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Fashion Designer Mara Hoffman: “People Thought I Was Crazy… That I Was Walking Away From Money”

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If you’ve ever met someone whose presence is simultaneously commanding and soothing, that’s the aura of Mara Hoffman. I had the pleasure to sit down with my fellow Aries during The Other Festival and discuss environmental fashion, greenwashing brands, and how young entrepreneurs can start off on an eco-friendly route.

Mara Hoffman is is the President and Creative Director of her eponymous independent label and was part of a panel called the Eco Warriors which discussed the importance of environmental trends in business and how consumers, activists, and small business owners can make a difference. As a representative of Eco Warrior Princess, I had to talk to her.

Mara Hoffman Spring 2017

Mara Hoffman Spring 2017. Credit: Mara Hoffman

Mara Hoffman Spring Collection 2017

I first asked her how one can balance growing as a brand while doing so sustainably in the spirit of this entrepreneurial setting. “I’m a special case because I made the switch 15 years into my company,” she said. She came to a place after going through many phases of her company that it was no longer tenable for her to keep showing up in the industry while knowing how much harm it was causing. So many people reach the same tipping point – once you know about a social injustice or societal harm, whether you change your habits or carry on is a difficult cognitive dissonance to grapple with.

“It became a change or die moment,” Hoffman continued. She could make this change thanks to the way her business is organized, being independently run, she needn’t worry about investors pulling her in a direction contrary to her morals. “I did everything like a scrappy dog, and you pay your dues that way, but then I get to make that are terrifying, but I got to make that decision without investors saying to me ‘no way’,” she said.

The Eco Warriors Panel at The Other Festival- Alden Wicker, Celine Semaan, Alexis Krauss and Mara Hoffman

The Eco Warriors Panel featured Alden Wicker, Celine Semaan, Alexis Krauss and Mara Hoffman. Image courtesy of: Simply Ric Sechrest Photography

To make that shift, Hoffman suggests trying to absorb as much of the cost of sustainable practices as possible and to find the community you need to have the resources to start replacing the fabrications within your existing collection. Figure out your systems, from the factories to the dyes and fabric you’re using, find out what harm they’re causing, and find the things that you can start replacing. Even Hoffman’s business isn’t yet 100% sustainable, but every day it’s a process of taking it a step further, she says. It’s a hard path, but regardless of whether your supply chain is sustainable or not, your brand needs to speak from a place of emotional connection to the product – if you do that, you can attract customers for whom it’s worth paying slightly more. The client needs to love the product and be drawn to it, at the end of the day. “You need to stay in a place of design and creativity,” she says.

Mara Hoffman Swimwear Campaign 2016

Mara Hoffman Swimwear Campaign 2016. Credit: Mara Hoffman

Mara Hoffman Swimwear 2016

That’s not to say she didn’t experience friction when she shifted the way her clothes were made, others criticized the decision. “People thought I was crazy… that I was walking away from money,” she said. Even some within the company scoffed at the idea. The criticism didn’t stop there. “I had major buyers from major stores say ‘my customers don’t give an F about sustainability, why are your price points different?’”

It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come, from smart people laughing at the idea of a sustainable shopper to seeing fast fashion brands scramble to affect green practices to attract today’s customer who does give an F about sustainability.

Mara Hoffman Swim Resort 2017

Mara Hoffman Swim Resort 2017

“People do definitely care more about sustainability, and I think the more you talk about it, anything or any issue, the more you lift the veil on it. People then feel engaged in the conversation or the choice that they’re making as a consumer. There’s still probably not enough people that care enough; I think there’s still a huge effect of fast fashion, and I think there’s been a training in the way people spend their money, to continually look to spend less and spend more,” Hoffman said.

She hopes consumers start re-learning their old habits and start spending more for something better. Not only that, but consumers need to value the things that they buy, whether it’s a $500 dress or a $50, each still comes with a certain level of harm to the planet or workers – there’s no such thing as a net zero product, from shipping to packaging, there is always some cost.

Mara Hoffman, Alden Wicker, Alexis Krauss, Celine Semaan at The Other Festival in Brooklyn

Mara Hoffman, Alden Wicker, Alexis Krauss and Celine Semaan. Image courtesy of: Simply Ric Sechrest Photography

Hoffman also sees the industry shifting to address this new consumer. “I think people are demanding more out of the brand that they’re buying from, there’s so much transparency, you can’t fuck up now. You can’t work with a factory that treats its workers horribly without it somehow being brought to the surface and being called out on it.” But on the topic of greenwashing fast fashion, she didn’t mince words, “You might be shifting out to an organic cotton, but they’re still not made well, they’re still pilling and falling apart, and they’re ending up in the same landfill as quickly as your other products.”

I asked if she’s worried about differentiating her company from those who employ shallow performative sustainability, and she said that her ethos has always been to do it before she talks about it. They’ve been quiet about sustainability and don’t approach their products from a sustainability pitch; from the perspective of someone who only shops sustainably and when I must, this was surprising, because I’ve always thought of Mara Hoffman as being a brand I could trust. Searching for sustainable brands is exhausting, and every time I find one, it’s put on a short list of dozens of brands I can support. This shows that her audience (us) found her without Mara Hoffman having to spend much time advertising their green ethos. Her continued dedication to high fashion design is what makes her brand more valuable than another company who might frame themselves as sustainable first but suffer in design. If I won’t wear it, it doesn’t matter how sustainable it is.

Mara Hoffman Spring 2018 Collection

Mara Hoffman Spring 2018 Collection

Mara Hoffman Spring 2018

I was struck by both her pragmatism and idealism; Hoffman understands the damage the fashion industry is doing, but knows that she can’t change it overnight. She’s both a designer and an activist, and both are considered equally when making beautiful designs that challenge the status quo. Her transparency is refreshing; I know I can’t be the only one to feel betrayed when a company alleges to total sustainable practices, only to find out they’re only halfway there. Her new collection is also so chic, with paperbag silhouettes, luxe textures, and a modern art flair, it’s worth checking out.

Visit marahoffman.com to view the collection.

Title image of Mara Hoffman courtesy of Simply Ric Sechrest Photography

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