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Shopping for Change Really is a Thing

Let Fashionkind’s Nina Farran explain.

When you’re in the throes of a wardrobe crisis, hyperventilating as you scan your favorite online shopping site at 2:00 am, wondering if next-day delivery actually means same-day-at-9am delivery, it’s unlikely you’re also musing, “What’s the story behind this garment?” If you are, thank you, but if you’re not, consider the numerous pairs of hands that went into its creation. From designers, pattern cutters, production coordinator, weavers, sewers, the person who is operating that cargo ship to the retail person who opened that box and put it on that hanger — a lot of human energy is behind that vintage-style denim jumpsuit that idly hangs in your closet.

For entrepreneur Nina Farran, this obsession with knowing those details and that story is a vital part of her luxury online store, Fashionkind. The mission of her carefully curated hub of ethical and sustainable clothing is to share those narratives so consumerism can positively impact people and the planet.

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Can you start by introducing yourself and describe what you do for a living?

My name is Nina Farran. I am the founder of Fashionkind. Fashionkind is an initiative to change the world using luxury fashion as the vehicle. We believe in influencing change in the way people consume, but also in the way that designers create. We marry a top-of-the-line consumer shopping experience online with a one-of-a-kind storytelling platform that brings to life the people, places, processes, materials, and initiatives behind each piece. We are curating the leading ethical and sustainable luxury designers and brands from around the world and then we vet them, research them, and do the legwork to curate collections of their designs and create exclusive products for our platform.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Philadelphia, so I’m a Philly girl, the City of Brotherly Love. And I actually still live in Philadelphia. So I split my time between New York.

So, you described Fashionkind. How was it born?

I’ve been in impact fashion, as I call it, since 2008, so the very first thing that happened that kind of sparked the birth of what would be Fashionkind, or my interest in this space, I was on vacation in the Outer Banks, North Carolina, with my family. It was the summer after my freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania, and there were some shops nearby, and in one of them, there was a t-shirt that changed my life forever. The t-shirt was a picture of someone holding up a peace sign, and their palm was in the shape of Africa. I knew I had to learn what this was and I found out it was a humanitarian fashion brand that built schools in Sub-Saharan Africa from the profits generated from the sale of branded apparel and accessories. It became this moment where [I realized] that if we’re going to continue to create and consume, why can’t both be done in a way that goes beyond a piece of clothing or a piece of fashion itself. What if, instead, it connects us to cultures, and preserves traditional skills. I’ve always felt fashion is a language of its own, whether a language of a community or culture or of an individual. Fashion is not just the piece, but it’s the people behind it, the places behind it, the traditions behind it. And so, from 2008 on, I’ve been on my journey to what I thought would be my own humanitarian fashion brand, but shifted a little bit to when Fashionkind was born in 2014.

What did you study at university?

I was an English major. I had a concentration in cinema studies, in French and Italian film, so if you ever need recommendations — happy to provide them. I have favorites in both. When I was declaring my major, I knew I wanted to do something that wouldn’t pigeonhole me into any specific area, but would provide me with skills that I felt were applicable to all different industries. I wanted to be able to work on my data analysis skills, creating, drawing parallels and connections between different groups or different topics.

At this time I felt that I wanted to have my own humanitarian fashion brand — what can I do to better prepare myself for that? I went to go work with LVMH and Donna Karan, and pretty quickly realized that was not the exposure I was looking for, but what I wanted to understand better, and what I felt would be really powerful, as a woman who wanted to have her own fashion business, would be to understand the finance side of things. So I knew I wanted to leverage for-profit business to influence change, and I felt strongly that if I want to influence change in these companies and in individuals, I want to be in the same playing field as them, to show how they could be doing things.

I started in equity research, and then from then, I transitioned into manager research. And it’s funny, I mentioned English came in handy when I went into finance, because when I was being interviewed to go into finance everyone was coming from business school or finance backgrounds. At first, I felt like it’s a disadvantage that I don’t have that. But then I learned to kind of rethink it as an advantage because it meant that I approached things and thought of things differently than almost every single other candidate. And you’d be surprised how many people cannot even write like, a good email.

No, I wouldn't.

During my time in manager research, I had another moment, much like that t-shirt I saw, but this time it was a phrase, and that phrase was impact investing, and I learned it was the idea of aligning one’s values with your investment portfolio. I learned about the millennial generation kind of fueling the fire behind this, and I went to my boss and I said that I really think we should be doing this impact investing, and I think not only for existing clients who may have millennials coming into decision-making roles, but then also for prospective clients. And he, although much more eloquently, said good luck with that.

But I felt extremely passionate about it, and I just couldn’t give it up. Ultimately I ended up building and launching the impact investment platform at my firm, which meant that for the first time, our clients could construct 100 percent impact-aligned stock and bond portfolios.

At the time, everyone was talking about the invest divest movement related to the oil and gas industry because of all the pollution created by it. I kept seeing a pattern in all the statistics relating to fashion. How much water used, how much pollution it caused, human rights issues, and I had no idea that those were realities, and here I was as someone who was in finance to better prepare myself to have my own humanitarian fashion brand.

