On my journey to a more mindful life, I try to buy sustainably, but am admittedly too cheap to spend the extra $20, $50, or $100 for truly eco-friendly pieces.
You would think buying secondhand would be the next logical option, right? After all, if I purchased barely worn pieces that already exist, I'd automatically be doing my part to limit further harm to the environment. Eh … not my cup of tea, either. I'd rather peruse neatly folded skinny pants on New York & Co. display tables.
For the last 20 or so years, we've grown accustomed to buying dresses for next to nothing, but we don't consider that the people making those pieces are working in dangerous, environmentally harmful conditions and are being paid a barely living wage. In order to get these fashions to us from where they are manufactured overseas, the carbon footprint can be astronomical.
That's why Liz Funk and Alisha Ebling's women's clothing start-up, And We Evolve in Port Richmond, may be just the answer fashionistas need to answer their environmentally sound prayers.
In an effort to help women think more deeply about how we replenish our wardrobes, Funk and Ebling are fusing modern retail trends into their business model. Shoppers can visit a 1,500-square-foot showroom for a tactile experience and to try on clothes in sizes 2 to 16, peruse shoes, and play around with accessories.
Or they can shop online and see Funk and Ebling's friends — read: real women — modeling the clothing to get a more true-to-life idea of how the rompers and jumpsuits, midi skirts and shirtwaist dresses may, perhaps, look on them. And here's where the modern retail concepts come in: Starting this month, women can sign up for a monthly Stitch Fix-like subscription box and have the option to borrow gently used pieces for special occasions, Rent the Runway-style.
Brands include everything from Banana Republic to Ann Taylor to Alice + Olivia, and often cost half the retail price.
"We aren't telling women to stop shopping," said Funk, 29, a self-professed lover of combing the retail racks. "Instead, we are asking women to really analyze their shopping habits and ask, 'Does it really make me happy to buy clothes that I like just a little?' " Why not consider, she asked me, "spending your real money on clothes that you love while supplementing the rest of your wardrobe with secondhand pieces."
I hadn't given that retail strategy much thought before, but Funk and Ebling, 31, clearly had.
The two met in June at Girl Develop It, a class for female entrepreneurs to learn how to code in no-judgment zones. Funk, once a New York marketing strategist for early-stage start-ups, wanted to launch an e-commerce for secondhand, plus-size clothing. Ebling, a grant writer for a Center City nonprofit, was the author of the now-shuttered sustainability blog "Sleep Only When It Rains," and she also had designs for entering the online resale space.
"I've always had a fear of climate change, and in college, it was fortified," said Ebling, who grew up in Pottsville. "A lot of what I've done is about gently getting people to change their habits into those that are more sustainable: whether it's eating less meat, switching to a more efficient energy resource, or shopping secondhand."
Fast friends, Ebling and Funk immediately got started on their dream. Instead of asking friends and associates to consign their old threads, they flat-out asked them to donate them. To their surprise, it didn't take long before both of their Center City apartments were filled with bags and bags of clothes, a lot of them from uber-coveted labels, like Tory Burch, Lily Pulitizer, Madewell, and Wildfox.
"We found that women would rather give their pieces away than consign them because it takes a lot of energy — bringing the clothes in, returning for cash or picking them up — and there is very little payoff," Funk said. A function of a throwaway clothes society, she added.
Funk and Ebling moved into a Port Richmond warehouse, once home to the C.H. Masland Carpet Co., in September. By November, the duo had soft-launched their website and opened the space to shoppers by appointment only. By January, Funk said, they were profitable.
This kind of retail company makes sense on a number of fronts, said Mark Mathews, vice president of research at the National Retail Federation in Washington. Young people, especially millennials and their younger Gen Z counterparts, crave individuality, and resale — there is often just one piece of clothing on every rack — allows for that. But more important, companies like And We Evolve have done a good job of connecting with their audience on all platforms.
"Consumers need flexibility because that is the reality of their everyday lives," Mathews said. "One day they may be shopping online, the next day they are picking things up and trying them on based on, say, a parent's babysitting schedule. By taking this all into account, one becomes attractive to a consumer."
One of the lifestyle retail trends that is growing the fastest, Mathews says, is the subscription box. Research by the National Research Foundation indicates that 16 percent of shoppers use a subscription service to buy things — 73 percent have increased their use of these services in the last year. More than half of those subscribers, Mathews said, are under 35.
So far 10, people have signed up for And We Evolve's subscription box. In each box are three pieces of clothing and one accessory, wrapped in gold tissue paper. The night before I went to chat with Funk and Ebling, I decided to fill out their online questionnaire and see whether, if I became a member, I would give Funk's choices a manicured thumbs-up or down. I told her my size, described my style as a mix between J.Crew buttoned-up and Free People bohemian, and included my Instagram handle.
When I arrived at the hardwood-floor studio bursting with clothes in this spring's forceful floral and jewel tones and with pointy-toed and wedge shoes, I was pleasantly surprised by a rack of about a dozen pieces that included a little black dress with a cape, a blue-and-red swirly maxi, a red Calvin Klein fit-and-flare that I actually considered buying at Burlington Coat Factory, and a blue-and-white striped button-down, at least three of which I own already. The items ranged from about $25 to $150.