Ethical Fashion: A rant and guide for fabulous women (Updated!)

Since I swapped my East coast corporate job for West coast startup life, I’ve been struggling to refresh my wardrobe in a way that will keep me comfortable (no matter which coast I’m on), professional (from meetings to yoga class to business trips), and still looking like myself style-wise (something I can’t explain but I know it when I see it). This is harder than it should be because I want to avoid the biggest problems with modern shopping: In a world choked with “fast fashion” – disposable, poorly-made mass-produced garments that are often 1) made by slaves and children 2) in factories that pollute the Earth, and are often 3) ill-fitting and 4) short-lived style-wise – what’s an ethical fashion-lover supposed to do?

It’s hard to find clothing that looks good, is responsibly made, and well-constructed enough to last for years. To even try to do this almost feels quaint. If you care about style, fit and quality, and you happen to be a professional woman, congratulations, you’ve got a double whammy of a problem. Women’s clothing is much more trend-driven, more expensive and usually less-well-made than men’s clothing – good luck finding a suit with functional pockets.

I’ve been floored by how hard it is to find functional women’s clothes at all, even before imposing the preference for ethically and sustainably produced garments.

I know I’m not the only one out there hunting for the right fit, so I thought I’d share what’s working for me, and in the process, honor a few kick ass women-run businesses. Maybe it’ll help you find a gift for yourself or the awesome women in your life.

ARGENT

Argent fall 2016
Argent fall 2016

Argent makes “functional work clothes with attitude.” I ran in to one of the founders because I happened to be at the same co-working space where they were running a pop-up shop in San Francisco. What a lucky find – I tried on half the pieces in the shop and walked out with my new favorite basic, stylish black blazer. It’s lined with mesh and made of a stretchy technical fabric like my favorite athletic clothes, stayed cool and comfortable all day during a recent trip and has all the pockets any woman ever dreamed of. I put my old blazer directly in the giveaway bin with glee.

Argent clothing is designed – and nearly all manufactured – in NYC. Finally, they are clearly a small team but they’re working hard to win new customers by providing top-notch service. A friend of mine wanted to try on some things but didn’t live in San Francisco – so they shipped her a box of items for free so she could choose. Now that’s attentive service! I will definitely keep an eye on them as they grow.

MM LAFLEUR

MM LaFleur proudly claims the label of “slow fashion” and they produce their clothing in NYC. Their website claims “93% of MM.LaFleur’s products are made within a 5-block radius of our office in the Garment District” – a pretty impressive statement.

As for the clothes themselves, they can only be described as a huge relief for busy professional women. The staples – little black dresses, simple solid-colored tops and skirts – are ingeniously cut to flatter most body shapes, and many of them use comfortable, long-wearing fabric with plenty of stretch. What you get are basics that feel great and are perfect for travel. Many items manage to be modest and comfortable yet sharp and sexy – the holy grail of daytime fashion as far as I’m concerned. The newer collections have strayed away from the chic, tailored look that I prefer, though, into much frumpier, less-classic territory…let’s hope they keep their best basics available.

EDIT: I just heard that these clothes are no longer all made in NYC? Say it ain’t so, MM LaFleur! If it’s true, that’s disappointing. If you know, let me know.

PIVOTTE

Pivotte work wear
Pivotte, 2017

Pivotte claims to balance “form, function and fashion in a line designed to manage the rigors of daily adventure” in a quest to produce “low maintenance clothing for high-performing women.” The small, highly functional collection leans on athletic layers and silhouettes, blurring the line between technical/athletic and everyday garments. If your work attire needs to be more creative/casual and you’re always running to the gym during lunchtime or at the start and end of your work day, or perhaps you want to bike everywhere and still look put-together – then, these pieces are perfect. Founded by two young women in NYC, the shop is small now but I look forward to seeing what else they create.

UPDATE: Pivotte has updated their website with a more detailed explanation of their story and commitment to sustainability. Check it out here. The shop now offers a slick pair of black slacks and some fabulous looking skinny “Jeans 2.0” in 360 stretch performance fabrics! The items are pricey ($220 slacks!) but they sure look nice and seem to be a teaser for more good everyday/workwear items to come.

