Mara Hoffman knows that there is no such thing as sustainable fashion

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Mara Hoffman has become an icon of sustainable design in the fashion world. Over the past year, she’s released swimsuits made of wood pulp, a dress made from fashion waste, and knitwear that helps mitigate climate change. But she wasn’t always so eco-conscious.

She had a moment of reckoning in 2015, a decade and a half after launching her eponymous label. In January of that year, she was visiting her design director, Dana Davis, who had just given birth to her second child. While cradling Davis’s newborn son, Hoffman dissolved into tears, thinking about how her business would impact the world he was entering. At the time, many of her products were polyester, which is made from fossil fuels and sheds microplastics. There were days Hoffman didn’t want to wear her own clothes because of how they were harming the planet.

“When something comes to Mara, it comes in such a fast, furious way,” Davis says. “In that moment, she decided that we had to figure out how to do things differently at the brand, or she didn’t want to do it anymore.”

Hoffman was acutely aware that as a fashion designer who churned out thousands of garments a year, she was part of the problem. So that day, she enlisted Davis to become the brand’s new head of sustainability. And together, the two women began mapping out a strategy for how to reduce the brand’s environmental footprint.

Eight years later, they are on the right track. Hoffman was this year’s recipient of the Environmental Sustainability Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the U.S. fashion industry’s most prestigious organization. And now, many brands are looking to her for a playbook of how to design more responsibly.

I sat down with Hoffman and Davis to discuss how they turned the brand around, from switching out planet-harming fabrics in favor of more sustainable ones to championing technology companies that are developing cleaner ways to manufacture clothes.

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mara, in 2015 you had a moment when you thought you might abandon your brand if you couldn’t find a better way to do business. Do you feel like you’re on a better path now?

Mara Hoffman: I’m continually coming back and asking myself, “Can I continue to be okay with this? Are we transforming for the better? Are we stretching for better alternatives? Is what we’re doing enough for me to go to sleep at night?” I think these are the questions all of us need to ask ourselves at this time. And we need to be honest about our answers.

The truth is, being a fashion house working under the framework of sustainability is by its nature compromised. Producing any new products adds to the strain that the planet is experiencing. There is no perfectly sustainable fiber or fabrication method. So with each decision we make it comes down the least amount of harm.

[Photo: courtesy Mara Hoffman]

Dana, when Mara came to you in 2015 and tasked you with transforming your supply chain, what was your plan of attack?

Dana Davis: I started picking up the phone and talking to our factories in India, Peru, Turkey, and the U.S. At the time, I didn’t have a plan; I wanted to start by having an open dialogue.

Most of our relationships are with the people who cut and sew our garments. But it became clear to us that we needed to have even more insight in our supply chain, all the way back to raw materials. I had so many conversations about the chemicals that go into fibers and the process of turning them into fabrics.

One of my first meetings was with an Italian mill that supplied our swimsuit material. I really wanted to understand how we could make a more sustainable swimsuit. And then I discovered that they had a recycled version of the fabric we were already using. I asked why they had never shown it to me. And [they] said, “Why didn’t you ask?”

A light went off in my head: Nobody was going to come to me to pitch me on sustainability. We would have to reach out to everybody and let them know the new path that we’re on. And suddenly we discovered so much low-hanging fruit—easy swaps we could make. This built so much momentum internally.

[Photo: courtesy Mara Hoffman]

How did you go from these easy swaps to becoming an industry leader when it comes to sustainability?

MH: We’re a small, nimble company, so it’s easier for us to make changes to our supply chain. A year ago, we were the first brand to launch with a new material called Pyratex Power 3, which allows us to create swimwear that moves away from synthetic fibers. Our goal is to eventually create an entirely fossil-fuel-free swim line. Our team felt so lit up by the work that Circ is doing when it comes to recycling at scale. We knew we had to partner with them.

These days, we’ve become a poster child for partnering with tech companies that are innovating sustainable solutions in fashion. Now these companies come to us, which is very flattering. That being said, we don’t enter into any of these relationships lightly. We vet each one thoroughly. Dana leads the charge on these activations. She’s the logistical, granular side of this operation, while I am the emotional heart of it.

[Photo: courtesy Mara Hoffman]

The main problem with the fashion industry is overconsumption. Consumers have become used to buying more clothes than they need and then treating them like they’re disposable. Are you thinking about how to change consumer behavior as well?

DD: Yes. We have publicly told our customers not to buy our clothes unless they really need them. So we ask, “Is this something you need to build your everyday wardrobe? Or are you buying this to fill an emotional void?”

But part of changing behavior has to do with design. We’ve launched a core program to create pieces like denim jeans and khaki pants, based on things that Mara wears all day, every day.

[Photo: courtesy Mara Hoffman]

But the issue is that our customers come to us for our dresses and prints. One thing we’ve done is moved away from the bold geometric prints, because those were the ones that we saw being quickly relisted on resale platforms after purchase. Now, instead of selling 10 prints, we make only 3 prints that feel like they will be relevant for years to come, and the rest of our dresses come in beautiful solid colors.

More broadly, part of our messaging is around normalizing repeat wearing and dressing. We want customers to buy a dress and then wear it for years to come. This also has to do with perfecting the fit and quality. If a dress is flattering and durable, the customer will gravitate toward it again and again.

Mara, 23 years into your business, what keeps you going?

MH: As a designer, I am at my core an artist and a creator. Part of my job is to create beauty that has a magnetizing ability to attract and transform other people. I believe that aesthetics play a big role in changing society. People don’t tend to buy products because they’re sustainable; they buy things because they fall in love with them. So my goal is to use my art to draw attention to solutions.



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