2018 CFDA + Lexus Fashion* Initiative 2.0

Sustainability Takes The Win, With Studio 189 in First

By Julia Le

The  CFDA + Lexus Fashion* Initiative 2.0  Finalists ( Cienne ,  WHIT ,  St. Roche ,  M.Patmos  and  Studio 189  with Rachel Espersen and Steven Kolb.

The CFDA + Lexus Fashion* Initiative 2.0 Finalists (Cienne, WHIT, St. Roche, M.Patmos and Studio 189 with Rachel Espersen and Steven Kolb.

Tuesday evening marked the culmination of the CFDA + Lexus Fashion* Initiative 2.0 (C/LF*I), a nine-month business development program designed to inspire leadership and impact in sustainability within American fashion.

As the sun setted over Manhattan’s SoHo Grand Hotel, the announcement of the C/LF*I winner, Studio One Eighty Nine (Studio 189) celebrated designers, Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwiah, in their journey throughout the program and the initiatives they had undertaken for their brand.

Since October 2017, the C/LF*I’s five finalists—Cienne, M.Patmos, St. Roche, Studio 189, and WHIT—focused on exploring environmental, social and financial challenges within the industry. The program was led by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and underwritten by Lexus. Some of the highlights included a visit to Eileen Fisher's factory, attendance at Copenhagen Fashion Summit, collaboration with NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business, as well as mentorship and other resources throughout its entirety. At the end of the program, the five designers presented their strategic blueprints for their future goals within a key area of business to showcase their learnings and commitment to sustainability.

All designers were commended for their growth and hard work over the past nine months by the CFDA’s president and Chief Executive Officer, Steven Kolb, and Head of Creative Programming and Partnerships at Lexus, Rachel Espersen. According to Kolb, these designers have “moved the needle, and not just for [their] brands, but for the industry as well.” In Esperen’s remarks, Lexus recognized Studio 189 for impressing the judges in showing consistent enthusiasm and excitement every step of the way, and providing passion and a strong vision to redesign the current supply chain. Studio 189 was awarded the Lexus Grand Prize of $80,000—adding to their milestone award for a grand total of $100,000.

Grand prize winner of the 2018  CFDA + Lexus Fashion* Initiative , Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwia of  Studio 189 .

Grand prize winner of the 2018 CFDA + Lexus Fashion* Initiative, Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwia of Studio 189.

Acknowledged for their supply chain’s ability to connect consumers to local artisans, and their strong focus on community, Studio 189 stands as a force to be reckoned with. The brand, based in Ghana, West Africa and the U.S, considers itself a “fashion lifestyle brand and social enterprise,” and aims to use fashion as an agent for social change through empowerment, education and opportunity for the communities they reach. The brand works with artisanal communities that specialize in traditional craftsmanship such as natural plant-based dye, hand-batik and kente weaving to produce their designs.

Their first collection launched in 2013 in honor of One Billion Rising, a global movement working to end rape and sexual violence against women.

When asked about their mission, and experience with C/LF*I, Erwiah commented, “I think we both recognize that we were given this opportunity. So we tried to create a platform that is going to exist in order to bring opportunities to people who don't necessarily have them, and that's where education comes in… It’s basically giving somebody the opportunity to have a seat at the table. We're still trying to get seats at the table. We're trying to get there together, as a community of different people [with] lots of diversity—but all together. Because, it's not fun to be at the table when you're sitting by yourself.”

CFDA 's Steven Kolb, Lexus's Rachel Espersen and  Studio 189 's Abrima Erwia with Rosario Dawson during the acceptance speech.

CFDA's Steven Kolb, Lexus's Rachel Espersen and Studio 189's Abrima Erwia with Rosario Dawson during the acceptance speech.

It’s basically giving somebody the opportunity to have a seat at the table. We’re still trying to get seats at the table. We’re trying to get there together, as a community of different people [with] lots of diversity—but all together. Because, it’s not fun to be at the table when you’re sitting by yourself.
— Abrima Erwia, Studio 189

In addition to the grand prize winners, C/LF*I also announced a runner-up. Cienne, founders, Nicole Heim and Chelsea Healy, took home a $10,000 prize grant to be used towards continuing their prioritization of sustainability within their company. Recognized for their knowledge of sustainability and their plans of application for the future, the founders of the made-in-NYC brand spoke passionately about circularity, stating that “innovative business models [are] part of sustainability as much as materials or environmental concerns.” According to the designers, who showcase bold, yet refined pieces in their collections, the key to their success is in their DNA: “we basically look at the global marketplace and build a meaningful supply chain for how we operate as a brand—rather than a marketing message—and do it in a modern way.”

Chelsea Healy and Nicole Heim, founders of  Cienne .

Chelsea Healy and Nicole Heim, founders of Cienne.

All of these brands have contributed towards this collective movement of sustainability by introducing innovative practices and adding to a growing conversation within the fashion industry. The C/LF*I not only provides the resources for brands with sustainability as their primary focus, but also welcomes brands looking for ways to improve their own practices. For Whitney Pozgay and Parker Agote, the founders of WHIT, the initiative allowed the brand to “look at [their] brand and supply chain, and holistically figure out how [they] can change in an attainable way.” The program allowed them to to focus on what part of their business is going to make the most impact, giving them the opportunity to apply to a lot of those ideas into their prints and designs for their Fall ‘19 collection.

As the brand continues to grow, WHIT is looking forward to the opportunities ahead. According to Agote, “there’s so much opportunity, still, to be had. We’re just at the point now where we’re starting to put these things into our business plan in a very serious way, but we’re just at the beginning, and through new technologies and new opportunities in the future, we’ll be able to take this further every season. We know sustainability isn’t an endpoint—it’s a journey—and we want to get better every year.”

Parker Agote and Whitney Pozgay of  WHIT  (left). and the runner-ups: Chelsea Healy and Nicole Heim of  Cienne  (right).

Parker Agote and Whitney Pozgay of WHIT (left). and the runner-ups: Chelsea Healy and Nicole Heim of Cienne (right).

While a lot of innovation towards sustainability has become more and more prevalent for upcoming brands, there is a cultural shift underway for the industry at large. “For us at CFDA,” explains Kolb, “we have a number of pillars that inform our work, and sustainability is a core pillar...Clearly, a brand that is small or new is more nimble or flexible. I still think there's a challenge for brands that are decades old, that are $100+ million companies that didn't get [there] by not having a system in place. So how do you disrupt that system?”

For a lot of these brands within the current industry landscape, and for consumers that don’t consider sustainability as a priority, these more established brands “didn't have to change if they didn't want to, but now [we’re] see them wanting to change because it's the right thing to do.”

For all the designed celebrated at the event on Tuesday evening, this larger shift towards sustainability and understanding a business’s role in impacting communities is becoming more and more tangible. “This is a very profound thing,” stated Dawson. “We started this as an idea. All these years later, to have this kind of support, and to to have this kind of challenge ultimately...Today we had the most beautiful conversation that no matter what, we got so much from this experience... it's a whole other level to take it through the CFDA and just figure out what the next 5, 10, 15, 20, 100 years from now looks like. That feels really, really exciting to be part of that conversation.”


Photographs Courtesy of Angela Pham, BFA.com