M eet Yael Aflalo! The American fashion designer is at the helm of her own fashion forward movement that channels the industry's waste and recreates a newly engineered collection of clothing. Here, in an exclusive interview with Buro 24/7's Miroslava Duma, Yael Aflalo talks sustainability, motivation and why she's set to continue to manufacture Reformation state side...
You started Ya-Ya at the age of 21. What motivated you to start something of your own instead of going to work for another 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 lookbooks, wasted fabric. 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 this cycle. At the time, there weren't many other brands who 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 happen to be sustainable.
What was the turning point for you as a designer and an entrepreneur that made sustainable fashion appeal to you?
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. But we all 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 create Reformation was your trip to China. As your brands grows, would you ever consider relocating the production to China?
We are based in LA and really enjoy keeping production local — it gives me the ability to be more hands-on than I'd be able to if things were made elsewhere.
How do you source vintage pieces and materials?
We buy our vintage pieces from wholesalers across the US, 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 were some of the early obstacles and how did you manage to overcome them?
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 is when we set out to create our own factory here in LA.
When I used to tell people that I wanted to create a sustainable clothing company, most rolled their eyes.
What are the most popular products or 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 we see our customers are loving. We launched our holiday collection last month, which did especially well with many of the pieces sold out on the website.
What does your design process look like? Where do you get 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 did Reformation became so popular among celebrities like Rihanna and Taylor Swift?
I think the reason so many celebrities are attracted to Reformation is because we continuously create great products that fit so well and are easy to wear. We make products that are sexy but at the same time easy and chic, which attracts celebrities.
How did you learn about your customers and their preferences? Is it just through social media or something else?
We definitely use social media to listen to what girls are wanting 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 ads 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 with them.
Do you think that fashion in general can become sustainable at some point? Can big brands be sustainable or does the scale kill the environment?
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 has a sweet spot between fast street 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 become sustainable?
Sustainable fashion isn't something new — it's just that it's becoming more mainstream, and people are becoming more aware of their purchasing habits and are 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 design. 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 to "sell 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 technologies. How do you incorporate tech into your life and work?
Our customers are used to seeing the new collections and they want instant gratification from us. Tech is making Reformation more efficient so we can quickly produce new stuff and grow our sustainability efforts.
Technology is changing the fashion industry and we're updating our stores to make sure our customer shopping experience is even better.
What was the most valuable lesson you've learned along you entrepreneurial way?
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 to market is important.
What advice would you give to you 21-year-old self? And what advice would you give to young 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.
What is your main influence in life? What motivates you every day?
I'm motivated by our customers, by our team, by innovative companies like Tesla and Patagonia who are helping us move toward 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.
Could you tell us more about your collaboration with Patagonia? How did the idea came around and can we expect collaborations with other brands in the future?
Patagonia is a company that I've not only admired for years but it's also been incorporated into my personal wardrobe, ever since I was young. It's the 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.
Has your vision of Reformation evolved from when 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 for 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 a 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.