If I didn’t know about these things, I was willing to bet there was a huge need for this education to be injected into the narrative of fashion. So that was actually the final catalyst before starting Fashionkind, I wanted to raise awareness about these things. I think the first step to influencing change is educating, so I launched Fashionkind originally as a blog and on Instagram. And it was an educational blog and I would introduce statistics like how much water fashion used in the caption, and then the picture would be like a collage or an image from a brand that was tackling that statistic, a brand that was using fashion as a vehicle for positive change. And it grew from there.

I was going to ask you how you decided on fashion, but it feels like fashion decided on you.

Fashion decided on me, exactly.

I mean listen, I have not always been the most fashionable person. My mom, in kindergarten, like we created books for our parents, and at the beginning of each book was a picture of us with our teacher. And my picture is me in mismatched, skin-tight, psychedelic print gymnastics leotards. I actually think fashion is always a part of everyone’s life. But it definitely chose me.

You mentioned that you had this moment where you were interested in impact investment, and as you said, fashion chose you, so you started to become aware of all the different ways that fashion negatively impacts the environment. I’m assuming you had this moment where you were like…

What am I wearing?

What am I wearing? What do I do? So tell me what you did at that point. Because I think sometimes, people get a little overwhelmed, when they realize their personal impact and want to make a change but wonder, how do I begin? What was your approach?

I like this question a lot because nothing, when it comes to this issue of sustainable and ethical fashion, is black and white. I think the first thing that really helped me was acknowledging the idea of quality over quantity. Typically, individuals in their 20s want to make their paycheck go as far as possible. So they often value quantity over quality. The data supports that it shifts in your late twenties to early thirties.

But for me, it was this idea that, okay, from every purchase here on, I’m going to analyze, is it going to last me? How many different ways can I wear it? I started looking for pieces that I could wear all year round, that weren’t just trendy for those few months. But it’s something that I could wear across seasons. I love wearing pants all year round, I just love jeans, they’re staples. So thinking about quality, but along with that, how many times I could wear it. I had things in my closet that weren’t sustainable, of course, but instead of just throwing out everything, I thought, what of these things can I actually wear many different times, and how can I put them to use?

It wasn’t like I looked in my closet and I threw everything out and started from scratch because that’s not sustainable. I became very conscious about every purchase that I made. Today, I will only wear Fashionkind or Fashionkind-eligible brands, or pieces like these jeans. They’re a staple in my closet, they go with everything, so that’s an example of something I didn’t throw out.

But then for shoes, it is a really difficult area for us to find brands that meet our criteria. Often the impact is there but the style is not, and when we look at brands to work with, we evaluate them on their design first and then impact. Both have to be met in order for us to bring them onto our platform. And so I thought, well what can I be doing for shoes then? And I found, actually, the RealReal is a really good resource for me, so I buy all my shoes on the RealReal. It’s thinking about multifunctional, high-quality pieces that will last and are sustainably made or sourced.

So we now know that you really liked gymnastics clothes when you were in kindergarten, how would you describe your style now?

I love black jeans. Pants, I’m more of a pants person than I am a dress or skirt person. And robes — I love robes that I can wear as either dresses or robes, those are great for traveling. Basically layering, I love jackets, I love booties, like plain, short booties, and you can also pretty much always find me in heels. I love heels, I’m a very short person so maybe that’s why, but I also think as soon as you put on, who was it, Victoria Beckham said I can’t think in flats? I feel that way. As soon as I put on a pair of heels I’m like done, I’m ready.

What was the first brand that you signed on for Fashionkind?

At the time it was called Primal, but it’s now called G. Viteri, they’re hats made in Ecuador, and at first, we had felt hats made by artisans in Ecuador, and now they’ve expanded to include toquilla straw hats as well. They work with artisans all throughout Ecuador, 90 percent of whom are women. The quality is just amazing, and the price point is really great.

We believe we’re not just a retailer, we’re champions of each designer that we work with, and their stories. I’m not a buyer that comes in and says, this looks nice, this looks nice, this looks nice, done. I want to know your story, where you grew up, where you came from, what’s your journey? Who makes these? And I must have spent like eight hours with these designers because it’s relationship-based, I am championing your story, so I need to become a part of it so that our customers can become a part of it.

Do you notice that your customers really respond to that?

I do. I mean, we recently shifted our business model to offer more made-to-order products, and we’ve had customers respond extremely well to it because we have relationships with our designers. For instance, we had a customer ordered a G. Viteri hat, and it was too small. She needed a custom size, it just didn’t fit her head. So we worked with the founder of G. Viteri to create a custom size for her and it took a very long time, but she got photos throughout the process, where she could see her piece being made by Latenzia, the artisan who made her piece.

That must be so nice that you’re getting the stories from both sides.

