A designer from Detroit works from home

This article is part of a series that examines Responsible fashionand innovative efforts to solve problems facing the fashion industry.

DETROIT – When Tracy Reese introduced her sustainable fashion brand, Hope for Flowers, in 2019, she knew she had to do things differently. Previously, for her now-closed namesake line, she would release no fewer than 10 collections in an average year – not including Plenty, her capsule collection and other project developments. That meant a total of about 30 collections to produce each year.

These days, Hope for Flowers is releasing about five collections, 15 to 25 pieces each, that include her colorful dresses, tops, skirts and pants.

“It just had to be a completely different business model than the one we worked in before,” she said during an interview at her Detroit office. “And it’s not like the old one was that bad, but we overdesigned, we overdeveloped, we overproduced.

Ms. Reese’s workplace is located in the city’s YouthVille Center, a facility that is busy with children participating in academic and cultural programs. Here she has a team of five full-time employees, who handle everything from design to marketing to clothing manufacturing, surrounded by colorful furniture with mixed prints, collage boards leaning against the walls and clothes racks.

In 2018, after more than 30 years in New York City, Ms. Reese, 58, moved back to her hometown. She knew she wanted to create one environmentally conscious model line who would take a slower approach to clothing manufacturing and ask themselves the question: How to make a desirable product that is responsible, accessible and profitable?

“You either have the choice of trying to compete with fast fashion, which is almost impossible,” said Ms. Reese said, “or trying to offer something that fast fashion absolutely cannot, that the customer recognizes as different from what she gets.”

The shift from her first label, which she introduced in 1996 – and which led to her dressing up Tracee Ellis Ross, Sarah Jessica Parker and Michelle Obama, hosted runway shows at New York Fashion Week and appeared at retailers in the US and Japan – did it. do not come without its adjustments.

In the years leading up to the spring of 2018, when she released the last line from the original label, Ms. Reese noticed more and more how fast fashion was affecting the modern market – the middle ground in retail that attracts consumers who follow fashion but consume within relatively affordable price levels.

Fast fashion, with its cheap appeal, caught the attention of the typical modern customer, who among other things recognizes it as an opportunity to keep up with the latest trends and barely break the bank despite its manufacturing and materials methods. But even with these changes in the industry and pressure from her two business partners to follow suit, Ms. Reese refused.

“We had a lot of dealers coming to us and asking us to turn ourselves off to lower price levels,” Ms. said Reese. “It kind of went against everything I learned to believe in and understand about the footprint of our industry.”

Although her name was on the label, Ms. Reese owned only 30 percent of the shares, while her business partners owned 70, which was challenging at times because she did not have the final say in much, especially the financial decisions. This, along with how quickly fashion “decimated the sector,” helped her explore the transition to a new opportunity.

“I felt so free,” she said. “I could not keep a smile off my face. And I do not mean that in a malicious way. It was just a huge relief.”

Originally from Michigan, Ms. Reese also wanted to be closer to his family and see the benefits of being in his hometown of Detroit, which has received more attention recently as a fashion center. And although her production is currently being handled in China, the goal is ultimately to move it to the Midwest.

‘It’s a less dog-eating environment. “New York is very tough, and everyone follows the Joneses,” she said. “There are so many talented people here who have had the opportunity to see or collaborate on their work or learn more about how to actually manufacture and distribute. That part is really super positive. ”

In order to have a sustainable fashion brand, the focus is not only on environmentally safe materials, although it is a significant factor. Elizabeth Cline, head of advocacy and policy for Remake, a nonprofit organization centered on climate and gender issues in the fashion industry, said it is common for organizations and brands to look at sustainability “in a silo” and focus on materials, but it is not the whole picture.

Changes can be made to shipping methods that have a low CO2 footprint; recyclable and safe packaging materials can be explored; and employees can get a reasonable salary.

Remake, which scores companies based on their environmental and social impact and logs the scores a brand catalog, has not rated Hope for Flowers yet, but Ms. Cline said small businesses that produce higher quality products that do not overproduce tend to score better in their assessment.

According to Ms. Cline, the Tracy Reese brand is a great example of a slow model line. “It’s not focused on getting as many styles out as possible each season,” she said.

