March is Women’s History Month, but amid the current global health crisis, it hasn’t necessarily been top of mind. But times of great uncertainty and fear are also times for reflection. And hopefully, through darker times can also come both hope for the future and change. The fashion industry will change, but a number of women-run fashion brands are already leading the charge towards a more inclusive future.
As of 2016, Business of Fashion reported that only 14 percent of major fashion brands had a female executive at the helm. And though a lot can potentially change in a few years’ time, it was only last May when Rihanna became the first woman, as well as first woman of color, to create a new line with luxury conglomerate LVMH. To say the industry has some catching up to do as far as gender equality would be an understatement, but the women ahead are carving their own paths — not waiting for one to appear.
As the heads of their own brands, these leaders are challenging the status quo. This includes bringing transparency to the product supply chains, providing fair wages for their workers, eschewing societal beauty norms, and making thoughtful designs accessible to individuals of all sizes. These leaders are setting examples worth following and running businesses worth supporting. Ahead, they reflect on how and share what the future looks like from their point of view.
“Hopefully, the future of the fashion industry is more inclusive and more eco-conscious,” says Lauren Chan, the founder and CEO of Henning, who’s walking the walk with her line of luxury pieces that service the market for those size 12 and up.
For Chan, a model and former editor, Henning doesn’t stand out merely for its size range. “Our biggest challenge is also our biggest strength: that we’re a luxury brand. We’re selling a category of product to a set of consumers who aren’t used to shopping at that tier. In the current plus-size womenswear market, customers are forced to choose between bland basics at department stores or trendy, low-quality pieces from fast fashion brands. At Henning, we want to offer a new shopping experience that is exciting instead of frustrating by offering luxurious quality fabrics, expert tailoring, and smart, functional details.”
As with many new fashion brands — Henning launched in September 2019 — Chan’s business is being thoughtful about each products it puts out into the world. She encourages a “mindset of sustainability” in her customers, as well. “We aim to inspire plus-size shoppers to purchase less fast-fashion, and more high-quality pieces, like our Bank Blazer, that will last for seasons to come.”
Aurora James’ NYC-based line of shoes and accessories, Brother Vellies, is not only successful and highly coveted, but it stands out as being a brand with heart. “Operating from a place of faith instead of fear is never easy,” says the founder and creative director Aurora James, “sometimes I have to make decisions that are best for the humans I work with that might not be in the best interest of the LLC I run. Those moments are obstacles. But I’m not very inspired at the idea of running a business that focuses on just the bottom line, or just following the grain. That’s not very interesting is it?”
James, however, is doing plenty of interesting things. The brand’s identity is tied with its roots in traditional African footwear with styles handmade in South Africa, Kenya, and Ethiopia, among other continental regions. Additionally, this year Brother Vellies launched its first collection of nude footwear in a range of eight skin tones to address a wider array of customers.
James’ unique outlook makes it exciting to follow what’s coming next from the label, but she’s also taking her time. “I think ideally I would love the industry as a whole to slow down a little bit. If we start making less clothing in a more thoughtful manner, we’re able to create kinder supply chains,” she says, adding that more than ever, she feels a desire to pull back.
“Over the past few weeks especially I have felt a greater connection to every single person on this planet than I ever thought possible. His pain is my pain, her hurt is your hurt … if one of us falls down the rest of us will feel it too. As a brand I really just want to focus in on our community, making them feel heard, loved, and seen. Not just in the products I create, but in the way I communicate and the activities my company chooses to participate in and organizations we stand up for. I am not interested in anyone who wants to stand on the sidelines of their customer’s best interests.”
Mother of Pearl launched in 2002, but more recently reevaluated its approach to the future. “The fashion industry is a major contributor to climate change,” explains Amy Powney, the UK-based brand’s creative director, as well as columnist for Vogue UK. “Running a fashion brand, I feel a huge amount of responsibility to make responsible decisions within my supply chain and entire business model, and also provide customers with the right information they need to make their purchasing decisions.”
This said, Mother of Pearl’s site is setting a new precedent, providing shoppers with access to learn about how every product was produced, including which pieces use natural fibers and which items can be traced from “field to final.” Simultaneously, Powney recently forwent a traditional Fashion Week runway show and instead launched a community called @FashionOurFuture. “My ultimate mission is to empower and educate about the impact of fashion on the planet and show how we can work together to make a change,” says Powney.
For decades, the lingerie market was controlled by a very small number of power players. CUUP wasn’t created to disrupt this, but instead to create a superior product — bras available in A-H cups.
“When I look at the current lingerie space, most competitors are making bras that look like the same options I had as a teenager … made with lace, memory foam, and some padding to reshape my body into what culture perceives as attractive,” says co-founder and CMO Abby Morgan. “At CUUP, we want to break that mental mold and make people realize that your unique, natural shape is unique and beautiful. Our bras are intentionally unlined, accentuating — not altering — the female form, while also offering the level of support you need.”
Stripped away of padding and uncomfortable construction, CUUP considers itself a fresh approach to sexy. “We want to revere a woman’s body exactly for what it is, unaltered … not for what we’ve been told it’s supposed to be,” says co-founder Lauren Caris Cohan. While Cohan now assumes a creative advisor roles with the brand, she calls CUUP “an exceptional brand for the natural woman,” as it seeks to resonate with each individual’s sense of sexiness and sensuality.
