We get why people like fast fashion: It’s trendy, it’s accessible, and it’s cheap. But as more stories come out about working conditions in factories and the impact that these mega-retailers are having on Mother Earth, buying fast fashion is starting to feel a bit indefensible. How can we claim to be interested in social justice and environmental consciousness but still contribute to the insane carbon footprint the fashion industry has?
Enter socially responsible clothing. More and more people are considering their social views when they head to market, allowing ethical fashion brands their place in the spotlight, and it seems that the movement is here to stay.
One of these brands is Citizen’s Mark, a fashion startup founded by former UN policy official Cynthia Salim. Salim started the company when she realized that while men have no shortage of professional workwear options, the same cannot be said for women’s wear. After speaking to women, all of whom were searching for a high-quality, go-to piece for their wardrobes, Salim got to work creating Citizen’s Mark much-talked-about blazer. Citizen’s Mark has been committed to responsible quality since day one: the blazers—available on their website—are made by hand in a solar-powered Portuguese factory that pays its workers living wages. Salim also hand-sourced every element of the jackets: From the wool, which is made in a mill that prioritizes water conservation, to the biodegradable cotton seed lining to the buttons made by hand in Nepal, she made sure that each material choice reflected Citizen’s Mark’s values of responsibility, sustainability, and transparency.
Not content to stop there, Salim’s onto her next project, which she’s taken to Kickstarter for grass roots funding. The Better Than Silk blouse is a machine-washable (!) blouse made from lyocell, an extremely eco-friendly fabric. Salim says, “We spent a year with our industry-leading weaving partner in Switzerland tweaking multiple technical weaving factors to make [the lyocell] drape like silk.” There are long-sleeved and sleeveless versions available, making this workwear staple a year-round necessity.
We spoke to Salim about the Better Than Silk collection, how Citizen’s Mark is responding to the fast fashion industry, and why she’s using Kickstarter to bring ethical fashion to the masses.
HealthyWay: Can you tell us more about the materials you’re using for the Better Than Silk shirt?
Salim: Better Than Silk is made of 100 percent lyocell, which is sustainably forested tree fiber from Austria. It’s actually an eco-fashion staple, but it’s always made into t-shirts and blankets, never anything as luxurious as silk—until now.
I spent a year convincing suppliers that it can and should be done, and that’s how we ended up with Better Than Silk. It’s a miracle eco-fiber that finally looks luxurious enough to wear to work. Lyocell is biodegradable, made in a closed-loop production process, and breathable and moisture wicking (unlike silk, which traps heat).
You’re so involved in every step of your production process. Can you tell us the details of how this shirt is being made, and why you made the choices you did?
We started with lyocell because it’s hands down one of the most sustainable materials in the industry. Plus, it’s incredibly soft, breathable, and comfortable. The trick was giving this eco-fiber a luxury makeover. Once we picked this raw material, I had to convince weavers (the next step in the process) to spend the time with me to make it look like silk. I had to explain that working women pretty much have to choose between silk (which is dry-clean intensive) or polyester (which never biodegrades).
We adjusted yarn type, weight, density, finishing—about a dozen technical decisions—and did several trial weaves before we got to the final result. Then we headed to our factory in Portugal to get it set up for production in a living wage factory.
I think it’s so exciting for people interested in the process of fashion design to have a chance to be involved in a launch campaign. What made you decide to use Kickstarter to fund production?
Launching on Kickstarter means we get to answer to our customers and community instead of speed and margins-driven investors. In a message to our community, I wrote: “We’ve never been a margins-driven, venture-backed engine for wealth creation. We’re a values-driven, community-backed engine for change. And we’d like to keep it that way. That’s why, after one year of developing Better Than Silk, we’re asking you to join us in making this a reality by backing our Kickstarter campaign.”
What was your original vision for Citizen’s Mark? How has it grown beyond that initial idea?
I was so surprised by how Citizen’s Mark evolved! I thought people would like the product but hesitate because we’re a new brand. It turned out to be the opposite. People really identified with the brand and values, but many were looking for something at a lower price point than our super boardroom-ready Italian wool blazer. That’s one of the reasons we created Better Than Silk, a really versatile product that our growing community wanted.
Fashion has always been an important tool for women who want to send a message. What message do you want Citizen’s Mark to send, and how do you keep that in mind as you’re designing?
We design to project credibility, and I think that’s a really interesting design philosophy. When you think of brand identities, you can think of a lot of brands that embody hip, cool, sexy, edgy, and these other human dimensions really well, but people rarely design for women to look credible.
That’s what I think about when I look at a design: Would I think this woman is credible?
Can you share your thoughts on the evolution of the fast fashion market and where ethically produced items fit into that production cycle?
I think we’re moving in the direction of timeless classics from a trend perspective, which will really help us move away from fast fashion. Fast fashion is about planned obsolescence, where brands plan for something to become obsolete or out of date to make you buy another one. We operate in a completely opposite way, where we want to make one thing that you never have to re-buy.
Of course, that feeds into price because of the quality measures that go into it, but I think we’re all slowly moving towards more sustainable apparel purchases.
Pricing and availability are just two barriers to entry for people who are interested in moving beyond fast fashion. How do you see Citizen’s Mark breaking down those walls for women?
This is a huge, huge issue we’re working to tackle. There’s a minimum price that we do need to pay to ensure people get fair wages throughout the supply chain. But beyond that, we’re also a premium brand, so our prices don’t just reflect the sustainable choices we make, but also the fact that we picked really nice sustainable things. But I completely understand that price is a valid issue.
That’s also why we’re launching on Kickstarter and planning to continue to offer pre-order options—it gives consumers a chance to get 40 percent off in exchange for waiting a little bit for a timeless product anyway, it reduces inventory waste, and it allows you to be our banker, so we can answer to you in terms of values and mission alignment.
How can women make socially responsible shopping choices while still keeping their budgets in mind?
Of course some things are just beyond our budgets, but when I make a big quality purchase or social responsibility purchase, I think about what price multiple makes sense for me. For example, if I buy a coat that I know I’ll wear three times more than my regular cheap coat, or last three times longer, then three times the price of my regular coat is my budget limit.
What does the name Citizen’s Mark mean to you?
I think of all of us as citizens before consumers. That’s why the name Citizen’s Mark, and the idea of citizens making their mark through their everyday actions, is meaningful to us.
Can you tell us more about the Premium Essentials collection?
Better Than Silk is the beginning of our Premium Essentials collection, a collection of wardrobe MVPs that will last an entire phase of your career and reflect our values as socially conscious and empowered women on the rise.
What are some of your favorite ethical clothing brands (besides Citizen’s Mark of course!)?
I’m a big Stella McCartney fan and love Patagonia.
Let’s say someone wants to talk about your products with her friend: What’s your “elevator pitch” for Citizen’s Mark and the Better Than Silk shirt?
“It’s like your favorite silk blouse, but machine-washable. Can you even believe we still have to dry-clean our silk tops?!”
To pre-order a Better Than Silk shirt for 40 percent off planned retail price, support Citizen’s Mark’s Kickstarter campaign.