August 14, 2013

Talking Integrity With Tara St James

After chatting with her as part of the "Sustainable Fashion Tour of NYC" a few weeks ago, we had to get to know more about Tara St James, and who wouldn't? Owner and head designer of the Brooklyn based sustainable label, Study New York, Tara continues to bring integrity and honesty to the table in everything she does.

photo via Sarah Kerens

MBF Trend Consulting: Please tell us more about your company and your background.

Tara St James: I knew very young that I wanted to design clothes and work in fashion. I studied menswear in college because I liked the rigid structure of tailoring. I still apply a lot of those principles to my womenswear designs. Another underlying principle I learned from studying menswear - though it was not mentioned outright - was a disregard for trendy items, with a focus on craftsmanship, fit and longevity of wear. I started my career working in the denim industry, then worked for larger fast fashion brands in Montreal and New York. In 2009 I left my last job designing a high street brand called Covet and started Study. I started Study at a time in my career when I was very frustrated with fast fashion and mass production. With Study, we wanted to not just source sustainable materials but also produce them locally. There is a bit of a disconnect between sourcing sustainable materials and then producing garments in a large factory in China. I had a lot of experience sourcing sustainable materials through previous roles, however, producing the clothing locally was something completely new for me, very different, but a really enjoyable experience. I love being so hands on. We have also looked at our business model and want to provide an alternative to fast fashion and the traditional fashion calendar. We have moved away from seasonal collections, which never made sense to me. We now provide monthly editions and develop a few new pieces for the months ahead. This has been a great change for me and the stores love it as they are getting new stock in that is relevant to the time of year and can really build a collection.

photo via Christine Arndt

MBF: What is the meaning behind your company name “STUDY?” 

TSJ: The name was born of a desire I had to really examine my production process and focus on a different technique every season. That began with zero waste patternmaking, then progressed to weaving, knitting, dyeing, printing, pleating, etc... Now that I'm no longer producing seasonal collections I still focus on different techniques but I spread that focus over several months rather than each edition. 

MBF: You are involved in different projects like the Uniform Project and the Awamaki Lab. Can you tell us a bit more about the new tradeshow concept “Origin” taking place in Italy next year?

TSJ: I was invited by Not Just a Label to a teaser event for their new concept in trade fairs, called Origin. I believe NJAL has done a better job explaining the concept than I could, but I wrote a little about the experience on my blog. It was an enriching experience for me and I'm grateful to have been invited to participate, meet other designers and industry professionals, and partake of Italian hospitality for a few days!

photo via Christine Arndt

MBF: What are the biggest changes you have seen in your industry in the last year?

TSJ: 2013 seems to be a year for change for a lot of people, especially in my circle of friends and colleagues. This change is occurring on both the personal and professional level in many lives. For me it began a time of introspection into my business model. 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. While I’m not the first designer to choose to work outside the traditional fashion calendar (producing seasonal collections), it has become increasingly obvious to me that not only do the production methods used by fast fashion companies as well as the fabric choices designers make have a huge impact on our environment and the socio-economic well-being of other human beings, but our consumption has gotten so out of control that a statement needs to be made. By eliminating collections from my business model, and only producing a few garments every month, much closer to the season and when I feel there is a need for them on the market, my goal is to limit the availability of the brand to customers and hope they will carry these consumption values to other items. I only produce what I believe is beautiful and wanted. I believe consumers are starting to demand this change and are seeking out beautifully made, long-lasting quality garments that eschew trends. Fast fashion will reach a plateau very soon and send customers back to wanting original but less temporary items.

photo via Tara St James

MBF: What have been/are your biggest challenges in the industry?

TSJ: The greatest change I have seen with the business is the dialogue that has happened between myself and my retail outlets. Not only have they been incredibly supportive of the change but it has allowed me to really learn more about their needs and interactions with their customers. I have yet to figure out how I want to maneuver sales to my retailers. In the past I worked with a showroom and attended trade shows where buyers could come and order the next season's collection. Now I find myself needing to send styles out to the retailers once a month and while photos are a good way of doing this, I don't believe it's the only solution, so at present I'm talking regularly to my retailers to figure out the best way to approach them monthly with new product.

MBF: Since sustainability and technology are the major drivers of any industry, do you find that this shift is trickling across the industry?

TSJ: The fashion industry is notorious for being slow to adopt technology and the two have yet to find a harmonious relationship despite the recent enthusiasm for 3D printing and ecommerce apps pushing the industry forward. Speaking strictly on a sustainability focused level, technology has been tremendously important in recent years with radical changes in water and chemical treatment facilities, printing and dyeing technologies, fiber separating and recycling plants, etc... and soon I believe designers with an interest in sourcing sustainably will have an edge over those who do not mainly because of their understanding of these "new" production processes.

MBF: Where are you thinking of taking Study in the near future?

TSJ: I want to include more collaboration in the Study brand, whether it's for the main product range, an off-shoot or for private label development with my retailers. I love the idea of product development on a broader scale. 

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