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Why This Mara Hoffman Exec Says NYC Garment Factories “Need Help on a Human Rights Level”

When the Mara Hoffman brand decided to speak out to customers about its sustainability efforts, it turned out that consumers thought it had been an eco-friendly, socially conscious brand all along—“because of Mara’s messaging, her connection to the planet, her spirituality.”

“It wasn’t very difficult to make that shift,” Dana Davis, Mara Hoffman’s director of design, production and sustainability, said at the Fashion & Sustainability Summit, held at LIM College, on Friday.

Still, the wholesale high-end brand was “terrified” about going public with its sustainability-focused transformation. “We absolutely did not want to speak about this at all,” Celine DeCarlo, director, Mara Hoffman. “We had the fear of God. We did not want to get [called] out for something we weren’t doing and then get brought down as a business. But it was time.”

Like many brands, Mara Hoffman focused on investigating better materials and fabrics for its collections, and better ways of designing and producing. After meeting with digital printers, the brand realized it had significant opportunities to reduce textile waste. “Now we’re engineering our prints to the actual silhouette of the swimsuit, which means there’s less fabric waste,” Davis said.

Implementing material changes in its readywear division was much more challenging, as it incorporates a larger number of fiber offerings. The brand met with its mill partners, asking key questions to understand the impacts of their fabrics. “We started to make some switches. We had been using polyester in the past, so we sat with Lenzing to see what alternatives they had,” Davis said.

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DeCarlo said that when Mara Hoffman began down the sustainability road, she assumed that the fashion industry’s territorial, competitive nature would similarly apply to this subset of the apparel world. “When we started this journey, we understood that there was no chance in hell that we could do this alone—that it was about relationships and partnerships,” DeCarlo said. So she got on the phone and asked to meet with ANN, Inc., Target, Patagonia, Gap, Marc Jacobs, and PVH—“anyone and everyone who was willing to hook us up to the next individuals so that we could learn.”

“Ultimately what we discovered in the most incredible way possible was that this [sustainability] community existed and they were recruiting. They wanted more members,” DeCarlo continued. “They wanted to help, they wanted to support, they wanted to lift and there was no return that was expected other [than] to evangelize this message of sustainability. That was really, really critical.”

Even more critical—joining the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a decision DeCarlo described as a “game-changer.” Though SAC was helpful with facilitating connections with other brands, the organization really woke Mara Hoffman up to the need to understand its supply chain. The brand had always maintained great, long-standing relationships with its Tier 1 cut-and-sew factories “but we weren’t really digging that much deeper into our supply chain,” DeCarlo said. “Our goal was to really understand from fiber to finishing.”

When they mapped out what they thought was each step of their supply chain, DeCarlo and others spent a week in Asia visiting their facilities only to discover just how complex the supplier landscape really is. When they asked to see a specific process, they were told “we send that out”—to a facility an eight-hour drive away. And so they went.

“So many people [at these facilities] were interested in sitting with us and talking to us and understanding why you’re asking these questions,” DeCarlo said. “They wanted to come on this journey with us.”

Once the brand had its “hat trick” of sustainability initiatives underway, it then needed to undergo some self-reflection and rethink how it could authentically reposition itself. What followed next was a contraction of its business, DeCarlo explained, which was intentional and set the stage for expansion that’s happening now. Mara reviewed where the brand was being distributed—department stores, for one—and pivoted toward specialty stores.

Mara Hoffman produces 30 percent of its readywear in New York City’s Garment District and manufactures 60 percent of its popular swimwear in Los Angeles. “We’ve always been committed to domestic manufacturing. It’s been part of the beginning of the business. It’s amazing to be able to work with factories here, but it’s hard work,” Davis said.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand how much harder it is to work with factories here in midtown versus overseas.  To be honest, our factories here are hurting,” she continued. “They need help—a lot of help on the human rights level. A lot of people just think Made in the USA is really amazing. How many people have been into a factory a mile from here? The space is small, it’s not clean, they’re working overtime, competing with prices overseas, making small minimums for designers. More people need to talk about what it means to be made in the U.S. so we can actually effect change here.”