Tara St. James is a fashionista with a conscience. Founder of the brand Study, Tara is half-businesswoman, half-designer, and all purpose. She’s introducing ethically sourced material, ethical production practices, and consumer transparency into the New York fashion world.
CONVICTS caught up with Tara at the Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator to get her word on the problems with fast fashion, our shortening attention spans, and the importance of creating with a conscience.
Hey Tara. To start, can you introduce yourself and tell us where we are?
My name is Tara St. James and I’m the founder of Study New York. We are located in the Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator in the old Pfizer building right on the cusp of Williamsburg and Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn.
Can tell us a bit about the BFDA and what makes it special?
The BFDA was launched by Pratt institute in 2014. It’s an accelerated program for emerging designers who are working in sustainability within fashion, home textiles, toys, services. The common thread these designers have is that there is a sustainability component to their business model, so we help mentor those businesses.
Where are you from originally, and what brought you to New York?
I was born and raised in Montreal in Canada and lived there until I turned about eighteen. I actually lived in Australia for a year after that and studied in France, but then I moved to New York in 2004 because it felt like the place I wanted to be as an individual, as a creative, and now as a business owner.
What attracted you to New York rather than France or Montreal?
Well, first I should start by saying I love Montreal, it’s an incredible city. I always feel a little bit of pain when I think of having left, because there is so much creativity there. I don’t think I would be who I was if I hadn’t grown up there. I wouldn’t have the same perspective on creation if I hadn’t grown up there. But at the time I moved, New York was a very dynamic and encouraging place. The community I found here was very different from what I was raised in, as a business person in Montreal, so it felt like home for me from a creative standpoint but also from a business standpoint.
Tell us a bit about your brand Study.
I launched Study New York in 2009 after having worked in the fashion industry for many years, primarily because I wanted to do my own thing and be my own boss and make my own decisions. The reason I chose the name Study is because I was really interested in examining sustainable business models in fashion. Not many people were exploring what was happening in sustainability at that time and it was important for me to kind of counterbalance the effects of the fashion industry, in general.
What got you interested in the idea of counterbalance in fashion?
Having worked in the industry for ten years as a designer, as a business person, I’ve seen first hand all of the negative effects. So I called it Study because I really wanted to learn more for myself and use the brand kind of as a petri dish to see what was going on in the industry and play with different business models.
How did you become interested in the ethics of fashion production?
There was one sourcing trip in Hong Kong that I went on and started finding organic cotton on the market there, which was just a happy accident. I wasn’t really looking for it, if I’m being totally honest. But I started doing the research on the differences between organic cotton and conventional cotton, and I always say that’s information I can’t unknow or unlearn so that catapulted into me learning all of these other things about the effects of the industry. I was there on site at factories in China seeing how the workers worked on the denim, what effects it was having on their health and on the water. It just either made me want to leave the industry altogether or do something a little bit different, and I didn’t really know how to do anything else. So I decided I would counterbalance those negative effects. That’s how I see the brand, as really as a message rather than just as a clothing brand.
These days, so many brands are paying lip-service to sustainability but what does that term mean to you?
As far as translating sustainability into my actual day-to-day there are a lot of strategies that I employ. Going back to the origins of sustainability, when I started working it was actually called Green Fashion. I’m so glad we got away from that. Then the name became eco-fashion, sustainability stuck for a while, ethical fashion is starting to take over and I think we’re even starting to see conscious consumerism come in, circular production. There’s a lot of different terms. It can actually be quite confusing for customers to understand what all of those sustainability strategies mean.
What is your goal for sustainable fashion as a whole?
At the end of the day, I would love for all fashion and in fact all business to be sustainable. Then the businesses who aren’t doing anything right could just be called unethical. They’re the ones that need the branding, not us.
What are the practical strategies for increasing sustainability within your brand?
Eliminating waste from the cutting room floor and from landfill, using socially responsible and ethical materials like organic cotton, organic linen, traceable wool, recycled polyesters – knowing my supply chain as far as cutting and sewing. I cut and sew almost everything in New York City with ethical labor, and am transparent with my customer. I also work with a cooperative in North Carolina for a small portion of my production. The fabric is from North Carolina and the sewing is done there too, just to keep it local.
How do you share this story with your customers?
I talk about all of that stuff on every single label I put on the garment, so the consumer know where I’m buying my fabric, what it’s made of, where the piece was, who sewed it. Every garment has the signature of the person that sewed it on that garment so that there is a connection between the origin of the sewing and where it ends up.