“For years, the intimates industry has squeezed women into a limited range of sizes, styling them under a male gaze, and telling them what is sexy, instead of asking them to define it for themselves,” says Morgan. “We created CUUP to disrupt that definition.”
Community is a central theme for abacaxi, a Brooklyn-based brand launched last year by designer and visual artist Sheena Sood. “My vision for abacaxi is based on my own story as a South Asian-American femme,” says Sood who was inspired to start her line based on what she considered a lack of representation within fashion. “The visuals I’m interested in developing feature us and are created by us … a diverse group of people of color including all genders and backgrounds.”
Made in small batches, the vibrant, color- and pattern-rich collection is produced in New Delhi and Peru with a team of local artisans. While abacaxi honors Sood’s own personal history — her collection “Fruit Nostalgia” is an homage to her mother’s style in the ‘80s and ‘90s — it’s also a modern means of honoring time-honored handmade textile techniques that date back even further.
Through this approach, Sood is envisioning a future that allows space for all voices within, as well as outside of, her own community. “It’s important to remember there is enough room for everyone, a place for everyone’s vision to exist and thrive, and we all need to support each other.”
When Universal Standard launched in 2015, it wanted to disrupt the industry by making the same clothing available for women of all sizes. Today, the size-inclusive line — running from 00 to 40 — is not only a growing business, but it’s helping other brands expand their own offerings.
According to Alex Waldman, who co-founded Universal Standard alongside Polina Veksler, the future of fashion is one “where everyone feels seen and included and where the size barrier that separates 30 percent of women from 70 percent of women is removed so all of us are able to shop with the same dignity and options.” Here, Waldman references a study by market research firm Plunkett Research, that 70% percent of women in the United States wear above a size 14.
“Part of the problem is that many women marginalized by the fashion industry have bought into the idea that they somehow matter less,” Waldman adds. “It’s very important to us as a brand to completely eradicate that notion. Everyone deserves to participate in fashion.” Universal Standard has already worked with Rodarte and Adidas to help create their first forays into size-inclusive collections. Waldman says the hope is to grow this list of collaborators and inspire other brands to rethink their current size charts. “Making more clothes for bigger bodies is a solution, but it’s an interim, unsustainable one as the change that ne to be made is much broader, more inclusive, and ne to be more permanent,” Waldman says. “The only way forward is to bring people together and create equal access for all of us, as we are.”
Though Sahroo began in 2018 as a direct-to-consumer, ready-to-wear line, the label quickly spotted a gap in the bridal market, and decided to shift its focus to environmentally conscious design of mix-and-match dresses, caftans, and separates for wedding days, wedding events, or any other special occasion.
As Sarah Abbasi, founder and creative director explains it, the brand is focused on a “new luxury experience.” This includes everything from high-touch customer service, ethically sourced and produced garments, and fair wages and treatment for every team member, including those who produce the garments in Pakistan, where Abbasi’s family is also from. The brand is also carbon-neutral and donates 10 trees for every garment designed.
“For me, luxury cannot be fully enjoyed if there’s the pall of questionable ethics hanging over it,” she says. “While it is definitely a more difficult road to walk on, making more sustainable and ethical choices, it is incredibly encouraging to see my counterparts across the fashion landscape making the same brave choices.”
“La Ligne began as a question: Could we harness the timeless appeal of the iconic stripe and create a collection of that would become an everyday uniform for the women who wear it?” shared Meredith Melling, who co-founded the the brand with Valerie Macaulay and Molly Howard. Four years later, the NYC company has more than answered their own query with a collection that’s grounded in the traditional print.
La Ligne sets an example as a female-founded brand that consistently celebrates and amplifies the voices of those who are working to create a more equitable future, collaborating with fellow female-founded labels like Cuyana and Lingua Franca. The label has also curated celebrity brand partners using their own platforms for positive change, including Mindy Kaling, Olivia Wilde, and Cleo Wade.
“We find so many women to be inspirational it’s difficult for us to choose just one,” Melling responds when asked about the women who have influenced the brand. “We have shot over 250 women for our La Bande portrait series and there are so many more we cannot wait to get in front of the camera — the way this community brings the collection to life is the most authentic expression of the brand.”
Based in Downtown Los Angeles, Neococo design’s uniquely stand out for the embroidery work and eye-catching female figures they display. But the brand’s backstory is even more remarkable. Founded by Amrita Thadani, Neococo employs displaced cis and transgender women — many of whom are refugees who have fled their countries due to discrimination, physical abuse, persecution, and war — in an effort to provide opportunities for stability.
“We operate differently than other brands,” says Thadani. “We enable women going through resettlement to work from home, giving them the flexibility to work around their schedule, putting the focus on their family and kids first. We organize the logistics of pick up and drop off of materials to be hand embroidered.”
The final products include an array of embroidered T-shirts, scarves, and other accessories within the collection. Once sold, 100 percent of Neococo revenue goes back into the company in order to continue its efforts to support the women behind the designs.
“At Neococo,” says Thadani, “all the women in our team are eager to use this job opportunity to rebuild their lives. Most of them are between the ages of 40-60, so to be safe and free in a country like America is empowering and they are filled with renewed hope. Re-energizing the timeless craft of hand embroidery, every T-shirt is symbolic of women expressing freedom-transcending issues of conflict, abuse and women’s rights.”