Not many trends change as quickly and as radically as fashion. Styles come and go, icons are put up and torn down, and global culture is sent on a new trajectory, all faster than you can sew a button. The system supporting that culture, however, is in need of a serious overhaul. Behind the scenes, the fashion industry has a massive eco footprint, though it’s not often vilified like energy or transportation.
Yael Aflalo started her first fashion line, Ya-Ya, in 1999. That lasted ten years and served as a crash course in the ugly economics of the business. But instead of quitting an industry she saw as sick, Yael decided to help it get better.
As Curtis Kulig (LOVE ME) found out, Yael Aflalo and her team have created a medicine for the fashion industry that doesn’t taste bitter: Reformation. The environmentally sustainable brand puts out a chic, limited-edition collection online and in two stores, one in LA and one in NYC. They also boast a strong cult following.
How was it moving to New York and starting Reformation after working in LA as a designer?
It’s really different working in LA versus New York. LA is super chill and relaxed and it gets your creative juices flowing a little bit more. It has super open spaces and there are a lot more opportunities to make things here too. There are people to help. New York’s good because it’s super competitive and it really pushes you to put your “A” game forward.
I know the Reformation girls pretty well [laughs]. I’ve been around for the past few years. How do you guys balance work and friendship?
It gets a little touchy sometimes because we do work a lot, and then we also hang out together a lot. It can be difficult, but for a group of women to be able to work so much and to hang out so much together, we do a really good job of it. For strong women that have their own opinions and own agendas, we really come together with a common purpose.
When did Reformation start?
I think three years ago.
I knew you when you were doing Ya-Ya, which wasn’t an eco-friendly/green label. And then you started Reformation, which completely swayed that way. What was the choice behind that?
Ya-Ya was a typical fashion brand, and I had it for ten years—I think you knew me for the last few years. I was so over it. I really saw, having my own company, all the waste and silly things that went into a typical fashion brand, and I knew that I wanted to start a new company, but it had to be different. It had to be based on the ideas of not wasting and trying to actually make a difference. So we started Reformation, and we have green practices throughout, from fabrics to supply chain, even packaging. A typical clothing company puts their stuff in plastic, and then in another plastic bag, and then puts it on a hanger, and then puts it in a box, and then ships it out. We use laundry bags instead; we don’t use any plastic throughout the process.
To make the world a better place.
Yeah, making the world a better place, one dress at a time.
Do you think it’s hard to be a successful brand and also be eco-conscious?
I don’t think so. A lot of fashion brands that are eco don’t really do a good job of it. A lot of them don’t give a shit about design, so they make something eco, but it looks like shit and nobody wants it.
It’s about making those two things just as important: it’s made responsibly, but it’s also something that you really want. In the beginning it added a level of difficulty, but now it’s second nature.
You don’t do seasons.
No. I think it’s ridiculous. The way the fashion calendar works, you’re supposed to ship your winter coats in July and August. I’m like, “It’s fully hot outside!”
You’re not feeling winter gear in July.
Exactly. I don’t think people really dress like that anymore. People buy stuff that they wanna wear now. They buy things because they like them. You know, that whole idea of, “You can’t wear white past a certain date in September!” Like…what?
I personally saw you deal with end of Ya-Ya. Do you consider it a failure?
Failure? It’s such a weird word.
I don’t think you’re a failure, Yaya! [Laughs]
I don’t think Ya-Ya failed. It was around for ten years and it had its time. It was getting to the point where I hated it and I think that was really reflected in the company. You saw me. It really affects me. I really want to be a success, but I think failure is important. If you reflect on failure a little bit, it shows you where you need to improve. But if you over emphasize it then you’re being negative and not really paying attention to how to grow from the experience. But yeah, failure has been a big motivating force throughout my life. It’s just like, “I’m gonna try harder.” It’s good. I wouldn’t be where I am today without failure.
Can the successes be equally weird?
On a daily basis I need to check myself and be like, “This is actually where things are at, and they’re actually really awesome.” It’s equally important as a leader to make sure to highlight people’s successes, to highlight your own successes, to stay moderate about it.
Does Reformation have a concrete business plan, or are you more focused on the present?
I’m always a future girl…you know me [laughs]. So yeah, we have a pretty set business plan as far as what we wanna work on next. We’re really focusing on our online business. We’re building a new website now, which is exciting. Just figuring out how to communicate our brand digitally.
What will the new site look like?
The brand has such an amazing, full story. There’s a lot of elements: everything is limited-edition, we have a lot of one-of-a-kind pieces, we make everything ourselves in our own factory, and we’re super eco. A lot of our products have two to three hundred times less of an environmental impact than typical versions. Let’s just say our cotton t-shirt takes six gallons of water to make, where as a typical cotton t-shirt, like you have on, takes six hundred gallons. So how do you communicate that digitally?
Who says this is a typical cotton t-shirt?
[Laughs] I’m just guessing. It’s my level of expertise.
What’s one piece of practical advice you’d give an aspiring fashion designer?
I come into contact with a lot of young fashion designers, and I actually have two things to say to most of them. The first one is: if you don’t have a business mind, don’t start your own label [laughs].
And that’s what it is—a business.
Exactly. The second thing is, if you’re gonna work for somebody, try not be so emotional about your designs, because if you want to move up and actually get your designs out there, you have to understand that there are other things besides what you think is important: it has to make sense, and people have to like it, and it has to work. Taking feedback is something that designers as a whole can work on.