Miroslava Duma in conversation with Yael Aflalo, founder of Reformation
You started your first brand Ya-Ya at the age of 21. What motivated you to start something of your own instead of working for a label or designer?
Throughout my years in fashion, including my 10 years with Ya-Ya, I became more and more aware of the harmful practices my company had fallen victim to — overprinting look books, wasted fabric, etc. On a work trip to China, I saw firsthand the devastating amount of pollution created by the industry and knew that I had to make a change and help break that cycle. At the time, there weren't many other brands that were making sustainable clothes that I would actually want to wear, so I created Reformation to fill this void at the intersection of design and sustainability. First and foremost, we're trying to make great clothes that everyone will love, which also happens to be sustainable.
What was the turning point for you as a designer and entrepreneur that made you go into sustainable fashion?
Fashion is the third most polluting industry in the world, and the second largest consumer of water. Making fabric uses water, energy, chemicals, and other resources that most people don't think about or ever see. There are also over 400 million people worldwide who help make our clothes and in the worst cases, they are subject to unsafe and unfair working conditions. The invisibility of the resources and people behind our clothes makes talking about the true costs of fashion difficult. For the average consumer, it feels abstract and definitely not a part of our day-to-day life. We wake up and put on clothes every day, so our decisions have an impact whether we realise it or not. We all have the opportunity to make change. At Reformation, we want to lead a movement towards a world where sustainable manufacturing is the status quo and customers can feel empowered to change the world, but not their style.
You've mentioned in previous interviews that one of the turning points in your decision to launch Reformation was your trip to China. As your brand grows, would you ever consider relocating the production there?
We are based in L.A. and we really enjoy keeping our production local. It gives me the ability to be more hands-on. I won't be able to if things were made elsewhere.
What were some of the early obstacles and how did you manage to overcome them?
When I used to tell people that I wanted to create a sustainable clothing company, most rolled their eyes. At the time, many eco brands weren't looking at trends or focusing on fit. I looked past the criticism and moved forward with creating Reformation. As we started to grow, we saw some challenges in creating sustainable clothing without using traditional manufacturing methods overseas, which led us to set up our own factory here in L.A.
How does your design process look like? Where do you get your inspiration from?
First, I sit down with my designers and ask them what they want to wear. Then we go through a number of sketch phases. Once samples are done, we fit various people in the office who have different body types to ensure the best possible fit. I would say that I sit in on 90 percent of the fittings, just because I want to make sure that our styles fit a variety of women and in the most perfect way.
How do you source for vintage pieces and materials?
We buy our vintage pieces from wholesalers across the U.S. and redesign these materials into one-of-a-kind pieces. Repurposed clothing can save more than 13,227 pounds of CO2 emissions per year. Repurposing vintage denim and cashmere or wool sweaters also means you get the perfect feel and fit without the carbon impact of making new materials.
What are your most popular pieces? Do you have items that you bring back from time to time?
No matter the item, all of our clothing is chic and cool and I think our customers know that. While we update our styles weekly, we definitely bring back items that our customers love. We launched our holiday collection last month that did especially well with many of the pieces sold out on the website.
How do you learn about your customers and their preferences? Is it just through social media?
We definitely use social media to listen to what girls want more of. We also love seeing women with different styles in our clothes — that diversity continues to grow with the brand — and we produce a range of styles to fit each customer.
What message do you want to convey to your customers through social media and your ad campaigns?
We like to convey to our customers how important sustainability is to us and how different all of our #RefBabes are. Our customers are multifaceted, confident and cool and we try to show that in our communication.
Do you think that fashion in general can become sustainable at some point? Can luxury brands adopt the same approach?
The industry will have to change given resource constraints and other environmental and social constraints. I think the question is more 'when' — when will big brand leaders respond proactively, or will they wait until it's a matter of compliance. We're really excited about the future of sustainability and the technology that comes along with it. Our long view is that Reformation will be a go-to fashionable lifestyle brand for all things sustainable.
Would you say that Reformation is a sweet spot between fast fashion and high fashion?
I think Reformation is bringing quality shapes and styles to women who are interested in fashion and trends without being 'trendy'. Most of the pieces we make you can have in your closet forever and are versatile enough to wear anywhere.
Brands like Zara and H&M are trying to be seen as more eco-friendly. Do you think that it would ever be possible for a mass-market brand to be sustainable?
Sustainable fashion isn't something new. It's just that it's becoming more mainstream. People are becoming more aware of their purchasing habits, finding ways to reduce the impact fashion has on the environment. With this movement, we've seen a number of companies, both large and small, gravitating towards sustainability in their designs. I'm hopeful that more and more brands will follow suit, but happy to say we're helping to set an example.
You've mentioned before that you hate the idea of selling coats in summer. This season we've seen several brands doing see-now-buy-now collections at NYFW and LFW. What is your perspective on the current fashion cycle and do you think that things are changing in the industry?
I think we've seen an overall shift in retail, especially with the rise of e-commerce, where customers see something and want it now, rather than waiting six months to be able to finally buy it at a store. With our production methods, we're able to fine tune what's working, and what's not, without over-investing in unused merchandise. Because of this, we've given ourselves a flexibility that really makes sense.
You are very interested in technology. How do you incorporate it into your life and work?
Technology is changing the fashion industry and we're updating our stores to make our customers' shopping experience even better. Our customers are used to seeing the new collections and they want instant gratification from us. Tech is making Ref more efficient so we can quickly produce new stuff and grow our sustainability efforts.
What was the most valuable lesson you've learned from your entrepreneurial venture?
Don't make more than you can sell, and be fast. Opening my own factory with Reformation was the best move because there was no more sitting on inventory, and when there was demand for something, we were able to turn it around and get it back on the floor in two weeks. Speed in the market is important.
Looking back, what advice would you give your 21-year-old self and girls in their 20s?
I would tell myself to stick with it and encourage girls to really do what they're passionate about. If they don't like something that's going on in the world, make a plan to change it.
Who is your main influence in life and what motivates you every day?
I'm motivated by our customers, our team, and by innovative companies like Tesla and Patagonia who are helping us move towards a world where sustainability is the status quo. I'm also driven by how much is still left to be done. There is so much progress to be made and I'm excited about our future and seeing more positive change happen.
Has your vision for Reformation evolved since it launched?
When I first started Reformation, my vision was simple: To create a brand where fashion and sustainability can coexist. My vision still remains the same, but on a larger scale.
What's next for you and Reformation?
We're really excited about the future of sustainability and the technology that comes along with it. Our long view is that we will be the go-to fashionable lifestyle brand for all things sustainable. We're always releasing new, limited-edition collections and look forward to continuing to offer great sustainable products.
Could you tell us more your collaboration with Patagonia and how the idea came around? Can we expect more collaborations in the future?
Patagonia is a company that I've not only admired for years but also has been incorporated into my personal wardrobe ever since I was young. It's a heritage sustainable brand that I think a lot of people have a close connection with. The feeling that Patagonia has inspired in people is something that I feel Reformation is doing today, and it's something I'd love to continue doing with other likeminded brands.