10 Takeaways From Harlem’s Fashion Row’s Inaugural Sustainability Forum

·6 min read

Harlem’s Fashion Row held its inaugural sustainability forum on Thursday night. The hybrid event was streamed on YouTube and held in person at the Google headquarters in Hudson Yards. Macy’s, the Tapestry Foundation and American Eagle Outfitters were among the sponsoring organizations.

Learnings from the event ranged from supply chain due diligence, and human resources to designing for circularity every step of the way.

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Here, 10 takeaways from the event.

‘Manage Your Moment’

For Tieko Nejon Wilson, a certified emotional intelligence practitioner and founder of Tieko Nejon LLC, the lesson is to “manage your moments” and be intentional with others inside and outside of the workplace.

“It’s the superstars that are quitting because they can go somewhere else,” Wilson continued. “It should be strategic that we care and take care of our people. We don’t want them going to our competitors.…We have to meet each other at the human level.”

Everyone Can Make a Difference

“This is a collaborative effort at every level,” said Fiona Ki, vice president of production and sourcing at AEO. “We challenge our team. ‘What are the sustainability opportunities in their daily routine and in their process?’ For example, [in the] design and development process, ‘How do we want to minimize waste?’ One of the things the team is looking at is corporate 3D technology. Sustainability actually goes hand in hand with efficiency. Having them look at the sustainability piece of it, in the 3D technology, reduces their workload and it also improves their sample execution.”

The collaboration extends into their supplier network. Ki reiterated, ‘”Everyone has the opportunity to make an impact.”

Growing Pains Are Real

Growth is somewhat of a misnomer for many designers.

“As you grow, you see that it’s not as economical for these production houses to make one-for-one, especially if you are producing locally, which is a part of our sustainability practice,” said Akua Shabaka, founder of House of Aama.

“For us, our direct-to-consumer is still made-to-order so we don’t sit on inventory regardless and still [try] to use deadstock as much as possible. These are things, as you grow as a brand, you run into that interfere with your sustainable practices.”

Access Over Excess

“When we say ‘access over excess’ at Rent the Runway, this is our belief that shared access to fashion has the ability to curb the negative impacts from its excess. The past 20 years have been dominated by excessive production and consumption, and this has consequences,” said Megan Farrell, senior director, sustainability at Rent the Runway.

“The production of too many clothes too often is depleting our natural resources, it’s contributing to climate instability and it’s perpetuating inequities.”

Upcycling Is Creativity Unbound

“At Bowie State, a lot of our students are first generation going to college,” said Danielle Brown, a professor of fashion design at Bowie State University in Maryland. “If you have limited resources, you don’t let that limit you….Your creativity just increases. Your mind has to go into a different realm. Always use that. Don’t take limited resources as a negative thing.”

Choose Responsibility at Every Step

“If you want to be fully sustainable, then you have to treat everyone working in the supply chain appropriately, and you have to pay them appropriately. And that’s hard for brands because their margin is just getting smaller and smaller and smaller,” said Sami Miró, designer, creative director and owner of Sami Miro Vintage.

Miro’s company was among the business supporters of the Garment Worker Protection Act in California, getting rid of the piece-rate pay system.

“The benefit is that I feel good, and I feel like I’m genuinely doing something better. And I know that what my brand is doing has a trickle up and trickle down effect…” added Miro.

Own Your Story

“[Have] a story attached to your product and own it,” said Simone Harris-Laws, senior director of DEI at Macy’s. Under Macy’s “Mission Everyone” plan, the retailer looks to mobilize $5 billion by 2025 to projects around communities, people and planet.

“It’s really, really nice to have a community embrace you,” said Rodney Patterson, founder of Esenshel, an accessories brand with an outpost in Manhattan’s East Village. “The hats aren’t cheap, so you’re not just doing it to support me. You’re buying into something that I’m doing. You are validating what it is that I have to say. And honestly, it must speak to you because you’re willing to part with your dollar.”

Establishing the first sustainable denim brand in Harlem, Miko Underwood, founder of Oak & Acorn, retraced denim’s history and her brand’s origins.

“It’s not a Black story — it’s an American denim story that’s just never been exposed, and there’s so much to it and I just wanted to begin to tell the history behind why we as a community love to wear jeans.”

Personalize It All

For Jessica Harumi, sustainable blogger and YouTube creator, sustainability has “allowed me to create content that brings more value to people….People want to be inspired and I think that following designers can only bring so much inspiration. Day to day, people want practical advice to appreciate what they already have and feel more comfortable in their personal style.”

Keep It in the Loop

“[Keep] products in play — repair is a really good way to do that,” said Tapestry’s Logan Duran, senior director of ESG and sustainability. Coach operates its Re-loved program as a way to upcycle its handbags.

Kimberly Minor, president and chief commercial officer of Bandier, spoke of how resale came to be a major mainstream moment. “If you think about resale, and how big resale has gotten — the whole idea of resale and vintage and thrift shopping is nothing new, but it’s considered something new because we’re talking about it in the context of sustainability. The flipside of that is what aren’t we doing?”

Minor said Bandier’s Wsly (pronounced wes-ley) is the pinnacle of the company’s conscious materials strategy using mostly certified organic and recycled cotton inputs. The goal is to broaden it across lines.

Be Values Driven

“That is what my charge is to the designers and the producers of the world — stick to your brand pillars of sustainability and stick to what makes you different,” said Dyandra Raye, founder of Jo-Anne Vernay, a sustainable luxury footwear brand (employing Piñatex pineapple leather) founded in 2020.

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