Amsterdam - As the majority of the fashion industry continues to struggle making sustainable fashion sexy one small label from Los Angeles stands out from the crowd. Reformation has gained somewhat of a cult following since the launch of its first pop-up store back in 2009 when its founder Yael Aflalo first began selling upcycled vintage clothing. Since then Reformation has grown into a global force, which currently counts 8 stores across the US as well as an international website. Perhaps the only fashion brand to successfully combine the fast-fashion business model with sustainability, Reformation aims to offer accessible, sexy and sustainable fashion to all.
However, in order to achieve this, the brand needs to grow, which is why Reformation recently launched a new, more accessible clothing line under the name Reformation Jeans, which includes wardrobe basics such as denim, t-shirts and knitwear. But how does label plan on growing without compromising its sustainable values? How can Reformation expand its supply chain and manufacturing facilities, both in the US and overseas, and remain sustainable? Does going global mean compromising its sustainable values? FashionUnited spoke to Kathleen Talbot, Vice President Sustainability and Operations at Reformation during Beyond Green, an annual symposium for industry insiders, students and teachers to discuss the latest issues concerning sustainability in the fashion industry, to learn more.
Reformation’s mission statement: To bring sustainable fashion to everyone
"Our challenge now is how you take that same ethos and commitment to doing fashion differently, reuse that vintage model and grow and scale a company that can bring sustainable fashion to everyone," says Talbot, who is aware that the answer to that challenge is not simple. However, Reformation does have a few advantages when it comes to sustainable production that other brands do not. For example, the fashion label continues to purchase deadstock fabrics and vintage clothing, which account for 10 percent and 5 percent respectively of its collections. It does not use certain materials, such as virgin cotton, wool or synthetic materials for lifecycle reasons, as Reformation aims to move to a circular model. Instead, it uses cellulosic fibres such as Tencel, Viscose and Refibra. The brand also runs its own free, garment recycling initiative, known as Refcycling, and is transparent on how it manages its the environmental impact of its products through its RefScale. In addition, Reformation manages the first sustainable sewing factory in Los Angeles, where approximately 500 garment workers are employed. As they are vertically integrated, it offers the brand a higher level of control of the ins and outs of the factory, including its waste, water and chemical management as well as recycling, while ensuring Reformation retains agility and speed to market.
“It takes us 42 days on average to launch a new product, from design concept to reaching the end consumer in-store”
Even though Reformation does produce the majority of its products at its factory in LA, with the launch of Reformation Jeans, its new, more affordable line, the brand sought out overseas manufacturers to produce a number of its items. Why? To sustain its growth in an organic way, while keeping costs lower in order to ensure its products are more accessible. Talbot notes that the team at Reformation joke that they are ripping off Elon Musk’s business model for Tesla, which is built on the First Principal Thinking in order to make sustainable fashion more accessible. “Some of our aspiring customers really can't afford it and we wanted to reach them, for them to be able to wear the brand,” explains Talbot. “Reformation Jeans [products] are still made with the same standards and the same processes, so they can buy into what the brand is doing at a much more affordable price point. It’s just the start - we want to make things more affordable, which means that we have to expand the delta between the most expensive and the least expensive item. But we are okay with that, especially in the basic category.”
However, in order to ensure they remain agile and keep their responsiveness to the market, the company aims to limit its overseas production to basic items. At the moment a number of items launched by Reformation may only be sold through its online store, or only available for 6 weeks. Through the launch of Reformation Jeans, the company aims to begin creating a permanent collection which is available year round. “We want you to come back to buy your favourite t-shirt or pair of jeans whenever. And in some ways that is new for the brand and it lets us do some of that longer lead manufacturing overseas.” Although Reformation just started to produce more goods overseas, Talbot notes this remains a small percentage of their collections. “We are just building the framework and rolling it out. Our main focus now is how do you create a set of guidelines that is a very tight package of your non-negotiables - something every one of your partners must do - and then build the right relationships with the right type of partners to help grow the brand,” she explains. “But finding manufacturing partners that have the same values as we do, or are willing to go to the lengths that we do, is really hard.”
"We started with the fundamentals of sustainable fast-fashion”
“One of our big issues is finding someone who is transparent enough and able to answer all our questions and open to us.” As the brand continues to scout for more sustainable and transparent manufacturing partners, Talbot adds that they have had to also turn down a few producers who were eager to work with them, as they were unable to meet their production standards. While some may ask why a brand which has managed to create a name for itself as a local, sustainable producer is now manufacturing abroad, to Talbot the shift makes perfect sense as Reformation is an international brand. “Over 20 percent of our client base is international. We are a global brand. We are not as focused on ‘Made in America’ or ‘Made in LA’ as we are on ‘Made Ethically,’ ‘Made Responsibly’ and ‘Made with the same sourcing standards.’” Although not all of their customers are aware of Reformations shift to overseas manufacturing, they do occasionally receive questions from shoppers. Which is why they have adjusted all the language on their website to make it clear they work with sustainable partners in the US and abroad. “We did this because we want to be credible and transparent.”
