In a sea of disposable, unsustainably produced clothing, Katla wants to stand out.
Launched late last month by fashion veteran Aslaug Magnusdottir, the San Francisco-based brand seeks to be a force for good in the world—one that not only offers people a more mindful way to dress but also informs them about fashion’s impact on the environment.
Magnusdottir knows fashion more than most. She was the co-founder and CEO of fashion-discovery site Moda Operandi and later the co-founder and CEO of Tinker Tailor, a clothing-customization platform. Before that, Magnusdottir was at luxury e-tailer Gilt Groupe, where she served as vice president of premium products and services. All of these experiences, she told Sourcing Journal, have given her a direct line into the needs and desires of consumers worldwide.
Katla marks Magnusdottir’s return to fashion after a break from the industry, during which she decamped to her native Iceland to develop a sustainable hotel resort on the southwestern coast of “Viking country.” Fashion was never far from her mind, however, and Magnusdottir soon found herself ruminating on sustainability in clothing, the gaps in public awareness and the dearth of options for women who want “beautiful items but still want to have a positive impact.”
“I saw an opportunity to come in both with an offering that would be compelling for people but also [can] increase awareness of sustainability within fashion,” Magnusdottir said.
Named for an Icelandic volcano that had its last major eruption in 1911, Katla is designed to stand on its own merits, even without the sustainability messaging creating a halo effect. It’s a canny move; poll after poll has shown that consumers rank design and fit, quality and cost over environmental or ethical production, though sentiments may be adjusting with increasing awareness about issues such as pollution, climate change and starvation wages. The question is whether they’re changing quickly enough.
“Obviously, it would be best for the world if people completely stopped buying new clothes,” she said. “But I don’t think that’s realistic.”
Mostly, Magnusdottir says, she wants to make clothes people will wear—and keep wearing no matter how trends wax and wane. She does this by outfitting Katla with a fresh, Nordic simplicity that defies age and easy definition. Katla, she noted, is “not really about an age but a mindset,” which means flimsy slip dresses and crisp button-downs can keep company with navel-revealing crop tees and second-skin leggings.
With Scandi-chic brands such as By Malene Birger, Ganni and Stine Goya winning hearts and pocketbooks by straddling sustainability and style, Katla is already poised for success. But the brand has a sense of humor, too. It stocks a line of hoodies emblazoned with slabs of butter, arctic foxes and the phrase “Slightly Explosive” in a heavy-metal type. These proved especially popular during a beta period preceding Katla’s official debut. “They’re really resonating across generations,” she said. “They’re unisex items, so we have men wearing them as well.”
Katla isn’t so much a luxury brand as it is a contemporary one, Magnusdottir said. It’s priced to be accessible, with pieces starting at $90 for a bra top to a $875 for a button-down maxi dress. It’s also completely seasonless. Most of the items will stay on the site for “a long time,” supplemented by the occasional new style, colorway or print.
Fabrics play a large role in the Katla ethos. Its starter library includes Global Organic Textile Standard-certified organic cotton, recycled synthetics like Econyl and regenerated cellulose fabrics such as cupro and modal. The brand has a list of verboten materials, the biggest of which is fur, but it also eschews less controversial leathers and silks to mirror the consumer shift toward cruelty-free products. Because Katla uses various woolen textiles, including suiting from Zignone and yarns from Südwolle, however, it doesn’t market itself as a vegan brand.
“We want to have a positive impact on everyone and every animal that is involved in what we do,” Magnusdottir said. Even the wool, she stressed, is humanely gathered.
The brand is currently sticking with the online direct-to-consumer (DTC) model for its obvious advantages: the lower overhead, for one, and complete ownership over its customer data for another. The latter is especially helpful when it comes to designing new products or fine-tuning existing ones.
“It’s great to be able to have the closer relationship with your customer where you’re getting direct feedback from them, rather than through a third party,” Magnusdottir said.
While Magnusdottir doesn’t rule out wholesale or bricks and mortar altogether, DTC makes the most sense because of how Katla’s production is structured. Every item it offers is either small batch or made to order, which allows the company to cling to as little inventory as possible and avoid the waste and expense of unsold pieces.
The brand avoids long lead times by tapping domestic facilities, including On Point Manufacturing in Florence, Ala., and another in California, known for their quick turnarounds. Keeping manufacturing stateside, rather than overseas, helps curb carbon emissions from shipping and transportation, but it’s also crucial to ensuring customers receive their purchases in a timely manner. So while Magnusdottir wouldn’t describe the brand as “fast fashion,” meaning mass-produced clothing that lands up in the landfill after a few wears, it’s not quite “slow fashion,” either.
“I’m a big believer that faster production is a big part of the solution,” she said of localized manufacturing. “I think the way production happens is going to change very quickly over the next few years.”
Katla’s customers have a front-seat view of how everything comes together. Every shirt, dress and legging includes a sewn-in clothing tag with a unique tracking number, which unlocks the “whole history of the garment” when keyed into the Katla website.
“It will tell you who manufactured it, where the fabric came from and what certifications are tied to that fabric,” Magnusdottir said.
When Katla prepares a garment for resale—it provides free return shipping for customers to send back clothing they no longer want—it updates that electronic ledger. “Then the next owner of the garments can see the first owner was in New York or wherever that purchaser was,” she said.
A single item may end up with a string of owners, which is exactly what Magnusdottir wants because it’s better for the planet. Extending the life of a garment by just three months, for instance, shaves 5 percent to 10 percent off its carbon, waste and water footprints, according to Waste & Resources Action Program, a U.K. environmental nonprofit.
“There’s a timelessness to our pieces—we want them to be worn again and again,” she said. “We want them to still be [relevant] in a year, in two years, in three years, which is an important part of the sustainability message.”