The R/Evolution of Public School

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The R/Evolution of Public School

Last Monday I stopped by theRealReal - not to go shopping but to attend a discussion with Public School founders Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow along with Eileen Fisher Renew Designer Carmen Gama, moderated by Julie Gilhart.

ICYMI last fall Public School collaborated with Eileen Fisher on a capsule collection. The materials in the collection were sourced from damaged pieces that had been returned to Eileen Fisher, deconstructed and then re-designed in Public School style: street + chic limited edition pieces that were sold exclusively in Eileen's Brooklyn store.

The capsule collection from Public School X Eileen Fisher

The capsule collection from Public School X Eileen Fisher

 I attended the talk because I was curious how Public School, streetwear/CFDA darlings came to work with Eileen Fisher - traditionally known as a "mom brand" to paraphrase Julie Gilhart but recently regarded as a "sustainability rockstar" (also Julie)

 Here's what I learned:

  • Maxwell and Dao-Yi were designing 10 collections a year - 4 for women at DKNY, 4 for women at Public School and 2 for men when they attended the Copenhagen Fashion Summit a few years ago. There they heard Eileen Fisher speak about sustainability and fashion's impact on the planet. They considered it a watershed moment. This caused them to question what they were doing.

Hearing Eileen speak… hearing a few other people in the industry speak…we always felt like a lot of people here probably feel…overwhelmed. I’m not going to be able to do anything alone or by myself…but being in that community seeing everyone addressing and strategizing made me feel like “okay I am actually part of this bigger thing that’s bigger than the fashion industry. Like I’m a parent or a son or a brother or an uncle so I have this responsibility to think about what I do for other generations…for my children.”
  • Eileen, unbelievably, invited everyone at the summit to come to her factory in Irvington, NY to show how they deal with the clothes they were taking back in their renew program. A program whose goal is to extend the life of the garments that they had gotten returned.

  • Public School was one of several brands that took Eileen Fisher up on her offer. They were so inspired by the tour that they suggested a collaboration.

  • Carmen Gama showed them the process and they dove deep into learning how repurposing product actually works; how to re-sort, deconstruct garments, etc.

  • They ended up creating 4 pieces sold exclusively in Brooklyn.

BUT THIS WAS JUST THE BEGINNING OF THEIR BRAND R/EVOLUTION

  • Maxwell and Dao prefer "Social consciousness" as a description to their new approach to fashion as opposed to "sustainable" -though I think they'd prefer not to label it at all. They see it as encompassing a consciousness of the world made up of people… And believe the term sustainability to be overused and abused.

  • They did what they called a "hard stop" by making the radical decision to change how they did business immediately and fully to lessen their (climate) footprint. They went to a Direct to Consumer model of selling. This meant:

    • Telling stores like Barneys they were no longer giving them product.

    • Sourcing deadstock or responsibly made fabrics.

    • Essentially starting all over - with a new website, new business model, new everything.

    • They still consult with and work with other brands to help pay the bills. 

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As a business model it is sometimes a lot of steps backwards but consciously we’re taking a giant leap forwards. It’s hard as a business but great creatively - and what we’re doing for the world and how we feel -feels great.

IT'S HARD…BUT THEY HAVE SUPPORT

  • They have collaborations with larger companies like Nike and Timberland where they have the ability to leverage those partnerships with companies that already have their own sustainability models in place.

  • They are currently in the CFDA x Lexus Fashion Initiative - structured as a virtual residency, the initiative provides education and mentorship, supported by awards generously underwritten by Lexus to five brands for 18 months. In the program, fashion’s environmental, social and financial impacts are examined alongside potential for problem solving through new materials, processes and systems. 

THEY MOVED TO A NEW NEIGHBORHOOD

  • They shared an analogy that their shift in business is kind of like moving into an undeveloped neighborhood. There's no one really there yet but you're thinking that 10 years down the road this neighborhood will be the neighborhood. And it's where things need to be instead of staying in the neighborhood everyone knows.

AND IT'S IMPERATIVE FOR OTHER BRANDS TO MOVE IN AS WELL

  • A lot of what we do in this industry is unintended negative consequences. So if you think about it starting out your intentions have to be in the right place. Good intentions. And that could be the springboard. It's not all or nothing with sustainability.

  • If you're a big business right now and you're not thinking about this in a real way then you're in trouble. If sustainability or social consciousness is not a part of your DNA you're gonna get left behind.

Consumers are only getting more aware and more knowledgeable and they can sniff out anyone not paying attention to (social responsibility) or doing it in a real superficial way…then you’re a rat at this point.

ULTIMATELY IT IS AN EQUAL RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CREATORS -Public School, Eileen Fisher etc and CONSUMERS -the rest of us THAT CAN MAKE THIS CHANGE HAPPEN.