A new wave of high-end sustainable clothing and accessories labels are countering fast fashion with a focus on transparent supply chains and minimal waste.
It’s Saturday morning in the Mission, and a long line has formed outside a whitewashed storefront on Valencia Street. Next door to a minimalist yoga studio and a chai-centric café, the crowd has gathered for a glimpse inside the first brick-and-mortar location for Everlane, the formerly online-only San Francisco clothing company that gained rapid popularity by promising customer “radical transparency” on their factories and prices.
Key to the retail startup’s success selling wardrobe staples — $71 silk shirts, $35 linen tees — is the way clothes and accessories are sold: alongside detailed information about where they were made and exactly how much they cost to produce. It’s just one example of an increasingly broad ethical and sustainable fashion movement that has taken root in the Bay Area
“It’s really a sustainable fashion hub here,” says Brooke McEver, co-founder of industry collaborative the Sustainable Fashion Alliance. “From the grassroots level, the consumer level and the big industry level, the change is really starting here.”
San Francisco’s style (or lack thereof ) has long been overshadowed by dominant fashion hubs in New York and LA. If these cities are the heart of American fashion, though, there’s an increasingly strong case that SF is its soul.
While the city has long been home to fast fashion heavyweights like H&M, Forever 21 and Zara, San Francisco is also at the forefront of a resurgence in brands prioritizing environmentally- and socially-minded production. From ultra-durable leather goods to jeans custom made with the help of waste-minimizing algorithms, or Levi’s made with less water-intensive cotton, green fashion is no longer code for crunchy, hemp-based garments.
“Fashion is meant to be worn over and over again,” says stylist Mary Gonsalves Kinney, whose eponymous company dresses Bay Area tech royalty and other high-profile clients like Ayesha Curry. “This ‘I can only wear something once and then I must closet it’ mentality is so le passe.”
It’s not easy being green
Still, the shades of green within the sustainable fashion space can vary widely. Large-scale producers with relatively low prices, like Everlane and Levi’s, still participate in mass production. They may share factories with other brands that require minimal sustainability checks.
Meanwhile, a new generation of smaller-scale “slow fashion” companies, like Freda Salvador and Cayucas, are giving heirloom pieces a modern update to compete with of-the-moment fast fashion. And then there are newer high-tech fashion companies, like Unspun, that are beginning to employ the Bay Area’s signature tech industry — robotics, algorithms, additive manufacturing — to drastically reduce waste in the design and manufacturing process. Of course, plenty of people still swear by secondhand shopping at stores like Buffalo Exchange or online alternatives like ThredUp.
“I’m on my year two of only buying vintage, consigned or kind of small business or slow fashion,” says Megan Papay, co-founder of 7-year-old shoe line Freda Salvador. “Out here is a great place to be.”
Papay’s personal foray into conscious fashion is a natural outgrowth of her company. Along with co-founder Cristina Palomo-Nelson, who grew up in a family with a successful shoemaking business in Central America, Papay was intentional in forging a brand of “pound the pavement” oxfords, mid-rise heels and other staples designed to with stand the hills of San Francisco.
One key source of inspiration: classic men’s shoes designed to be easily repaired and worn long-term, rather than disposed of each season.
“Men take care of their shoes. They resole them — kind of opposite of the fast fashion,” Papay says. “Our shoes are made in Spain. They should be in your closet for years and years.”
Footwear promising an added layer of durability or sustainability has become a focal point of the San Francisco fashion scene in recent years, with companies like Allbirds and Rothy’s offering their own ultra-wearable shoes made from carefully-sourced materials. Rothy’s, a purveyor of flats and loafers made from recycled plastic, opened its first retail store on Fillmore Street this spring.
Still, Papay doesn’t see her company as a critique of fast fashion, but more as an alternative for shoppers. For one, shoes made from synthetic fabrics now routinely sell for $20 to $50, compared with Freda’s price point (more along the lines of $300 to $500 per pair).
“Up until a few years ago, I definitely loved my Zara and fast fashion,” Papay says. “I think there’s a place for it.”
While the precise definition varies, Inc. Magazine recently reported that “eco-apparel” is now a $5 billion business and growing. In addition to membership groups like the Sustainable Fashion Alliance, San Francisco’s Academy of Art University and California College of the Arts also now offer educational programs focused on sustainable materials and other related subjects.
It was early 2013 when McEver, now of the Sustainable Fashion Alliance, first decided to venture into the belly of the beast. Then a recent art school grad, she moved to Dhaka, Bangladesh, for what was supposed to be a three-month internship designing prints at a mega-factory for fast fashion retailers like Wal-Mart and Zara.
McEver ended up staying in Bangladesh three years, carving out a niche doing sustainability case studies and launching a program to upcycle old materials as a response to what she saw. Among the most jarring elements was the clean-up in the aftermath of the deadly 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory, which supplied Western brands like Benetton, Mango and The Children’s Place. The impact of the global fashion supply chain was everywhere.
“I would go past these fabric mountains … just waste and scrap,” McEver says. “And then I would go to this 30,000-person factory and see how that waste was created.” When she decided to move back stateside and enroll at Stanford’s Design School, McEver realized that San Francisco was a place of convergence for people rethinking the existing system.
Today, those efforts include the company she recently joined, Unspun, which uses technology to cut waste from the global scrap heaps she once saw up close.“We take a body scan, then you pick the style of jean you want. We have an algorithm that makes the perfect pair of pants,” McEver says of the company, which has offices in San Francis-co and Hong Kong and plans to open its first retail space in the Bay Area later this year.
Key to the model is reducing the millions of dollars’ worth of “inventory waste” at fast fashion companies that rely on constantly stocking all sizes.For stylist Gonsalves Kinney, the tech industry is also a major driver of demand for sustainable apparel in the Bay Area. “It’s a global interest, but I think certain sectors of SF are more interested in it than, say, the social set in Manhattan,” she observes. “I feel like my younger clients in tech are definitely more aware and working hard to reduce their carbon footprint.”
Not unlike the appeal of Everlane to consumers, Gonsalves Kinney says sustainability is among the most effective marketing tools to compete for affluent shoppers.
“My clients certainly are looking to buy amazing, unique, hard to find pieces, but they are also interested in the story behind them,” she says. “If the story is profound or one that is proving to be eco-effective, they are way more inclined to buy.”