By Nevena Rousseva
Natalia Allen is changing the fashion industry one seamless dress at a time. In May the 29-year-old native New Yorker debuted her first collection, the Essentialist, which embodies sustainable practices, innovative technology, and modern luxury.
Ms. Allen is an impressive woman. She graduated from Parson’s School of Design as designer of the year, a title she shares with Marc Jacobs, Proenza Schouler, and Tom Ford. After college she founded Design Futurist, a design consulting firm that has created innovative products for global fashion brands like Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, as well as advised non-apparel giants like Dupont and P&G. She has received recognitions by Fast Company as one of 100 Most Creative and by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader. She has spoken around the world at conferences in Dubai, Davos, China and Saudi Arabia on environmentally and socially responsible design.
We spoke- during a busy time for Ms. Allen- about the Essentialist collection, sustainable design, and the environmental challenges facing the fashion industry.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
You said it’s a hectic time are there exciting things happening with the company and with you?
Yes, as you know I’ve started my new line Essentialist and I’m not only building the next collection, I’m building the team and operations. As the sole founder that means that a lot of the responsibility is with me and I take that very seriously.
Can we go back to where you started? I read you wanted to be a doctor growing up and you actually studied it for a little bit. How did you transition from medicine to studying fashion design at Parsons?
I think sometimes in life you make decisions the best you know how at that time. One thing I’ll say, I find it odd that at 16 years of age, when most of us have not done much serious work, we are asked to make these life-altering decisions.
The thought of practicing medicine was a noble one, but I felt much more drawn to college courses I was taking in English literature and Art. I liked the undefined process of questioning and discovering. It is much more suited for my personality and curiosity. When I was accepted to Parsons, which is a great school for design, attending was just a no brainer.
You worked on projects for various companies while you were in school and then you started Design Futurist. Did the company develop out of the projects you worked on?
It happened organically. I started with one client, Donna Karan, did my best, and worked with them for quite a number of years.
I think the fashion industry is a fairly small one, and the work I specialized in garnered attention. So from one client I went to the next client and eventually I had a small consultancy producing pretty groundbreaking work.
Do you have a favorite project you worked on?
The projects with the broadest scopes were always the most fun because I had the freedom and challenge of creating new guidelines.
Are you working on any new projects or just focusing on your new line?
110 percent of my energy is going into Essentialist. It’s a decision I made a number of months ago after the line nearly sold out during the soft launch.
What is the Essentialist dress?
The Essentialist dress is made seamlessly by machines in the USA from sustainable high quality textiles. The result is a minimalist dress that is ultra-chic, flattering and lightweight.
What is the type of customer you want to reach?
Every woman and any woman who loves fashion, design or architecture, but also has a very busy life!
With Essentialist I want to dress modern working women who will appreciate the simplicity, style and ease of a Little Black “Seamless” Dress.
In an increasingly competitive job market, women need to dress for success. However, most women don’t want to spend their whole day shopping, trying to match this – with that.
Essentialist is a modern classic that women who travel frequently or run from appointment to appointment can rely on season after season.
What is your philosophy on sustainable design?
I think we are all on this huge learning curve and trying to unlearn bad habits as well as aspire toward great habits. I think there are major issues in the industry. Through my consulting work I was uniquely exposed to problems at farms at factories and so on.
Essentialist is a design company and as a design company our philosophy is to demonstrate best practices. Not because we want to win a sustainability award, but because doing our best is fundamental to the brand.
In fact, the first customers to experience the Essentialist line said “Natalia I love the fit” or “Oh, this feels great it’s so lightweight” or “This flatters me so well”. They first acknowledge the design. I think every customer should expect sustainable practices from the brands they support. And the sustainability should not limit the quality of design.
How are you reaching your customers?
I held a soft launch in NYC to a curated group of women in May. It was a success. I’ve continued to sell to new and repeat customers thorough my website www.nataliaallen.com. The business is already global!
The dresses in your collection have no seams, how are they constructed?
