What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “sustainable business?”
Some may think of a company focused on Earth’s conservation and business practices to reduce a carbon footprint, while another may think of a business that prefers to grow slowly to maintain product quality and partnership integrity.
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At Harlem’s Fashion Row’s first Sustainable Forum, House of Aama cofounder Akua Shabaka and Oak & Acorn founder Miko Underwood spoke on their experiences operating fashion labels, noting that business growth and overproduction are two sides of the sustainability coin and almost work in tandem.
“One of the things we experience as our brand is growing is produce, produce, produce,” said Shabaka. She established House of Aama in 2015 with her mother, Rebecca Henry, which began as an Etsy shop before becoming a full-fledged fashion brand that produces garments in Los Angeles.
“We were a made-to-order brand,” Shabaka said of the brand beginnings. “We didn’t hold inventory, we just sat on the fabric. But as you grow, you learn it’s not as economical for these houses to make a 1-of-1, especially if you’re producing locally. Our direct-to-consumer is still made to order so we don’t sit on inventory and we try to use deadstock fabrics as much as possible.”
Shabaka wore styles from the House of Aama “Bloodroot” collection inspired by Henry’s life in Louisiana, which were produced partly from scrap materials. Underwood’s outfit was produced similarly with scraps from pants used in the print.
Underwood founded Oak & Acorn, the Harlem-based denim brand considered to be the first sustainable denim brand in Harlem. “I hadn’t seen any Black women lead denim brands,” she said. “After working in the industry for several years, I was leading brands around the world, even in Asia.”
Having presented denim stories for Jessica Simpson and Kimora Lee Simmons’ denim projects, Underwood said she never had the opportunity to tell her own stories and, perhaps even more importantly, what she has uncovered as the untold story of American denim.
“Indigo had been a hidden commodity in the slave trade,” Underwood explained. “It was considered Negro cloth and unsuitable to wear. What better way to tell the Harlem story, express the story and share this narrative. It’s an American story that hadn’t been exposed and I wanted to begin to tell why we as a community love to wear jeans.”
Though Shabaka and Underwood explained their efforts to produce clothes sustainably, they didn’t skip over the necessity of sustainable business growth in tandem.
“[Oak & Acorn] is a small team, but we have distribution in Nordstrom and Shopbop and we find ourselves catering to them rather than what’s right for the business,” Underwood said. While she affirmed that Nordstrom has been a great partner, she admits it has been challenging for Oak & Acorn to prioritize wholesale orders over its direct-to-consumer business, which is about more than just e-commerce.
“Direct-to-consumer isn’t just online for us, because we have a wellness component,” she said. “For me and my personal history, it was a wellness opportunity because I was learning about my own personal history and what it means to be a Black person in this country. It was empowering for me. Am I operating sustainably? Am I being paid the right way? How do I show up for my community? We want to be able to maximize on our wellness component, so we see direct-to-consumer as online, but also live activations with our customer. But doing so much of wholesale takes us away from that part of it.”
Asked for advice, particularly when it comes to where within the great scope of sustainability to focus, Underwood said not to forget what prompted the business launch and the passion that drives it.
As Shabaka added, “You have to figure out what lane makes the most sense for you. You want to grow and be profitable or [you want] a level of sustainability for yourself. You don’t have to take on as many retailers or produce as much inventory. Or you could do more business direct-to-consumer and have one to two retailers. What makes the most sense for us now?”