Tara St James is the Canadian-born, Brooklyn-based founder and designer of Study, an ethical, contemporary womenswear brand. St James has been spearheading the ethical fashion movement in New York City since launching the brand in 2009 and is regularly invited to speak on panels and seminars thanks to her vast knowledge of sustainable practices and ethical sourcing. St James won the prestigious Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation Award in 2011 and just recently was selected to participate in ORIGIN PASSION & BELIEFS, a tradeshow that will bring together the most ground-breaking independent designers to engage with Italy’s most distinguished manufacturers and suppliers.
Study launched in 2009 as an ethical contemporary womenswear brand long before sustainable fashion brands became “trendy” – how does it feel to be at the forefront of this surge?
Study launched in 2009, but I started sourcing sustainable textiles in 2004 for the company I worked for prior to Study. Back then the landscape was very different and there was little to no information online to find environmentally friendly textiles. Also at the time there was a stigma surrounding ethical fashion that I think is only now being lifted.
There are times when I’m grateful that I have done the research and understand the definitions of sustainability in fashion, but then there are also times when I’m envious of students entering the workforce now for the first time with all the advances that have been made in the past 10 years.
You introduce new pieces/collections every month, outside of the traditional fashion calendar – can you describe your design and production process?
I started the brand with 2 seasonal, 20-piece collections per year, Spring and Fall. That model never felt right to me, and stifled both my creativity and my ability to run a sustainable business. Now I release 3-4 new styles every other month, about 6 times per year, on a rolling design and production schedule. This allows me to have smaller spurts of creativity mixed with managing the business, as opposed to forcing creativity within a very narrow time slot at the start of a season. I now allow myself to be more liberal with my schedule.
Has it been difficult to get buyers on board with this strategy?
Buyers immediately gravitate to the new calendar; they understand it instinctively because they need new product in their stores regularly. It has been slightly difficult working with buyers who have strict seasonal budgets for their buys, but even they are interested in working around their own restrictions.
How does this work for Study?
So far so good. I’m still working out a few kinks, such as figuring out how to shoot regular lookbooks and web images as well ass collecting orders from stores every other month (something that’s hard enough to do twice a year!), but I feel much less constrained and find a liberation in putting out smaller capsules on an erratic schedule. My suppliers also appreciate the new calendar as I find myself producing during slow periods for the factories when they are not producing for other brands.
Who is your target customer?
My target customer is someone who wants to wear a personal uniform but also wants to have fun with her clothes. I create a lot of secretly convertible styles that can be worn multiple ways. I feel this increases the longevity of the styles. I choose quality materials and am careful about my finishings so that my customers can keep their Study pieces for a long time and wear them as a uniform. I know I do!
Study has done four product partnerships with Of A Kind – why is this collaboration successful for you?
Of A Kind has been incredibly supportive of the brand and allows us access to a much broader audience than we could ever reach. I love the way they tell the designer’s story, and I think their business model is smart and innovative.
Is there anything about the current ethical fashion climate that bothers you? (i.e. H&M’s Conscious Collection)
I appreciate the efforts made by companies like H&M who are investing in sustainability research from which we can all benefit, however, the very core of their business model not only encourages shoppers to over-consume but in fact requires it and that mis-education of consumers is detrimental to the sustainable fashion movement.
How do you think you have changed the perception of sustainable design?
Fashion is art in my opinion. But to some cultures clothing is just a means of protection from the elements. There is such a huge gap between how first and third world nations view clothing and design. Ethical fashion has the ability to bridge that gap by providing developing nations with a market for their traditional craft techniques and a sustainable business opportunity.
I see the sustainable design industry becoming more mainstream. As young design students learn about the importance of ethical and sustainable design, I believe they will bring this belief into their jobs and future careers, and slowly sustainable choices will begin to trickle upward from them. That’s why I believe education is key to the future of sustainability.
How did winning Ecco Domani in 2011 change your business?
Being chosen for the Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation Award after only a year in business was a huge accomplishment for me and encouraged me to continue exploring my craft of design. It also introduced me to the broader world of the traditional fashion calendar and made me start to question my position in that world. It took another year for me to build up the courage to change my business model and shirk the calendar. I’m forever grateful for the exposure the Foundation gave me.
You’ve just been selected to participate in Origins & Beliefs – a highly selective tradeshow in Italy next month – what does this entail?
I am very excited to attend Origins. I’m a huge supporter of everything that Not Just A Label does and I think this is a revolutionary idea in tradeshows. I think the level of talent and creativity that they will be assembling in Italy is unparalleled and I’m anxious to meet the other designers and manufacturers and share ideas. I also have an affinity for all things crafted in Italy, my maternal grandparents were Italian so the country holds a soft spot in my heart.
It must be personally fulfilling to know you’re directly contributing to a more sustainable fashion future – do you ever think about it in this way?
Quite the contrary, I have regular pangs of guilt over producing new product regularly. If I really wanted to create a truly sustainable brand I would stop producing all together. I don’t believe there are any environmental benefits to sustainable production, since it’s still taxing our farmland and industry. However there are potential social and economic benefits for the people who work in the industry and if we can achieve a living wage for all farmers, textile and garment workers then I will feel accomplished.
How far away are we as an industry to embracing sustainable fashion as the norm?
I believe we’re close, if we consider the sustainable fashion movement actually started in the 1970s. It will take another generation or maybe two, but once this next generation starts to take over important design, production and financial decisions in the industry, they will make important changes. Change has to come from two important factors; demand from consumers, and willingness to change from CEOs and other management making financial decisions in big companies.