ASTERIA ACTIVE

Asteria Active 2016
Asteria Active 2016

Here on the West coast no one seems to bat an eye when you come to the office in a mix of yoga and “regular” clothes so I had to add Asteria Active to this list. Designed by Sena Yang and fully manufactured in NYC’s Garment District, Asteria offers distinctive, high-fashion activewear of extremely high quality. High tech, long lasting fabrics that fit, feel and wear amazingly. Everything seems to have an elevated level of sex appeal and creative detail. Lots of brands claim to bring fresh “attitude” to your closet but Asteria really does it, while adhering to ethical standards that most designer brands don’t even bother to pretend they care about.

EVERLANE

Everlane 2017

Everlane makes sophisticated “modern basics” aimed at young urbanites, and the styles all tend to have that “young Manhattan gallery employee” look. This is either a pro or a con depending on who you are (for me, a definite selling point). I started paying attention to Everlane not because of the clothes but because of their commitment to manufacturing transparency. You can check out their factories and production costs on their website to see who actually made your garments.

EILEEN FISHER

When I was a wee pipsqueak, I would make fun of my mother for liking Eileen Fisher – but now that I’m a grown-ass woman, I’m grateful for the flattering cuts and dependable high quality of the fabrics and construction. These clothes will never make you feel silly, overexposed or strapped in to something made for a teenage model’s body instead of yours…and they will never fall apart on you.

The company is also committed to sustainable, ethical production, with 20% of their garments made in the USA, attention given to “safer” dying chemicals, and relative transparency, with a lot of information about the production of the garments available on their website. It might be mostly good marketing, but it’s definitely better than nothing for those who want to support ethical fashion but also need to try things on in a store first.

MAYBE: BRASS

The Brass website proclaims, “We are proud to be a majority women-owned business that is committed to working with ethical manufacturers.” Like the other brands I’ve mentioned, they claim a commitment to ethical manufacturing, and list information about their factories on their website.

The factories are in China, yet Brass takes pains to dispel “myths” about factories in China and discuss their hands-on involvement in production. I have yet to handle their stuff in person, and can’t speak to the quality – but I’d put them on the “check this out” list. Fashion-wise, the pieces seem very basic – not as “office professional” as MM LaFleur, and not as edgy as Argent, so I’m not sure if Brass is for me, but they could be just right for someone seeking a more casual, friendly look.

NO THANKS: KIT AND ACE

Technical fabrics used for minimalist, everyday clothes and sexy design pedigree (founder Shannon Wilson was formerly lead designer at Lululemon) meant I really wanted to love Kit and Ace. The clothes are definitely minimalist, to the point of sometimes unintentionally looking like generic smocks – but everything I tried on during an exploratory mission to their Soho store had some weirdly placed logo on it, which (for me, anyway) defeats the stated goal of bringing athletic performance wear into the every day. Simply put, random logos on the clothes are a deal-breaker for me.

Their signature fabric is called “technical cashmere” – but when I looked into it hopefully, I was underwhelmed and confused. Usually, cheap “cashmere” is cheap because lesser quality, shorter fibers are used – judging from the way the K&A product pills quickly, I’d guess that’s what they’re doing, too.

Finally, when pressed on the manufacture of the clothes, the answer was vague – “Southeast Asia…Europe…globally” – not encouraging for shoppers who actually care about who is making their clothes and promoting ethical fashion.


More about sustainable and ethical fashion:

The True Cost
A documentary about the human and environmental cost of the fashion industry.

Why don’t you care who made your clothes? [NewStatesman]

Why It Actually Matters Where Your Clothes Come From [Who What Wear]

35 Fair Trade & Ethical Clothing Brands Betting Against Fast Fashion [The Good Trade]

Review: Grit

Grit is considered a “must-read” by many in my professional circle. For good reason – it’s an engaging, thought-provoking book. It’s useful and satisfying for its clear explanation of the core concept of grit (which is essentially: passionate perseverance) and its many inspirational stories. It’s also frustrating as hell for the nuance it lacks.

