Transcript: Laura Choi on the For Animals For Earth Podcast

Episodes 2.

Listen or Read the show notes: Sustainability, Fast Fashion & the Future

TRANSCRIPT:

Brandy Montague 0:07
Hi there, this is Brandy and you’re listening to the for animals for earth podcast. This is a space where we inspire each other to take small steps every day to live a more conscious life, helping animals and the planet, while we do it. I’m so glad that you’re here. Let’s all take a deep breath. And let’s get started.

Laura Choi 0:33
“So with the internet people can do more research into what they buy and why. And because particularly now we’re celebrating individuality, I think humans are more geared to finding unique things than ever and not necessarily trying to do their style the same way they see everybody else doing it.”

Brandy Montague 0:55
That was Laura Choi commenting on how she sees fashion changing in our modern world today. Laura is the president of Fashion for Conservation, that’s a nonprofit that is focused on empowering artistan crafts women. I actually met Laura, about a year ago, when she contacted me about partnering on a project with my eco conscious animal welfare line. And I was just really impressed by her from the second I started talking to her. I truly believe that Laura is one of the women right now leading the movement of changing the sustainability of fashion. Today she and I chat about things like fast fashion, individual style, supporting indigenous communities, and how we can slowly begin to change our own fashion to still reflect our unique individuality, but be a little kinder to the earth at the same time. I was so happy when Laura said she would be on the show. I think she is just a wealth of information. And I learned a lot in our conversation. I think you’ll find yourself feeling inspired and optimistic about the future of fashion after listening to this. Let’s dive in.

Brandy Montague 2:10
So I want to start with your backgroud. Is fashion something that you have always been interested in? Or is it something that came about a little later in life? How did you get into it?

Laura Choi 2:24
Well, I got into it halfway through college. And I didn’t go to school for fashion, at least not initially. I went to school for so many different things that ultimately didn’t pan out. But about halfway through my engineering degree, it just occurred to me one night that I wasn’t going to pursue that path as a career, and I was just stricken because growing up, I’ve had so much dictated for me by way of what I was supposed to be doing. I always did music forever but didn’t want to do that and extra curricular math classes so it was just a constant ebb and flow of things I had to do. And nothing that I’ve really been passionate about and wanted to do by choice.

Laura Choi 3:06
So ultimately, halfway through school, on my college budget I started getting into a lot of different fashion magazines, so a lot of major publications of course and journals. And what I saw in those pages were not just a lot of women, but fashionable women. And it had never occurred to me that leading a fashionable life was a conscious decision, and something that required a lot of introspection and thought. And I always say that my transformation into who I am today and a lot of the security and confidence I have now came from being able to project how I feel from the outside in. And from there I wanted to pursue that and encourage that for other women.

Laura Choi 3:54
So that’s how I got into fashion. First, it was sort of a crisis moment. And then from there I went into actual corporate fashion. So halfway through school I decided to do an internship with Nordstrom. I was in Chicago at the time, and I was still taking classes that I would take the train back and forth in all kinds of inclement weather. And then after I did that, that was a retail merchandising internship so I got to see basically being on the floor, and also parts of visual merchandising, so how pieces are highlighted so that they’re more attractive on a physical display. And then after that, I was still pretty, pretty sure that I was going to continue fashion so I think I just walked into the ESCADA boutique in downtown Chicago, and I just asked the manager if she would let me intern there for free. And she did. She’s become something of a friend still, and I did everything from putting up the Christmas decorations to accessorizing and steaming and bringing clothes out for customers. And then that segued into ESCADA in New York. And from that I learned, like that classic movie Devil Wears Prada, that you as an intern in fashion will do the most unglamorous things. But there’s a lot of talk of… When you see in the magazines that’s a final edited glossy version like you and I were talking about, you don’t see everything behind the scenes of the drama with a steaming and having to haul these things up and down in the hot summer heat. Again the walking people’s dogs, it was a very… It was absolutely a lesson in patience and discipline. And from then on, I came back to Seattle, which is where I’m born and raised, and worked in corporate Nordstrom. So mostly buying for men’s, men’s ties, tie pins, and dress shirts. So I got into fashion from a corporate perspective but also because I was really looking for something that gave me passion.

Brandy Montague 5:57
You know I love that, and something that you said I think is really interesting to highlight, is that a lot of times, fashion kind of gets a bad rap, but at the same time, I think we as individuals fashion is something that really allows us to express who we are and really show up in the world in a way that makes us feel good and allows us to you know kind of brings us that confidence.

