From Capsule Collections to Collaborations: How Study NY Makes It Work

Ever since the CFDA had the Boston Group study the future of fashion week with an aim to "fix" it, the industry has been abuzz with alternative ways to do things. Is the solution a "shoppable" collection? Showing off-calendar? No longer showing by gender? Most of this conversation seems to stem from issues of designer burn-out or the power of Instagram...topics that may or may not involve sustainability as a key part of the solution. But those of us committed to putting notions of sustainable and ethical fashion first have been discussing this long before it became a buzzy topic.

One of the first designer's that I've known to actually find an alternative is Tara St James, designer of Study NY.  She could be considered an early "disruptor" of the fashion system  –if you were one to call people "disruptors" – we prefer to think of her as pragmatic and clever! I first saw Tara's line, Study NY, when she showed her Fall 2011 collection at The Standard. I was completely charmed by how she combined colors and textures and it was my first time hearing of zero-waste design. I've been a fan ever since so was happy when I saw she was speaking at FIT's Summer Institute last week. She spoke at length about Study NY and how it has evolved over the years. Here are a few things worth remembering!

1. Never assume that you have it all figured out just because you've read a few books or gone to a conference on sustainable fashion.

She calls her brand Study because learning about ethical and sustainable production methods is a constant process.

"Professionally within the ethical design community there's constant change - the information we're getting may be different than the information we get next year because we're constantly learning and the information is constantly changing."

2. If you're trying to do something other than the traditional fashion calendar model of two (or more) collections a year, allow yourself to try different methodologies and then change them until you find what works for you. 

Tara started a collection of her own version of staples that she calls The Uniform Collection, that builds upon itself but it took some experimentation to find this solution. Designers need to find their own solutions/alternatives to fashion week.

"Originally when I started doing this I was trying to format something else that would make sense within the year so my first idea was I'll just put out one new style every month -that lasted about 2 months...and then I thought okay I'll put out 3 styles every 3 months...also, totally counterintuitive because it was another format and so this formulaic idea of forcing myself to be creative or forcing us - designers- to be creative within a certain timeframe was really what I was trying to work against. So now what I've adopted is basically doing collaborations, doing capsules pretty much whenever I feel like it and having this uniform collection to fall back on to sell to the stores."

3. Giving yourself permission to move beyond the traditional Fashion Calendar allows time for other creative explorations.

"The Anti-Fashion Calendar, which I named in 2012 is still a work in progress but it has allowed me to do other collaborations."

One project that this has allowed Tara to do is the Conversations In Craft: the idea of opening up the design process to allow talented artisans the freedom to interpret an original graphic element using their own craft. A recent iteration of this was to send a sweatshirt she designed to 3 artisan groups around the world along with packets of yarn and cord to use for embroidery. A fixed dollar amount was included that paid for the labor costs, and the artisans of each area (which happened to be Peru, Afghanistan and "far away Queens" -as she joked) chose how much time they would spend relative to the dollar amount. The result was both some beautifully embroidered sweatshirts and the beginning of a conversation on labor issues, artisan collaborations and the value of workmanship."

Another collaboration created with The Weaving Hand,  a weaving and healing organization based in Brooklyn, is the shirt (pictured above). They're woven overshirts created from hand-cut scraps from their Twist Dress. This allows the dress to be completely zero waste and creates another piece that would not have existed without the creativity that came from the challenge of working sustainably.

Maybe the fashion calendar can't be fixed but every designer can become motivated to move beyond it in their own way and embrace more of the community in the process.