Sustainable fashion brand Cienne is a thoughtful offering of womenswear from Nicole Heim and Chelsea Healy. The ready-to-wear collection is comprised of natural materials designed in timeless silhouettes for the woman who cares about the design process as much as the aesthetic. The two women have years of fashion industry experience between them, and when Nicole started thinking about developing a more purpose-driven fashion line she turned to her best friend Chelsea to fully realize her vision. Cienne is currently a finalist in the 2018 CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative.
What is your earliest fashion memory?
CH – I was a true child of the 80’s; my fashion statement was biker shorts under miniskirts! I always wanted everything to fit as tight as possible – the more spandex, the better. Doesn’t get more 80’s than that.
NH – My mom made a lot of baby clothes for my brother and me, and starting somewhere around age 5, I would often change my outfit three times a day. Whether I loved it or hated it, I have very visceral memories of fashion. My mom also always had these elaborate outfits on, and I remember at the time thinking she looked ridiculous. Reflecting back now, I was so wrong! She looked incredible.
Where are you both from?
CH – I’m from Cedar Grove, New Jersey, but have been in Manhattan in some capacity since 2001.
NH – I’m from Orange County, California, and jumped back and forth from Southern California to Washington where half of my family lived. I did two years of art school in LA before moving to NYC in 2003.
Nicole, you designed for Victoria’s Secret for years – what was that experience like?
NH – It was an amazing experience. I traveled all over the world and worked with an incredible team, including some very smart and inspiring female leaders. However, I wasn’t aesthetically motivated, and I grew really frustrated with the lack of creative process. I also had an a-ha moment when I saw the reality of fast fashion waste first-hand during a factory trip overseas.
When you left did you think you would return to fashion?
NH – No, I didn’t think I would. I knew I needed to be in a creative field, but I was really burnt out on fashion, and sought purpose in both my work and life. I never thought I’d have a clothing line; that wasn’t really something I dreamed of. However, I did always dream of having my own (creative) business, and over the course of my sabbatical, I grew to miss fashion and felt there was an opportunity to create something that didn’t currently exist. When I looked at fashion through this new lens, I was ultimately able to return to it.
When did you meet Chelsea Healy? How did you recruit her for Cienne?
NH – Chelsea and I went to college together, and we were pretty much inseparable from the minute we met. We come from opposite coasts and see the world in very different ways, which is what’s so unique about our friendship, business partnership, and unspoken design philosophy for Cienne. That push-pull is what makes things diverse and interesting.
When I decided to leave my job in New York for a 3-month sabbatical through Africa, Chelsea was so supportive and understanding, even though it wasn’t something she herself had the desire to do. I was going through a really transformational few years, and she was always right by my side. Through this journey, the concept for Cienne started to grow, and I began to share it with Chelsea from afar. When I returned home to New York and Cienne felt like a real idea, I knew I couldn’t do it alone, and there was only one person who could do it with me. I officially took the idea to her, and we haven’t really stopped since.
What did you know had to be different about your own line?
CH – We wanted to give consumers something that wasn’t already on the market. When we first started, sustainability wasn’t as big of a conversation or selling point as it is today, and we knew this was one angle we had that was unique. We also wanted to play into the idea of versatility, with a focus on seasonless separates. Our goal was for Cienne to be something you could invest in and wear for years, which was another differentiating factor for us.
NH – For me, it really began with wanting a brand that held values at the forefront, without sacrificing aesthetic or design. I also aspired to shift the responsibility from customer to company, and rewrite the narrative around sustainability. I wanted to prove that it’s inherently a more artistic way to create – it’s a return to craftsmanship, creativity and quality. For the collection, we both hoped for something that felt distinct yet versatile enough to wear every day, for years to come. We also both have a bit of a textile background, and love color and print. We believed it was a combination of these various facets and approaches that would make Cienne feel different.
Talk to me about sustainability – how has discovering this way of working with fashion changed your personal lifestyles?
CH – I’ve tried to make an extra effort to be more mindful in general. I’ve also aimed to support small brands and businesses as much as I can, knowing that managing and owning a business is no easy venture.
NH – We produce everything in New York’s Garment District, and work with a lot of family-run factories and small businesses. It’s made me feel especially connected to the impact of local manufacturing, so I always try and support small businesses when I can. Lifestyle-wise, I’m big on clean and seasonal food, using natural beauty products, and I shop a ton of vintage fashion and home.
What has been the most challenging parts of having a sustainable-driven brand?
CH – I have so much respect for every single fashion brand out there who is working towards a more sustainable future. It is by no means easy! The most challenging part has been finding high quality sustainable materials. Fabric is the main component of a garment, so if that’s missing, you really don’t have a product. It’s taken us a few years to find mills and partners around the world that have the level of quality that we need to produce the best possible garments. We are still discovering new sustainable materials season after season, which always gets me excited.
NH – Definitely the materials. Fabrics are an area of constant concentration for us. In the beginning, we experimented a lot, and found that many of the sustainable materials available hindered our design process. The other big challenge is the cost of making things sustainably – it takes far more financial and human resources, both of which are not in abundance for an emerging brand.
Can you describe the foundational sustainability practices for Cienne?
NH – Values-wise, we’re inspired by connection, culture and creativity. Sustainability-wise, that transcends into empowering people, producing responsibly, and elevating and preserving artisanal craftsmanship.
Congratulations on becoming a finalist in the CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative! What do you hope for with this opportunity?
CH – It’s truly an honor to be a part of the CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative. I hope that we can use their resources to strengthen the foundation that we’ve built thus far. There is so much opportunity in this space, and I want to utilize that in every way we can, which includes continuing to learn and challenge as we aspire to make a difference. I also, of course, hope this gives us exposure to consumers who are interested in sustainability but aren’t yet familiar with Cienne. As a consumer, I enjoy discovering new brands that I love, so perhaps this opportunity can give us a platform to be discovered by all the fashion lovers out there.
NH – Thank you! We’re really looking forward to taking what we’ve started and building it out in a very comprehensive way. I’m so excited to learn from the experts and resources that the opportunity brings, which will ultimately allow us to truly define what sustainability means to us as a brand. It’s such an interesting time; the more good we can create and share with the world, the better.
Fast fashion isn’t going anywhere – what are some things retailers or consumers can do to offset the large amount of waste produced?
CH – I realize this is lofty, but both consumers and retailers should just try to slow down the pace. The point of fast fashion is to be ‘fast,’ but that’s exactly what drives waste. With the digital space being so massive today, we live in an extremely fast-paced world, but I’m a believer in quality over quantity, and hope that eventually large retailers can catch on in some capacity. I’m really curious to see what this industry looks like in 5-10 years.
NH – I really believe we need to change how we make, use and dispose of clothing. Less is truly more. Retailers supporting sustainability and new ways of doing things is a key component to meaningful change. Recycling or repairing items rather than simply throwing them away is a very tangible method in which consumers can make a difference. Companies like H&M, Levi’s, and Patagonia all have amazing repair and recycle programs.