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When It Comes to Sustainability, One Designer Stands Out from the Pack

A good idea and a business plan are just two ingredients that make an apparel brand successful nowadays.

At Sourcing at MAGIC in Las Vegas this week, Frances Harder, president of Fashion for Profit, and Mary Wilberding, a fashion consultant and former president of DKNY Jeans and Jag Jeans, debated what it takes to effectively brand a new company for the new environmentally- and socially-conscious consumer.

More than buzzwords, Harder said sustainability, upcycling and recycling are among the cache of qualities millennials and Gen Z consumers seek from the brands they support. And new brands are expected to have these traits built into their framework from the start.

“The message to everyone that is doing business today is ‘doing good’ is the new trend,” Wilberding said.

For years, the denim veteran said she saw denim companies look the other way when the topic of sustainability came up. “I heard [suppliers] say they were using organic cotton and we believed them and it wasn’t organic,” she said.

In today’s retail space, with transparency becoming increasingly a “must-have” rather than simply a “nice-to-have,” brands must have 100 percent confidence in their supply chain.

“If you’re saying you’re using certified organic cotton and it isn’t and your customers find out, you’re dead,” Wilberding said. “The customers do not give you more than one chance. You have to match your message to your product and design.”

One designer, Harder said, encapsulates this forward way of thinking better than most others. Described as the “Stella McCartney phenomenon,” Harder and Wilberding agreed that the British designer, which recently landed at the French luxury conglomerate LVMH after splitting ties with rival Kering in 2018, is setting a new standard for responsible manufacturing and branding.

“Stella McCartney is really the icon of sustainability,” Wilberding said. Part of the designer’s success, she added, is that she’s selling a version of her own sustainable lifestyle. The lifelong vegetarian designer, who grew up on an organic farm and counts Goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow as a best friend, is an early adopter of alternative materials like mycelium, a leather-like material derived from mushrooms and re-engineered cashmere.

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It’s an ethos that’s carried into Stella McCartney’s retail spaces, too, providing consumers with a 360-degree eco experience. The brand’s London flagship is outfitted with fixtures made with reclaimed materials and boasts clean air through a filtering technology that removes 95 percent of the air pollutants and harmful gases.

“Product and designs must match the values of your lifestyle,” Wilberding said.

And it may be a formula LVMH wants to wash over its other brands, like Dior and Rihanna’s Fenty. More than being another designer on their roster of luxury brands, at LVMH, Wilberding says McCartney will serve as an “ambassador” to teach the company how to talk to millennial consumers about sustainability.

“It’s really a big marketing ploy,” she said, though it’s a positive one. “It shows you that you have to have a message with your product. Your product has to match your lifestyle—not what you think that the buyer wants,” Wilberding said.