How Brooklyn Vintage Broke New York Fashion Week

A trendy Greenpoint shop reinvented a space dominated by haughty fashion houses and taught city fashionistas an important lesson in sustainability.

By Carmen Russo

Each year, the United States produces more than 15 million tons of clothing waste. When it comes to designer fashion, the industry has largely favored luxury and tradition over sustainability. As seasons and trends constantly change, the average American leaves 85 percent of their unwanted clothes in landfills, according to the Council for Textile Recycling. Houses like Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood and Prada have made strides toward runway-ready sustainability, but celebrated brands like Versace, Hermes, Dolce & Gabbana and Calvin Klein are still notoriously resistant to the eco-friendly fashion movement.

This February, with an only-in-Brooklyn flair, Greenpoint vintage shop The Break used its spring style presentation to bring another level of chic sustainability to New York Fashion Week. In an airy, warehouse-meets-art gallery space, The Break team showcased 17 second-hand vintage looks that channeled a sleek, high-end runway feel.

We wanted to break the traditional structure of fashion week with vintage curated in a modern way
— Hannah Richtman, founder of The Break

 “All of our product is either handmade by small, women-led brands in New York or it is all vintage. So every single piece in the show was recycled, and every piece we sell in the store is recycled as well.”

Buying vintage might not seem groundbreaking, but encouraging an industry in the midst of a waste management crisis to celebrate used clothing is essential for environmentally responsible fashion. The Break gracefully elevated the concept of embracing sustainability without sacrificing style. Consumers that prefer not to buy second-hand might argue that several fashion houses and clothing brands are still able to manufacture and sell new pieces in a sustainable way. However, being marketed as an eco-friendly brand can mean a number of different things. There is no recognized standard to determine what sustainability really means in fashion. Buying used clothes is guaranteed to be sustainable just by extending the life of items that would otherwise pile up in landfills. Each American produces an average of 80 pounds of waste just from throwing away used clothes. The disposal of these mass amounts of used clothing costs cities a national average of $45 per ton — costing the country a grand total of about $675 million every year.  

Tierra, holding a cute vintage yellow suitcase modeling all pieces from The Break.

Tierra, holding a cute vintage yellow suitcase modeling all pieces from The Break.

Richtman’s commitment to sustainable fashion began with a love of vintage styling fostered during her childhood in Milwaukee, WI. Along with making sustainable shopping a stylish and expressive experience, her focus at The Break has been the creation of a community through inclusivity. While the elusive luxury of Fashion Week in New York City typically feels reserved for celebrities and influencers, Richtman wanted The Break’s Spring-Summer 2018 presentation to be an event for anyone and everyone. The venue, multi-purpose creative space A/D/O, was filled with fashion devotees of all kinds snapping photos, sampling cheeses and drinking canned rosé. There were no lines at the door or bouncers with guest lists. The evening quickly turned into a block party of sorts while guests wandered across the street from A/D/O to The Break, where the entire spring collection was already on sale. Uniquely paired pieces with clean lines, structural shapes, and a fresh color palette of soft neutrals, bright pastels and bold jewel tones felt reminiscent of Céline or Maison Margiela — except every item from the collection cost less than $100. Prioritizing affordability usually leads consumers to fast-fashion brands like H&M, Zara or Forever 21, only making the problem worse. Fast fashion only creates more clothing waste by over-manufacturing low quality items that are more likely to be discarded.

Although New York City vintage can be blatantly overpriced (think $119 for a Champion crewneck at The Vintage Twin), Richtman is vigilant about keeping her upcharges reasonable. She wants her customers to feel confident taking fashion risks without emptying their bank accounts.

If you’re paying $500 for a dress, it almost makes it too precious to wear in the first place

 “I want all customers to come in and be thrilled with the quality, be thrilled with the price, and wear everything that they bought from The Break out to dinner and then out for drinks, and if they spill on it, that’s okay because they were living their best life in it.”

Indira, modeling and posing for the camera wearing vintage clothing from The Break.

Indira, modeling and posing for the camera wearing vintage clothing from The Break.

Exemplifying this fun and lighthearted take on fashion, each model at the spring-summer presentation seemed to be living her best life while posing on top of makeshift pedestals, dancing to the DJ’s mixes of Solange, Lenny Kravitz and Drake, even occasionally snacking on a plate of cheese. All the models effortlessly infused individuality into each look. Indira, self-titled “Ang3l” gracefully flipped and tossed her braids with each pose. Kelsey, co-owner of clothing line Lowtimers, elegantly clutched a dainty miniature purse with a beaded handle, handmade by Ashley Isokpehi x Edas Jewels. Tierra, who labeled herself a creative, posed with a wonderfully oversized, bright yellow suitcase that popped against her red blazer. Several of the looks featured softly worn-in luggage and chunky vanity cases, all of which were sourced by Richtman’s mother in Wisconsin. Tierra’s boxy menswear blazer was also accented with an abstract-shaped hammered metal brooch, handmade locally by We Who Prey.

The diversity and personality of the models was another intentional focus of the show. Each woman had a chosen conversation starter next to her name and title in the event pamphlets. Models and guests talked about everything from fashion to podcasts to public health. The interaction was meant to be a reminder that the person in each outfit is something precious, not just the clothing.

“New York Fashion Week can feel so sterile,” she said. “Instead, we wanted to give [the models] a platform to represent themselves fully where women specifically are so often misrepresented or underrepresented. Our bodies, our opinions, our stories, our flaws, our successes — everything is so often manipulated.”

Photographed by Carmen Russo