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At New York Fashion Week, Small Brands Are Putting the Spotlight

on Sustainable Business Practices. How three designers are growing fashion lines that prioritize environmentally conscious production.

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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For retail businesses, New York Fashion Week is full of inspiration--and not just when it comes to trending styles and colors.

Many fashion brands know just how tricky it can be to scale a business and hold true to sustainability promises. But some upstart entrepreneurs have figured out manufacturing processes, strategic partnerships, and sales strategies that have helped them limit their environmental impact. Now, these designers are showing their collections at this year's New York Fashion Week, which runs from September 7 through 13--and other businesses that are hoping to improve their sustainability metrics can learn from their example.

Denver-based fashion house InspireD'Signs, which is putting on a runway show of its bespoke couture on September 7, creates one-of-a-kind garments with deadstock fabric that's sourced from around the country. Owner and designer Faye Ashwood says she's repurposed roughly 300 pounds of material that would've otherwise gone to landfill since founding her brand in 2006.

At New York Fashion Week, Small Brands Are Putting the Spotlight

Faye Ashwood, owner and designer of InspireD'Signs.Photo: Courtesy InspireD'Signs

With prices that range from $75 to $2,500, Ashwood's garments are designed with durability in mind. Her clothing is sewn with a unique heart-shaped stitch, which she says is considerably stronger than standard stitches. Using this stitch means garments take more time to produce, but ultimately enhances the quality of her products, she says, because stronger seams keep clothes from ripping, being tossed, and ultimately ending up in a landfill.

The Toronto-based petite swimwear brand Avery also makes use of recycled materials in the name of sustainability; it is bringing its bikinis made of recycled ocean waste to its first runway show in New York on September 8. Designer Michelle Chen, 35, who founded the company in 2020, works with Econyl, a regenerative fabric manufacturer, to source materials made of fishing nets, plastic fibers, scraps, and other residue found in oceans. Avery's swimsuits are sold for $135, both online and in pop-up shops.

At New York Fashion Week, Small Brands Are Putting the Spotlight

An Avery bikini.
Photo: Courtesy Avery

While recycled plastic polyester isn't a new material--it's been popularized by larger brands like Patagonia and Nike--Avery's use of the fabric shows that it's accessible to businesses of all sizes. Running a small business comes with challenges, but Chen says that sticking to her sustainability goals hasn't been one of them. Early business research led her to find Econyl, which she says has been easy to work with from a manufacturing standpoint.

Fashion brands can also practice sustainability by helping limit overstock waste. That's a key practice of San Francisco-based Shongee, which is putting on a runway show on September 8. The Zimbabwe American streetwear brand operates on a made-to-wear basis. This method minimizes fabric waste and excess inventory while allowing founder Shongedzai Matangira, 31, to learn about her customer preferences as the brand grows. Most of Shongee's garments cost less than $100.

Matangira designs garments in Adobe Illustrator and uploads images of them to her e-commerce site. She uses a sublimation printing company she found through Alibaba to manufacture pieces as they're ordered. This supplier individually prints patterns onto blank fabric, then constructs and ships machine-washable garments as they're ordered. Sublimation printing doesn't require water, unlike other techniques such as screen printing or digital printing. Instead, the ink is heated until it disintegrates on fabrics, which gives the manufacturing process another sustainable advantage. 

Customers receive their products within two weeks, and the designs live virtually forever on her website, making business management essentially stress-free, Matangira says. The only inventory she keeps is the garments worn on runways, which she donates to her village back in Zimbabwe at the end of every year.

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