Five years ago, I worked in an office in SoHo, and, at the end of each day, while walking to the train, I would pass the small storefront of the women’s clothing brand Reformation. The company, which had a slightly cultish following, was known for minimalist, insouciant dresses and separates in which multiple vectors of aspiration converged: the clothes were designed for the bodies of models, produced from environmentally friendly fabrics, and mostly priced in the low three digits—just the right amount to blur the lines between those who thought of a two-hundred-and-eighteen-dollar jumpsuit as an affordable basic and those for whom it would be an impractical splurge. This was apparel with the power to confer an aura of nonchalant dominance. Karlie Kloss and Rihanna were spotted walking into Reformation; Taylor Swift and the Haim sisters Instagrammed themselves in hundred-and-eighteen-dollar Reformation sweatshirts. The brand was especially popular for weddings: its long, slinky dresses in neutrals or lace or florals were an obvious choice for women—guest, bride, or bridesmaid—who rolled their eyes at heterosexual consumerist monogamy but adhered faithfully enough to its precepts to want to look hot. On Reformation’s Web site, the description for a four-hundred-and-twenty-eight-dollar wrap dress practically yawns: “Since people just won’t stop getting married, we’ll keep making wedding appropriate dresses.” The dress being hawked has a V neck that plunges to the navel; it is seemingly unwearable unless you are thin, flat-chested, and a couple of inches under six feet tall. (According to the company Web site, the brand’s main clothing line, which goes up to a size 12 that fits like a very tight size 10, is designed to fit women between five feet six and five feet ten. There’s also a petite collection, for women under five feet two.)

During the period when I passed this storefront regularly, gainful employment was a personal novelty, and I preferred to spend as little money on clothes as possible. I knew that this brand was targeting me attitudinally, and I often averted my eyes. Then time passed, and it was no longer appropriate for me to dress like a college student; I got my professional footing and stopped feeling quite as much like a Muppet who lived in the trash. In her book “Fashionopolis,” Dana Thomas notes that Americans sent ten and a half billion tons of clothing to landfills in 2015, and that fewer than two per cent of garment workers make a living wage. I joined the expanding ranks of young-ish women who felt guilty about supporting such appalling labor and environmental practices, and who could afford to avoid doing so. I went to Reformation and conducted a tactical survey to figure out which of their clothes would fit me. By 2017, I was folding up a doll’s wardrobe of Reformation outfits every time I packed for a trip. On a bachelorette weekend last year, a friend and I opened our suitcases in a Miami hotel room and hung up four near-identical Reformation minidresses. I recently ordered a second black cropped T-shirt from Reformation, after I realized I’d worn my first one every week for more than a year. I began to think of Reformation—and comparable brands that occupy different niches, such as Glossier and Outdoor Voices—as occupying a place in millennial lives not unlike that of the astrology apps that have become extremely popular among twentysomething women. There is comfort in subsuming your sense of individuality to a larger sentiment of prescription and predetermination. There is pleasure in looking at a screen and having someone tell you what to do.

Reformation was created, in 2009, by Yael Aflalo, a former model whose parents owned a clothing store in downtown Los Angeles. She started her first fashion line, called YaYa, in 1999, at the age of twenty-one. Reformation was born out of the post-recession slump, which spelled doom for YaYa, and Aflalo’s discontentment with the “ten years of waste” she’d accumulated in her warehouse by the end. She and a few employees bought vintage dresses, customized them, and sold them out of a small L.A. storefront: Aflalo told Racked that the brand’s startup costs were something like seven thousand dollars. The clothes were instantly popular, and Aflalo opened a second store, in New York. She convinced Urban Outfitters to stock the brand, selling pieces under the name “Reformed by The Reformation.” In 2013, after a trip to a smoggy and sludgy manufacturing city in China, Aflalo decided to open a factory in L.A. and sell directly to consumers on the Web, hoping to show that one could produce clothing on a mass scale with a minimum of waste. Online sales were slow at first, but then Aflalo started styling her models more carefully. She placed them in real-feeling rooms instead of against white backgrounds, trying to avoid the impression, common to other online stores, that “an accountant was taking the picture.” She shot the models in motion, with editorial lighting, and gave them a specific look—minimal makeup, loose and messy hair. The results felt like she’d “hit gold,” she told Inc. By 2015, the company’s Web site was drawing two hundred thousand monthly visitors and it had brought in more than twenty-five million dollars in revenue.

