Local Brands Bring Sustainable Fashion to Austin

by Emily Deen

Fashion is one of the largest industries in the world. From retailers to runways, the industry employs 60 million people globally and is valued at 3 trillion dollars. But such a huge industry comes with some pretty huge downsides. Along with being the most labor dependent industry in the world, it is the second most polluting. The rise of fast fashion, a phenomenon that focuses on making clothing quickly and cheaply, has had detrimental effects on the environment and the people that make it possible.

Luckily, sustainability in fashion has gained a significant amount of attention in the last decade. As the darkest parts of fashion are being publicized in documentaries like The True Cost, companies can no longer ignore the fact that their customers are aware of these issues and demand a more ethically-minded business model. That being said, there is still a long way to go in the fight for a more sustainable fashion industry.

Joining this fight can be as simple as changing where we shop. Although it is tempting and sometimes easier to stop by a major chain’s local storefront, living in a place like Austin gives consumers the perfect opportunity to branch out and try something new. Local boutiques and businesses offer unique pieces that are sure to spark more conversation and bring awareness to the issues associated with fast fashion. To illustrate this idea, I visited two local Austin based businesses to ask them about how they prioritize sustainability in their brands.

First, I was able to interview Kellie, owner of Material clothing line which she runs from her home here in Austin.

Q: How did you get interested in sustainable fashion?

A: When shopping I would always get turned off by a style, seeing multiples of the same piece. I feel as though everyone wants to wear items that are unique and feel special. That’s what is great about vintage textiles and prints, although the style or fit usually isn’t right. A great byproduct of repurposing once loved or discarded clothing and fabric is that you get to give it a second life, and a great one of a kind item for the customer!

Just like Kellie prints on her tags, all of her pieces are made from vintage and repurposed fabrics.

Q: What led to the creation of your company?

A: While in college at Texas A&M, I did art (mostly painting, drawing and sculpture) as a hobby outside of class. I wanted to learn out to sew as another creative outlet, so I got a sewing machine, had a quick lesson on how to use it, and then taught myself to sew. I started making clothing for myself out of thrifted pieces and vintage finds I had on hand. A friend who had a vintage shop near campus liked what I was making and wanted to carry it in his store. After a few months of good sales and no set plans after graduation, I opened my own storefront in the same building on the main drag by campus. I continued to sew all of my inventory right there in the shop and soon had a great following helping to grow my brand. After about seven years, Material started being sold at other shops, I restructured my business to work from home and moved to Austin. Material has now been around for 14 years!

Q: What is the most unique part of your brand?

A: It is rare that I have a large amount of yardage of a textile or multiples of a piece of clothing to be repurposed. This means that even when I create several of the same style, each piece is one of a kind and has a different vibe based on the colors, prints, and type of fabric being used. Also, every item is made with love by me. Nothing is mass produced or made in a sweatshop. No patterns are used and I sketch out each piece by hand.

These pieces were both handmade by Kellie using fabrics from deconstructed garments.

Q: How does your company utilize eco-friendly materials and processes to lessen your impact on the environment?

A: All of the clothing is made from vintage and repurposed fabrics. I use wholesale suppliers in addition to the occasional thrift store or garage sale trip. Even scraps are saved to either be made into trim, belts or used in other future pieces, including baby and children’s clothing. Any other extra fabric scraps are donated to a group that works with Mobile Loaves and Fishes to create blankets for the homeless, and clothing items that can’t be used are donated to the Free Store.

Q: How can people get started on shifting their wardrobe to be more eco-friendly and ethically minded?

A: I would encourage people to really try and seek out small/ handmade brands who do not mass produce or use sweatshops. Parts & Labour on South Congress is a great place to start and there are always different maker fairs to attend throughout the year. Spend a little more and invest in something special that no one else will ever have. As the holidays approach, this is a great time to seek out a unique locally made gift. I promise that piece will be treasured and is less likely to be thrown away or end up in your donate pile. Plus all of the extra compliments you will receive don’t hurt either.

Since Kellie moved to Austin, she constructs, photographs, and sells all of her pieces from her home office.

Q: Finally, is there anything else you want your customers to know about your company?

A: If you want to repurpose any of your own clothing, I offer custom orders. This can be a great way to get into sustainable fashion. You may like some of the styles Material has to offer but would prefer to make use out of something sitting in your closet, like a treasured top that once belonged to a grandparent. Check out the website and we can work together to make something really special. In addition to Material, I have another line, TWELVE. It is not sold in stores, only directly to the customer through the website. There is never more than a dozen made of any piece and often only one. Proceeds go towards our projects to empower women in developing areas to grow their own businesses. material-clothing.com & weartwelve.com. •

 

Next, I interviewed Evan Streusand, founder of shoe company Fortress of Inca. The business is based here in Austin, but all of the shoes are handmade in Peru, where Evan was first inspired to start creating.