Laura Choi 6:24
Yeah, I do think that style is so subjective, and you can’t necessarily get it wrong. For me it’s been a mode of communication. I’m more introverted so I feel like I have strength in how I project myself more than in what I say. So fashion has been that silent communication for me. And really it doesn’t have to stay the same forever. Being remembered for your style is better than being noticed in my opinion. And certain elements of style have been anchored in time because it’s reflective of that era, but it can change with the seasons. And I think that if you can express your point of view, there’s been a lot of people whether by virtue of their fame or notoriety, or being cultural figureheads in history, they will lend their voice to causes that they care about, which is where this big shift in fashion has come from fast fashion which I absolutely abhor, more to causes of fashion and people who are doing fashion sustainably. for the purpose of trying to have a better story. And in some ways, there’s an argument that it has led to more expensive fashion because it’s produced organically or at a smaller scale or not in factories, but I think the argument too is the sustainability element, it’s also not putting fast fashion in landfills, or clothing in landfills that you wear for a couple months at a time. And that come apart. So I think people are really waking up to the quality aspect, even if it comes with a bit higher price tag. And that’s really to the testament of people who care about the planet, and that’s been very inspiring to me. I think that shows even more confidence that people are ready to tackle more important issues, and to use fashion as a platform to do that.

Brandy Montague 8:21
Yeah, I see that too. I see that too. And I see things are evolving and it’s exciting to see. I guess I’ve been watching it more closely over the past six years or so being involved. I really just got involved in it myself about six years ago and at the time, it really seemed like the world was really embracing fast fashion and and things just looked really scary. And every day it seems like things are looking a little more positive and I think to your point, a lot of people are out there speaking for that and supporting that and bringing that about. One step back really quick for anyone who’s not familiar with what we’re talking about with fast fashion, I do think that there are still some people who don’t really even know what we’re talking about. Can you describe that in a little more detai.? What you mean by fast fashion and what you mean by the way that things are evolving.

Laura Choi 9:26
Yeah, I think for fast fashion, the reason it feels like the thorn in fashion’s side is physically it means expanding a lot of energy, in my opinion, going down the rabbit hole of chasing trends. And the problem with trying to always be on trend, personally, is emotionally, how you feel about it. Because often there’s a pariah mentality if you’re not on trend, or if you don’t have the trendiest piece. Obviously, it can be expensive to try to keep up with that, but it also makes you feel sometimes undervalued or accepted. So that’s why I don’t appreciate trends as much. I really don’t see many redeeming qualities in fast fashion. And I feel that the greatest icons of our time were steady in one look that was inherently themselves. I think also what comes from that is an ease and elegance and confidence of feeling like you made something your own.

Laura Choi 10:27
A lot of the… what I consider inefficiency with fast fashion is items wasting away in landfills, the kind of resources it expends to get rid of it, the amount of water and plastic and fibers that it produces to throw clothes away. It’s really amazing though that it’s done really a 180 even H&M is doing a recycling program, where you bring your clothes in to get credit. It’s one step closer in fast fashion. And even celebrities like Jaden Smith has this clothing line with G-Star Raw. And he makes what he dubs the most environmentally conscious pair of jeans in the world that uses 75% less water to produce.

Laura Choi 11:13
So as much as I’ve really felt that fast fashion has been toxic, I’m glad that it’s at the forefront of people who have impactful voices. A lot of celebrities are coming on board with environmentally conscious fashion, and people do care. So I say it’s two sides of the coin and I’m optimistic about it.

Brandy Montague 11:34
Good, yeah, you know, me too, me too. And to your point, you do hear more and more big voices talking about it every day. I think I just read one of the red carpets, there were a lot of people who were wearing consciously made dresses on the red carpet and things like that, so it feels like when those big voices speak, things move really fast in a different direction that is exciting.

Laura Choi 11:58
Yeah, Yeah, I’m really happy that this era has found purpose, and more thoughtful consideration of what is worth saying.

Brandy Montague 12:10
I love that, and I love this theme that is coming out of what you’re saying too, which is finding your own individual style and finding your own individual voice through your clothing and your accessories. And not necessarily trying to be on trend but being you. And I love that thought. I love that idea. And it really provides a lot of freedom in what you wear, you know, kind of find what works for you. And I really like that.

