The New Fashion Initiative

Why These Socially Conscious Designers Avoid “Sustainability”

Photo by Katya Moorman

Speaking against a backdrop of pre-loved luxury handbags at the TheRealReal store in Soho on Monday night, the designers Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow of streetwear brand Public School talked about their evolution over the last few years from streetwear pioneers into a socially conscious brand. Carmen Gama, designer from Eileen Fisher Renew joined the conversation and sustainability consultant and former Barney’s buyer Julie Gilhart moderated the conversation.

Chow and Osborne, who first built their careers working as designers forDKNY, spoke about what motivated them to change the business model for their own brand. The 2016 Presidential election was the first impetus to think deeper about their social impact, but it was hearing Eileen Fisher speak at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in 2017 that prompted the pair to ponder their environmental footprint, too. “I remember thinking, what are we really doing?,” Chow told the audience. “We were at DKNY at the time and we were doing ten collections a year… We were just making so much product just to fill a line plan or just to fill accounts at stores. It really all hit at the same time, what are we doing all of this for?”

In January 2018, the designers switched up their business model, and now only work with upcycled or recycled materials. They’ve created collaborations with Levi’s, Alpha Industries, Eileen Fisher and Nike to date, all using existing fabrics and with the aim of extending the lifecycle of each of the products. They were tapped last year to join the CFDA + Lexus Fashion* Initiative bootcamp, which cultivates designers and brands working on sustainability.

“Sustainability for us encompasses the idea of just having a consciousness about the world.”

Despite their commitments to environmental responsibility, the designers eschew using the word sustainability, preferring to say they design from a place of “social consciousness” said Chow. “For us it’s more than the material effects of what we’re doing as an industry, but also how people are treated and perceived and promoted and supported. So, it’s bigger than just the idea of sustainability. Sustainability for us encompasses the idea of just having a consciousness about the world.”

Whatever word they might use, the pair agreed that taking responsibility for your impact on people and the planet is the future of the fashion industry. “If you’re a big brand and sustainability and social consciousness is not a big pillar of your DNA, you’re going to get left behind,” warned Chow. “Consumers are only getting more aware and more knowledgeable and more conscious about where they’re spending their money.”

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