Climate change and eliminating plastic and waste in the ocean have been hot topics leading up to the Presidential primary. Plastic straws alone have caused such a stir that States are beginning to require restaurants to serve non-plastic-based straws. What about the fashion industry? Do consumers ever wonder what happens to the seasonal styles that are never purchased?
According to Rubicon, fashion is the third highest-polluting industry in the world and microfibers from fabrics wind up in the ocean and threaten aquatic life. A 2016 McKinsey report revealed that three-fifths of all clothing items will end up in an incinerator or landfill within a year after being produced.
Founder of Bespoke Southerly, Sheri Turnbow’s mission is to contribute to the solution of reducing fashion waste. Bespoke enables women to customize their clothing so they get the colors and details they want that reflect their personal style. The core business model is geared toward harnessing the trend of apparel personalization and adopting the made-to-order manufacturing model. With more made-to-order apparel options, more quality clothing will be designed and less waste created.
While her impetus for using the made-to-order model originated from the excitement of being able to custom a dress with pockets, colors and fabric, the more research Turnbow underwent, the more she realized this model creates less waste because each garment is cut one at a time. “I’m definitely seeing a trend in the marketplace towards sustainability when it comes to fashion,” she states. “It’s necessary because the fashion industry is one of the largest polluters, right? It’s a resource intensive business for natural resources when you’re growing cotton and other materials for textiles. The processing of the textiles is very resource intensive and can use a lot of toxic chemicals and dies. So, there’s that issue of the resource intensity and pollution. Then of course, there’s also the ethical side of things, which is that the factories in other countries where there aren’t necessarily good working conditions or living wages. I’m seeing all this come together under this umbrella of sustainable or ethical fashion.”
Prior to launching her own company, Turnbow worked as an agent in the fashion industry. After moving to Washington, D.C., her interest in non-profit organizations peaked. “I actually took a two-year job at an organization that focused on a lot of different things,” she explains, “but HIV AIDS is one of them, clean drinking water for kids in Africa and other things. HIV AIDS was close to me because of working in the fashion industry. That was actually a pretty major issue a couple decades ago…I did that and loved the nonprofit world, but my true personal passion has always been wildlife conservation.” She then transitioned over to working for two of the top conservation organizations in the world, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). At these leading non-profit organizations partnering with corporations including Apple, Coca-Cola, Disney and Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., raising millions of dollars for wildlife conservation and sustainable business solutions.
Turnbow’s idea for the company stemmed from her need to find classic cocktail attire for charity events. “I always had a really hard time finding the right dress,” she expresses. “I remember growing up having this concept of investment dressing where you have fewer items in your closet, but they’re high quality and they’re timeless; you can wear them for season after season…Then I started thinking about how men have the opportunity to get custom clothing and particularly suits. There’s really nothing like that for women except maybe when you’re in a bridal party, the bridesmaids’ dresses…So, I started doing a lot of research.”
Turnbow pivoted using her early career knowledge of the fashion and retail business and her more recent experience in corporate engagement and business sustainability. She created a brand and a company that utilizes what she’s learned over the years in both fields. “I also launched an ecommerce store that required custom coding to allow for the personalized orders,” she smiles. “I have self-funded the business and, as with most entrepreneurs, have hit a few bumps in the road. I wasted a lot of time and money on the wrong initial team. However, through relationships I built during this time and process, I was able to make connections to people with higher skill levels and knowledge and the final product available online now is due in large part to assembling that new group of experts.”
Through all of Turnbow’s transitions, she focuses on these essential steps:
- Take your time. If you pivot too quickly without understanding what you want to do, you set yourself up for failure.
- Research as much as possible. Understand how the industry works, the types of people you need to network with and the best time to pivot into a specific industry.
- Understand that there are going to be days when you feel like you’ve made a mistake, and there will be days where you feel like a genius. Just keep going no matter what.
“My background is a little different,” Turnbow concludes. “I come from a business background, and I do not have a traditional fashion design training…I will say because of that, not having that training and being more of a business person, I approach things a little bit differently. Sometimes, even though that can be a little bit of a tougher path, because I don’t know a lot of things that a traditional designer might know, sometimes it leads to creative approaches.”