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Reformation: style and sustainability

The rise and fall of the brand that wanted to be "Zara, but with a soul"

Reformation: style and sustainability The rise and fall of the brand that wanted to be Zara, but with a soul

Since Greta Thunberg introduced the issue of environmental sustainability and climate change to the center of the public agenda, every kind of company, label and business is dealing with its environmental impact. Even the fashion world, which represents the third most polluting industry in the world, has been forced, not only to face this issue, but to propose concrete solutions able to solve the most serious aspects of this situation. Following the scandal involving H&M, Burberry and the systematic destroying of all unsold merch, ecofriendly no longer means merely abolishing furs or creating a few capsule collections with natural materials, but focusing on recycled fabrics made from natural and renewable sources, carbon-free production and better management, perhaps reducing and reusing overproduction within a circular economy.

The brands that manage to achieve excellent levels of ecological awareness, creating sustainable and, at the same time, cool garments are still too few. Besides Stella McCartney and Patagonia, one of the best proposals in which fashion and sustainability coexist is Reformation

Founded in 2009 by former model Yael Aflalo as a vintage store in Los Angeles, the project soon turned into an ethical giant of fast fashion. The claim on the brand's Instagram page, followed by about 1.6 million followers, reveals both the ambition and the attitude towards fun and super catchy captions of its founder: "Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We're #2".

We're Zara but with a soul. - Aflalo said in an interview - People love Zara, but the problem is they don't feel like Zara shares her values in terms of sustainability and inclusion. 

Instead, Reformation is able to satisfy the growing demands and strong values of contemporary consumers by creating beautiful clothes without the environmental impact of conventional fashion. 

According to BoF and McKinsey&Company's The State of Fashion 2019 report, nine out of ten Generation Z consumers (who, along with the Millennials, represent $350 billion in purchasing power in the U.S.) think companies should take responsibility for environmental and social issues, while two-thirds of the world's consumers are willing to change, avoid or boycott a particular brand depending on its position on controversial issues such as environmental sustainability. If we consider these data, it is evident that the actual innovation of Reformation has been to follow the trend of eco-friendly from the beginning, with the aim of creating "business with the same speed as fast-fashion but with a careful approach to the environment".

The reasons for the success of the Californian brand are many, but the three main ones, which make it recognizable and attractive, are three: sustainability; effortless and feminine clothes; a well-designed image that is absolutely perfect for Instagram posts. Let's start by considering the aesthetics. Reformation offers a fresh, young, feminine style, made of effortless and slightly flirty jeans, mini and midi dresses. Its sustainable collections, a hybrid between the hippy mood of the 70s and the French touch of Jacquemus or Rouje, have conquered many celebrities: from Rihanna to Emily Ratajkowski, from Taylor Swift to Kaia Gerber, from Rosie Huntington-Whiteley to Hailey Bieber, from Karlie Kloss, who financed the Californian company with 12 million dollars, to Rosalía

Each garment is designed, cut and sewn in Los Angeles, and about 70% of the pieces are created in the company's own factory. And it comes with a RefScale score, which specifies the amount of carbon dioxide, water and waste saved in the production of that garment compared to the industry standard. For example, a pair of Reformation jeans uses 700 liters of water to produce, while the industry standard is 2,000. A sketch becomes a dress in less than a month and comes from three different types of materials: new sustainable fabrics, reuse of vintage clothing, fabrics recovered from advanced stocks of fashion houses that have placed excessive orders. To move fast and maintain its green promises, the factory has efficient LED lighting, uses renewable wind energy, has been equipped with the maximum amount of recycled or treeless materials and is also the hub for photo shoots, installations, and shipping.

80% of Reformation's sales are made via e-commerce, while the other 20% are based in its stores located mainly in the United States, which, like the factory, are all entirely eco-friendly, LED-lit, using renewable energy sources and hangers made from recycled paper. The commitment to create a 100% sustainable brand is total and on the brand's website, every step of the production process, from how the fabrics are chosen to the other choices that the company makes every day, is fully explained.

Everything seems perfectly managed, including Instagram. The official page is full of images representing women with different bodies and ethnicities, funny captions and offers a very precise and timely direct contact with consumers. According to fan feedback, the only downside of the Californian brand is the prices which are quite higher than those of H&M or Zara and, for a dress, range from $98 to $248. As Patagonia also taught, sustainability needs money. 

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Elope with yourself.

A post shared by Reformation (@reformation) on

This idyllic scenario, however, was irreparably damaged last June when, during the Black Lives Matter movement's protests, Reformation was accused by a former employee of fostering an environment in which people of color were routinely overlooked for advancement in the company and had their concerns ignored. For a brand that shaped its image on sustainability, responsibility and ethics, the accusations were devastating, attracting criticism from Diet Prada and many others and, as recently also happened to Leandra Medine at Man Repeller, led to the resignation of Yael Aflalo.

Aflalo, who sold a majority stake in Reformation to private equity firm Permira in 2019, was instantly changed by Hali Borenstein, a longtime worker with earlier expertise in administration consulting. The first decision of the new leadership was to launch a third-party investigation, performed by the legislation agency Morgan Lewis, to look into the company's culture. The results show that the brand's main problems are not closely related to how to "mak[ing] decisions and or treat[ing] others differently based upon race", but to the inability to adapt to the needs of a rapidly growing business, both culturally and logistically, such as heating, air conditioning and plumbing problems in stores. 

In June 2019, the sustainability report revealed that 80% of Reformation's management team was white and 20% were Asian, while only 1% of the company's employees were black. A reform of internal culture changing these numbers in a more equitable and inclusive way takes time and work. So far, Borenstein and her team have made only a few operational changes: they hired Monique McCloud, black woman and HR veteran, as chief of staff; created platforms for employees at all levels to have a say; updated benefit packages; and, most importantly, began hiring models, influencers and talent from different ethnic groups and with different body types.

Despite the mistakes, Aflalo has been able to turn Reformation into a successful company, one of the few green projects that have successfully combined cool fashion and sustainability at high levels. The new leadership will not only have to deal with the company's past, but also solve its internal problems, heal the image damage caused by the accusations of racism, face competitors and continue to grow its business in a period generally not great for the economy.