Almost as soon as we meet, Citizen’s Mark founder and CEO Cynthia Salim proudly declares, “Our vision is to be the go-to brand for a generation of socially conscious and empowered women on the rise.” I am so listening.
“We’re the millennial generation, and I think what’s noteworthy about us as a generation is that people are socially conscious across industries,” Cynthia says. “So for example people who work at Deloitte or Goldman Sachs care about where their stuff is made. It’s not just “hippies” or whatever stereotype.”
It’s certainly an optimistic view, especially in the world of women’s fashion. Even with the rise of ethical, socially conscious fashion lines, we are very much entrenched in the culture of “fast fashion”—new clothes every few weeks at ridiculously low prices. Do we really think those clothes were made in a socially responsible way? Instead of four seasons, the fashion industry now essentially promotes 52 “micro-seasons,” with styles changing weekly. Stores like Zara get two shipments of new styles per week, while stores like H&M and Forever 21 receive daily shipments of new styles.
With clothing that is designed to fall apart, it’s almost not that surprising that the average American throws away (throws away, not gives away) about 68 pounds of textile per year. Since most of that consists of manmade fabrics, it will take decades to decompose. And most importantly, you have to consider the labor conditions in which these clothes are made—the fact that beading and sequins on cheap clothes was likely applied by a child’s hand, the fact that unsafe factories like the one that collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013 (killing over 1,100 people and injuring 2,500) remain in service. Cynthia Salim will be the first to tell you that ethical fashion is a large, complex world with many large, complex problems. It’s also why she got into it in the first place.
What inspired you to start Citizen’s Mark?
Cynthia: “I started Citizen’s Mark two and a half years ago after I went from doing consulting work at the U.N. to working at McKinsey, a big powerful consulting firm. So these are formal environments where you need to look credible. And I would notice that the male interns at the U.N. would blend right in because they would be wearing suits—you know, there’s this male uniform. There’s a reason uniforms are championed in schools, because it’s an equalizer. Meanwhile, the young women often looked like interns or secretaries or clearly entry-level folks, and they weren’t taken as seriously. So I always made it a point to dress more professionally and people thought I was full-time staff when I was an intern, and I was able to get my McKinsey job. But after I got that job, I went shopping to complete my wardrobe, and it was impossible to find anything that was serious and high-quality, much less ethically made. I just wanted to look like a grown up without wearing Chanel, because I’m not Hillary Clinton.
“So I went all over the world—Milan, Geneva, Paris, Zurich, London, Sydney, Los Angeles—and I found nothing. It would be great in the front and in the back there would be a bow. Or it would have poofy shoulders—stuff you can’t wear to work. Or I had one blazer that had asymmetrical lapels, and my mentor said, “Clients are going to think that’s how you do your calculations.” So from there I thought, “Okay, we need to make something higher quality, particularly for young women.” We like to call our community “women on the rise.” We’re just hitting our stride. We’re not old enough for the Chanel suit but we need to outgrow the fast fashion, low-quality stuff. So I built this from scratch for two and half years.”
What were the challenges you faced sourcing everything from scratch?
“It was a crazy adventure because I was here in New York, so I tried to work with design people from FIT, Parsons, etc. but people aren’t used to building things from the ground up. They’re trained to go into like a Ralph Lauren or Zara and design and follow established processes. So when I said, “I want to know where I source everything and I want to source from scratch,” people took me to the Garment District. And I would ask, “Where is your fabric made? I want to know what labor conditions it was made in,” and they almost didn’t hear me. They said, “Yes, you’ll make money. I’m sure of it!” And I’m like, “No, do the people making this fabric have living wages?” and we just weren’t speaking the same language.
“So I eventually found out where wool is made. There’s a historic wool-mill town in Italy called Biella. You can’t take a train to it, you have to drive in, it’s a proper village. So I just flew out and I met with all these people, and they booked me with every major wool mill and I met with some of the owners, and most of them were good or okay, but one was clearly the industry leader. They purify the water after the dyeing process, so it’s not that color when you put it back in the streams. They lower the sound of the wool looms so that workers don’t go deaf. That’s something that doesn’t even occur to you when we’re sitting here in New York at work thinking about ethical fashion. We’re not thinking, “I wonder if the workers are going deaf.” So I sourced everything. It’s crazy how many pieces go into this blazer.
“The wool fabric is $24 a meter, while other brands in our price range are $12 a meter. So it’s about double the quality. The lining is 100% Cupro which is cotton seed, so it’s not polyester. It’s something that someone like a Burberry would use. The buttons are from a woman-owned enterprise in Nepal. Even the label is from a Danish company that is super socially responsible. And it’s made in a factory in Portugal, which does a bunch of luxury brands, and that took over a year to find, because a lot of the socially responsible factories aren’t as well-funded. This requires a million-dollar pressing machine. It goes through 70 pieces of industrial machinery to make one blazer. There’s a button lady that all she does is use this machine that attaches buttons. She doesn’t even have to hand-sew a button. It’s a true suit factory.
“The undercollar is German. I talked to this company in Germany that supplies some of the biggest brands and they asked which one I wanted—the one made in Germany or the one made in China which is cheaper. So I asked what the difference was. He said that the one made in China is not allowed in the EU because there are certain toxins in it. But in the U.S. the rule is that as long as it’s not touching your body, it’s fine. And I’m like, “Please give us the German one.” So there were so many decisions to make along the way that really affect the quality of the garment. Making this quality was a bit of a risk in the beginning, because people—especially people in the industry—would say, “Women won’t pay for quality.” And it’s kind of cyclical. You have to undo that. You have to say, “Women will pay for quality, therefore we’re gonna make something high-quality.” Women aren’t even used to being offered garments of quality, so it doesn’t even occur to them. I’ve had a lot of people say, “I don’t usually wear suits or blazers, but let me try yours anyway.” And they try it on and say, “Oh my God it fits, and it’s actually high-quality. I want it.” And they can walk out with something that looks credible and professional.”
