In an intimate event space in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a gaggle of fashion influencers and media gathered for an event celebrating the launch of Maggie Marilyn’s new basics line, Somewhere. The mood was jaunty as we huddled together along benches flanking long communal tables, knocking knees with our neighbors, and basking in the flattering candlelight. We shared the usual fashion gossip about office politics and publication staff changes, and occasionally the efficacy of carbon off-setting.
Once wine glasses were refilled, and the first course shared, designer and Maggie Marilyn founder, Maggie Hewitt, addressed the room: “As with most new ideas, our new line, was born to solve a problem. There were multiple catalysts that converged to spark it’s creation. I would like to tell you Somewhere’s story, as it is an important one to tell, and includes truths about the fashion system that I don’t feel are discussed enough.” She looked like a Carolyn Bessette Kennedy of the Instagram generation wearing Somewhere’s crisp white t- shirt tucked effortlessly into a pair of tailored, white boot leg jeans. She wore no makeup, her long blonde hair was parted in the middle and hung past her shoulders. The look was a departure for the designer, known for her sherbert colored silk dresses, romantic blouses and skirts.
Maggie Hewitt is outspoken about her vision for a more sustainable, more transparent fashion industry. All company decisions stem from first asking, “Will this be good for the planet and people?” A question most brands answer too late in the design process, or never at all. In her rousing, heartfelt speech, Hewitt pointed out that the ecosystem of fashion is not invested in sustainability because they perceive little pay off from a financial perspective. She notes, “Buyers had started actually saying to me in person ‘Sustainability just isn’t important to our customers, this isn’t a story we are ready to tell.’”
One has to wonder, given the recent boycott fashion campaign launched by Extinction Rebellion, the ongoing popularity of Fashion Revolution, the youth global climate strikes this year, and the clamoring of luxury conglomerates from LVMH to Kering to drive the deepest sustainability stake into the ground, whether this “customers don’t care” claim is based on fact, willful denial, or plain laziness. It highlights the tension that the fashion industry is grappling with as it attempts to maintain profit margins and fulfill a moral obligation to stop destroying the planet. For an industry that is skilled at selling, well, anything, the claim that selling sustainability is impossible is a particularly hard pill to swallow.
It does explain why fashion has been remarkably slow to innovate it’s wasteful buy-discard-buy business model, clean up it’s polluting supply chain, or improve worker’s conditions around the world. The conversation of how to rapidly address these issues has been sluggish. However, Hewitt knows from first-hand experience that her customers do care, and for those that don’t, she is betting that with a little education, they soon will, “I knew then and there that if we wanted to educate the women wearing Maggie Marilyn on the importance of ethical and environmentally responsible fashion, wholesale was not our way forward. We needed direct communication with our customer.”
Somewhere, named after her childhood home in the Bay of Islands, is available exclusively on her website, allowing her to “cut out the middleman” of wholesalers and open a direct line of communication (and sales) with her customers. The eleven piece collection of black, ivory, and white classics like t-shirts, jeans, and blazers is her most aesthetically bare and affordable offering to date. Designed with longevity, circularity, and affordability at its core, each garment is made in New Zealand and can be traced from farm to finished garment meaning there is full transparency for customers along the garment supply chain. To illustrate how unusual this is, let’s try an experiment: think of the last garment you purchased. Now, head to the website of the brand and find the same (or similar item) of clothing and see how easily you can learn where the yarn was grown, milled, dyed, or spun, the chemicals used in each process, and the name of the factory where it was manufactured. With few exceptions, this information is not available, because brands simply don’t know, or because they don’t want you to know the conditions under which your clothing is made.