Ms. Reese, who was a fellow in 2018-2019 CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiativenow works primarily with organic cotton, linen and various types of wood-made cellulose fibers from sustainably wooded trees.

“To really switch to working more responsibly and using only earth-friendly materials, that was a huge adjustment for me as a designer because we go from just choosing the most beautiful to a very short list of safe materials,” Ms. said. said Reese. “So try within this shortlist to find the suppliers who are at least somewhat transparent about the source of their fibers.”

At the top of her list, according to Ms. Reese, are simple natural fibers like linen. She also uses organic cotton, which falls somewhere in the middle.

“There’s a lot of debate about cotton and organic cotton, but cotton is the # 1 used fiber in the world,” she said. which harvests a crop treated with pesticides. So there’s a choice there. “

She also works with recycled wool and nylon fibers for fall and winter as well as organic cotton with small amounts of spandex, a synthetic material typically added to stretch. It is an imperfect choice she makes with some forethought.

“Finding responsible spandex is no joke,” she said. ‘I look at percentages and I have to weigh the usefulness of the clothes. So I say, ‘OK, I would agree to use this 4 percent spandex in this organic cotton blend because this garment is going to fit better. It will suit more people than it would if it did not stretch. “

Previously, for her previous label, it was normal to send sales and passport samples, color cards and swatches back and forth to factories in China and India for testing a few times a week, which would cost $ 30,000 to $ 40,000 per year. month via FedEx. The arrival of Covid-19 was an extra layer of pressure. During the worst pandemic, Ms. Reese had to figure out how to transfer work so it could be done digitally.

That meant using digital color matching systems to get the exact shade in the lab that she had resisted for years. Ms. Reese had always collected swatches of yarn and fabric for inspiration. The digital color, she said, was just not that vibrant.

But there were benefits. It is actually easier for the factory to work with digital color. Otherwise, she said, they take a physical fabric sample and cut it up into pieces, “for themselves, one piece for the printer, one piece for the colorant.”

Making this shift, she said, resulted in less waste and a smaller CO2 footprint. Now the average FedEx shipping cost for her sampling and production in China is ebbing and flowing, but it’s between $ 1,500 and $ 3,000.

Ms. Reese’s goal is to move its production to Detroit, historically a production center, though not for textiles. Some production of small batches takes place in the offices, but is still in its infancy. For example, the company released its first batch of organic cotton mesh T-shirts from Japan in April.

It was Shibori-colored by one of Ms. Reese’s apprentices in a Japanese hand-dyeing technique involving collecting fabric. She sells about 30 units for $ 150 apiece and estimates that a shirt probably cost “three times” what she was able to sell it for.

For consumers, it is not always clear what it means to make a pair of pants for $ 250 or a dress for $ 400 or a t-shirt for $ 150, and many would consider $ 150 too expensive, but madam. Reese explained that she also looks at the price of paying her team properly and all that goes into a thoughtful production.

“The dyeing was definitely craft, and there were trial and error,” she said. “Our fabric changed from sample to production. Even just figuring out the color formulas took a week. So we think of a week’s salary to come up with color formulas and then another couple of weeks to carefully hand color all these devices.”

It is a global fast fashion market currently valued at $ 99.23 billion has put pressure on many companies, especially smaller ones, to meet similar price levels by working with harmful materials and factors that do not pay a viable wage.

“They are not competing on equal terms,” ​​Ms said. said Cline. “The companies that cheat their workers are pursuing low prices at all costs. They are the ones the market and the fashion industry are set up to reward.”

One of the things Ms. Reese finds it most rewarding to collaborate with other artists and designers in the community to create opportunities at the micro level. On most weekends, she joins art teachers to teach children about art and design. Their workshops in June were centered on caring for and repairing beloved clothing items by replacing buttons and finding alternatives to dry cleaning to extend the life of the clothing.

In the autumn, Ms. Reese hopes to be able to move his office to a large space that is currently under construction inside a green building in the historic Sugar Hill district of the city. There, she plans to expand her production and continue the workshops.

“It is so important that we show different examples, especially for young people, of how to live more responsibly,” she said. “Because every bit of marketing, everything they see on social media, tells them to consume and throw out and get something more.”

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