However, working with overseas manufacturing partners is just the start of Reformation plan to offer sustainable fashion to all. At the moment the company is looking into the possibility of expanding internationally and is keen to open stores overseas by later 2018 or early 2019 in Europe’s leading capital cities, like London and Paris. In order to better serve these key markets, the LA-based brand is also toying with the idea of opening more local factories, similar to the open it runs in Los Angeles. “One of the models that we are playing with is a little pipe-dreamy, but as we are expanding, we’d like to replicate the actual manufacturing and vertical integration model overseas,” says Talbot. “We are asking what would it look like to have a factory in Europe, a factory in Asia, distribution centres and so on, just as we have in LA. Our 5-year plan is something that supports that idea and lets us service those international customers in a way that we unable to right now.”
You don’t have to scratch that hard to find our sustainability message, it’s on our landing page, on our products pages”
She is aware this is a rather ambitious goal, as they are currently just starting to produce their products overseas, but strongly believes that a blended model is the future of Reformation, even though labour costs and labour skills are likely to differ in other markets. Reformation has been inspired by the innovations made concerning local factories by sportswear brands like Adidas and Under Armour, but will not shy away from its human element. “We still have people making our products, with apparel that is still the case. So you have to find the market where there are people with those skills and go there. That still exists in Asia and some parts of Europe, like Portugal, Italy ad Turkey” stresses the VP of Sustainability. “I think the reason we would go for that model versus full package with partners, is the same benefits and the same advantages we have with having our own factory in LA - in terms of no minimums, having the speed to market and being close to a lot of our consumers in terms of delivery.” Talbot notes that this idea is certainly not novel, as fast-fashion players such as Zara operate in a similar way - although they do not own factories, Reformation aims to maintain a certain control and efficiency as it expands.
Reformation aims to go global with own stores and local factories
But don't expect Reformation to start opening up its own factories with next month, as the brand does not have a robust business plan set in place to start charting its growth. However, it is something that the company talks about in terms of its own brand vision and growth trajectory. “We even joke, as we are testing some of these international manufacturing partners, if we really love, we may just buy them? We are used to having so much control, that these are real conversations we are having - that’s how you get started. I think if the brand continues to scale and grow it’s a natural way to extend the business model.” Local manufacturing is not the only area Reformation is keen to grow in over the next few years, as in order to bring sustainable fashion to everyone, the fashion label will need to expand from solely offering womenswear.
“One question we get asked a lot is about menswear,” says Talbot. “We do want to bring sustainable fashion to everyone and right now we just make women's clothes.” It has always been Aflalo idea that Reformation develops into a one-stop lifestyle brand that offers customers everything they may need, one that they can trust in terms of sustainable and ethical standards. “Our CEO and founder talks about that a lot, ‘I want Reformation to be your trusted friend from which you can get most of your things from that you need.’” Which is why the brand is looking to expand its product categories within apparel to eventually include menswear, as well as accessories and footwear. Reformation is also considering branching out even further to include other product categories, such as beauty, health and home goods, although Talbot notes that some of these offerings may be from trusted-third-party partners. “Let us curate it and let us do the heavy lifting.” Although Talbot is unable to give a timeline as to if and when Reformation will begin to expand its product categories, it is clear that the brand is willing to do everything possible to grow holistically and achieve its goal.
"We feel very confident that making clothes and offering clothes to consumers, as we are is a much better choice than conventional fashion brands"
For now, Reformation aims to stick to its schedule of weekly collection launches. While this may seem unsustainable to some, unlike other fast-fashion players the fashion brand is very lean with its buying. “We usually buy a hundred units and see how it goes,” adds Talbot. “Every style we launch is basically a test.” After gauging consumers response to the product, its fit and colour, they decide if they can recut it, offer it in new colours ways or scrap it. If the product is a success they can have it recut and back in store within 2 weeks, although this is depended on how much of the existing fabric is left. “We still source deadstock. It’s a fun challenge, you basically have to do it roll by roll. You lose a lot of consistency and variability there, so customers will sometimes ask if we are going to create another style in the same fabric or restock, and then we have to say, no that’s it. When the fabric is done, it’s done.” Although this way of designing places limitations on the designers' vision, it also ensures they have to think more creatively. “Our designers have to design to the fabric on hand in order to keep that speed.” She adds that it remains challenging finding fabrics their designers want to use for their collections, ones which are both luxurious and sustainable. “We can’t afford to pay 80 US dollars a yard of fabric and keep the prices for our customers the same.”
Nevertheless, some may wonder if the brand’s ambition to grow into such a big player conflicts with their sustainable identity, but Talbot is not concerned. “I think that we still have a long way to go before we should be concerned about [growth for the sake of growth] in terms of sustainable brands. We are still scratching the surface in terms of our reach and our affluence," she says. "Our mission is to provide sustainable fashion for everyone. We are not going to do that as a single brand, but I think there is going to be a lot of intervention from a lot of different players. I feel like we are far off from a saturation point where we feel that we should stop making more sustainable things.”