Inclusivity in Sustainable Fashion: How Four Brands Are Leading the Charge
Sustainable fashion has seen tremendous growth in the last several years, moving beyond a “trend” and becoming more of a serious contributor to fashion’s $3 trillion global economy. In 2017, sustainable fashion grew 19 percent year-to-date over 2016, with even fast fashion giants H&M, Zara and Mango marketing more “conscious” collections. As consumers demand more ethical business practices and less environmental impact from clothing companies, they also want to see themselves reflected in brand ownership and employment, marketing campaigns, social media posts and, of course, in brands’ clothing designs. With these more mindful brands continuing to secure their footholds in one of the world’s largest industries, opportunities abound for them to embrace inclusivity in sustainable fashion. In fact, some brands have always had diversity and inclusivity at their core.
Defining Inclusivity in Sustainable Fashion
“Inclusivity is not just about one thing, it’s everything—size, age, ethnicity, height, gender—all of it,” say Emma Olson and Bobbi Barron, co-owners of Hazel & Rose. “Size inclusivity has been especially important to us since Hazel & Rose opened in 2016. There are so few plus size options across the industry, but especially within sustainable and ethical fashion. We started carrying Hackwith Design House plus size items in FW16 and at first, we were waiting for more plus size brands to pop up, but after establishing relationships with the independent designers we work with, we decided to just ask them if they were willing to try extended sizes with us.”
In addition to inclusive sizing, Hackwith Design House is committed to delivering a true reflection of society to its customers. “We strive to make sure our content reflects the society we actually live in, which means including women of all backgrounds, ethnicities and sizes,” says Erin Husted, director of operations. “We want our clothing to appeal to women living and working in the world, which means it should be designed to reflect the reality of what women actually look like. Each individual woman experiences all kinds of changes in her body over her lifetime, so we hope that our clothes can accommodate those changes and make her feel great when wearing them!”
Even as brands live and breathe inclusivity throughout all aspects of their business, there is some frustration that the word “inclusive” needs to be called out as such. “I think it’s unfortunate that we have to use the word because in reality, it’s a reaction to a large part of the population being excluded for so many years,” says Fran Dunaway, CEO and co-founder of TomboyX. “The societal definition of beauty and cool has had a very narrow lens. That affects those of us who don’t fit the traditional standards. What we’re seeing is an uprising of ‘Fuck your standards, I am an awesome person and I deserve to be treated as such.’ TomboyX is acknowledging that by being a reflection of that very attitude. We think you’re beautiful and cool just the way you are. We absolutely have an agenda: It’s a human agenda.”
“We really hope inclusivity doesn’t become another buzz word,” adds Jay Hallstein, co-founder of Boston-based Brass Clothing. “Ethical, sustainable, inclusive, diverse, authentic—these words have a lot of meaning, but lose their value through overuse and misuse. Hopefully there can be more conversation around what these words actually mean, when to use them and how to use them so that we can maintain the integrity of these words.”
Fran agrees with the importance of using these words authentically. “The world is becoming increasingly more divided, and we think we are more alike than different. We want to focus on how we are most alike, and that’s in our humanity. Inclusivity isn’t a gimmick,” she advises. “It’s at the core of our value system because we truly care. If you’re not authentic, your customers will sniff if it out immediately.”
Authenticity plays a large role in the success of sustainable fashion brands. In the age of social media, shared images and messaging can make or break a brand’s ability to connect and retain relationships with followers and customers. For TomboyX, their authentic, inclusive representation has deeply resonated with its following. “We are delighted and thrilled by the massive outpouring of love for the brand via our IG page,” Fran says. “I love scrolling through and seeing all the beautiful people posting photos of themselves wearing our product. So stunning, so badass, so accepting and confident. It makes my heart swell with pride and gratitude.”
For Brass, launching their Real Model photo shoots helped them connect to their customers in a fresh, real way. The result is an ongoing campaign that has become a movement in its own right. “We started our Real Model photo shoots about two years ago. It began in a very organic way—we had an event called ‘Selfie Sunday’ that invited our customers to come and experience being a model for a day,” Jay explains. “It received such a great response that we decided to formalize it. We have done five photo shoots and have more than 1200 women who have signed up to be a part of a Real Model shoot. Of course, the photo shoots provide us with photography for our site and for women to shop more easily online, but it is really more about the actual experience for the participants. Many of the women are so nervous at first, but by the end, they are feeling incredibly beautiful, sexy, and strong. It’s a really empowering and memorable experience for the women and we honestly just love offering the opportunity to our community.”
Fighting the Constraints of the Fashion Industry
Even as gains such as these can be celebrated, brand owners still feel the constraints of the conventional fashion industry at large. “I worked in the plus-size industry before opening the shop,”say Emma, “so I know how complex the fit and manufacturing of plus-size apparel can be. It’s not just a matter of continuing to grade a pattern to a larger size—it often needs to be an entirely new pattern, and that’s a huge investment for anyone, but especially smaller brand.”
“For us,” Erin says, “the toughest part has been finding professional models that reflect the society in which we live. We’d love to see more models of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds.”
Jay agrees. “The fashion industry has been historically exclusive, relying on exclusivity to drive sales and create an image that feels unattainable and therefore, desirable. Models of a certain size, skin color and look have dominated the industry and defined our collective conscience in relation to beauty.”
Enacting Inclusive Change
But that doesn’t stop these brand owners from being resourceful and enacting the change they want to see.
“By asking some of our top brands if they’d try plus sizes with us, we were able to help carry a little bit of the risk with them as well as offer feedback on fit from our customers in the shop,” Emma and Bobbi say. “Our extended size range has tripled since FW16 and we plan to double what we currently offer by FW18. Beyond plus size, we generally like to work with people who we know and love, and most of them aren’t professional models, so we can show how the goods look on a variety of people.”
Erin agrees. “Hire the models who reflect the incredible diversity that exists among women in our society! The larger the demand for that, the more professional models we’ll have with a diversity of shapes and backgrounds,” she advises. “The more independent designers including plus-size options, the better! It takes time and money to expand your size offerings, but we love that independent designers have tackled this gap in the marketplace, beating larger companies with vaster resources. It just goes to show that investing in small businesses really can pay off for the consumer.”
Smart social media and marketing campaigns can also help brands further their mission to improve inclusivity in sustainable fashion. “Finally, we are at a time where social media is helping to democratize, and therefore diversify, beauty,” Jay says. “The ability for brands to easily share stories around who, how, and why a piece of clothing is made, and for customers to quickly share photos of themselves in the clothing has contributed greatly to increased inclusivity and diversity in the fashion industry.”
Accolades and Admiration for Brands Doing It Right
Despite the challenges of launching a sustainable fashion brand in a sea of conventional or fast fashion brands, these brands remain committed to their respective and collective visions. They also have strong admiration for others in their industry—and beyond— who are walking the inclusivity walk. “Universal Standard is amazing,” Fran says.
And Jay agrees. “We really admire Universal Standard and their commitment to making quality clothing accessible for plus-size women. They’re really killing the game. You have to admire Glossier and some of the campaigns they have run, especially Body Hero. Also, Darling Magazine has set a precedent for not retouching photos in the media world, which is awesome.”
“We were also inspired by Valerie Eguavoen (@onacurve) when she spoke out against the lack of diversity in the fashion industry and formed YOU BELONG NOW (@youbelongnow) to call attention to systemic injustices within the industry,” Emma and Bobbi add.
As for gaps in what the sustainable fashion industry offers that still need to be addressed? “Finding men’s shoe styles in my size!” Fran says. If anyone can figure out how to address that need, surely these four inclusive—and authentic—brands can.
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