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What do you see as the next step for Citizen’s Mark in terms of building your collection?
“Our niche has become responsible production. So in the medium-term, we’re looking to do a bag and a shoe, but I’m still researching materials—how do we feel about leather? How do we feel about vegan leather, which sometimes is animal-friendly but not environmentally friendly because of all the toxins you need to make it. So with everything we do, we’re just so so detailed and precise and thorough. I’m working on the bag now, and it’ll come probably in a year and a half. That’s just the product development cycle, which other brands don’t necessarily do, especially in fast fashion. It’s like you need a piece of bling, you’re gonna go find it the cheapest and fastest, and you have no idea where it came from, or the human or environmental impact of it.”
Even among socially conscious brands that have gotten good media, it really seems like you went above and beyond. Do you find that what you’re doing, all the sourcing, all the details, is something truly unique in the fashion industry?
“Yes, and there are a couple of reasons for that. One is that I’m not an industry insider, so there aren’t shortcuts, I can’t just go with a supplier I know. It’s better in some ways because I really have to start from scratch and go deep into the supply chain. I went to Portugal and I saw six or seven factories until I finally found this one that’s 30% solar powered and pays its workers a living wage and healthcare. Another reason is that I’m just used to precision—for example, I do Wushu martial arts. When we did our first run in Los Angeles at a socially responsible factory and it was just not good. I was like, “What’s wrong with this?” And it was because they hand cut it. I realized that if I wanted it to be perfect, I had to be in a suit factory with laser cutting machines. The pattern is input from a computer. The fabric is locked down on this huge table and a laser machine comes in and cuts it perfectly.”
While certain fast fashion companies seem to be making an effort to be better, for example with H&M’s Conscious Collection, do you think fast fashion can ever truly be ethical? Or do we as consumers need to change our perspective completely?
“There’s better and there’s worse. I think consuming fewer, better things is really critical to the ethical fashion movement. We have to change our mentality about spending. I remember I did a course in undergrad for a service organization and we would whine about groceries being so expensive at the farmers’ market. And our advisor said, “Yes, it is more expensive, but you guys are also walking around with $5 Starbucks lattes.” So we just have to re-understand our spending. This is the true cost of owning something that is high-quality, long-lasting, and ethically made. Right now essentially we’re underpaying for the things we own. So our price point is interesting to—it’s from $425 to $475. It’s in the “accessible luxury” range, like Kate Spade and Tory Burch, which is actually a growing space, because you get people who are used to buying luxury items coming down and people who are reaching from something that’s a little bit cheaper. So if you’re used to buying a $300 blazer, you’ll spend an extra $150 to get something that’s double the quality. And I do have a lot of people too who are used to buying Armani and say, “Awesome, this is a little bit cheaper than Armani and just as good.””
Seeing the process this went through and understanding the quality of all of it, that honestly seems low. How did you manage that?
“It is. People have asked me about it, and what I’ve learned is that the markups in the luxury industry are crazy. So we have a normal, healthy markup to survive. Whereas when you’re looking at a luxury brand, you’re taking into account that they paid $100,000 for the photo shoot. We don’t, and never will.”
I know your background in in Political Science and Ethics—did you ever imagine yourself working in the fashion industry?
“My masters is actually in Human Values, and Contemporary Global Ethics, so in some ways that’s super relevant. We would talk about the role of the private sector in making the world better, and things like that. But I thought I would be in international, which I was for awhile, and then I was at McKinsey very briefly. My goal was always to get private sector experience to work in some sort of corporate social responsibility role, and I think this is even better because we’re a revenue-generating business, whereas when I tried to build a career in CSR people always told me that I should try to be in a revenue-generating role in any company because if you’re in the philanthropic arm, that’s the first thing that gets cuts. So I think it’s really important that businesses start to look at their core day-to-day operational practices and making those practices socially and environmentally just in the first place, so we’re not creating social or environmental problems, versus going about day-to-day operations that create poverty and all these issues…and then building a school or a well. That’s a break and fix model. So this is a lot better. It’s a lot more challenging, it’s a lot more time-consuming, but it has to be done, because at the end of the day, it’s so much more efficient.”
What is your advice for someone who is used the “fast fashion” lifestyle and wants to start making more conscious, ethical fashion choices?
“I once had someone tell me that as you grow up and grow into your career, you should start using the one-thirds rule, which is: Buy one-thirds of the amount of stuff you buy, and pay up to triple the price for it. It’s longer lasting, you’re more likely to buy something that’s timeless and classic, and you have fewer decisions to make in the morning. Decision fatigue is a real thing—Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, many super successful wear the same outfit every day for that reason. When you have fewer superficial decisions to make, you can focus your energy on the things that are actually really important in your career.”
If you’re in NYC, Citizen’s Mark is having an open house TONIGHT at 261 Madison Ave. When you try on one of these blazers, I guarantee you will fall madly in love.
To learn more about Cynthia Salim and Citizen’s Mark, sign up for their newsletter. You’ll be the first to receive details about their NYC event on August 11th where you can get free professional headshots! You can also follow them on Twitter @citizensmark.