Q: How did you create and come up with the idea for Fortress of Inca?

A: After I graduated college, I saved up some money and went backpacking in South America. Towards the end of my trip, I was in Peru and someone took me into a shop in Cuzco with super colorful suede boots covered in traditional-style textiles. I thought it would be a great memento of my trip, so I bought the boots and wore them for four or five years. I always thought they were really interesting and in the back of my mind thought about selling them. I had helped a friend start a business, so I saw what it took to create something and wanted to do that instead of going to work for a big company. I was stupid and naive enough to think I could start a shoe company without knowing anything about shoes, and one day I decided to go for it. I went back to Peru to find the same shop I had gone to a few years earlier and told the guy I wanted him to make me 100 pairs of women’s shoes that I could sell. Each pair of shoes had different handwoven textiles and leathers. I went home with 25 pairs and when he shipped me the rest, I started selling them to people I knew. I used those 100 pairs to teach myself the shoe industry.

Fortress of Inca sustainable fashion shoe brand in austin
The Fortress of Inca storefront is located at 503 W. Mary St in South Austin.

Q: How long has the company been around?
That all happened about 9 years ago in early 2008. It really was a side hustle for two years and I didn’t know what I was doing and was only half focused on it. For a long time, I wanted to make every shoe unique but quickly realized that it was a ridiculous and impossible idea. Eventually, I started taking it more seriously and found someone who could help me make the shoes in bigger quantities. We started making different looking shoes but always utilized the Peruvian textiles. Peru has really good natural materials so we tried to take advantage of that.

Q: What materials do you use?
Leather, rubber, and wood. They are all plentiful in that region. They get rubber from the Amazon, and the leather is byproducts from the meat industry. It is leather from animals, but we use it so it doesn’t just go to waste. Everything is sourced from Peru.

Q: Are there any other ways that you try to implement sustainability in the company?

A lot of it is about the materials. The materials we use are going to make the shoes last much longer than using synthetics. It takes pretty skilled labor to make the shoes, and Peru has pretty strong labor regulations, so we make sure that the people who are working are able to take care of their families and are getting paid a good wage. Instead of giving people something, we give them good jobs which I think is a sustainable way to do things.

Fortress of Inca austin texas showcasing sustainable fashion
Although still inspired by and created in Peru, Fortress of Inca no longer exclusively uses the colorful and patterned textiles.

Q: Have you found it difficult to avoid mass production?
Our shoes are all made one at a time anyway. I was asked like 5 years ago to move production to China, but I didn’t want to do that partly because the original shoes I bought were in Peru and also because I’ve heard stories of how workers are treated over there and knew that wasn’t something I wanted to do.

Q: What’s been the hardest part of having the business?
Shoes are hard to sell. It’s hard to make a brand, really. Getting to where we actually had customers took a long time. Most of our business has been wholesale, so most people find out about us through other stores. That’s how we got a lot of our stuff going, was through stores. We couldn’t afford to pay for advertising or PR, so the stores basically acted as advertising for us which led to consistent customers. Shoes are expensive to make, especially since we make them in Peru. The materials are expensive, the labor is expensive- which good, it should be. But it is hard sometimes.

Q: Do you feel like it’s hard for people to want to invest in pricier shoes when there are much cheaper options?

There’s a certain age group and an income level that is willing to do it. That was my issue at the beginning when I was using more of the textiles. The style was very bohemian, like what you would see at a music festival, and that appeals to a younger person, but because they were made in Peru they were still expensive. So that didn’t really work. The shoes cost too much for the people they were appealing to. Once we started making nice, leather shoes that look like they should cost more, it became a lot easier to sell them.

This sign outside their front door says it all.

Q: Finally, would you say being in Austin has been a good place to start your business?

Yeah, I think so. People are really supportive of independent businesses here. There are also a lot of sustainable businesses and not too many chains here. If I was in New York or a big fashion city there would be a lot more competition. I think it’s easier to stand out in a place like this. •

 

Author’s Note: Thank you to Kellie and Evan for taking the time to answer questions and for allowing me to take photos. To see more of their work, check out their websites: http://www.weartwelve.com/material/ and https://www.fortressofinca.com/

 

Emily Deen is a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin and is majoring in Textiles & Apparel. Although she misses her hometown of Dallas, her first few months in Austin have given her a new love for the city and she loves exploring all that it has to offer.

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