Brandy Montague 12:43
Let’s talk a little bit about Fashion for Conservation. So you have an organization that you run called Fashion for Conservation that I think really embodies a lot of what we’re talking about, and a lot about moving forward in a really nice direction, and vision for moving forward. So can you talk a bit about that?

Laura Choi 13:04
Yeah, actually to moving forward, we’re going to be rebranding Fashion for Conservation. It’s affiliated now, the brand, with what we used to do, which was more of a fashion forward high fashion couture look at sustainable designers. So these designers that were very thoughtful and care about the environment, they would come to us with their portfolio, and we would work with them to create pieces inspired by different environmental campaigns. London is one of our favorite cities, that’s where we launched Elephantasia. That was a collection of 15 designers who made silhouettes inspired by the elephant. So that was really interesting. The reception has been really good for that, but about a year ago I started to feel like our mission was overtaken by the glitz and the glamour and the parties and the social media, and all that impact of image seemed lost to me without a true voice and mission. And so that’s when I started to feel like the core substance of what we do needed to change. And instead of promoting the fashion between the price points of like 700 to 1400 dollars, I wanted to do something that did more for the environment, and for women.

Laura Choi 14:26
So, what we’re starting to do now, is focus more on the artisan initiative, and that is based in Peru. We’ve always worked with this organization that’s tried to do research in Peru to prevent deforestation, support vibrant communities who live there. And so what we’re doing now is we’re working with the women, along the Amazon River. And they’re producing pieces by getting micro loans from us for the equipment to make them. So they’ll weave handbags, they’ll find beads to create bracelets, earrings, necklaces. They use scales from the paiche fish to make earrings and paint on them. And there’s been really good reception for promoting that handcraft aspect. Also the women are now exposed to a greater global market. It’s been tough for them to have sales restricted just to their community. It’s very small and the only people who tend to visit, are those during the tourist season. So the rest of the year, which is about nine months, they don’t really see any traction at all.

Laura Choi 15:28
I think what’s also come out of this unexpectedly is that the men in the communities (it’s still a somewhat misogynistic culture, just by virtue of what they know). And, in the seasons where tourists come, men will actually put down their own outdoor laboring type of work, and go and collect beads and help women set up their weaving stand. So it’s been, I think, a real progressive movement for women, even in a culture that doesn’t know that that’s happening all, everywhere else, in the world. And we’re working with a couple artisan boutiques in Seattle who are carrying our pieces. They also carry those from other artisans around the world. So we get exposure to what that process is like elsewhere, and that’s been really eye opening for me and so much more meaningful. So I’m excited about the evolution.

Brandy Montague 16:22
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense and that’s, um, wow, how neat to see micro communities around the world, and see how they’re doing things, and how it differs, and how that voice of those individuals comes through. How did you find this group that you’re working with?

Laura Choi 16:45
Well we got lucky because one of the cofounders of Fashion for Conservation has the organization. She’s been running that one based in Peru, and the Amazon rainforest for years, even before Fashion for Conservation was founded. And she’s been really dogged, almost 12 months of the year to protect the relationships with the indigenous cultures. And they’re pretty wary of foreigners. One big point in that is foreigners tend to come ruin their landscape and the natural forestry, and then often take their designs to mimic them overseas. So there’s a little bit of a mentality of proprietary right, which I completely empathize with, but Samantha is so dedicated to their cause that she’s able to navigate their hesitance in that. So we’ve been really lucky to be able to have her as that bridge between our cultures.

Brandy Montague 17:43
Yeah that’s really neat, and it’s interesting how that theme kind of spans so many different people. I think anyone who is creating something from inside themselves to give it out into the world seems to run into this issue of proprietary problems, where it’s taken and sometimes mass produced, sometimes even sold much cheaper than you can do it, things like that.

Brandy Montague 18:11
So you describe how you’re working with kind of a small artisan group, and individuals who are bringing about a different style I guess in fashion that’s very unique to them. And how there are different groups around the world kind of doing this, different smaller groups, and I see some of them too. Do you think that this is maybe a direction that fashion is headed, having, you know so much more of these kind of little pockets in all corners of the world, creating fashion? Or do you see it headed in, you know, maybe a different direction?

Laura Choi 18:52
Well with internet globalization and getting it into remote corners of the world, people, customers, business owners become more knowledgeable and they can do their research on what they want to produce and why they want to do it. And more and more the why does become important. As you see the conglomerates taking over, or else completely going out of business, you realize that that central value of the why gets really lost, because you try to satisfy everybody.

