IN THE FRENETIC world of fashion, the number of women heading up major labels has gone from few to fewer: Carolina Herrera replaced herself, Phoebe Philo quit Céline and Donna Karan stepped down. As for those with their own labels — Stella McCartney, Victoria Beckham, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, among them — many were pre-existingly famous. This is not to say they’ve had it easy, or that they haven’t earned their success, but rather to demonstrate just how difficult it is to helm a successful clothing brand with the kind of independence, integrity and quality of life most women want.
Along with the ceaseless churn of collections — averaging at least four a year — designers leading major brands must invent It bags, launch mass-market fragrances and cosmetic lines, and produce ever more extravagant shows and events to feed social media. Despite this, what consumers long for are experiences, authenticity and community — concepts that, when touted for marketing purposes, quickly lose meaning. Recently, the eco-conscious McCartney bought back the half of her brand owned by luxury conglomerate Kering — in part, perhaps, for reasons such as these.
While running a small independent fashion label is more difficult in some ways than being part of a big conglomerate, it does allow the freedom to be true to one’s instincts and beliefs, which in turn leads to real brand community. For proof, one need only look to three New York City-based designers — Maria Cornejo of Zero + Maria Cornejo, Mona Kowalska of A Détacher and Rachel Comey — who are transforming how business is done in their industry with practices that are ethical and equitable to their manufacturers, employees and the environment. They do this not because it is good business (it usually isn’t), but because it seems the obvious moral choice. And because they do this while creating fashion that articulates and, most importantly, anticipates what women want to express and how they want to feel, they have earned the devotion and loyalty of their customers, who tend to be talented, self-realized women: architects and actors, writers and gallery owners.
GROWING UP IN Communist Poland, Mona Kowalska, 54, had an early insight into the power of fashion through a pair of treasured red clogs that her mother bought for her on the black market: When she wore them, she had her first inkling that clothes could be talismanic, a means of communicating the personal to the world at large. Finding this magic in seemingly ordinary things — a skirt that looks like a men’s shirt tied around one’s waist; a boxy, paint-splattered poplin shirt gathered into a knot at one shoulder — has proved to be invaluable to her 20-year-old line’s success. In keeping with Kowalska’s belief that we ought to have fewer pieces of higher-quality clothing in our wardrobe (she once wore the same Martin Margiela dress most days for a few years because, “it just felt powerful and right”), A Détacher, which is produced exclusively in New York and Peru, releases only two collections a year. Kowalska does all the draping and pattern making herself in the atelier below her treasure chest of a shop on Manhattan’s Mulberry Street, which, in addition to the many things she has made, also sells things she simply loves: her ex-mother-in-law’s pottery, say, or hand-woven bath rugs from Portugal.
Indeed, the quest to be true to one’s self is something all these designers share. Several years ago, Rachel Comey, 45, realized the usual fashion show setup — people crammed on hard benches to watch a few minutes of clothes on parade — didn’t do justice to the kinds of clothes she was making. Instead, Comey began hosting intimate dinner parties, where guests could converse while seeing pieces worn by models of various ages and races. Comey’s designs, which early on suited the creative Brooklyn woman who wanted to look equal parts sexy, comfortable and dorky, are sometimes deeply personal, riffing on her own girlhood memories. Her signature, much imitated, cropped, frayed-edge jeans with the telltale white crease were inspired by a childhood embarrassment: As a short girl, she got used to her mother hemming her jeans; but as Comey grew taller, instead of buying new ones, her mother simply let out the hem, yielding a too-short jean with an unfinished edge. With Comey’s maturation, her clothes have changed as well; she’s been inspired to design for the needs of women with a range of jobs and body types, and for the various events and activities in their lives: Her signatures now include boxy dresses and separates in her custom geometric prints and a line of oversize jewelry that looks like Modernist sculpture. The designer is equally dedicated to streamlining the production side of fashion. She makes most of her clothes in New York and Los Angeles, and her NoHo atelier — including its ancient Singer sewing machines — runs on wind power from a company she found at the farmers’ market. Comey only manufactures what’s been ordered from retailers and for her New York and L.A. stores — a slower, but less wasteful way to do business.
One of the most dedicated change agents in the fashion industry, Maria Cornejo, 55, is also a pioneer of the downtown New York fashion scene. At 12, Cornejo fled Pinochet’s Chile with her parents, landing first in Peru and then settling in London. Later she moved to Paris, where her first child was born; she arrived in New York in 1996, where she started her label, Zero. Perhaps because of her own peripatetic childhood as a refugee and immigrant, the importance of family is central to her professional life, which is defined by a strong maternalism. Despite having codesigned a cult label in London, Richmond Cornejo, in the 1980s, she leased her first space on Mott Street without any intention of selling or even making clothes ever again. Rather, she saw it as a place for artists to gather and collaborate. “A store is like a family, it creates community,” says Cornejo. When the shop finally opened a year later, she started designing again only because as a young mother she “needed pieces I could throw on and still look interesting and cool.” Cornejo was among the first to bridge the gap between the avant-garde and the wearable. Her architecturally grounded designs are often cut from a single piece of fabric, like her signature stretch silk, draped into body-flattering forms. But design is just one element of Cornejo’s process: She is working toward eliminating waste from her industry, in part by making her collections, 84 percent of which are produced in N.Y.C., with mills that have eliminated the use of chemicals such as phthalates and certain azo dyes. She’s also recently begun using a new type of cashmere re-spun from remnants found on the factory floor.
It’s these touches — sacrificing personal gain for the planet; weaving one’s distinct personality into the fabric of one’s clothing — that make these brands feel both purposeful as well as intimate. And in an age when anything can be marketed, the mark of true mission — so rare, and so unmissable — feels like something different, something rare: You might even call it a new kind of luxury.