By merging ethics with aesthetics, Symbology lets its customers wear pieces that celebrate artisan technique and sustainable living standards around the world. Read on to discover what this go-to sustainable brand’s founder, Marissa Heyl, has to say about running her fashion-forward business, her top tips for running your own fashion brand, and their Fall 2018 collection:
How has your unconventional background in Anthropology inspired your sense of design?
My exploration of different cultures through travel, study and hours in the non-Western wings of art museums–yes I am a huge nerd–serves as the basis for my designs. I choose motifs from various cultures’ textiles that are imbued with meaning, such as elephants and gingko leaves, and celebrate that culture in our collection. Then I provide my own twist to create a design that’s not only beautiful but wearable. I also make a point to give the artisans and culture credit where credit is due, so it’s not cultural appropriation, but appreciation.
How do you navigate style with sustainable production? What advice would you give new designers trying to balance both?
I focus on block printing, embroidery, tie dye and try to incorporate trends while maintaining the integrity of the art form. I always aim to be as inclusive as possible, so I choose new silhouettes and colors that flatter a diverse group of women in terms of size, ethnicity and age.
I would advise new designers to find the right balance of sustainable practices and market relevance.
Do not compromise on your standards to try to appease more customers; for instance, I have had several customers advise me to block print on polyester fabrics, since they didn’t want to have to worry about the fabric wrinkling. I use those moments to discuss the many benefits of working with natural, non-synthetic fibers.
Symbology is known for its deep connection with textiles and prints. What are some of the symbols that inspired the Fall 2018 collection?
This collection was not as much inspired by a particular culture, as with most of our collections, but a resource we all share as humans that is currently threatened more than ever by pollution–our oceans. I watched ‘A Plastic Ocean,’ a documentary about the devastating effects our consumption and waste have on our oceans, and aimed to use my collection as a platform to explore that relationship. We will donate 10% of all sales in October to the Coral Reef Alliance to support their reef conservation efforts.
What can you tell us about the women who make your clothes?
I have really enjoyed revisiting the women and meeting their families over the years. This January, I got to interview a family of three generations of women who have been impacted by Symbology orders. The grandmother, Lakshmi has been block printing for 55 years. When she began printing, she was a widowed mother of four, and had to be able to provide for her children by taking on block printing work. Now she continues to print because she enjoys it and is proud she can support herself and her family.
She really loves how her artistry is appreciated by people around the world, which brings her a great sense of pride in her work.
Many of the women we partner with are not allowed to leave their homes without being accompanied by a man. Most have been educated through 8th or 9th grade and have never been had the opportunity to work. Without a high school or college degree, coupled with cultural norms that tend to keep women in the home, their prospects are extremely limited. By tapping into a skill they already know like block printing, we are able to give them immediate and sustained employment. What has also struck me is the empowerment and sense of empathy these women share when being able to connect with other women at work.
For some, it’s the first time as adults that they have been able to spend time with other women they are not related to.
We work with a fantastic small business in Jaipur that is dedicated to preserving artisan technique and paying fair wages. They have recently implemented a holistic healthcare program and sponsored college scholarships for employees’ children.
What is the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received?
You can’t please everyone–stay true to your own design and mission. And stay focused. Being in the sustainable fashion space can be a bit confusing for brands and customers alike. It’s important at the end of the day that we are able to sell our products and keep prices as affordable for our customers as possible.
I’ve also had advisers recommended I make our garments in solid colors, without print to have more mass appeal. But we are a symbol and print-driven label. Don’t water down your design–there will be a customer who loves and appreciates your design. You just have to figure out how to market to her. And then scale, scale scale!
Who would you love to see in your brand?
Gina Rodriguez all the way. I love her on Jane the Virgin and her activism on social issues in real life. Did you know she started We Will Foundation to champion young women from low-income backgrounds through exposure to the arts?! And Michelle Obama, of course. And Dua Lipa. All badass bossbabes in their own right.
Last, but not least, how do you wear your values?
I wear Symbology, obvi 🙂 and when I get complimented I try to use it as an opportunity to mention fair trade alternatives to fast fashion. We say that wearing Symbology is making a statement in more ways than one–not just of fashion, but reflecting the wearer’s values. I also cherish pieces by some of my favorite ethical brands Darzah, Soko, and Fortress of Inca. But I honestly can’t afford a lot of ethical fashion. So I thrift and shop vintage. And collect hats. Lots of vintage hats.