Refinery29 is proud to partner with TENCEL™, the textile premium fiber brand under Lenzing Group, which strives to set a new standard of sustainability with innovative, responsibly sourced wood-derived fibers and an environmentally responsible production process. Ahead, we profiled three designers in the fashion industry who have prioritized sustainability with eco-fibers that don't compromise on quality or comfort, and asked them why it’s important, how they've incorporated it into their designs and business practices, and what’s in store for them in the future. Discover where to buy products made from TENCEL™ branded fibers here.
When Mara Hoffman launched her namesake brand 20 years ago, she did it all on her own, painstakingly hand-dyeing, hand-beading, hand-batiking every one-of-a-kind item from a studio apartment. But as her company found success, she was forced to expand manufacturing. And as her super-recognizable prints and tremendously popular swimsuits continued to drum up buzz, she had to keep up with increased demand. By 2015, her designs were sold in more than 450 stores — and she wasn’t happy about it.
“I started becoming more aware of what was happening — how much harm the industry was doing to the planet — and I was feeling more and more discomfort at where the business was heading,” Hoffman says. “I hit this ‘change or die’ mindset: I was willing to close the business if we weren’t able to change it to one that’s less harmful.”
So she overhauled her entire production and design processes, zeroing in on textiles first. She put together a preferred fabric portfolio, which included organic cotton and responsibly sourced cellulose fibers from TENCEL™, which served as the perfect replacement for silk. Next was design. She scrapped her previous trend-based aesthetic in favor of seasonless styles that consumers would want to wear over and over again. Designing for longevity, she firmly believes, plays a huge role in sustainability.
“There’s this idea that you can buy into sustainability, but you can’t — continuing to wear what you already have is sustainable,” Hoffman continues, naming her hemp denim jacket, knitwear, and slip dresses made from TENCEL™ branded fibers as her favorite, eternally timeless pieces. “As a brand that sells clothing, I want to make pieces that, hopefully, will stay in closets for a really long time and still feel special. I’m most proud of the ones I can wear for years and are part of my everyday wardrobe.”
Hoffman partnered with like-minded mills and super-transparent companies, tasked herself with figuring out how to create the least amount of waste, and pinpointed areas in which she could use recycled materials, from the trims down to the hardware. But the biggest issue she’s grappling with — the same one that everyone in the industry is grappling with — is assuming responsibility for the garment even at the end of its lifecycle. How can a designer ensure it doesn’t wind up in the landfill?
“How can we close our own loop? How can we put a system of circularity in place?” she posits. (For now, she has teamed up with Renewal Workshop to set up a program in which consumers are able to dispose of their unwanted garments and give them a second life.) “Another focus is life extension — to keep clothes in the circle for as long as possible.”
And achieving that level of durability has and continues to be no easy feat: Spandex, she offers as an example, is long-lasting but not recyclable. Even so, she acknowledges how innovative sustainable fibers are today, which were virtually nonexistent just five years ago. “So much has happened in a very short period of time, and I think it’s the desire for it; customers are demanding it because they’re feeling awareness, responsibility, and guilt about the environment,” she says. “Brands are asking for alternatives to do better, and now you can design a collection that doesn’t feel compromised.”
While Hoffman has been able to completely overhaul her brand, she believes the industry has to do the same in order to effect change on a much bigger scale. “We need to reexamine and reshift the fashion cycle, the fashion calendar, and the amount of newness that gets pushed out — and the only way for this movement to grow is through shared information and collaboration, which really excites me,” she says. “For me, it’s been an evolution over the last five years, and our goal to be more sustainable is definitely not finished. We will never be finished.”
JORDAN NODARSE, BOYISH
Strike up a conversation with Jordan Nodarse, denim designer and founder of Boyish Jeans, and within minutes, it becomes undeniably clear that he boasts a wealth of knowledge about sustainable fashion — and in every regard, too, ranging from soil-tilling practices that best grow organic cotton to an understanding of what true transparency looks like. But he didn’t get to be where he is on assumption alone (and he doesn’t pretend that he knows everything, either). He started by asking questions.
After spending time at factories, the more he learned (by asking questions) about the chemicals, the dyes, the materials — or in his words, “the dirty side” of denim manufacturing — the more he wanted to create designs that were not only better in look and feel but also better for the environment. So when Reformation offered him a position, he jumped at the chance to learn more about sustainability, to figure out ways to produce a recyclable toxic-free product crafted from recycled materials. The only problem? He still felt like he was in the dark. Coupled with his immense dismay, bordering on incredulity, at the prevalence of greenwashing (brands that claim sustainability but actually aren’t by using non-recyclable materials like polyester or acrylic and dyeing their “organic cotton” fibers with toxic, carcinogenic chemicals), he felt as though he had no choice but to launch a brand to prove sustainability can be achieved as transparently as possible.
