With big dreams to work for a brand to come up with concepts and choose factories and fabrics, Julia Valencikova decided to study Fashion Merchandising Management at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in NYC. That plan was quickly thwarted when she began to realize how awful industry standards actually were. In fact, part of her course was learning how to reduce factory costs by pennies, even to the detriment of the environment. Throughout her student years (she graduated in 2016), sustainability was still a minimal topic of conversation at FIT. While the college did start a minor degree in it, the program was small enough that she didn’t know anything about it. Luckily, a chance encounter with a professor and a weekly meet-up group with other students enabled her to find a different way to make her mark in the fashion industry, ultimately co-founding esa new york.
This weekend, esa is hosting its annual do+brew event in NYC, a d.i.y. (do it yourself) party and clothing swap. I spoke with Julia to learn more about the event, the importance of collaboration, and why “sustainability” isn’t the right term.
+ When did you start to become interested in sustainability in the fashion industry?
In my junior year at FIT, I took a class called “Sustainability in Fashion Merchandising,” which was taught by this amazing professor who owns a sustainably-minded lifestyle store, Annie’s Blue Ribbon General Store in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I don’t think she understands how much that class changed my life. One of our homework assignments was to go home and look at our entire closet and count how many items we had, as well as where each piece was made. That process opened my eyes to how much stuff I owned and to the fact that all of these brands that I thought were made in New York (like Rag & Bone) were actually made in China. It just made me realize that even when I thought I was supporting something better, I wasn’t. From that day on, I decided to focus on sustainability.
I completely stopped buying fast fashion and started working for Crossroad’s Trading Company, which made me realize you could buy all the trends (if you wanted to) without ever having to support all the evil those companies do. In my last semester of college, I started interning for Zero Waste Daniel; he basically made the first zero-waste clothing brand where everything is made out of cutting room scraps, all the leftovers from production. I spent the next two years helping to build the brand.
+ How did you meet esa’s co-founder, Willa?
Willa was at FIT at the same time as me, she studied Textile Marketing and Development and was being taught how to make textiles cheaper so that they would break down within nine months. Not surprisingly, she had a similar epiphany to me, and so she started a little meet-up group with other students. We would meet every Saturday morning, rent a room at the library, and talk and research possible solutions. Willa played a considerable role in the first-ever textile composting program at FIT, so we all brought our knowledge together to survive the negativity of what we were learning about. When we graduated, a few of us from the group decided to keep working together. We had no idea what we were doing; we just knew we had to do something.
Our first event was a fashion show called esabitchin (we love playing with words), models wore sustainable clothing and talked with the guests about the garments and what went into making them. We did a few of those, but, over time, the original group from FIT dwindled, until just Willa and I were left.
We officially co-founded esa new york in 2017 and pivoted from promoting sustainable shopping to being more eduction-based and inspiring people to focus on their existing closet. do+brew was the first event that encapsulated what we are about: mending, swapping, and coming together to learn about the industry. We all wear clothes, so we want to help everyone to do it more circularly. The two of us have been running it for the last three years. We do the work every day because we can’t imagine doing anything else.
+ Where does the name esa come from?
Esa is the name of a wolf-god in Yellowstone National Park. In 1995, the park reintroduced a pack of wolves, which dramatically changed the park’s ecosystem: animals that had previously left returned, rivers changed course, and different trees began to grow. This one pack of wolves started a chain reaction that brought back balance, stability, and life to the park and changed it for the better. We were so inspired by that story that we decided we wanted to be the pack of wolves for the fashion industry.
+ What is the work-load of running a grassroots organization?
Well, a lot of work! I work full-time, and Willa freelances full-time, so we both work on esa part-time – about 20 hours a week at this point. The work-load comes in waves but always includes a lot of calls and meetings. Right now, we are in the process of becoming a non-profit with the help of pro-bono lawyers, and the organization is 100% volunteer-run. Everyone works remotely, which does make it hard to feel connected, but it is exciting when months of planning come together, and we all get to be in the same place! For the upcoming do+brew, we have a network of about 50 volunteers, some of whom I have met, others with whom I have only talked to on the phone or by e-mail. It is all kinds of people coming together because we believe in the same mission, which is educating people in order to close the loop on the fashion industry and change it for the better.
