A quick survey of many mall shops is all that’s really needed to understand the root of one of fashion’s major sustainability issues: racks upon racks of items languishing in an extended sale cycle before, ultimately, ending up in an incinerator or landfill. We’ve become trained to expect that the stuff we want will be made in such massive quantities that it will always be available exactly when we want it – and that if we wait long enough, we’ll be able to buy it at a discount.
But when Reformation, the Los Angeles-based brand with a handful of stores across the United States and a robust online presence, opens its doors at Toronto’s Yorkdale Shopping Centre this month, it might start to reset those expectations for Canadians. That’s because the decade-old company, founded by its CEO, Yael Aflalo, isn’t interested in clogging closets with an abundance of items that might be worn only a handful of times. Instead, its business model is set up to nurture scarcity and cultivate covetedness, thanks in part to a reliance on more sustainably produced and elusive fabrics.
Kathleen Talbot, Reformation’s vice-president of operations and sustainability, notes that early on the majority of what the brand sourced for its designs was deadstock fabric. “So once that fabric is done, it’s done – by definition we can’t source more of it and make more of that exact thing that you want.”
While the brand now uses other fabrics, it still produces pieces in smaller quantities than other mainstream mid-price point retailers and the approach, also used by companies such as Ace & Jig and athleticwear label Girlfriend Collective, is paying off in many ways. Customers will eagerly await product “drops” – communicated via social-media posts and newsletters – and sign up for wait lists in case a sought-after piece is re-cut, allowing the development of a highly data-driven business that is much more intentional with its production.
Online messages that foster a “you need to buy it now” ethos help the company avoid discounting stock unless it’s really necessary. Having items linger at the end of the season would break the promotion cycle, Talbot says. “The perpetual sales that a lot of brands find themselves in is a devaluation of the actual supply chain and what it takes to make items.”
Considerations about the value of merchandise and its large-scale implications have certainly made retail experts take notice of what these think big/produce small brands are doing. Ana Pereira, a professor at George Brown’s school of management, is optimistic about companies that are relying less on volume and more on messaging around sustainability to drive their business. “We’ve reached that tipping point in the mass consumer market with plastics and then there’s the category of fashion, where the excess is still an insider conversation,” Pereira says.
Pereira points to the fact that the fashion system’s increase in offerings, “two seasons to four seasons to six seasons” –coupled with a fascination with celebrity and youth culture, has bred an endless cycle of needing newness. She highlights a study from the World Resource Institute that shows “since the year 2000, the average consumer is buying 60 per cent more clothes and we keep each garment half as long.”
What’s interesting is that brands such as Reformation aren’t curbing our desire to shop; the model actually makes consumers more aware of their shopping impulses and how they act on them. “It’s the thrill of the chase, really,” says Sharla Farrell, a freelance PR consultant based in Vancouver who favours brands such as Girlfriend Collective and shares its existence with friends as if it’s a kind of secret society. Farrell likens it to the enticement of vintage clothing shopping and notes that there’s a great appeal in knowing she’ll be wearing something few others are as well.
Although many fashion lovers such as Farrell are starting to worship these buzz-generating businesses over fast fashion’s ubiquitous offerings, Talbot acknowledges Reformation’s limitations also come with certain pitfalls, at least when courting new customers. “There has been a little bit of a learning curve,” she says. “We get a lot of questions like, ‘When is this coming back?’ and when the honest answer is that it’s not coming back and this is why, there’s still [a] friction point when it comes to customer experience.”
Addressing such queries has given Reformation the unique task of having to be one of the most transparent companies in the fashion landscape. “Our challenge is to really present the ‘why,’” Talbot says. “There’s some education [needed] around that we’re doing [it] for sustainability reasons, and why that’s built into the business model,” she says. But in the end, the company’s long-term customer understands that an item selling out is, mostly, inevitable and a good thing. “It’s interesting to talk to those customers and get their feedback; they almost now appreciate that as part of the brand.”