By Faaria Kherani
Juhea Kim, Fort Greene designer of the new fashion line LIBER New York, makes her trip from Brooklyn to New York City’s Garment District. Her list of stops includes fabric stores, trim stores, where she buys zippers and buttons, and patternmaking factories– stops other designers can and often will skip. So why does she bother?
Kim is part of an emerging trendof New York designers. She gets personally involved in the making of her clothes to keep their production ethical and local.
Among the dozens of designers following this trend are Brooklyn designer Georgia Varidakis, whose jewelry is handcrafted in New York, and Miss Lonelyhearts, with a line of handbags, outfits, and accessories—all locally designed and produced. These designers, along with Kim and a group of others, recently showed off their local products at a sample sale at the Ace Hotel.
Before starting her fashion line, Kim became disillusioned with the “cheap-chic” way many retail giants produce clothing. H&M, for example, is a popular brand that does not own any factories and outsources its goods from approximately 700 independent suppliers, mostly in Asia and Europe.
This past January, chopped and slit H&M clothes were found in a dumpster on 35th Street in Manhattan. The clothes, many of which were produced in the Far East and Africa according to the IBS Center for Management Research, did not sell. They were cut, supposedly by store managers, so that the patterns could not be reused.
Kim tries to keep her business local and to bring value to her clothes by supervising quality control – both of her clothing and the production environment.
Kim admits that from a business perspective, keeping production local is difficult.
“You’re basically killing your margins, and how much it costs to produce clothing here is much higher [than abroad].” Kim spends $30 to produce a t-shirt she sells for just under $60, while most large retail companies will spend $5 to produce the same priced t-shirt abroad.
The international fashion industry is beginning to catch on. In a recent lecture at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, Tone Tobiasson, co-founder of Nordic Initiative Clean and Ethical (NICE) in Norway, cited the H&M incident as evidence of the devaluation of clothing produced cheaply in developing countries.
“Local is the new organic,” says Tobiasson, who believes local production can help solve problems with fashion production. “I’m so sick of looking at labels and getting no information whatsoever other than ‘Made in China’ and how to wash it!”
Kim is willing to make the financial sacrifice for her ethically conscious line. She speaks of factories in China where it is so hot that factory employees can barely work.
“Where is the beauty in that kind of thing?” says Kim. “What is the beauty in buying a piece of clothing if that’s how it’s made?”
But Kim admits that she has to be a part of the larger industry to keep her line economically sustainable. She says she makes a marginal profit from her clothes, and has financial support from an investor. “I can’t be completely separate from what’s going on out there. We’re all drinking the same water.”
Source4Style textile provider CEO Summer Rayne Oakes has started a business to make finding ethically produced textiles easier for designers like Kim.
“New designers are always afraid to drop their toes in the water,” Oakes says. She wants to help designers make the transition to ethical fashion production worldwide, and she says larger, well-established designers are interested as well.
Tobaisson thinks addressing ethical issues is often too complicated for smaller, investor-dependent companies, either because of their size or their restricted budget.
But Kim has proved herself a confident designer that retailers in search of an ethical and sustainable business model will be looking to in the future.