Ethical Fashion: A rant and guide for fabulous women

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 startup brainstorming sessions 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 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.

Argent fall 2016
Argent fall 2016

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 claims to balance “form, function and fashion in a line designed to manage the rigors of daily adventure.” 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.

ASTERIA ACTIVE

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.

Asteria Active 2016
Asteria Active 2016

EVERLANE

Everlane makes sophisticated 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]