like that, but I come from a family of makers. My grandparents worked in a shoe factory for their entire lives, and my other side of the family is full of builders. So we’re very much a hands-on type of community — everyone is always engaged in the process of building or making things.
“Plus, I’m Mexican and Philippino… and I do have to say, whenever I go back to the Philippines, or whenever I go back to Mexico, I feel very rejuvenated. There's this amazing ancestral feeling in the air. Pre-COVID, I was traveling home a little bit more often, and I was always very inspired by the architecture and the colors there, which I think manifests in a lot of our clothes.”
What’s a typical day-in-the-life like for you as an independent designer?
“Oh my god, it’s so different every day. Some days, when I’m running a million little errands, I feel like my own intern. Other days, I find myself problem-solving on all these major projects. But most days, I start out with my coffee, check my emails, and I’m like ‘Okay, I’m writing a list.’ I’m big on lists: Every day, sometimes every hour, I write lists of the things that I need to do. I manage a team of five people, and I also work very closely with production, so I’m constantly downtown [in Los Angeles] with our sewers and our production team, trying to source new exciting, sustainable textiles. Then, when we have a photo shoot or a lookbook coming up, everything is just chaos.
“It’s funny because a lot of people think Selva\Negra is this big, giant team of people who do all these things, but usually it’s just me and a couple of other people. We all help out in different ways; we’re always working together to make sure everything is handled. I’m very grateful for my team.”
How do you ensure that all of your products are sustainable and ethically made?
“It’s hard. Really hard. I think a lot of people underestimate the amount of work it takes to make sure all the boxes are checked. For starters, the majority of the fashion industry underpays their workers. Not everybody can pay $300 for a pair of pants, so obviously, there has be some sort of equilibrium where workers are well paid but customers aren’t overpaying. So, we’re trying our best to ensure that we’re producing garments that fall at different price points, while also ensuring that we’re paying our workers fairly, that they’re taking breaks, and that they’re in a clean, healthy working environment. Oh, and on top of that, we want to make sure we’re producing as little waste as possible.
”It took us a long time to get to this point. Right now, we’re growing really quickly — but we’re having trouble keeping up on the production side because we’ve made the choice to move slowly. And I don’t ever want to rush things, because I don’t think it’s ethical to do so. I don’t think [rushing] produces quality items. So we’re trying to always keep that balance — keeping our customers and staff happy, and staying relevant in the quick-turn fashion world. It’s a lot of maneuvering — but at the end of the day, it does feel a lot better to be able to say, ‘This is the morally correct way for us to run this company.’’
You’ve spoken about working to increase your sizing. Can you tell us a little more about that?
“When you add more sizes for any one garment, it nearly doubles the cost of production. So, while we always wanted to ensure we were making size inclusive clothing, we haven’t always had the resources to do so without abandoning our sustainability mission. We’re entirely self-funded, but now that we’ve gotten our business fully off the ground, we’re finally in a financial place where we can make this happen. It's been a huge challenge, but we’re so proud of the fact that we can now call ourselves size-inclusive.
“Because we’ve [positioned ourselves] as an ethical fashion brand, we have to be very mindful of what that even means. Like, are we providing sizing for everybody? Are we making it inclusive? Are we doing every single thing in our power to ensure that our morals are really aligned with what we set out to do?”
In the internet age, how do design and visual branding play a part in Selva\Negra’s identity?
“This is actually something that we struggled with for a while, until we found this partnership with 99designs by Vistaprint. Even though I’m a designer, I’m a clothing designer — I don’t actually know very much about graphic design, so I really struggled with our logo and our website. We always knew that we needed those things, but we never had the bandwidth or the time to really hone in and capture our [brand essence] visually. Fortunately, now that we’ve outsourced the project to folks who know great graphic design — and who have really spent some time trying to understand the core of the Selva\Negra ethos — I feel like we finally have some branding that truly suits us, which is awesome.”
Do you have any advice for other small business owners or aspiring designers looking to scale their brands?
“First, I would say: do as much research as possible, knowing full well that you probably won’t be prepared for all the things that will come at you as a small business owner. Ask questions, reach out for help. Second, be sure you really, really love what you do — because this is a job that requires a lot of stress, and a lot of difficult problem-solving. Your love has to outweigh that. And third: Make friends who are also business owners and designers. I don’t think I could’ve done this — I still can’t do it — without the community of small designers that we have in L.A. That community has really helped us a lot, and I like to think we’ve helped them too. We all want to see each other succeed. It’s really difficult to launch your own line, and when we used to have trade shows, we would just chat with each other like, ‘Are you doing this? What are your customers saying about that?’ It was so reassuring to have people who could field those questions. The whole vibe of the community always feels collaborative and not competitive, and I think that’s really important.”