Tara St James - Founder of STUDY NY and Production Co-ordinator at BF+DA
"My hope is that one day brands will all have sustainable strategies embedded into their business models, and those who do not will be the ones burdened with a label: unethical fashion."
Tara, you’re the founder of Study NY, and the Production Coordinator at the BF+DA. I’ve also read that you dreamt of becoming the first female Prime Minister of Canada. Can you tell us about the path that led you here, and where your interest in sustainability and fashion comes from? (and if you still plan to run the country one day?!)
First I'll dispel any potential rumours of attempting to run Canada at any point in my life, at this point I think Justin Trudeau is doing pretty well representing the country. I gave up on that life path in college when I decided to pursue a design education rather than political science, but I was always torn between art & design and social justice, which I believe is what lead me to a career in sustainable fashion (after struggling in the conventional fashion world for almost 10 years). Ultimately I ended up studying menswear in college because I liked the rigid structure of tailoring. I still apply a lot of those principles to my womenswear designs. Another underlying principle I learned from studying menswear - though it was not mentioned outright - was a disregard for trendy items, with a focus on craftsmanship, fit and longevity of wear.
I started my career working in the denim industry, then worked for larger fast fashion brands in Montreal and New York. In 2009 I left my last job designing a high street brand called Covet and started Study. I started Study at a time in my career when I was very frustrated with fast fashion and mass production. With Study, we wanted to not just source sustainable materials but also produce them locally. There is a bit of a disconnect between sourcing sustainable materials and then producing garments in a large factory in China. I had a lot of experience sourcing sustainable materials through previous roles, however, producing the clothing locally was something completely new for me, very different, but a really enjoyable experience. I love being so hands on. We have also looked at our business model and want to provide an alternative to fast fashion and the traditional fashion calendar. We have moved away from seasonal collections, which never made sense to me.
It’s been determined that over 80% of a garments sustainability impact is determined at the design stage. Study NY produces seasonless designs using sustainable materials and innovative techniques such as zero waste pattern cutting. Can you explain your design ethos to us and how you integrate sustainability into your brand, and product lifecycle?
The name Study was born of a desire I had to really examine my production process and focus on a different technique every season. That began with zero waste patternmaking, then progressed to weaving, knitting, dyeing, printing, pleating, etc... Now that I'm no longer producing seasonal collections I still focus on different techniques but I spread that focus over several months rather than each edition. I have a checklist of sustainability tenets that I believe in for the brand. If I can check off at least 3 items from the list with each garment, then I will consider it sustainable and therefore eligible to be branded Study. But checklist aside, I don't believe another human, animal or the environment should have to suffer for fashion. It's as simple as that.
This is the definition I find to be the most accurate:
"Sustainable means using methods, systems and materials that won't deplete resources or harm natural cycles" (Rosenbaum, 1993)
A majority of my production is done in New York City's garment center. I use only organic or sustainable textiles (organic cotton, hemp, recycled poly, linen and peace silk). I also work with fair trade and co-op based factories in Peru and India who pay fair wages and work to sustain traditional weaving and knitting techniques while providing income for indigenous populations.
TARA ST JAMES
I was able to visit your studio in person while I was in NY, and experience the dynamic energy of the BF+DA. Can you tell us about working in a collaborative and industry-specific co-working environment, and how it impacts your work?
I'm usually a very private person and I prefer to create in an enclosed (almost protective) environment which must be residual side effect of working in fashion for so long. Moving both my creative studio into the BF+DA and taking on a mentorship role in the sustainability lab yanked me right out of that terrible habit and opened my eyes to the benefits of collaboration and the potential innovation that could ensue. I've seen the same result in many of our venture fellows who came in with similar fears. Being able to ask for help is one of the hardest things to do for a creative entrepreneur. The BF+DA creates a safe space enabling them to be able to do so fearlessly.
Clothing has this real power to be transformative, and research has shown that what we wear affects us psychologically in both positive and negative ways. The provenance of each garment that you create, including transparent sourcing maps and the story of how each item is made, is laid out on your website and garment labels. How do your customers respond to this, and do you believe that sharing the story of how and where our garments are made impacts our choice and our enjoyment of what we wear?
Fashion is art in my opinion. But to some cultures clothing is just a means of protection from the elements. There is such a huge gap between how first and third world nations view clothing and design. Ethical fashion has the ability to bridge that gap by providing developing nations with a market for their traditional craft techniques and a sustainable business opportunity, and by offering consumers products they can be proud to own and will want to talk about. The truth is though that I implement transparency and ethical practices for myself first and foremost. I do have the occasional customer contact me to ask for more information but I think most consumers want to feel good in their clothes, and they need to be well priced in today's difficult economic climate. So it's my responsibility to make sure they're also being made ethically, I don't wait for the customers to request it.
STUDY NY COLLECTION
STUDY NY COLLECTION
There is a growing proliferation of ethical and sustainable fashion brands cropping up with different degrees of credibility, along with industry stalwarts touting their sustainability credentials loudly - in many cases it is incredibly difficult for shoppers to understand just what is sustainable, or know who to trust. There is also potential danger of greenwashing as more brands recognise the importance of ethics to a value driven consumer. Any ideas / suggestions for how to address this, from either an industry level or consumer level?
This is always tricky but I believe consumers are becoming more and more educated about what it actually means to be a sustainable brand, and the brands who are authentic about their initiatives stand out amongst the crowd. That said I do think branding companies as "sustainable" as been one of the most detrimental things to happen to the industry, because the term is meant to encompass far more than it ever possibly could: environmental and labour issues, human health, natural resources and end of life to name a few. One word could never adequately define all of these very complicated supply chain issues. My hope is that one day brands will all have sustainable strategies embedded into their business models, and those who do not will be the ones burdened with a label: unethical fashion.
From a brand perspective, can you suggest any simple steps that a brand or designer can take to integrate sustainability into their supply chain or operations?
The most important place to start is to understand the landscape of sustainability in the fashion world, but that doesn't mean every brand has to adopt all of them. In fact I highly recommend avoiding that, even huge companies who are highly committed to sustainability like Eileen Fisher and Patagonia tend to focus on a few key strategies in order to do them well. Instead decide what's important to you as a designer or a brand and focus on one or two strategies, at least to start. One of the most important things I focus on is waste and how to reduce both textile and manufacturing waste in the industry. But for someone else it might be water conservation, labour issues, working with artisans or any other of a large number of possibilities.
Through both of your roles you have had the chance to work with some really innovative businesses. Are there any innovations or new business concepts that are on your radar, that you are excited about and think have the potential to really create change in the fashion industry?
I'm very excited about one of the current venture fellows at the BF+DA, a service called Make It Black. I'm not going to say too much about it because she's just about to launch, but keep an eye on this company, it's going to make huge changes in the industry.
As fashion lovers and clothes wearers, in your opinion what’s the best thing we can do to lower our own footprint when it comes to what we wear?
Buying quality over quantity is always a step in the right direction. Buying vintage instead of new. And I think we overlook the impact that over-laundering can have both on our clothing and on the environment, so here I would suggest buying non-toxic gentle detergents and trying to reduce the frequency clothing is washed, instead opt for spot cleaning and hanging outside to freshen up (maybe not in New York though).
Thanks for your inspiring words Tara, and your smart take on the nuances involved in addressing the sustainability and ethics of fashion.