Mara Hoffman wants you to buy less.
That may seem counterintuitive for a clothing designer, but given her focus on sustainability and conscious consumerism, it makes sense. Through her label, Hoffman hopes to encourage buyers to rethink their relationship with what they put on their bodies.
A graduate of Parsons School of Design, Hoffman started her eponymous brand nearly 20 years ago. Since then, it’s transformed to become more sustainable while still staying true to its bright and colorful roots. Scrolling through the site right now, customers will find rich colors, soft materials, and easy but flattering silhouettes. Importantly, you’ll also find information on the clothes’ fabrics, which include organic cotton, hemp, linen, and in the case of swimwear, recycled nylon and polyester that the brand says are made from things like fishing nets and industrial plastic waste.
Hoffman will be speaking about fashion and its role in sustainability and climate change at on Sept. 22. Before the event kicked off, she answered some questions on her brand’s shift to sustainable fashion, the role the consumer has in combatting overconsumption, and how she fits into this changing, warming world.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Mashable: Your brand took a shift a few years ago, moving towards a more sustainable model. I’m wondering what was behind that decision to start focusing the brand on sustainable clothing and consumption?
Mara Hoffman: When that transition happened the brand itself was 15 years old. We’re going right now on our fifth year since that. I had honestly just gotten to somewhat of a breaking point with my involvement, my interest, and my ever-growing awareness of what was happening within the industry and just on the planet as a whole and feeling this disconnect of “How am I part of this thing?”
My kid at the time was 3 and it was just this overwhelming idea that this is his legacy now, this is what I leave to this person, and I don’t want to do this if we’re not going to be doing it in a completely different way.
At the time, it wasn’t like we had dirty practices by any means. We’ve always worked with highly vetted partners and had a responsible approach to what we were doing, always. But it was time to level up. And I really had no idea what that meant. At the time when we made this transition we were just babies with it. So much has changed, I can’t even tell you. The landscape in the “sustainability world” has shifted so much from when we made this transition to now as far as available resources and fabrication. Everything.
It was kind of like stepping off the cliff a little bit. I mean, clearly, we were no pioneers of this move. There have been many who have done this before us for a very, very long time … It wasn’t like we were reinventing anything. But it was just trying to discover how to do it based on our company and our availability and our practices.
Mashable: Have these sustainable shifts informed the clothes? I mean something that I’ve noticed with the evolution of the style is that it’s becoming more comfortable, more luxurious.
MH: At the same time that we were transitioning into this new path with it, I was going through a personal “change or die across the board” moment. First with the way we were doing things then quickly following was around aesthetic. I had really grown out of who we had been in the past. It didn’t resonate with who I was as a woman, and what I wanted to wear and what I wanted other women to wear. It just was this kind of disconnect. It had been for awhile even before we made the shift.
By making this big overhaul shift on the business [side] and how we were manufacturing gave me this perfect time to also say, “OK it’s also going to look different. Not only will it feel different and our fabrics are going to be different, the whole thing’s going to look different.”
That was a very big challenge. It’s very hard to tell people who have relied on you to be this one thing for them that now you’re different. I think that’s hard in any situation or relationship to be like, “You know what, I’ve grown and changed and I’m no longer this thing that you really liked so much about me but now I’m this other thing that’s really awesome.” And some people walked away. Some people said “Oh no we’re not interested in this from you. Mara Hoffman is only this one thing.” That took us time, and it took us time to rebuild an aesthetic and a vision of a brand to be seen through a different lens.
Mashable: What have you learned and how have the brand and clothes subsequently evolved? What are some lessons [you’ve learned] five years down the line.
MH: I think the big one is listen. Listen when you get these giant nudges from above or from the [universe]. These nudges that you’re uncomfortable and it’s time to change. I know that sounds a little “woo woo” but this idea that listening to those discomforts, letting discomfort guide you into something that will be better and not trying to just hide from [what’s] uncomfortable … That to me on a human level, spiritual level, business level has been a big one. Listen. Get into the discomfort of something because it’s usually trying to get you somewhere else.
And then learning how to get smarter about design. When you really get to it this doesn’t just happen on a production level that you decide to be more responsible and reduce your footprint … This has to start from conception up as you’re designing garments.
It’s just like having a new company these past five years. Now I’m at this next phase of it where I’m feeling like, “OK everything is great. We did awesome. Cool. But really now how do we level this thing?” So I’m just sort of beginning again with my team to say, “All right. Where do we go? What’s next? How do we become better? How do we focus on the parts of this that are really at their highest level? How do we exit parts that are not? What needs change?” I think that learning how to always be in a reflective space is really important, too.
Mashable: Absolutely. Switching gears to the consumer. I think, just speaking personally … for the average consumer, it can be hard to navigate the world of sustainable shopping. There’s so much out there but there’s also so much misinformation and a lack of transparency. So I’m wondering, what advice would you give to regular consumers who want to become more conscious consumers?