Laura Choi 19:21
And Fashion for Conservation was that way for a while, and it felt that way to me too, where I felt like, okay, we’re satisfying the need for customers to have fun events, or to see things on their Instagram or see high fashion models because it’s just visually appealing. But that’s, I felt like it was starting to muddy what we were really trying to do across the world. And it wasn’t getting our why across very well. So, now that we have had that, we feel even more committed to bringing out the artistry of other artisan communities. And having working with boutiques like Cura Co. here in Seattle, that’s exactly what they do. They support specifically indigenous communities who might not otherwise have access to the international markets and specifically America.

Laura Choi 20:11
And I think that that is more and more, the way things are going, not only because there’s a competition of brands against brands, but also with the internet people can do more research into what they buy and why. And because particularly now we’re celebrating individuality, I think humans are more geared to finding unique things than ever and not necessarily trying to do their style the same way they see everybody else doing it.

Laura Choi 20:42
So it’s a really great movement for smaller independent brands. It’s more economic and sustainable to be making pieces as smaller scale locally anyway. So in my mind I really see it as a win win for the environment, for people who are trying to be more knowledgeable about the fashion choices, and then the artisan communities too.

Brandy Montague 21:05
Yeah you know as you talk I’m realizing I see a lot of that here in LA too. Handmade markets are growing in popularity and it’s not just LA I see it, you know all over the US, probably other countries as well, that the handmade markets are growing, the support of small artisans is growing, the look for constantly looking for something more unique but something that has a story behind it that you know you can get behind. And I see that as well, that changing around here too.

Laura Choi 21:38
I thought about your brand too. It was very endearing. I think that’s the word I think of. And you were also in the process of changing your name I last recall. You have these really cute printed elephant shirts for children so I feel like you were very inclusive, and when they interviewed you for our blog, you were talking about how the impact was so important to you. So kudos to you as well. I felt really good about reading about your brand and your family and how it came into being, and other people want to feel that way to about their fashion choices.

Brandy Montague 22:15
Yeah, thank you. And yeah, for me, it has always been, well at least originally it started about making a difference for animals, and then it’s like as I got into that a little bit more I realized, wait a minute, there’s a lot in here that is important to think about the earth at the same time. And it um, I became pretty passionate through that, about the subject you know very similar to what you’re talking about, you know, there’s um… I want to see meaning behind things. I want to see people working to try to make the earth a better place. And it’s not an easy thing to do, you know, it is not easy to go against the grain, and try to do things better. Have you had that experience with what you’re doing as well, like things are not always too easy it’s, it can be hard?

Laura Choi 23:08
Yeah, especially with… Well, I have to say to everybody’s credit they’ve been really behind our mission and very supportive. But now it’s a means of training the artisans to compete with our market. And there’s a big teaching initiative behind that. And also trying to dispel their fears of having their designs copied. So there is a resistance that is cultural and systemic there within Peru. Besides that, as long as you have the right person on the ground who’s very committed. I think that they’re able to start that movement, and we have been lucky with that. But it’s very difficult. Our cultures are so different that there really needs to be a strong bridge between the two. And that’s our challenge right now.

Brandy Montague 23:56
You know, it’s funny I feel like that kind of applies to everything everywhere. You need those people, and that understanding, and just a lot of time and patience and hard work to bring those things together. And then when they come together it results in something amazing like what you’re doing, you know?

Laura Choi 24:20
Yeah, that’s appealing across all cultures, races, all of that. So it’s, it’s going to be really good. And I remain optimistic about it.

Brandy Montague 24:34
Hi there, I know jumping out for a quick break is not always ideal but I wanted to quickly say thank you for listening, and thank you for supporting For Animals For Earth. I also want to invite you to come hang out with me over on Instagram. I’m at @foranimalsforearth and I’d love if you would pop over and say hi. You can either comment on something or DM me. It doesn’t matter, I would just love to connect with you. Now let’s jump into the simple idea part of our show.

Brandy Montague 25:06
So if someone is listening, and this idea of doing fashion differently is somewhat of a new thought for them. And, they have this closet full of clothes, they’re very into what they wear, and they feel like saying, “But I can’t not get new things all the time because that’s what makes me excited.” What would you share as kind of a simple idea to just start heading in a slightly different direction, not a complete overhaul but just stepping into a different direction?

