By Jamie Hayes
I launched my slow fashion brand, Production Mode, in 2015 after years of working as a designer for other brands, a stylist, and as an anti-sweatshop activist and labor organizer. Seeing my own designs come to life fulfills so many of my dreams as a designer. What I didn't expect, naively, was how much time and energy I'd need to spend on the business end: sales, marketing, and branding. Fashion design schools, in the early 2000s at least, barely touched on these issues. And what little we were taught about business focused mainly on an outdated wholesale/sales rep/trade show model of sales.
Over the years, we've slowly built an alternative model: we sell directly to our customers, mainly through in-person markets, events in our studio, and private appointments. The beauty of the model is that I work personally with all my clients and so intimately understand their needs, likes, and dislikes, often fitting custom pieces or pieces from the collection directly to their bodies. The difficulty of the model is that I work personally with all my clients, and thus at times can feel stretched thin. In addition, the COVID crisis has, for the moment, shut down our in person-based business model.
However, for the most part, I haven't feared losing my business. Instead, we pivoted very early in the crisis to work as part of a team of other independent Chicago designers to make masks for health care workers and people in shelters and eldercare facilities who cannot practice social distancing. Next, we offered masks to our client lists along with a request to donate to our initiative for frontline workers. I believe that the network we've built, working with other Chicago designers and with our clients, will make us stronger coming out of this situation. I believe since the crisis, even more people are looking for meaning, accountability, and authenticity in their lives and from the brands they support--they don't see fashion solely as a diversion or vehicle of conspicuous consumption.
Now as the dire need for masks for frontline workers is subsiding, and government loans have finally arrived, I've been able to use this time to focus on design rather than sales. I'm learning to use a knitting machine, with plans to create avant garde draped knits. I'm collaging our leather scraps into tessellated yardage which will be draped into costume pieces for the Black Monument Ensemble. My thinking has also turned to creating new business models that help further our slow fashion mission and the desires we are sensing for more meaningful interactions. For example, we'll soon be selling sewing kits of our designs, featuring the custom textiles we commission from other artists and artisans. There is no better way to make the labor of fashion more tangible than when our clients create the work themselves.
We don't welcome this crisis, but as entrepreneurs and designers, I am realizing that we can use this time to restructure and build stronger and more sustainable ways of working.