Smarter Business: Smart Design
Interview with Fashion Designer Eliza Starbuck
An Entrepreneur's Take on Slow Fashion
Photo: Stas Komarovski
Fashion designer and entrepreneur Eliza Starbuck’s mission is to take slow fashion mainstream. With her debut spring 2011 line on Urban Outfitters online, Starbuck aims to convince people to invest in, rather than just consume, clothing that is durable, locally made and multi-purpose. Other environmentally-minded designers may focus on materials or recycling—versatility is the key to Starbuck’s eco- and cost-conscious approach to slow fashion.
SB: How did Bright Young Things get started?
ES: I’ve worked in the fashion industry for years. The more I worked in the industry, the more I realized that, as a designer, I didn’t just want to encourage blind consumption. I was about ready to leave when I met up with the Uniform Project. It was based on similar ideals to my own--teaching people how to be sustainable consumers and/or helping them be more creative with what they have. I volunteered for a year and the little black dress was the kickoff point for my collection.
The sales were very convincing. We did a limited edition of 365 LBDs and they sold out in five days. That response gave me purpose as a designer. I recognized that there is real demand for my product, which is ultimately very useful. It evolved into the eight pieces of my Bright Young Things collection. These pieces are all made to be considered an investment, to be used, to be extremely functional, and to last through time and trends.
How does your mission help you establish comparative advantage? What distinguishes your clothing from other items that boast versatility or classic style?
ES: There are two ways to go basic. Timeless classics like J Crew function and are stylish but aren’t always versatile. Then there are designers who are creating innovative, versatile clothing, which is more avant-garde looking and edgier. I love the jersey dresses that can be wrapped around in many different ways. It’s rare that the two meet—it’s uncommon to have that classic style that also is multifunctional. That’s where the Bright Young Things aesthetic comes in.
I design items that have the classic timeless style, so they never look 2011, but that also do a lot of things. These are items that are engineered to allow you to change their shape and wear them in dramatically different ways—wearing them backwards for example. By using engineering with classic design I’ve established a market niche that provides a unique product and streamlines the production process.
What makes your clothing sustainable? How do you substantiate your claims and gain consumer confidence?
ES: I’m passionate about the concept of a made-to-order production process that eliminates overproduction, cuts waste and reduces costs. Bright Young Things asks the consumer to think more about their purchase as every customer has to wait six to eight weeks for their item. That’s a big deal these days! It’s important environmentally and economically to know there is a customer for every item made. By contrast, the fashion industry today runs on overproduction and waste.
Based on my research on production practices, I’ve found that shipping often uses the most resources. I also believe it’s very important to supply our economy with jobs. Therefore, I’ve set up a factory in New York City. My mission is to own a factory and train workers from scratch. In order to really control the product quality, it’s essential to have control over every step of the process, which isn’t always possible when your factories are halfway around the world. Changing production practices is essential for creating better quality product and higher value for money both for the consumer and the producer.
As there aren’t many fabric mills left in the United States, I’m still searching for American-made fabric to use. Fabric production is highly polluting, so as soon as we start producing fabric the process become less sustainable. I’m lucky enough to have unused fabric stock available to me in New York, which also minimizes input costs.
How does your vision to convince people to consume less work as a transferable business model for other designers and even fashion giants?
ES: It’s a matter of being open-minded and able to work with unexpected partners, to connect with as many other businesses as possible. It’s true--it is difficult to sell fashion when you’re telling people not to buy things. It’s a very different model and it’s going to take time to develop a strong practice that works industry-wide. I believe it will start with the consumer. With time the public will demand better products and industrial practices. However, anything you want to have happen on a large scale requires patience. Unlike the difficulties that come with being a small business and finding funding, the creative visionary part and challenging the fashion industry is fun for me—I enjoy the challenge.
Is the collection available to the public?
ES: Yes, four pieces from my inaugural collection, originally launched at the Greenshows during New York Fashion week, are now featured as part of my Spring 2011 collection at Urban Outfitters online.
What’s your next step?
ES: In order to expand my line and production, I’m looking for other large companies with an interest in my message of responsible consumer behavior to partner with me, sponsor Bright Young Things and support my mission.
last revised 6/16/2011