MH: The first one is really a reevaluation of your relationship to things. I know that sounds heavy, but we’ve got to somewhere, somehow, break our patterns of consumption … The first way to do that is by actually examining them, and becoming conscious of how you spend money and what you buy, and then how you establish relationships with those things you buy … How does this thing make you feel? How long does this thing make you feel this? What happens to this piece? What are your habits with the way you wear clothes? What do you do with them when you have a hole in them? What do you do with them when you’re over the style? And really beginning to examine your personal relationships even to the things you already have that exist in your closet.
It’s worth spending that time to ask yourself those questions. “How am I contributing to overconsumption right now? How am I driving a system by my wants and my needs? Are they in alignment? Are they right in a sense? Are they only serving my insecurities or are they helping ultimately serve a shift in an entire landscape of an industry and in turn a planet?” [They’re] big thoughts and big ideas, but there has to be some sense of responsibility to your own relationship to objects as individuals.
Brands can’t do every single thing. I put a lot of ownership on brands. A ton, a ton, a ton. But I think our planet is in great urgency right now and demanding that human beings personalize a moment and realize enormous collective change can’t happen unless it’s happening on these individual levels.
On the actual purchasing side, become a bit more educated on understanding fabrics a little bit. What are you OK with? Are you OK with conventional cotton? Are you OK with polyesters? Are you OK with any synthetics? Where are you OK with things being made? That information is out there. You just have to do a little bit of work. Also, I don’t know, it comes down to buying less things across the board. Just asking for less, less things right now. That’s the big shift.
Of course, getting out of the synthetics is a really big one. And then putting pressure. I think the pressure really needs to [placed on] these larger, huge organizations that are the primary beasts within this problem. There are a lot of little guys like me. I’m not going to change the world. Our brand, with 30 employees and putting out these blood, sweat, and tear collections, real talk, we’re not going to change the planet. We’re not going to be the ones to change the outcome of what we’re headed towards right now. We’re ultimately still part of that problem, but we are specks within it. You have these enormous guys. That’s where the change is going to come from. Putting pressure on these larger systems at play right now is really important.
Mashable: Related to that, personally I love clothes and I love fashion. And the want, the need for new things all the time is something that I struggle with, balancing that desire to buy more clothes (especially living in New York) with the idea that doing so just creates more waste. I’m wondering if you could speak a little bit more to that as someone who’s on the other end of this. You’re a producer. Is that something you consider as a producer?
MH: Yeah, it kills me. That’s a big part of my conflict with all of this. I know as a conscious human being, “You don’t need anything. Stop buying things.” Yet I’m making things and saying, “Well, here you go.” My company runs on you buying things from me.
I think the way that I rationalize this [is that] again, there’s no perfect system. The real talk on how to become a sustainable brand? Shut your brand down. It just is. And I am not there yet. We have so much still to do in all of this, but I like to think that we are providing an alternative. We are having open conversations about these things that are working and the things that have so far to go still with all of this. The complexity of even the word “sustainability,” and what it means to be a sustainable fashion brand is a real conundrum.
I talk about the conflict around this quite a bit, but again the light side of it is offering an alternative that women can trust and can hopefully buy something from here where there are people, there are teams working on doing it [with] the least amount of harm possible.
On the aesthetic side of things, I am someone who really believes firmly that we create feelings through this work. If I can make a piece that a woman puts on and feels beautiful, or feels inspired or confident or whatever it is that emotion that she’s reaching for, that that feeling will create an experience for her. I believe that feelings create experiences. The world looks the way you feel. You wake up in the morning you feel like garbage, most likely you’re going to walk out the door and see garbage and see things that make you feel angry or frustrated. If you wake up and you feel really good and you feel like “everything’s working, life is beautiful, OK I’ve got hope,” you’re going to walk out and those situations that reflect those feelings are going to show up for you. You’re going to see hopeful situations. You’re going to spot the beauty in things.
Being aware of our feelings as people is a really powerful tool that we have. If I can contribute to a woman in a moment and an experience, or a person, whoever it is, that attracts and loves something that we’re doing and in turn they feel this elevated feeling of joy, happiness, beauty, and then that turns into more [positive] experiences … that to me is a very worthy job.
Mashable: What are your plans for the future of the brand in terms of aesthetics but also sustainability and ethical labor practices? What are you looking to do in the next five years?
MH: We’re looking to continually examine our current practices, expand into better ones. We’re working on circularity right now and what that means in our company. We’re implementing take-back systems — as far as really tracking the entire life cycle of a garment and getting it back. We’ve already started a pilot program around swim and are looking forward to expanding that within ready-to-wear.
Helping to scale our textile recycling initiatives and working within that. Getting our transparency to a place that it’s just accessible to the customers at all times, like every aspect of our system. And continuing to use the platform that we have to be in a space of communication and hold community within it. That’s a big thing within this movement is the community based around it.
Once you’ve figured some aspect of it out, or gotten closer to it, you’re able to give that to another brand or give that to another company for them to implement it so we can be on this uprise together.
If you want to do this, then you want everyone else to do it, too. You kind of got to be that way. It’s not like I’m going to be the best in sustainability. No. If I want to be good at this then I want to bring everyone with me.