Talking to Jordan Nodarse, founder and creative director of Boyish, is a bit like macro-dosing on shots of espresso every five minutes — and I mean that in a good way. Nodarse operates on all cylinders and talks really fast, and one gets the sense that his synapses move into hyper-speed the more he talks about one of his favorite topics: sustainable fashion.
For Nodarse, being sustainable isn't about having a "do right by the world" mentality and then simply outsourcing the research to experts — the founder himself is fully immersed in his sustainability practice. He has an insatiable appetite for learning every aspect of manufacturing, voraciously reading related books (referencing titles like Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonoungh and Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents by Ian McCammon), and traveling globally to factories and meeting the folks at the forefront of this often confusing industry. When it comes to fashion commerce, it seems like the word "sustainability" has been co-opted and watered down to a point where consumers are often ill-informed about what it even means to shop green and circular — but Nodarse is out here making clothes (mostly denim), thoughtfully taking into consideration where his products are coming from, who they're going to, and, ultimately, what happens to these garments at the end of their life cycles so they'll break down responsibly.
After working in denim design for fashion companies like Reformation, Majorelle, Lovers + Friends, Band of Outsiders, and previously co-founding a brand called GRLFRND Denim, Nodarse launched Boyish in 2018 — all with the mission to provide high-quality, bomb-ass-fitting jeans for women who share a like-minded goal of dressing more sustainably in vintage-inspired denim styles and fits. (This was a challenge he specifically wanted to take on, knowing that denim production involves one of the most wasteful processes in the industry.) Ahead, Nodarse chats with us about the joys and challenges of entrepreneur life and where he's looking to take the buzzy brand this year.
What inspired you to launch Boyish?
"I was really attracted to how women were buying vintage and already worn-in Levi's Wranglers and Lee’s. I thought it was really cool and I was very intrigued by it. I started buying deadstock and old shrink-to-fit fabrics from this mill that closed down in Texas that used to supply a lot of Levi's fabrics. And in the process I realized, holy hell, there are way fewer resources that go into making these older fabrics. That kind of opened up my mind ...[and] as I started to learn about how much chemicals and processes went into [creating denim], I steered towards sustainability. That’s what made me want to create Boyish and give it a try."
Tell us more about your sustainability ethos.
"I originally started the brand ... to show people how they can advance into sustainability starting off with the basics, focusing on sourcing sustainable cotton, and sourcing factories that have good water treatment and chemicals. The brand was really built off of these three basic principles. A lot of designers don't know how jeans are made, ... [but] I’ve ... been to chemical manufacturing plants around the world [and have] become friends with engineers ... who have been able to figure out how to readjust chemistry to make it greener. But at the end of the day, it’s just a stepping stone. You’re never, ever going to be 100% sustainable because there's no way to be 100% sustainable, no matter what. The best you can do is really based on what is the market doing ... and really challenging that. And that competition is what's going to create advancements in sustainability."
How would you describe the Boyish customer?
"I kept hearing women say this phrase — they've kept saying ‘boyish but sexy,’ ‘boyish but chic,’ ‘boyish but casual.’ Never ‘boyfriend.’ Growing up as a teenager in the late ‘90s, I would see girls wearing these low-rise baggy pants with like tiny little tops. Feeling sexy and boyish at the same time — this is a concept that people are getting familiar with again."
Do you remember the first product you came out with?
"Jeans. Recycled cotton was a big thing since the beginning. A lot of people were only using like 10% or less of recycled cotton [at the time] — so I started working with some companies to recycle more cotton. I got a mill to buy some new machinery and recycle all of our cutting scraps and utilize what we would normally throw away or waste in the manufacturing cycle, which is a lot of materials, water, and chemicals."
With all that recycled cotton it sounds like people go to Boyish for those non-stretch, vintage-inspired jeans that really hug the hips and butt.
"A big majority of what we do is what you would call rigid, no stretch. I have yet to see anybody really come out with anything much more sustainable. One of our materials is made of 17% OCS-certified organic cotton, 43% GRS-certified recycled cotton, and 40% Refibra and Tencel Lyocell, which is a recycled cellulosic fiber that uses cotton scraps. We also have something now that we call a ‘rigid stretch,’ which are jeans that literally look rigid and don’t have a high amount of stretch because we don't put plastics in them. A lot of [other] high stretch [products] have polyester or oil-based plastics that are mixed with the elastic. [Boyish denim] is highly recyclable."
What are some of the best-selling styles at Boyish that people who are new to the brand should check out?
"One of our most popular jeans is the Ziggy, [which is] our sort of relaxed straight leg. It's going to hug your hips, give you a cute-looking back, but still have that boyish, relaxed leg that girls are wearing right now. And that's one of the things people think [when they hear] 'boyish' — they're thinking like boyfriend jeans or baggy jeans. And no, actually, we don't make baggy jeans, we don't make boyfriend jeans. We want women to feel empowered. Do you ever watch that show 30 Rock? There’s an episode where Liz Lemon is shopping for jeans, but she's like, ‘I hate shopping for jeans.’ And then she puts this one pair of jeans on and it changes her life. That's a perfect example of why I got started with jeans — because it's a very difficult product to make. We also have [another popular style] called the Mikey, which is a more cropped jean, as if a girl who is shorter cut them."
What's on the agenda for Boyish in 2022 and beyond? Are you looking to expand categories?
"I mean, we can try and expand categories but it has been very difficult during the pandemic. Every time I choose a new partner, the pandemic comes and sweeps through like locusts. Employee retention has been very difficult [because we’re] an attractive company for other companies to poach our employees. I started shifting my mentality from doing something creative to then just trying to hold onto business and hire people while not having any backing. Loans are getting worse. Interest rates are crazy. So it's definitely been a challenge.
"I'm starting to realize that our main focus should just be doing what we do best, which is jeans. A lot of what we’re trying to do is add new body types to our fit, additional size ranges that adjust to body types specifically. I don't want to start using any adjectives or descriptive words here because it can get disappointing for people so we're still figuring out the right way to do that. Our goal is to bring sustainability to everyone who wants to utilize it and it’s difficult because we're such a small, self-funded business. But ultimately, you do what makes you passionate as long you're helping other people. And possibly while you're enjoying yourself and spreading as much love as you can."
In Refinery29's Talking Shop series, we're chatting with owners of up-and-coming small businesses about their experiences launching, the big challenges and wins they've faced, and of course, their products and services.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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