Over the past year, many of the fashion industry’s flaws, inefficiencies and misdeeds have come to light. There’s no question that the sector is changing, as newcomers and established brands alike work to become more equitable, ethical and sustainable to satisfy a growing contingent of shoppers who will accept nothing less.
But 2020 was a tricky moment to launch a brand, even for a clear-eyed hopeful like Ashley Klein, founder of Seattle-based, Los Angeles-produced womenswear brand Akala. After a decade circling the industry as a stylist, marketer and designer, Klein finally embraced a latent desire to form her own venture, led as much by her values as her love of fashion.
Akala—a moniker that blends Klein’s initials with those of the city where the brand’s garments are sewn—debuted its direct-to-consumer site in November, after about two years of prep work. Klein wanted to build a brand that incorporated sustainable materials—not just fabrics, but finishings and packaging—with size inclusivity, and believed in the mission so deeply that she decided to fund it with her own savings.
The founder’s time as a freelancer at fashion brands like Tommy Bahama and a bridal stylist for multiple companies including Urban Outfitters Inc.-owned BHLDN stoked her desire to broaden the minuscule market for extended sizes. “I saw the need to create clothes that were made to be versatile but also size inclusive,” she said. Time spent developing e-commerce strategy for a daily deals website and now, as a vendor manager at Amazon, underscored Klein’s desire to go DTC and leverage the power of the web to get her brand off the ground.
Klein began her venture with a laser focus on using the most sustainable material innovations available on the market, from Tencel lyocell wood-pulp based fibers to cupro, a regenerated cotton-cellulose blend, along with linen and organic cotton. Garments are fastened with buttons made of mother of pearl from Indonesian shells or South American corozo nut seeds, which mimic the look of wood. Zippers are made from recycled plastic bottles, while elastic waist bands and interior labels are both formed from recycled polyester.
The brand’s mailers, clothing bags, shipping labels and all other packaging trappings are likewise developed with recycled paper content that is also recyclable, or in some cases, compostable.
As a nascent brand, getting access to these materials was no small feat. “I started with these rose-colored glasses,” Klein admitted. Minimum order quantities for fabrics and components were much higher than she could afford, and she ended up working with local representatives and distributors for companies like Japan’s Shindo, which provided recycled elastic and cotton cords, and YKK, which supplied the recycled zippers, to negotiate smaller orders.
Even while sourcing globally, Klein felt that it was important to manufacture stateside—specifically in the City of Angels, the nation’s largest apparel production hub. “I wanted to see if there was the opportunity to find a factory that could make what I was envisioning, because I do believe the talent is there,” she said.
Klein has had to work hard to find partners who are willing to produce low minimum order quantities, and is currently buying about 50 units per style to avoid waste. “Reorders with the factory will only be placed when there is a high enough order quantity to warrant a production run,” she said. As a result, the brand’s margins are tight, so that shoppers can access the American-made products at palatable prices. “This was a personal investment, and I’m doing so again for the upcoming collection in the hopes and anticipation of introducing our brand to more customers,” Klein said.
As consumers become more invested in who is making their garments, manufacturing in the same country and time zone gives Klein peace of mind. “I can guarantee that workers are treated fairly, that [they] are paid above minimum wage,” she said. “They’re also in line now for the vaccinations, which is great, because safety is a priority with what we’re dealing with through the pandemic.”
Producing in L.A., Klein has also experienced “a willingness to collaborate” on the part of her production partners. “They have been really open to new brands, specifically those who view things through a sustainable lens, and they’re willing to help you in growing your business,” she said. The city has become a hotbed for environmental fashion, with denim brands like Boyish, Triarchy and Reformation calling it home.
Klein has also adopted a mindfulness through her design process, having launched the collection with a small capsule of five complementary garments, designed in closet-friendly neutrals like slate grey, rusty brown, navy and desert rose. Akala’s Everyday pant, made from a Tencel, cupro and linen blend, features a trend-forward yet relaxed wide-leg silhouette and ankle slits, while a mid-calf-length breezy sweater dress is elevated with a cotton cord belt. The collection is rounded out by a Tencel wrap top, a bell-sleeved sweater and a polished yet playful jumpsuit, with all styles ranging from XXS-XXL and priced from $148-$248.
Akala launched its initial collection with “styles designed to be seasonless,” Klein said. With the shift in consumer lifestyles, Akala is working on a secondary release featuring a few more relaxed and transitional pieces, set to be available in May. As the brand moves forward, it will likely launch two collections annually, though Klein said that top-selling silhouettes will remain “consistent staples” for the brand. “There will be a focus on creating only to fill customer needs, rather than creating more excess product,” she added.
In a retail landscape that is quickly becoming saturated with DTC players, however, it’s tough to stand out from the crowd. Klein credits her experience at e-commerce companies with lending her perspective on the digital innovations that are proving important to shoppers. Social media and email marketing have become essential tools, she said. “I don’t even do email marketing in my day job,” she added, “but just being in tune with what generates those customer leads and that engagement in creating community—those are things that I don’t think I would have been as much in tune with had I not worked at tech companies.”
Learning how to deftly analyze data through her work at Amazon has also helped Klein in managing her own Shopify business. “I wouldn’t say it’s innate at this point, but just having experienced that makes it very easy for me to assess what’s working and what’s not,” she said, “and it’s also put me in tune with what’s possible.” According to Klein, the brand is initially focusing on growing its direct-to-consumer offering, in the interest of offering accessible pricing to the consumer. Moving forward, though, Klein said the brand will explore retail pop-up opportunities to further engage with customers and encourage interaction with products in person.
No modern DTC breaks out without the help of social media, and while Akala’s channels are in their infancy after just having launched around Thanksgiving, Klein is hopeful that the variety of content creation tools and high engagement with platforms like Instagram will prove a boon to the brand. “I love answering comments, and it’s great to experiment with Reels and Lives,” she said of the platform’s video features.
She also looks forward to experimenting with educational content, like teaching consumers how to mend their garments or shop sustainably. “That’s kind of the scope I want to have with the brand,” she said. “I’m not just trying to sell new products—I want to help people create a sustainable closet.”