On the surface, this book is about the power of effort, and how deeply, mistakenly, undervalued the power of personal will is in our society. Modern people tend to romanticize and over-value “natural talent” and under-value sustained effort – to the great disadvantage of many. It’s a wonderfully empowering idea, and one that Duckworth meticulously supports with research. Much of this book consists of stories supporting the simple truth that talent is an inferior predictor of success in one’s career, to the ability to continually try hard. Those of us who aren’t born with genius level IQs should take heart – the brain is plastic, we all have the power to increase our mental abilities, and the work of exercising our minds to achieve excellence is something anyone can do.

The problem with this line of thinking is that is quietly ignores everyone who has tried very hard – has demonstrated lots of “grit” – but has still not succeeded. There are millions like that on Earth, yet only tangential mention of their predicament in this book. I believe Duckworth is an extremely smart and savvy psychologist and researcher, and I believe in her seductively simple explanation of the power of consistent effort to transform lives – to a point. Her obvious intelligence is a source of frustration for me, however, because I don’t understand why someone so smart and so dedicated to their craft would choose to “sell out” and write a relatively shallow popular self-help-style business book full of rah-rah feel-good stories, instead of aiming higher and discussing the nuances of the topic of human effort and its relation to professional success.

I’m interested in the topic of how we can apply effort and intrinsic motivation to improve our lives and careers. But I’m even more interested in how we can better arrange and nurture a society that rewards effort most reliably and fairly. It seems to me that psychologists are uniquely positioned to opine on this, so I turned the last page with a wistful sense of wasted opportunity.

To get the gist quickly, her TED talk is good.


 

3/5 stars

Review: Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

While repetitive, marred by some silly examples and about 100 pages too long, “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” could be a valuable book for people searching for ways to be more effective and at peace with their choices. “Essentialism” as advocated by McKeown is a personal philosophy of making deliberate decisions about where to spend one’s limited and precious time. It’s a mission statement aimed at reducing psychic clutter, regrettable personal commitments and extra “stuff” that ultimately does not matter in the greater scheme of one’s life.

“Essentialism” has two parts. First, learn how to set boundaries and stick to them. Second, define and pursue your highest purpose in life. The first is easy for me, but hard for many others. The second is arguably more important and much harder for me, and the opportunity to consider it deeply was the value I received from my reading of this book.

If you are struggling with the exhaustion that comes from chronic overwork and over-commitment, you could probably benefit from McKeown’s simple prescription: Take the time to assess what you most want to achieve with your short life, remove obstacles and extraneous activities, and get more sleep. Next, get better at saying no to stuff you don’t really want to do and get in the habit of doing fewer things really well. This requires a mature ability to delay gratification, ignore the whispers of FOMO that plague us all whenever we think about turning down any opportunity, and focus on the things that give us a sense of meaning and purpose.

All of that is easier said than done, but McKeown does include some strategies for how to discover our purpose, how to graciously say no to people (even if they are your boss or loved ones) and how to take better care of ourselves so we feel more physically able to tackle what we must each day. For many, this advice will seem obvious, as it does to me, but it’s not wrong.

Useful takeaways

One of the best examples of concrete strategies I encountered here has worked well for me for a long time: When accepting a new to-do item or priority, always clarify, What does saying yes to this thing require me to de-prioritize? This simple activity of questioning and framing things to be done as distinct priorities recognizes the impossibility of doing everything, of giving equal weight to un-equal things, and can significantly boost productivity and clarity.

I didn’t get a lot of similarly useful widely-applicable advice here because it is heavily focused on boundary-setting (something that I don’t really need help doing) and rehashing of other better books (such as Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” and Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow”) but I did enjoy the process of reading the book as an exercise in reflection. Perhaps it will inspire others to survey the less-essential activities to which they are currently sort-of-committed, and evaluate them anew. In the process, you may get closer to finding your core purpose and the lasting happiness that attends it.

Book review: Essentialism – The disciplined pursuit of less, by Greg McKeown.
3/5 stars.

Review: The Alliance

This NY Times bestselling book about managing employees in the modern workplace offers one big idea. It’s not hard to understand and the book is filled with examples that are helpful and illuminating in varying degrees. Like most popular business and management books I’ve read, the “big idea” is driven home again and again, the content is a bit repetitive, the language is very easy to skim, and the book itself could have been one really great Harvard Business Review or Atlantic article, but was stretched to create a book instead. Fine, it is what it is.