It is, and that’s what it is, it’s an experience. It’s adding that new dimension into shopping. It’s not just buying a product, you become a part of their story, you feel a connection. It’s not just on the aesthetic level.

What’s the most rewarding thing about running Fashionkind?

I mean, honestly, every day I feel extremely lucky, and I try to remind myself, because as you know very well, being an entrepreneur is not all sunshine and unicorns every day, it’s very difficult, and there are ups and downs. Have you ever seen that graph of like an entrepreneur’s mind, that’s like: This is awesome! This is a horrible idea. Things are great! I’m going to fail.

That’s all before lunch.

Yeah, exactly. But I always feel so lucky not only to have found my passion and to have done so early, to immediately know what my calling was. It is without any doubt in my mind that what I do every day is what I was put here to do, and I’m so lucky that I found that, and I’ve had the opportunity to actually pursue it and do it every day.

There are so many rewarding things, I mean impact is such a big part of what we do, and so we’re constantly trying to measure impact more, and how can we have a bigger impact on those artisans that are behind the pieces? If I can create opportunities for others, and make a positive impact in their lives, then that’s a success.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to chase their dream? Whether they’re in college like you were, or maybe, like me, discover it a little bit later in life, and you have this moment where you’re like, everything I’m doing is terrible, I need to change. What advice would you give for taking that leap? That’s a pretty daunting thing to do, no matter what stage you’re at in life.

I think it’s also so daunting when you feel as though you have no idea what your passion is or what your calling is and that’s totally okay, first of all. Second, you don’t have to have all the answers. Don’t let not having all the answers get in the way of your pursuing what you love or what makes you feel whole. Life is really hard, there are ups and downs no matter who you are, or where you are, so if you’re able to go through every day doing something that you love doing, don’t let anything get in the way of that.

One of my biggest flaws and maybe one of my biggest assets too, is I’m a perfectionist, and so the idea of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good because it can just hold you up. Just because you don’t have the perfect idea, or you don’t have the perfect solution, don’t let that get in the way of moving forward. Don’t let anyone question your passion and your goals, because they will, but it doesn’t matter what they think.

What are you currently working on outside of Fashionkind?

I’ve been on the advisory board of the New York Academy of Sciences’ Change Fashion Initiative and was asked to be the co-chair of their consumer behavior working group. So that is something that I’ve been working on since around October. Two weeks ago was the actual Change Fashion forum where it brought the scientific community into the conversation of sustainable fashion.

We’re trying to come up with solutions to what we feel are the most pressing issues or roadblocks to sustainability in fashion from an industry perspective everywhere along the supply chain, including the consumers. And I am on the board of Power Up Gambia, which is a nonprofit that transforms healthcare services in the Gambia using solar energy, so we work a lot with solar panel rays and then also with solar suitcases .— just about a year ago we completed outfitting every single public clinic across the country, which is over fifty, with solar suitcases, which means that they can now operate all throughout the day and night. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Dambisa Moyo’s book Dead Aid, she’s an economist who wrote about the traditional foreign aid model as it relates to the continent of Africa, and the idea of giving dollars, and how that is never a solution to any problem. Really the solution is involving the locals, asking them what they need, because very often, we think that we know, but we have no idea. And then, making them owners and champions of the project. So for instance, in all of our solar suitcases, we have local Gambians who learn how to fix a problem, how to set it up, so if something goes wrong, they feel a part of it. They are empowered. They know they can fix it. You know, having them a part of the story. I talk about story a lot but it’s true. So that’s mostly what I’m working on outside of Fashionkind.

So, not much.

Yeah, but I mean, it all relates, right? I love everything that I do.

Well, that’s evident. So, the last question is, clearly you feel that the fashion industry does require change, it is imperfect as it is. If you could imagine a fashion utopia, what would that look like to you?

It would be an industry that employs and empowers individuals around the world so that they are able to make living wages and provide for their families, and not exploiting them for our own benefit. It is one that would think very heavily about waste creation and about the entire process from start to finish, including where the garment goes after the customer, not just about producing a garment and leaving it at that. So it’s really a more holistic view from farm, or lab, or wherever, to post-consumer.

I think really, the core of all of this is just being much more mindful of the responsibility each player has of thinking about the other players, about thinking about how we all relate, and it’s not just you as an absolute point, we’re all connected, and so how can we, in what we’re doing, aid a better future?

In terms of the industry from a consumer standpoint, I really believe in consumers, I believe we’ve lost a lot of what fashion is. To me, fast fashion isn’t fashion. From a consumer standpoint the idea of whatever you purchase it’s an investment, and if you view it as an investment, it’s something that you will care for, you will mend, you intend to make last, it’s not a disposable item. So from a consumer standpoint, I think getting away from the idea of fashion as a disposable thing, and instead fashion as an integral part of your being, and an investment in yourself and in the community.

Lovely. Thank you for that.

Oh good, cool. I’m glad, that was fun.

Words: Laura Jones

Copy Editor: Sonjia Hyon

Images: Nina Farran

Additional Images: Angela Datre

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