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Designer Tara St James Talks About Study NY, Sustainability and Fast Fashion

Sustainability has been on everyone's lips in the last few years. Most noticeably in fashion. From H&M heavily advertising its conscious collection to high-end designers pulling a 180 on their business plan to only use sustainable fabrics, sustainability is a hot and necessary commodity. One designer leading the pack is Tara St James, who has been ahead of the game since the inception of Study NY in 2009. The brand is based on conceptual design and sustainability, using ethical fabrics and production methods.

M&V: You had a successful career designing mens and womenswear in Canada and the U.S., and then decided to launch Study NY. Where did the interest come from? St James: When I first started recognizing the importance of sustainability in the fashion industry I was sourcing and producing collections in China and India. At the time organic cotton started making an appearance on the textile market and that prompted me to start researching the effects that pesticides, chemicals, water waste and cheap labor had on an industry I loved. I had firsthand experience seeing the negative effects through my work with many mass market denim companies-one of the biggest polluters in the fashion world. Once I learned the information, I couldn’t “unlearn” it and I haven’t looked back since. I use fair labor practices and local artisans, which supports local economies, cultures and the well-being of the workers. I mainly use natural fibers and low impact dyes, which reduces toxicity and pollution in the environment. Our textiles are sourced from the USA, India, Japan, Peru and China.

M&V: Beyond doing your part to save Mother Nature, how did nature impact your creative vision? St James: Nature certainly has an impact on how I design. My fabric choices are influenced by what I believe are the best choices for the planet. I avoid all chemical processes when possible and try to understand the origin of all my fibers. From an inspiration standpoint I am very influenced by the mathematic equations created by nature and I believe many of those directly impact my zero waste pattern-making.

M&V: Why does sustainability that matters to you so much? Is it nature, humanity or future, or a combination of all three that attracts you to this business philosophy? St James: I started Covet, a more mass-market eco brand in 2004. When I left that company to start my own collection, I was armed with a tremendous amount of knowledge about the industry and production and I couldn’t conscientiously create a new brand that wasn’t sustainable. I don’t believe another human, animal or the environment should have to suffer for fashion. It’s as simple as that. This is the definition I find to be the most accurate: “Sustainable means using methods, systems and materials that won’t deplete resources or harm natural cycles.” (Rosenbaum, 1993) Fashion is art in my opinion. But to some cultures, clothing is just a means of protection from the elements. There is such a huge gap between how first and third world nations view clothing and design. Ethical fashion has the ability to bridge that gap by providing developing nations with a market for their traditional craft techniques and a sustainable business opportunity.

M&V: Who do you design for? St James: I try not to limit my inspiration to a mythical woman who may or may not wear the pieces. I feel compelled to create. Instead I ask myself whether I’d wear the style. Or my mom, she’s incredibly stylish and has always been a source of inspiration and a muse.

M&V: Many smaller fashion lines are purchased by large companies, and that can influence the smaller company's goals. If you were to sell, do you think your company’s standards would be compromised? St. James: I started my career by working as a design assistant for several bigger companies so I understand the impact that can have on design and development. If Study is ever picked up by a large company, it would have to be one that respects the disruption we are trying to cause to the fashion industry and maintain our core beliefs and values. I don’t think that will happen anytime soon.

M&V: Fashion designers adhere to the traditional fashion calendar yet you seem to be following your own fashion calendar. Is that correct? St James: The fashion calendar never felt right for me. When I started Study in 2009 it was with a collection called The Square Project, a collection of zero waste garments made using squares, and it was intended to be more of a research project than a collection – hence the name, STUDY – but I was quickly absorbed into the fashion system and therefore the calendar. It took until now for me to realize that I didn't have to subscribe to anything, and I could create my own calendar. The new plan is to release one capsule collection of 3-4 styles per month EVERY month of the year with each capsule being independent of the others, but cohesive in nature, creating a seamless “collection” at the end of the year. This allows me more freedom with the design and development of the pieces, and allows the individual pieces to stand alone rather than be tethered to a collection.

M&V: Your designs are versatile, creative and unique with just the right hint of masculinity. St James: Thank you! My degree is in menswear tailoring so I tend to make very masculine choices with my fabrications by default: pinstripe poplins, herringbone, tweeds, plaids. I love the juxtaposition of masculine and feminine and the blurred line that can be achieved with drape and pattern. Since I create zero-waste patterns I play with pleats, draping and folds. I’m very inspired by origami and mathematical equations that I incorporate into a lot of my designs, whether it’s deliberately or on a subconscious level.

M&V: Fast fashion will always be here, so how can we help it progress and become eco-friendlier? St James: I don’t think fast fashion will always be here. Fast fashion is a relatively new concept in the history of clothing, originating only in the 1980s and '90s. Despite all the efforts fast fashion brands are making to become more sustainable (organic and recycled fabrics in capsule collections, take back programs, etc…) at their very core these companies are the antithesis to the slow and sustainable fashion movement and are very detrimental to our environment, our economy and ultimately to the consumer.

M&V: How do you encourage your customers to form an emotional attachment to your products? St James: We hope our consumers are buying our clothes because they love the fit, the fabric and the style, and then come back to us because our story resonates with them. We started putting our entire supply chain on our new #transparentsourcing labels inside the garment so customers would know exactly where their garment was sourced and made. We hope that will create a connection that will encourage them to ask more questions.

M&V: Is there something you would like to share with us that we didn’t ask you? St James: I would like to introduce one of my factories in North Carolina. It is a worker-owned cooperative called Opportunity Threads. I was referred to them by a friend who helps companies set up as cooperatives, they are an amazing example of the future of manufacturing. I especially like this page on their site:

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