I’m giving this book 4 stars despite all that because the big idea here is a good one and one I hadn’t really put into words before. Here it is in summary: Modern employers do not offer workers loyalty anymore (did they ever, really?), workers don’t believe in loyalty for its own sake to an employer anymore (why should they?), jobs don’t last for decades anymore, careers change really fast now. It is therefore in everyone’s best interest to think of employment like “tours of duty.” Each project, position and working relationship can be considered in terms of a “tour of duty” rather than a lifelong commitment. We all know that jobs will end sometimes, yet most managers and employees have a weird reticence when it comes to discussing this fact frankly. (I cannot help but mentally apply this to dating.) Employers hate to openly acknowledge that their workers don’t belong to them – all employees are free agents. In turn, employees shy away from discussing this openly because it’s one of those things we don’t talk about, for fear of insulting someone or facing retaliation.

It would be wonderful if more managers thought this way and treated their employees like smart, independent free agents. The only problem is that not all employees are actually smart, pro-active, entrepreneurial and driven. If you make the mistake of hiring lazy people, or people who simply don’t think this way and instead WANT security, you will scare the pants off of them with this management style. Maybe this is good, if you really want to only hire and retain very creative and driven people. If you need some dependable people for long term less exciting roles, however, much of the advice in this book may not apply. Let’s be honest: Many jobs out there are necessary but don’t particularly light anyone’s entrepreneurial fire.

My caveat with this book: Consider the source – the founder of LinkedIn. If you work at a startup or some kind of creative fast-paced company where you manage mostly highly educated knowledge workers or sales people, great! If you ARE a driven knowledge-worker type, then I also recommend the book because it might help you better understand what you want out of your next work environment, and strategize around how to get it.

Book review: The Alliance, by Reid Hoffman
4/5 stars

Review: Brand Seduction

An entertaining, well researched and highly readable spin through how our brains work, how we process messages and how we project our thoughts and aspirations into brands. To create a brand people will identify with and truly love, companies must strive for utter consistency of message and, these days, marketers must also understand some neuroscience. Consider this a vital crash course. As a marketing and branding pro I’ve read stacks of books on the subject; this one is worth keeping around.

Book review: Brand Seduction: How Neuroscience Can Help Marketers Build Memorable Brands, by Daryl Weber
4/5 stars

Review: Lean Out

Lean Out is a diverse collection of 19 essays of uneven quality but consistent passion. Each piece of writing shares a personal story, experience or perspective of a woman or transperson either in the trenches of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial dream machine, or looking back on it after leaving. Whatever benefits Sheryl Sandberg extolls in “Lean In” (the clear reference point to which this collection is a response) these essays point out that outsiders are expected to conform in order to succeed…and “outsiders” are anyone who is not a white cis male. This isn’t so much a whiny collection of hand-wringing identity politics as a thoughtful report of real experiences – the reader is invited to draw a lot of their own conclusions.

My star rating isn’t for the quality of writing (which is sort of all over the place) but for the topic and diversity of perspectives and ideas. I read it because I currently live, work and hire for a startup in SF, and I want to be thoughtful about it. Worthwhile.

Favorite essays: “Fictive Ethnicity and Nerds” by K. Cross; “The Pipeline Isn’t the Problem” by the editor.

Book review: Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Start-Up Culture, edited by Elissa Shevinsky
4/5 stars

On useful surveys

You know you need to get feedback from your users – you probably already do it. Lately I’ve spent a ton of time carefully adjusting, rewriting and generally fiddling with customer communications, trying to pin down the perfect number of words and the right timing to say something and get a response without annoying people or turning them off. Something just happened that so perfectly illustrates a few key principles to follow that I had to write it down.

Here’s what happened:

I got a haircut yesterday at my favorite salon. The owner greeted me. My usual stylist was friendly and in a good mood. I loved the haircut when I walked out. I had a generally great experience – I even mentioned this to my partner when I got home, what a nice experience I had. (Every business owner’s dream, an actual unpaid spontaneous positive brand placement.)

