With her ink-black hair and razor-sharp cheekbones, the ex-model and designer Yael Aflalo is rewriting the drab narrative often associated with the sustainable fashion movement. In 2009, the southern Californian founded Reformation, a pioneering fashion brand that sells clothes made from sustainable materials and vintage fabrics in a factory in downtown LA. Its tagline: we make killer clothes that don’t kill the environment.
Reformation’s limited-edition collections of boldly patterned jumpsuits, printed skirts, wide-legged trousers and tailored, backless dresses have earned the brand a legion of frenzied followers. Karlie Kloss is an investor, while Taylor Swift, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Emily Ratajkowski are often pictured wearing Aflalo’s designs. And though she’s perhaps not the first person you would think of as a fan of sustainable fashion, even Rihanna loves the brand – her New York spending sprees in the Soho branch alone are legendary. In 2014, Reformation brought in over $25million in revenue.
Aflalo might not be a household name yet, but she is no stranger to the industry. After dropping out of fashion school and with no other formal training, she set up her first label Ya-Ya when she was just 21 years old. When the recession hit, it took Ya-Ya with it. And Aflalo, heavily in debt, began to lose faith in the fashion industry, along with its rigorous schedule that demanded winter coats in the summer and summer dresses in the depths of winter. But it was not just the lack of creative autonomy that frustrated her; it was also the excessive waste.
Second to oil, fashion and textiles represent the world’s most polluting industry. Up to 8,000 different chemicals are used to turn raw materials into clothes, and it can take as much as 20,000 litres of water to produce one T-shirt and a pair of jeans. Meanwhile the human cost of fast-fashion is becoming increasingly apparent (the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, in which over 1,000 garment workers died, sent shockwaves around the world.)
Two events happened in quick succession which motivated Aflalo to act upon her growing doubts. First, she went to a dinner party, where a woman who worked for the UN spent the evening relentlessly quizzing her on the environmental impact of her job. Shortly after, during a trip to China, she witnessed firsthand the effects of the industry, in the form of smog and huge amounts of waste. She recalls: “With my background in fashion and after some research, I had a strong suspicion that I could create a business that could address a lot of those issues.”
Aflalo established Reformation and started to make clothes in an ad-hoc way, selling small collections of dresses sewn out of surplus cuts of fabric. Initially, she was met with resistance; people simply didn’t understand what she was trying to do or why. She says: “People would mostly say that nobody cares; that customers don’t care about purchasing sustainable clothing.”
She quickly realised that Reformation had to be fun and fashion-led. She had to make clothes that people actually wanted to buy which, she argues, other similarly minded brands had previously failed to do. “We were the first ones that really got the fashion side of it,” she says.
With timeless silhouettes and a penchant for billowing swathes of fabric, Aflalo has developed a distinctive aesthetic. Her shapes are classic with a vintage twist, and – favouring flares and high-necklines – she constantly references the Seventies. But she admits her style can also be changeable and trend-led, and she is inspired by the world that surrounds her: “I am influenced a lot by women – myself, my friends and the women that I work with.”
Aflalo’s emphasis on design is surely one of the primary reasons for Reformation’s success. She wants to liberate her customers so they feel great, rather than guilty, in her clothes. “We capitalise on the no trade-off approach,” she explains. “You can look really good and feel really good about who you are too.”
Today, with a two-storey factory and shop in LA, two outlets in New York and a plan to expand globally, demand for Aflalo’s designs is steadily increasing. And, as Reformation grows in stature, buoyed by its celebrity fans and growing presence in the media, she can begin to focus in earnest on what she is passionate about: “I think education and awareness are our key principles. If you empower people with education, they will make better decisions.”
The internet has helped her enormously in this respect and Reformation’s website acts as a mouthpiece, offering customers advice and informing them of the environmental impact of their purchases. One message reads: “85 per cent of dry-cleaners use a creepy, toxic chemical called Perc. Skip the standard dry-cleaning and opt for organic cleaners.” And today each Reformation order is accompanied by the recently developed RefScale, which quantifies the amount of carbon dioxide, water and waste savings that have been made on each product – the lightweight Feliz slip dress saved 1.1gallons of water, while the tasselled Tate trousers saved four. Every shipment to customers also contains a Refcycling slip that asks consumers to send in clothes to be repurposed.
Aflalo is motivated by the desire to conscientiously create – she is even trying to manufacture a sustainable fabric that mimics the properties of silk, a process that is proving arduous and complex. Her approach is refreshing. With her colourful collections that play whimsically with simple, well-cut shapes, she understands that looking good will prompt her customers to make good choices. The public response to her simple equation has been overwhelming. “I guess people might call that being commercial,” she says, “but I call it having a good understanding of what makes a woman feel attractive in her clothes.”