Maggie Marilyn has reason to be transparent about how their clothing is made. Hewitt is tireless in her effort to refine her business practices to reduce the negative impact her company has on the planet. In seasons past she has used fabrics such as silk derived from rose petal fibers which is eco-friendly and biodegradable; she uses compostable packaging instead of single use plastic wrapping; and in an effort to revitalize the once thriving and now flailing New Zealand clothing manufacturing industry she eschews offshoring her manufacturing. All this despite the fact that doing so is costly, “a cost which we largely absorb, reducing our margin, in order to compete with other brands in our wholesale category who do not operate with these values.” The Somewhere collection upholds this commitment to low impact design. The pieces are made from eco-friendly, natural fibers like merino wool, and GOTS certified organic cotton, recycled synthetic fibers like ECONYL (nylon made from rescuing and repurposing discarded fishing nets from the ocean), and dyed using low-impact dyes. For Somewhere, Hewitt’s sustainability efforts have evolved beyond consideration of the environmental impact of her clothing in the “before” manufacturing stage, to “after” a garment is sold, worn, and eventually, discarded. This is where the focus on circularity and longevity comes into view.
The Ellen Macarthur Foundation, a charity and information sharing platform with a mission to accelerate the global transition to a circular economy, describes a circular economy as “based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.” Most fashion products currently end up in landfill or incinerated once we are done with them (sometimes after being worn only a handful of times) adding to our already overwhelming waste problem. Circular design, also called closed loop design, aims to mimic nature so that “waste” from one product or process becomes “fuel” for another, reducing the need to use energy guzzling virgin materials. The new Maggie Marilyn collection is made entirely from biodegradable and recyclable fabrics so that, in theory, all pieces can be diverted from landfill. By 2021, the company will implement a “take back” program so that customers can send their pre-loved Somewhere items to be recycled in house to encourage customers to help her to close the loop.
As Hewitt pointed out in her speech, designers have a responsibility to reduce the environmental impact of their products at all stages of the product life cycle, though this should not be perceived by customers as permission for unfettered consumption. She states, “I am not in business to encourage mindless consumption or promote the fast fashion ‘take-make-dispose’ mentality and the possibility of this mentality being adopted to our clothing, simply because of the price, was not something I was willing to accept.” We all have a responsibility to retrain our shopping habits away from a buy-to-dispose mentality to investing in loved, long lasting items.
Hewitt’s decision to create a collection that is seasonless, trendless, and high quality is one way to guide customers toward this practice. She describes the Somewhere products as “the last t-shirt, jeans, sweater, blazer you’ll need to buy” and listening to how her team landed on the final collection, I believe her, “To test both the quality and fit, each style has been wear tested over a minimum of six months. They have been redesigned, re-worn, hot washed, warm washed, cold washed, fitted on multiple different body shapes, sizes and heights, wear test surveyed, social media surveyed and redesigned again. The t-shirt for example, has had over fifteen different iterations.” This explains why Hewitt’s simple, all-white attire was strikingly chic even without all the fashion accoutrements. It’s easy to say you want your customer to buy better and buy less in order to hawk overpriced basics, it’s something else to rigorously test your products to ensure that you’re fulfilling your part of the promise to your customers that you’ll design pieces that will stand the test of time.
The first time I interviewed Hewitt, I quickly forgot her age (then 24, now 25) and was struck by her poise. Seeing her present her new collection was no different. She speaks with clarity and conviction, is warm and generous, and her confidence is not braggadocious but vulnerable and brave. At the closing of her speech, Hewitt let her arms relax at her side. In her right hand was the two pieces of A4 paper that she had held close to her chest and read from throughout her speech. She rarely lifted her eyes from those pieces of paper, clutching it like a student sharing a book report to her class at school. It was a rare sign of her age. For Hewitt, I can easily imagine her reciting moving speeches to large rooms of people from memory, teleprompter, or simply from her heart. But tonight, the paper symbolized the vulnerability of a young generation and other women, like Greta Thunberg, who are saddled with an uncertain future and have set aside their fear to speak truth with striking clarity to rooms full of people who are in charge yet impotent in their ability to spur change.
Photos © Maggie Marilyn : Thomas Kelly slack
Words: Laura Jones