+ What do you wish everyone knew about their fashion choices?
Know that you don’t have to buy new stuff every day, every week, or every month. You don’t have to shop for clothes every time pay-day comes around. I want people to understand swapping and sharing is fun and exciting and is an excellent way to bring newness into your life without giving any money to corporations.
Additionally, I wish people would start opening up the conversation about “what’s next?” We are all talking about changing the industry, but what are we turning it into? What are the new systems we can put in place? How will fashion week look? We need everyone to have a job, so what does the job market look like in the circular economy? That is what I have been thinking a lot about.
+ In what ways have you noticed the conversation around sustainable/conscious fashion change since you started?
Honestly, in so many ways. But, I do think it is two-fold because I am very much in the sustainability community, and I have seen it grow so much. Every time we have a new volunteer, we always ask them what brought you here, and more frequently, the answer is, “I have been exposed to this truth, and once you know you can’t go back.” There are so many sustainable groups to be a part of now, more sustainable events than ever, and everyone is sharing sustainable memes on Instagram! Sustainability is beyond a trend.
On the other hand, greenwashing is very much alive. On the train, I see people with fast fashion shopping bags, and that definitely does wake me up. But, we have to stay positive and celebrate small changes while still recognizing that more urgency is needed.
+ What do you think needs to happen to push the conversation further?
There are so many movements because the entire system is broken. The political, the economic, the fashion, the food – all of it is broken because it all stems from capitalism. (That is for another conversation!) We have to rebuild the whole system, which is kind of terrifying because it is the one way of life we have known. But, I do think that as young people move up into new roles, we can change it. For example, there are lots of new companies with female CEOs who are running things differently than the norm. The main thing that I imagine will move everything forward is that we step up into these bigger roles. As long as we stick to our belief system and take that with us into these positions, I think we can push the conversation further and make significant changes.
I also strongly believe in the power of education, especially in a fun way. At our events, we get all sorts of attendees who are aware of so many issues but not necessarily about those related to the fashion industry. Simply by talking, you automatically help people see things differently. I don’t think we understand how powerful it is to have conversations like these with both your close inner circle and strangers. Don’t be afraid to be who you are and share your thoughts! If we stay quiet, we will just keep doing things the same way.
+ What does sustainability mean to you?
For starters, Willa and I both hate the term “sustainability.” The new word is “climate positivity,” which means doing better than sustainability, making a positive impact, and I do believe in that. Do we really want to sustain? Shouldn’t we want to do more than that? We want to see a world where humans can live fulfilling, happy lives, but the planet is also able to live a happy, fulfilling life. Climate positivity seems to be the right word for a really, flourishing world.
+ Tell us all about the upcoming do+brew!
do+brew is on 2/23 (this Sunday!) at Project Farmhouse, which is a project of Grow NYC, an organization that has done amazing things in the city for many years. We are partnering with them for the third time now, so they are officially the home of do+brew! The event is a huge DIY, mending, and clothing swap party with one ticket allowing you to swap five items plus anything else you bring, and we have lots of different stations set up where you can learn DIYs.
For example, we have a denim station where you can learn how to distress, patch, and embroider your denim. We have a mending station where you can learn basic sewing and hemming techniques, as well as learn from experienced sewists who will be in attendance. There will be a knit mending station where you can learn to mend holes in your socks and sweaters. Our natural dyeing and painting station is first-come, first-serve to naturally indigo dye or paint on your garments – we provide all the materials! All the volunteers have different skill levels, and they are there to share them with you and teach you so that hopefully you can apply all the skills you have learned for years to come!
There will also be lots of treats for us to enjoy that have been donated by local vendors and a DJ! It is a really fun party!
images via remake
Thank you so much for talking with me, Julia!
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