The limelight on Miami Fashion Week is gone along with models, designers and the glamorous celebrities… Time to reflect on a multi-billion industry from a sustainability perspective. By Matilda Kalaveshi.
Miami takes on the role of fashion capital for a couple of days, the weather obliges with abundant sunshine and cerulean skies. The “little sister” to the New York fashion scene brings much of the same to the Magic City. In this milieu we find the elite jet set, students of fashion and the simply curious intermingling whilst social media influencers prance about town with photographers in tow making sure their every move is documented and, of course… perfect.
If you didn’t check in at downtown’s Ice Palace, are you even a true Miamian? Front row seats at the shows, galas, photos with designers, champagne, after parties and more selfies. The models do their best to walk a straight line, and we do our best to take our eyes off our cell phones. This, in a nutshell, depicts the fashion week experience, fast, furious, vacuous, but fun as hell. Nothing lost aside from a little cash and little gained besides likes and follows on Instagram.
If you are, however, interested in improving your scholarship of fashion, bringing a more erudite and academic bent to this raucous event was a superb educational summit that took place at the Wolfson Campus of Miami Dade College. This two-day experience featured remarkable individuals with inspiring initiatives within the sustainable fashion world. Given the nature of our politics, it is unsurprising that sustainable fashion is very much in vogue these days. It refers to manufacturing practices that take into account both environmental and socio-economic aspects. Points of convergence include maximizing recycling, careful use of natural resources, working with easily biodegradable materials and improving overall working conditions throughout the production chain.
I had the opportunity to listen to some key opinion leaders of the fashion industry like Lauren Bowker of The Unseen Alchemist, Neliana Fuenmayor of A Transparent Company and designer Katharine Hamnett. I also had a sit down with Stefan Siegel, founder of Not Just A Label.
We spoke at length about how complacency with the status quo affects our lives and environment. His message resonated with me given his “day job” as the founder of an online fashion platform that showcases emerging brands from over 110 countries! Step aside Alibaba…
Our interview took place outside the Ice Palace away from the crowds and we immediately got down to business. Stefan was warm, affable, hip and had a lot on his mind regarding sustainable fashion. He was very candid about his Miami experience, having been in town for only three days.
Plastic. Sustainability. Miami in Fashion’s Future.
Stefan Siegel: I spent two hrs on the beach today and I’ve never seen so much plastic. Even though I am staying at one of the nicest hotels in town, it is covered in plastic. Comparing it to California and how clean it is, it is a little shocking to see… Unfortunately, life goes on. I feel like the summit is handled the same way. We preach to people and some hear it and most don’t. I think it is imperative to incorporate the summit together with the shows and use the platform to reach the masses.
Downtown News: Do you think people are oblivious to it or do you think they chose to ignore it?
SS: When people are provided the information and choose to ignore it there is complacency and indifference and that is what has gotten us here.
DN: Let’s talk a little bit about your platform. Not Just a Label is a virtual showroom and online community that connects independent designers with consumers. Designers get a chance to have their work showcased and vetted (for free) by the masses regardless of their location. The platform has brought notoriety and fame to many emerging designers and has contributed greatly to their success.
Going back to the beginning, when the platform first launched was sustainability in the forefront of the business model or did that develop as it grew? Also does dealing with smaller, up and coming designers equate to sustainability?
SS: Sustainability is a mindset and not a special add on. A lot of problems that fashion has these days smaller designers do not have. As an example, the use of plastic from the manufacturer to the brand is something no one talks about. Currently, there is no way to hygienically package fashion garments from the manufacturer in China and bring it to the US and dispatch it around the country. The amount of plastic used is dreadful. The biggest issues are more on B2B side vs the end customer side. Smaller brands that adhere to certain standards and manufacture locally do not have this issue and are more inclined to conduct business in a sustainable way.
DN: In my experience as a retail consultant, dealing with smaller brands means holding their hand in certain aspects of the business, whether it is their pricing strategy, margins or something as simple as tagging. Did or does NJAL provide such services?
