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Reformation Founder Yael Aflalo on Sustainable Fashion and Starting Over

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Photo: Reformation
Photo: Reformation

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Does the cheap pricing and poor quality of fast fashion make you uneasy? Yael Aflalo, founder of eco-friendly clothing label Reformation, had similar feelings years ago.

In 1999, the LA-based designer was working at the first brand she started, Ya-Ya, when she began learning about fashion's negative environmental impacts. (Did you know the textile industry is one of the most chemically dependent in the world?) She became disenchanted, leaving her company after witnessing terrible factory conditions in China, and dreamed of making fashion that wasn't wasteful.

Her attempts to do it right the second time around proved to be a success. In 2009, Aflalo started Reformation, which has since built an impressive following not only because of its stylish dresses and chic suiting, but also because of its green footprint. All of Reformation's pieces are made from sustainable materials, whether they be carefully selected fabric, repurposed vintage, or previously produced deadstock. Aflalo's operation is contained within her LA headquarters, where clothing is designed, manufactured, photographed, packed, and shipped thanks to a seamless and efficient business model.

Reformation isn't just for the crunchy granola, though. Celebs like Taylor Swift, Rihanna, and Miley Cyrus have made Reformation their dress maker of choice, and we even gave it a Racked Award for being the Brand That Gives Us Hope for the Future.

Below, read our chat with Aflalo about her passion for sustainable methods, why she tries on every piece her company produces, and how running a business like she does is more effective than relying on cheaper foreign labor.

Photo: Reformation

What were you doing before you started Reformation?
I had my own brand for ten years, and in doing so, really learned the ins and outs of the fashion industry. I became disillusioned by some of the elements and wanted to create a company that solved a lot of the issues that I saw.

What bothered you specifically?
One was the long wait time—it just takes so long to make clothes when you're making them overseas. The second element was the sustainability issues. The fashion industry is the number two user of water in the world, after agriculture. I just couldn't stomach being a part of that any longer.

How did you become so interested in environmental issues?
I watched a lot of documentaries and read a lot. You start to have these moments where you go, "I wish I could do something about this, maybe I'll go clean the ocean." I also went to China to visit a factory, and I had this moment where I realized this is really a polluted environment. I started to dig into the impact that fashion has on the environment and I really was blown away by that. I started to make the connection: This is me, I'm making clothes and I'm a big part of this. I started to feel bad when I went shopping. I felt I actually needed to go and create a company that solves this problem, even for purely selfish reasons that I want to buy a dress and I don't want to feel bad about it.

Were you able to build off of your previous business, Ya-Ya?
The two businesses were dramatically different, so we couldn't take anything with us. We started from scratch. When I first started Reformation, we didn't have any money—we did it with whatever we had. I think the store in Los Angeles started with $7,000 or something. And then the store in New York was a little bit more expensive; I think it was $30,000 to open. I went to a vintage store for parts, and we built the store ourselves. You just make do with what you have.

Photo: Reformation

How do you decide where to source your material for clothing?
When we first started, we got vintage dresses and redid them. That was the most sustainable thing that we could do. As we continued to grow, we had to modify what we were doing according to the scale that we were at. Now we're big enough that we can buy sustainable materials. We'll actually go out into the market and develop and purchase the most sustainable materials we can find.

How did you get the attention of shoppers in the beginning?
The first thing we did was open two stores, one in New York and one in LA, within a few months of each other. It was very organic. We didn't really do any marketing or press around it. It just kind of happened. I think we made really great clothes that girls wanted to wear. That's always been our guiding light: Just focus on making really awesome shit, and people will come and want to buy it.

What did your team look like then?
When we first started out, there was maybe like two people. Currently we have about 160.

Is there a certain type of girl you have in mind when you're designing?
I have this ideal customer—she's a waitress, she's made about $200 in tips tonight, and she wants a dress for a date or an event. I have this idea about how much she had to go through to earn that $200 and how much we have to go through to earn that $200 from her. She's gonna say, "I love this dress so much, it's worth that eight hours of work I put in." I try to draw that in for the girls that work here, that we have to earn that. She had to work really hard for it, so we have to work really hard too to make it worth it for her.

Photo: Reformation

Is it challenging to design for customers on both coasts?
I was around before the internet, so I believe that the internet changed fashion. Now everybody can see what everybody's wearing all around the world, and it's made fashion a little more flat. People dress very, very similarly. Obviously there are weather constraints and that plays a part in it, but aside from that, I feel like there are actually more similarities than there are differences.

What inspired you to focus on women's suiting?
For us, we really try to look for the gap. I'd been searching for a suit for years and could never find one for under $3,000. I felt that constituted a reason to try it. We try to make things that you can't find, not things that everybody else is making. I can't even tell you how many times I've tried on suits and been like, "Uhhh?" I always wanted that white Bianca Jagger suit to wear and was never able to find it.

How focused are you on maintaining a lifestyle image for the brand?
I don't want to be negative, but how I think about it is I don't make things about collections. We make things because they're good on their own, and they don't really need to be tied to something to make them good or part of a cohesive story. I feel like that takes it away from the point of what you're trying to do. We don't mess around with that kind of stuff. We're not trying to make a story, we're just trying to make clothes. I trust that my customer knows how to make her own story. Somebody will say, "Can you give me the inspiration for your collection?" And they will be like, "I was inspired by Amish brides," and you're like, "What?!" My point is, I don't think the story is relevant. I'm inspired by clothes I want to wear, very simple and to the point.

Photo: Reformation

What other factors have been integral to Reformation's success?
I think fit is the most important thing, hands down. We spend a lot of time on fittings. I personally try on every single thing that we make at least two or three times, and then we have at least two or three other people also try it on. We're relentless in that pursuit. A lot of times something might be fashionable, but it's now flattering. We don't even go there.

Are you ever tempted to use cheaper fabrics or source labor abroad?
I think the heart of sustainability is the fact that if you use fewer resources, things will be less expensive. It doesn't always work out that way in real life, but a lot of times it does. For example, we could use cheaper shipping boxes, but we invested in more expensive boxes that can be reused. You have to be more thoughtful about it, and I find that it balances itself out. We use this model to make decisions about everything from the pens we use to the coats we design. Our supply chain of materials is a dramatic improvement on the status quo; a typical T-shirt will use 200 gallons of water to make, while a Reformation tee will use six.

What advice would you give to someone interested in starting their own clothing line?
If you're not good at math and business, find somebody that is because you will not succeed without that skill set. Also, don't do things just because everybody else does them. Think it through, make sure it feels right. A lot of people like do things just because that's the way everybody else does them, and that's definitely not the way to be successful. The people that are successful are people that go out on their own.

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