“Nobody is asking questions or checking these brands to make sure they’re doing sustainability correctly,” he says. “I started Boyish because I wanted to do something that was motivational, to give consumers the power to ask: Is this really sustainable?”
The first step was identifying his supply chain (a short one, like his, means less carbon emissions) and vetting the businesses he wanted to work with, including the TENCEL™ brand. He traveled to Lenzing’s headquarters in Austria, toured the facility, asked the engineers questions, and learned about the company's closed-loop production process with REFIBRA™ technology, which involves upcycling waste into new fibers, promoting a circular economy.
“It’s a concept that resonates with me because 100% virgin material doesn’t make any sense — when you cut patterns out of fabric, what do you do with the waste? A lot of brands aren’t talking about the waste they’re creating or they’re not even trying to figure it out,” Nodarse admonishes. “No brand is ever going to be 100% sustainable — if you’re making products, you’re always going to have an impact — but sustainability is about taking the steps to improve once you’ve accepted the fact that you’re not perfect.”
Another crucial move for him was publishing a Sustainability Report, offering complete transparency. He admits to making mistakes, which is outlined in his report, and with it, the promise to do better. But his pride and joy is his fabric that will be available in 2020: Super Eco Rigid Fabric, a unique plant-dyed composition that comprises recycled cotton scraps using the REFIBRA™ technology blended with certified organic cotton. That means his fabric sees 17% virgin fiber (as opposed to a traditional company that uses 100% virgin fiber). “I didn’t go to some company and buy this fabric — I asked somebody to make it by taking all the information I had, and we produced something that’s completely recyclable, free of toxic chemicals, and better in regards to energy and water usage,” he says. “That’s what I want people to see.”
Along with introducing his one-of-a-kind fabric, in 2020, he’s also planning to print AR codes on his jeans for consumers to track how and where they're made (his goal, he says, is to provide proof wherever he can, from transaction receipts to toxicity reports), to exclusively use certified organic cotton, and to have TENCEL™ branded fibers blended into all fabrics in some way, especially with T-shirts in the pipeline.
“People have forgotten that clothing has value because of fast fashion, off-pricing, and sales — and a lot of brands have lost their way,” he says. “Fashion isn’t necessarily about the product but about consumers trusting the brand. And at the end of the day, if you care about a brand, ask for receipts, ask for information — because if they’re not publishing it, then they’re hiding things from you. Ask questions.”
AMY SMILOVIC, TIBI
In all the 22 years of Tibi’s existence, the contemporary-cool fashion brand that epitomizes modern minimalism, sustainability has always been embedded in its DNA — but only because its founder and designer Amy Smilovic couldn’t afford for it not to be.
“Once a consumer asked, ‘What do you do with all that waste when you cut a pattern?’ And I wrote back, ‘At $20 a yard? I don’t waste a scrap.’ We put everything to use because it would be foolish and costly not to,” she says. “Before, in the past, we thought about sustainability in terms of cost simplifications, to always be efficient. Every dollar had to go back into the business.”
But less than two years ago, it all changed. Where once she felt sustainability was forced on her, she has now taken it upon herself to implement eco-conscious guidelines across the business, from recycling cardboard boxes for shipment to selecting responsibly sourced fabrics.
“Sustainability has become such an important part of life, so it makes sense that we would carry it through the company as well — and being privately owned, we’ve never been in a position to be wasteful in terms of product or production,” she says. “Before, sustainable fabrics weren’t at the level that worked for Tibi, but now they are.”
In the last couple of years, she’s found that the quality of sustainable, recycled fabrics has improved immensely — to a level that offers the look and feel of luxury (an important element for a brand that prides itself on perfecting suiting), calling out TENCEL™ branded fibers specifically for delivering the ease and effortlessness of silk without the high-maintenance or upkeep. “As a brand, we do things that are refined but never pretentious or stuffy, and the TENCEL™ brand delivers that utilitarianism, because we live in our clothing,” Smilovic explains.
The biggest issue she has with the industry, though, is the sheer amount of clothing that’s being produced — and, ultimately, how fast fashion has influenced the way consumers now shop for clothing.
“You absolutely have to pay more money to be sustainable — for the yarns to be collected and recycled, for smaller production runs,” she says. “Consumers want to be sustainable, but they don’t want to pay for it. My followers on Instagram are frustrated by higher prices, but quality is something I won’t compromise on. When I was growing up — without very much money at all — I’d shop resale and not, say, satiate my appetite with 30 dresses from a fast-fashion retailer, which didn’t exist then.”
She believes in reteaching consumers how to shop — to wear the clothes they own. “Fast fashion is the problem — luxury brands aren’t the ones that are clogging up the landfills,” Smilovic says. “Buy less, be smarter about what you purchase; I think that’s where change happens — by getting people to be more aware.”