Meet Tara St James, the founder and designer behind Study NY, a women’s ready-to-wear brand that focuses on conceptual design and sustainability. Since its inception, Study NY has received industry plaudits, from an Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation Grant for sustainable design in 2011 to runner-up status in the 2014 CFDA/Lexus Eco-Fashion Challenge. We checked in with the industry’s rising star to learn what it’s really like to run an eco-conscious fashion brand.
theFashionSpot: Why is an eco-conscious brand important to you?
Tara St James: I started Covet, a more mass-market eco brand in 2004. When I left that company to start my own collection, I was armed with a tremendous amount of knowledge about the industry and production and I couldn’t conscientiously create a new brand that wasn’t sustainable. 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) 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.
tFS: What are some of the obstacles you face in creating more sustainable products?
TSJ: The greatest challenge I have seen with the business is the dialog that has happened between my retail outlets and myself. Not only have they been incredibly supportive of the challenge, but also it has allowed me to really learn more about their needs and interactions with their customers. I have yet to figure out how I want to maneuver sales to my retailers. In the past, I worked with a showroom and attended trade shows where buyers could come and order the next season’s collection. Now, I find myself needing to send styles out to the retailers once a month and while photos are a good way of doing this, I don’t believe it’s the only solution, so at present I’m talking regularly to my retailers to figure out the best way to approach them monthly with new product.
tFS: What would we be surprised to find out about “green” companies like yours?
TSJ: I think the biggest surprise would be the social impact “green” companies have on cultures and communities around the world. The art and craft that are put into a lot of sustainable brands are often overlooked in the fashion industry as a whole. The people behind the clothes are real. As a designer and a consumer, I think it’s important to have full transparency and support ethical fashion and tell the artisans/workers’ stories. Fashion is art in my opinion.
tFS: Why do you think more fashion brands don’t go green?
TSJ: Cost. The mass-market fashion industry is focused on producing low-cost, low-quality products as fast as they possibly can. With this mass-market mentality comes a greater cost to the environment and the well-being of the garment workers.
tFS: What practices are you implementing that make your company eco-friendly and how does that affect the global footprint?
TSJ: I examined my production process and focus on a different technique every season. That began with zero waste pattern-making, 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. As far as the global footprint, this reduces the amount of materials used. I also use fair labor practices and local artisans, which supports local economies, cultures and the well-being of the workers. I mainly use natural fibers and low impact dyes, which reduces toxicity and pollution in the environment.
tFS: What do you wish you would have known from the beginning about running an eco-friendly brand?
TSJ: I wish I was more aware of how big of a sustainable fashion community New York City has to offer and was introduced earlier. It has been really inspiring to have so many people collaborate and working together toward the future of sustainable fashion.