Today, I got an email from the salon, asking for my feedback. Sure, I thought. I clicked the button (step 1), gave the visit a 5-star rating (2), wrote a one sentence positive note (3), and said yes, I would be likely to recommend the salon (4). That was easy and painless, but it still took about 3 minutes of my time and a high level of goodwill on my part as a customer to complete these 4 steps. I clicked the button to send my response, expecting to be done.

And behold – I was taken to a second page – with 10 verbose multiple choice questions.

Oh my god, I thought as I looked at this wall of text, never mind, I don’t have time for that. Shaking my head, I closed the survey.

If you write surveys that are too long, this is exactly what your customers will do.

So what? Here are some things to remember when surveying customers.

Even the most positive customer will only allow you to impose on them for a moment. You might be their favorite brand, but remember…you’re still just a brand. You’re not their friend. Don’t get confused. You work for them. Not the other way around.

What does that mean? It means that you must respect their time. Ask your three most important questions. Then stop. If they like you, they’ll be back. Ask them another question next time. Or ask those questions a different way. Or maybe, don’t ask them anything for a while, then ask again next month or next quarter.

People like to be nice, they like to help out, and they don’t like to be rude. When someone – even your hair salon, or your podcast app, or your insert-favorite-SaaS-product-here – asks a quick question that costs them almost nothing to answer, they’re  inclined to just answer it. After all, answering “Yes” or “No” or “:)” is just about the same amount of effort as clicking the “X” to dismiss the email or dialog box. The further you get from that amount of effort – the more work you make them do – the less they’ll feel like helping you.

On the flip side, people feel good when they help each other.

Ask them a simple question that they are capable of answering – make it quick and easy – maybe even make it fun by using conversational language and a cute button to press – and they’ll actually have a moment of positive emotion. Maybe it’ll make them more likely to answer your next question, when you ask it in a week or a month. And that’s what you want.

Here are some resources that I found useful as I thought about surveys.

These articles are really basic, but I found them all to be good starting points for inquiry.

Rent the Runway goes Netflix

“The New York-based company, backed by $54.4 million in venture funding, caters to what chief executive Jennifer Hyman calls the “woman 2.0,” a customer who values experiences over possessions. In the case of clothing, this woman is willing to rent a designer dress for one night because she’s smart enough to know it’s not worth spending $1,000 or more on an item she’ll only wear once.”

The article leaves out one important driving factor (discussion of which is buried in the video clip): the celebrification (can we call it that?) of the average woman as brought about by social media. Once upon a time, a regular young woman might scrape together her spare money and save up for that designer dress of her dreams, rationalizing that it was high quality, well-made, would last a lifetime and give her many proud occasions to wear it.

Sometimes we still do that, if it’s a classic style or color – a black column gown, say, or high end suit. But the proliferation of smartphones with their cameras means that whenever we go out, everyone is taking pictures. The ubiquity of social sharing means that all those pictures end up on the internet, often right away. This has had the interesting side effect of making everyone a character in their own reality show, constantly observed and evaluated by everyone else in their lives. The modern woman about town is conscious of being observed like never before, and now worries about being photographed in the same outfit twice in a way that used to be the exclusive purview of international movie stars.

This is why Rent The Runway’s new subscription model is a brilliant idea and relief for the fashionista on a budget. The old arguments about timeless style and quality just don’t hold anymore when every outing in the city is relentlessly documented. Furthermore, as CEO Jennifer Hyman notes, cloud entertainment services like Spotify and Netflix have acclimatized us all to the notion that we needn’t physically “own” things in order to use and enjoy them. Actually, it’s way more convenient to have someone else hang on to them for us, so we can download them whenever we want. Millennials in particular don’t understand having to choose, and why should they when they can virtually have everything?

Far from being in the business of “just renting sparkly dresses,” RTR’s Hyman appears to understand a very crucial thing: Objects are meaningless, trends are transitory, and we are all just made of information. She emphasizes at the end of the discussion that they’ve built the platform to allow anyone to rent anything, for any duration of time. One immediately thinks of other high cost items we might want to share or rent-to-own: consumer electronics, vehicles and artwork all come to mind. Perhaps RTR is coming for those next.