Reformation now operates seventeen stores globally, with two more, in Austin and on the Upper East Side, coming soon. It has raised thirty-seven million dollars from investors, and it recently took on the private-equity firm Permira Advisers as a majority stakeholder. It’s also profitable, with projected sales of a hundred and fifty million dollars this year. Its messaging has remained consistent: the brand still uses the slogan “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We’re #2.” On its Instagram account, which has one and a half million followers, shots of sultry models in skintight dresses alternate with photos of Greta Thunberg and information about how to purchase carbon offsets on the Reformation Web site. One Instagram story from the account advises brides to wear a “hot, sustainable dress,” to send electronic invitations, and to work with venders who support local farms.

The company also publishes quarterly sustainability reports and information about the fashion industry’s environmental impact—highlighting, for instance, that synthetic fabrics, when washed, release microfibres into the water supply that end up in the food of marine animals and humans alike. Reformation tracks the environmental footprint of each piece in its collection, from fibre production and dyeing to shipping and garment care. (“It’s all about math, and we’re super into it,” the Web site explains.) The reports detail shortcomings: the company’s garment bags are still made of plastic, and a quarter of its fabrics have clean-chemical certifications. Last year’s sustainability report gave the company a frowny face for falling well short of its goal to get seventy-five per cent of its Los Angeles manufacturing team to a local living wage. (The factory workers, the report added, do get 401(k)s and health benefits, as well as massages and E.S.L. classes.) Aflalo, who’s now forty-two, once told the Times that she wanted to combine “altruism and narcissism.” She recently described the company to Vogue Business as “Zara but with a soul.” (In 2014, Aflalo hired Zara’s trend director, Manuel Ruyman Santos Fdez, as Reformation’s design director.)

That’s a formidable goal: Zara brings in around nineteen billion dollars a year in revenue and operates more than two thousand stores around the world. It is also an inherently contradictory one: there’s a limit to how altruistic one can be when producing and shipping clothing at anything approaching that scale. Previously, about half of the fabrics Reformation used were deadstock—leftovers from other fashion houses—but, as its offerings have expanded, that figure has dropped to about fifteen per cent. The company has developed a Zara-esque speedy production cycle: clothes can go from the design table to stores in a month. In “Fashionopolis,” Aflalo tells Dana Thomas that sustainability, to her, means running a tight ship and offsetting the inevitable damage. The company has billed itself as carbon-neutral since 2015, and other fashion brands have followed suit: Everlane recently launched a carbon-neutral collection, Allbirds has declared itself carbon-neutral, the luxury conglomerate Kering has announced plans to offset its brands’ current greenhouse-gas emissions and to reduce them by fifty per cent by 2025.

The methodology behind what Reformation calls its “sexy calculations” is public, but carbon offsetting is not quite as straightforward as the company implies. (The Web site describes offsetting as “Kinda like Venmo, but for the Earth.”) The current market for carbon offsets sometimes resembles the market for indulgences in the late Middle Ages: what’s actually being sold is vaguely defined and unreliably calculated, and what’s being remedied is guilt, above all else. One sees this impulse elsewhere on the Reformation site, which declares that customers are saving “almost 3,500 gallons of water” by purchasing a zip-up, wide-legged denim jumpsuit—a claim that only begins to make sense if the choice is buying a denim jumpsuit from Reformation or buying a denim jumpsuit from another retailer. It is also possible to just not buy a denim jumpsuit. “The prevailing sustainable platform—‘Buy less, use less’—isn’t a scalable strategy,” Aflalo once told Vogue. “You buy clothes because you really want them. The sustainability part is for us to figure out.”