By a machine that stitches together the garments in one process in one step. Traditionally clothing is cut out of a block of fabric and a person will then sew the pieces together using a sewing machine. The technology that I’m working with allows me to go directly from the fabric to the finished garment in one step. I work locally in the USA which is the next best part. My mission is to seamlessly make beautiful minimalist garments that are designed to simplify your life.
It’s important to note that traditionally a fiber is grown in one country, processed in another, then dyed in another, spun in another and woven into a textile in another. That textile then is shipped to another place where it’s cut and sewn. The garment then goes to another country where it’s finished and packed and then it’s shipped to another place where it’s eventually sold. And then actually if it’s not sold in an adequate amount of time, it’s then shipped to another country and given away for free or landfilled.
When you think about how convoluted the fashion supply chain is, it’s easy to see why I created Essentialist: a streamline and ethical way for women to dress beautifully and simply.
Tell me about the fabrics you use?
I’m sourcing the fabrics from lovely heritage mills. The luxurious fabric is made from 14% Elite; a high-performance stretch fiber that gives the dress great versatility and 86% Viscose; an eco-friendly fiber derived from fast growing trees. The fabric has a smooth feel and rich lasting color. The fabric is also very light, making this dress a perfect summer travel companion.
Are you currently selling anywhere? Or just through your website?
I’m currently making arrangements to offer the line through few cool boutiques. Please check my website for details.
Are you currently working on a Fall collection?
Yes I am. In September I will present new colors, which is exciting because I had a lot of requests. And there were women who were not part of the small, medium, large range who really wanted to become customers so I’m going to introduce new sizes.
It’s important for me that Essentialist stick to its values and vision of innovation, quality, and sustainability. That’s something I talk a lot about as a global speaker. Now it’s time to walk the talk.
I studied fashion design at FIT, and I myself want to design my own collection with sustainability at the core. But after learning the startling facts about the industry’s environmental impacts, I think to myself- There are already so many clothing lines out there, and new ones popping up all the time, does the world really need one more, even one that wants to do better? I go back and forth with this thought in my head, because my desire is to design, but my conscience feels guilty. Did you ever feel that way when designing your line?
I had a vision. It wasn’t just about creating a line for the sake of creating a line. I had a purpose when I created Essentialist, a way to do things different and better.
So if a new fashion line is not your personal vision, than yes, you should question it and think about what you uniquely bring to the table. Not everyone needs to design a line, you are correct. If instead of immediately designing a new line, people were to think about other ways to address the creativity or sustainability challenge, we would all be better off.
I think you asked a good question.
Moving to the bigger picture, what do you see as the biggest challenge facing the fashion industry currently in terms of sustainability?
In my opinion, there is not one thing that trumps everything else. Good is good, bad is bad, and I’m not going to be the judge of what’s the least bad or most good.
I will say that there are three major challenges, namely:
(1) Toxic textiles and dyes: Essentialist addresses this issue by choosing textiles that are free of many toxins such as Azo dyes.
(2) Unethical labor: There is still a tremendous amount of exploitation of people, mostly women. Workers are denied rights and as a result are abused. For this reason, Essentialist dresses are made in the USA.
(3) Massive Waste: Vast amounts of energy, oil, water, land, and crops are used globally to make new clothing, which is often discarded months after being purchased. It will be interesting to see companies that start to recycle fashion, and it will be interesting to see how as the economy changes, if customers will continue to be on that treadmill or if they become slower shopper and more purposeful shoppers.
Right now the waste cycle for fashion is enormous and getting larger and larger every year. At Essentialist, I design and make products that will last. Each dress is a timeless design made from quality textiles that will outlast a season.
Those are the big three that I tend to look at very closely, but there are certainly others.
In closing, do you have a piece of advice for the up and coming generations of designers?
It’s kind of hard to give one piece of advice because I can only speak from my limited knowledge and experience. I can only speak for myself and my journey, which I hope will inform or inspire others.
One extra thought. Millennial entrepreneurs often fascinate me. Our generation wants to join the mission of the for-profit corporation with the mission of not-for profit organization. It’s great. I hope collectively we can accomplish just that.♥
What an inspirational woman!
To view and purchase the Essentialist collection click here.