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"Rejection is protection, and you’re being aligned with the right people over time”
Just because your products are sustainable and made to order, doesn't mean you have to think small. We spoke with Autumn Adeigbo on hustling to grow her eclectic slow fashion brand.
Autumn Adeigbo enters her Midtown Manhattan showroom wearing an orange and purple French tweed skirt suit she designed, a striped Diane von Furstenberg coat, and celestial-patterned Valentino boots any modern-day witch would pine for.
She’s been statement dressing her entire life. Adeigbo saw back-to-school shopping as a way to reinvent herself, and her Nigerian mother sewed her outfits for special occasions. “I was in these printed one-of-a-kind dresses, tops, and bottoms and looked way different than anyone else in class,” Adeigbo recalls. “I always held onto identifying and creating yourself through clothes.”
You can see that energy in her clothing collections today. Adeigbo nods to her heritage and appreciation for different cultures by pairing classic silhouettes with bold, high quality fabrics—like a shelf dress in Vlisco African print with a hand-beaded neckline and sleeves, or the Italian silk and cotton gingham print dresses, skirts, and blouses in her spring/summer 2020 line. There’s even a bit of modesty to her clothes for more conservative dressers. “I want people to feel included because I know what it's like to not be,” she tells Supermaker.
The ethical entrepreneur is doing business differently, too. She employs women at every step of her supply chain and is among the wave of designers prioritizing a slow fashion, made-to-order model. Adeigbo, who’s been developing her brand for nearly a decade, gravitated to an ethical footprint because she says, “I wanted to be a fashion designer to give back, period.”
Fast fashion has engineered a trend cycle that produces cheaper clothes at faster rates to keep up with consumer demand, but that system comes at the expense of mostly underpaid women garment workers subjected to abuses like long hours, gender discrimination and deplorable working conditions. The environmental costs are overwhelming: just the fact that every second one garbage truck full of clothes is landfilled or burned (that’s 1.5 Empire State Buildings-worth a day) illustrates the toxic cycle. A recent report found that consumers are buying 60 percent more clothing than 15 years ago, but keep it for half as long. “There’s a lack of integrity around the whole system,” Adeigbo says.
The slow fashion movement is the antidote to a “take-make-waste” model that encompasses less production, fair treatment of workers, sustainable and eco-conscious fabrics, and lower carbon emissions. Resultingly, consumers buy less, instead investing in longer-lasting garments.
For Adeigbo, she and a team of women design her line in New York City, and shoppers buy from her website or at trunk shows hosted by women entrepreneurs. That made-to-order garment can be customized—if you want to add sleeves or mix sizing, for example—and is sewn by women seamstresses in women-owned production facilities in New York. Select pieces are hand-beaded by female African artisans who are paid fair-trade wages. Adeigbo’s price points range from around $300 to $1,000, and styles could take up to a month to arrive at your doorstep.
Adeigbo says working with the iconic Maasai women in Kenya and watching them incorporate traditional beading into her last collection was unreal. “They were paid more than the manager of the luxury Safari retreat that I was staying at for their work,” she says. “My dream is to have the volume to take care of as many women as possible with a full-time job.”
But crafting her vision didn’t happen overnight. The Spelman College and Parsons School of Design grad first cut her teeth as an intern for Betsey Johnson, working at designer boutiques and assisting top stylists like Andrea Lieberman, Leslie Fremar, and Rebecca Weinberg. It was later in hostessing jobs at Manhattan hot spots where she finessed her pitching chops. As Adeigbo sat magazine editors who came to dine, she’d tell them about her first collection that would donate sales to West African women via microcredit loans. “Every once in a while they’d bite,” she says, which is how she landed her first press. Adeigbo designed several capsules, but properly launched Autumn Adeigbo in 2017 after she refined her model and landed her first seed round investment.
Choosing a made-to-order approach has allowed Adeigbo to better understand her market and reduce waste—but it hasn’t slowed her down. This year, Adeigbo launched four popular styles on Rent the Runway, and the Tory Burch Foundation Fellow will debut her hair accessories in Burch’s Seed Box as one of five featured women entrepreneurs. But she's careful not to overplay her hand. “Not knowing what styles people are going to gravitate toward, [and potentially wasting] fabric—inventory scares me as a business owner,” she says. “I wanted to gather that data before starting to invest in it.”
Denver freelance writer, Brittany Anas, says she feels better buying from independent designers like Adeigbo since she learned fast fashion companies have a history of ripping them off. “I didn’t feel right supporting that,” she tells Supermaker. After wearing a few of Adeigbo’s pieces through Rent the Runway, she loved the Lottie Hourglass Dress so much that she bought it. “I want to carve out my aesthetic, not just wear whatever trend is on the racks,” Anas adds.
Anna Toshach, an asset manager in New York City, met Adeigbo through Pipeline Angels, a network of investors that creates capital for women and non-binary femme social entrepreneurs, of which Adeigbo’s brand is a portfolio company. Toshach personally invested in Adeigbo’s brand and owns several pieces, crediting the designer for livening up her wardrobe and being “a catalyst for my own better understanding of the need to be a conscious clothing shopper.”
Even with the proliferation of sustainable and ethical brands like Reformation, Everlane, and Patagonia, Adeigbo says it can be difficult to get traditional numbers-minded people on board. She’s been lucky to find the right investors and has gotten comfortable with rejection, but says, “One of the hardest things about being an entrepreneur is all the noes. You're not just rejected by investors, you're rejected by stores, your network. But I've been telling myself that rejection is protection, and you’re being aligned with the right people over time.”
As her brand grows, Adeigbo aims to partner with other companies that earmark sustainability, lean in more to direct-to-consumer practices, and make small but impactful changes, like switching to eco packaging. Her message to founders wanting to build ethical practices into their business is to start small. “You have to consider each step of the process and figure out what you can do to keep people and planet in mind,” she says.
And for people who want to invest in slower fashion, Adeigbo says to begin by redefining how you think about your clothes. It might mean more money out of your pocket up front, but she adds, “knowing that I'm going to wear something for at least ten years and trusting that if I make this investment it's better for the environment and better for the people who made it is a more holistic purchase than buying fast fashion."