Laura Choi 25:44
Well, it’s funny you say that because as soon as you brought this up, I started thinking about our founder. And what’s interesting is, she doesn’t really have a home. She travels all over the world, all the time. And I think how can you do that with your possessions? And she tells me she really owns basically nothing… but she doesn’t own any clothing. And so then I thought, well what do you do when you travel and you need clothes? You can’t just live in one outfit for the rest of your life! And she says that she’s constantly borrowing it. So she’ll, she’ll borrow clothing from someone, and often doesn’t even matter if it’s men or women so much is gender neutral now. And then she will just pass that along, and share that. So it’s really interesting. She’ll do that all over the world.

Laura Choi 26:30
This sense of recycling and vintage fashion, and a lot of secondhand fashion, I think there was a period when that was not supported, or people felt negative emotions about it because maybe it almost seems like you would feel inadequate for not having a complete wardrobe. Or you would be inadequate for not having a sense of place. But now that people are so much more accepting, I do think across all boundaries and cultural lines, it makes sense to share.

Laura Choi 27:07
There’s also a company here, that does secondhand clothing, and they make algorithms. They do this with tech, they make algorithms where they determine how often those early stories, particularly of women, start with sharing clothes. So, for a lot of sisters, for example, and I have a sister, you share your clothes, and sometimes between mothers and grandmothers you pass your clothes down. And that’s become a really beautiful story, I think, and moreover, the recycling aspect of course is so environmentally friendly. And you do need good quality and sometimes higher price tags in order for something to stand the test of time. So for me I am, I would not have said this maybe years ago, working in mostly luxury fashion, but now I just think wow that appeal of, you know, the Traveling Pants like that story that just goes all over, what a story that it tells. And I think people are really intrigued by that, you know.

Brandy Montague 28:09
That’s, that’s really interesting and I love that idea. And you can see how easily it could apply to a group of friends. Every once in a while groups of friends, friends of mine, just did this a couple of weeks ago and I couldn’t make it. But they get together, twice a year, and exchange clothes. And so you get that boost, you know, and your clothes get another life.

Laura Choi 28:33
Yeah, and there’s a lot of consignment online too that makes it easy. They’ll come pick up your clothes, exchange, you get credit to other places, or else you get different clothing in exchange for yours. It’s really interesting. The internet’s really brought that about I think.

Brandy Montague 28:50
That’s really… do you know off the top of your head, a name of a business that’s doing that? If you don’t we can add it to the notes.

Laura Choi 28:57
Well, I’ve started Real Real, so I sold some pieces through there. And a new initiative they’ve had since this year is broadcasting how many liters of water you save by recycling, so they’ll show the data now of the environmental impact your consignment has. And I’ve noticed also on Etsy, there have been a lot of statistics, specifically of smaller brands that come up and say, “this is why we hand make things in this marketplace”. And finally I know that Nordstrom recently started their own in house recycling brand, which is really cool. So you can bring pieces in and they will recycle them or consign them for you. So even, it’s funny I think the bigger conglomerates are taking after the smaller businesses in that regard.

Brandy Montague 29:45
I think so too. You’re starting to see that happen for sure.

Laura Choi 29:49
Definitely, yeah, that’s a way the future.

Brandy Montague 29:52
Yeah, yeah, I love it. So Laura, if someone wants to… What is the best place for someone to follow and see what’s happening with Fashion for Conservation. We’ll put all of your different links in the notes, but our number one favorite place to send people would be what?

Laura Choi 30:08
Yeah, our website right now is still FashionforConservation.com. We’re in the midst of changing the logo and the colors and the name, but for now that’s still it. And then going forward, we also have the Instagram that will change the story behind that quite a lot as well and feature a lot more women in the indigenous community. So I would say those two specifically, Instagram and FashionforConservation.com.

Brandy Montague 30:34
Great. Okay, perfect. Awesome. It was so nice talking to you, Laura. I so love, where our conversation went, and the different themes that came up, and the ideas for people. I just think it’s so helpful, and it was just so great speaking with you. Thank you again.

Brandy Montague 30:51
And that’s all for today, thanks so much for tuning in and listening. I hope you enjoyed the show. If so please consider hitting subscribe, rating or reviewing us, telling a friend, any or all of the above truly make a difference. The more people we can reach, the more people I can find to interview, and the bigger impact we can make together. Keep an eye on your feed. We’ll be back soon with the next episode. Thanks, bye.

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