A successful brand is one that makes the customer want to go shopping in the first place; it shapes the need that it then fills. Reformation may be the most fashionable eco-friendly brand there is, and it has surely pushed many of its customers to think about disposability and everyday carbon impact. But it is hard to echo, with a straight face, the company’s proposition that looking cute is a way of protecting the earth.

There’s a tacit sense of superiority embedded in the clean lines of the Reformation project. The brand’s ideal woman can wear a minidress with a plunging-V neckline and look bored and expensive rather than overtly sexualized or “vulgar,” as most women would in such outfits. (In 2014, Reformation introduced a capsule I’m Up Here collection for women with big boobs, which hasn’t been seen since the second launch, in 2015; a spokesperson for Reformation said, in an e-mail, “We now always have a mix of items in our collection that cater to women with larger breasts.”) Last year, the company launched a plus-size collection that goes up to size 24, and apologized for not doing so sooner, calling it “obviously unfair” that they had only offered clothing in “a limited size range.” The plus-size model with whom Reformation partnered for the launch, Ali Tate Cutler, had previously written, on Instagram, “Sorry but I don’t care about people’s health who are fat… I do care about the excessive amounts of carbon, nitrous oxide, and methane gases it takes to produce a large person… Being obese is simply bad for the environment, and in this day and age, we cannot afford that lack of empathy anymore.” Cutler, who’s a size 14, and recently became the first plus-size Victoria’s Secret model, subsequently attempted to apologize, more or less. But her comments had captured something implicit in the brand identity of the company whose off-the-shoulder gingham dresses she would later model: the idea that ecological responsibility dovetails, in some actual way, with being conventionally hot. (When I asked the Reformation spokesperson about Cutler’s comments, the spokesperson said that they did not reflect the brand’s views, adding, “We believe the virtue of being environmentally conscious is something that all people can and should incorporate into their lives.”)

I’m not the right height for Reformation’s clothes, or exactly the right shape, but if I can manage to zip up a piece of Reformation clothing, it usually fits like a dream. The brand offers its customers the hard-to-resist, self-satisfactory pleasure that comes with conforming to a prototype. (“is Reformation just slutty Eileen Fisher???” the writer Gabby Noone once tweeted.) The concept of sustainable fast fashion is oxymoronic, but the company’s accomplishments in that direction are tantalizing anyway. And the brand carries certain connotations, as a friend—who feels guilty buying anything new but often wears Reformation—put it to me: “I’m a savvy, grown-up consumer choosing quality and good taste,” she texted, in self-deflating scare quotes. “I’ve made good choices in my professional life, but I’m still laid-back and cool.”

Shopping at Reformation has helped me to buy fewer clothes, thanks in part to that cropped black T-shirt, made from the company’s “holy grail” fabric Tencel, that I continue to wear every week. But Reformation also tempts me to buy more. A few months ago, I was in Los Angeles and found myself pulling over, with the wordless instinct of a salmon swimming back to its native river, into a parking spot on Melrose and heading into Reformation’s white, minimalist storefront, the big rectangular window of which showcased a rack of things that would look ludicrous on me—milkmaid dresses, cropped wide-legged jeans. The store was big and spare, and the clothes were display-only: to try anything on, you had to stand in front of a large and finicky touch screen and add items one by one to a cart. I selected a confetti-print minidress, a daisy-print mid-length skirt, a sheer black button-down, and a leopard-print blouse with straps that tied like ribbons. Though the store appeared to be empty, the touch screen informed me that there was an eighteen-minute wait for the fitting room, which I confirmed with the aloof women who manned what a sign on the wall called the “LOVE DESK.” When I finally got into the fitting room, the skirt’s zipper instantly jammed. (Anecdotally, the brand’s quality appears to have gone down as production has scaled up.) Everything looked bad on me, which came as a great relief. I walked out of the store applying some Reformation logic: if buying those four pieces would have saved thousands of gallons of water, then, by declining to buy them, I had put six hundred and two dollars in the bank.

Sourse: newyorker.com

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