SS: Our goal was to create a showcasing platform, we step back from meeting designers and having one on one relationship with them. There are enough organizations from Fashion Council and local institutions that handle these services very well and aid emerging designers on all aspects of their business. We can help more by giving thousands of designers equal exposure opportunity. Ultimately we want to compliment vs compete with local institutions.
DN: During your presentation at the summit you mentioned the opportunities available in manufacturing in LA vs Asia. There are usually two different schools of thought on the subject. Those who believe that it is not achievable because we do not have the technology, the know-how, manpower nor cheap labor that Asia has and those who have a more positive view on the topic. Your thoughts?
SS: I believe in open source design. If you are a designer and your manufacturer is in the same city as you, you can collaborate with them in real time in person and have a positive engagement with the other party. Your designs improve, changes are made at once and quality increases. It cuts the need for continuous mediocre samples being overnighted many times over until both parties agree to an acceptable (not perfect) end product. Open sourcing is also very important when it comes to footwear and more technical gear as focus on details greatly increases. We are dumbing down production by manufacturing overseas.
DN: What about technology being defined as lacking in the States?
SS: During a workshop, we conducted in LA with local designers, we learned that technology was not an issue and we are better at working with certain “difficult” materials such as denim vs the overseas factories. I don’t think we are behind China in many aspects of manufacturing. Even when it comes to highly technical jobs such as 3D printing and so on. Also for me what is important is cost. Many people believe that producing overseas is much cheaper but I believe the cost is a factor that is not being calculated correctly. If you take into account the time put toward communicating with an overseas party (language barriers etc), back and forth on samples, and your ever growing FedEx bills, and ultimately receiving a container of mediocre end product after four weeks of transport time, overseas manufacturing is more expensive than producing in the US. I have seen brands close shop due to their unmanageable FedEx bills.
DN: What opportunities do you see in Miami due to its proximity to Latin America?
SS: We work with so many cities around the world and each market is different and similar at the same time. There is so much opportunity in Miami given that it is seen as the safe haven for Latin America. If I were to run Fashion Week I would turn it into a festival of Latin American designers, pop up shops, brand activations, panel discussions, etc. There would always be something to do, learn and see. Personally, I think Miami should focus on the retail part of the business. The cool thing about this city is the culture, ladies want to dress up and look good. Retailers should cater accordingly and capitalize on this opportunity.
DN: What is next for NJAL? Taking over Miami Fashion Week?
SS: We haven’t done any major events in the last four and a half years. So a big event in LA is what we would like to focus on. Also, we are open to Miami if the city would be interested in hosting us. We generally have the city fund the event and that in return allows us to abstain from taking a cut from the brands.
Takeaways from Miami Fashion Week
As I left Stefan, I started thinking about our interview. On a local level, Miami Fashion Week should work towards making some crucial changes. Creating a more inclusive experience while expanding platforms like the Fashion Summit is a good start. For example, one could have all events take place at the same venue so that fashion knowledge and initiatives better reach the masses.
At the macro level, the general feeling is that a denouement is afoot and we are headed for a sea change in the fashion industry. We might be on the brink of a new industrial revolution; one where century-old beliefs about the provenance of fashion are replaced with ideas that are more educated, transparent and green. The breakdown of manufacturing speaks volumes on the potential shortcomings of globalization in this industry. Mainly that in the separation of production from the nucleus of the brand one loses control, creativity, and strategic vision. Open source design cannot flourish under such conditions. It is my belief that sustainable fashion is no longer just lip service but rather it is here to stay; hopefully, future changes will strengthen the ties between local communities and brands. I’ll keep you updated.
Matilda Kalaveshi, MBA, is the business and fashion correspondent for Downtown News. A former fashion model, she is the founder of EMP Retail Consulting. A consulting firm whose main goal is to help fashion brands and retailers build and grow a profitable business.