Do your rigorous sustainability standards present creative challenges?
If I didn’t have those limitations on the brand I would have other limitations. A lot of designers use themes or trends for their seasons and then work within that theme. I don’t do that. Instead I put different parameters on the brand, within the material sourcing, which is my favorite thing to do. So I don’t see it as a challenge. And to be honest, if I wasn’t doing things the way I’m doing them now, I just wouldn’t be doing them. I couldn’t in good conscience work with a factory that I didn’t trust and love, I couldn’t use a material that I didn’t know the sourcing of. It’s not a question of whether it’s challenging or not . It’s a question of whether I’m doing it or just not doing it.
3D printing and wearable tech is all the rage right now. Where do you and Study fall with regards to the intersection of fashion and technology?
To be honest I’m kind of a luddite when it comes to a lot of what I do. I have tried sourcing online, finding the fabrics has to be a very tactile experience, so that can be a challenge but I do it when I need to. If you want my honest opinion about what the future will look like, I think we’re starting to get away from mass scale manufacturing. I have great insight on that just based on the production room here at the BFDA. I think we’re getting into a zone of micro-manufacturing where everyone is going to be making products for themselves in their kitchens, in their living rooms. One day we’ll all have 3d printers for not just product, but textiles and products and clothes, so you’ll sit at home and buy the garment but it won’t be shipped to you, you can just press print. One day.
Have you seen customer attitudes toward sustainability change over the years?
I’d like to say that there is a much bigger demand for sustainability in fashion now than there was five or ten years ago, but I don’t really think that’s the reality. In a way that’s good, because fashion should be bought to make people happy and to make them feel good about themselves. But my job is to make sure that the people that are making that fashion are also being well treated. There’s a part of me that feels that the customer really shouldn’t feel responsible for demanding that, but at the same time a lot of the bigger companies aren’t going to make any change until the customers demand for it. So I’m really torn about that question of change, however, I do see more requests for information and transparency and storytelling. Before, it was all about materiality and manufacturing, and now it’s more about storytelling and information there, so there’s definitely been a change in the narrative and change in people’s interests.
What about on the design end, do you see a greater focus on sustainable fashion models?
I am very, very positive looking at the next generation. I teach a class on sustainable textiles at FIT so I get to see the next generation of students coming out of schools and a lot of them are looking at getting into a career that makes them feel good about themselves and follows their ethos and values as opposed to just getting into fashion. I won’t say it’s all of them, but it’s definitely a good portion, and so that’s very encouraging because that wasn’t the case ten years ago.
What is the biggest threat to sustainable fashion?
Fast fashion is the biggest threat to sustainability right now. That speed. I suppose the media has something to do with that. It’s really hard to do something new every day, and that’s what the fast fashion companies doing. I don’t see a new threat coming in-I actually think that the speed of manufacturing and the speed of marketing can only go so fast before our attention levels are incapable of dealing. Hopefully, there is going to be a retaliation to that, and things will slow down and we’ll see a slow fashion movement. It’ll be creepy and crawly, but good.
I read recently that our average attention span is eight seconds.
I read that. It’s really depressing. I had a teacher in high school who would make us get up every twelve minutes because that’s when the commercials would come onto the TV, so we’d need a commercial break.
Switching gears a bit. If you had not started Study New York, what do you think you would be doing?
Thats a great question. I have no idea. I’ve thought about that in the past, but not recently. Teaching maybe. When I was young I wanted to be an astronaut and then in high school I wanted to be in politics, so I was on the debate team. In Canada, hah, big difference. But at the same time I was always drawing clothes, I was always making things, working with my hands – so if I wasn’t designing I think I would probably be working in a factory, teaching people how to sew. That kind of thing.
How do escape your work and unwind?
My escape is cooking. I love to cook. So even if there is nothing in the fridge I like going home and figuring something out and making something.
Talk a bit about moving from Canada to New York?
I always felt like an outsider, I suppose, even in the fashion industry. Even now, since sustainability and transparency are so niche and such a small part of the industry, I still feel like an outsider sometimes. I sometimes feel I’m looking at the industry from behind a window, or from behind a mesh screen . But I’m really comfortable in that space, whereas it felt a bit isolating a few years ago. There’s a little bit more communication. I feel like I’ve found my space.
Right on, Tara. Thanks for the chat and best of luck with everything.