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Sustainable Fashion Leading the Way

The fashion trend that is being both enviromentally friendly and fashion-forward

When a thirteen-year veteran of the fashion industry Rebecca Bush set out to create her sustainable fashion brand Rebecca Elizabeth, she found inspiration for her first collection in an unexpected place—the National Archeological Museum of Naples’s world-renowned ancient Roman sculptures. 

Bush’s interest in archeology was a result of her studies in Florence and her decision to split her time between New York City and Italy, where her partner is originally from; she had previously visited Pompei to admire its murals. 

To Bush, the timeless elegance of the National Archeological Museum’s marble goddesses embodied many of what she saw as the essential elements of the Rebecca Elizabeth brand: comfort, elegance, understated femininity, and silhouettes that would complement a wide range of sizes and heights.

“The fact that so many brands stop at a size ten is a shame,” Bush said. Rebecca Elizabeth’s first collection— four dresses inspired by the mythological Pleiades; sisters transformed into stars by Zeus—currently runs up to a size eighteen. Its website shows the dresses modeled in three different sizes. Bush plans to expand Rebecca Elizabeth's sizing in the future and turn it into a lifestyle brand with categories that will include footwear and swimwear.

While the theme of the Pleiades collection arrived to Bush in a moment of serendipity, her commitment to sustainability was a long-held conviction. It arose from her experience working as a footwear designer for major brands that included Coach and Ralph Lauren.

“Especially in larger companies, there is a lot more emphasis on the bottom line and profits and shareholders over people,” Bush said. She used the isolation she found herself facing at the beginning of the pandemic to reflect on what could be changed. She had two main criticisms of mass-produced fast fashion: the waste it produced and its treatment of workers.

Bush aimed to minimize the waste produced by her brand by avoiding mass production—Rebecca Elizabeth dresses are made-to-order—and through her choice of materials.

 Her debut collection is made from organic cotton and linen, deadstock fabric—fabric left over from other companies—and cupro, a biodegradable silk-like fabric made from the cotton liner, a part of the cotton plant that is typically discarded. Rebecca Elizabeth's cupro is manufactured in Japan by Asahi Kasei using a closed-loop system, which means that the hazardous chemicals used in its production process are reused to decrease their environmental impact.

According to Bush, the most difficult element of launching Rebecca Elizabeth was not sourcing materials but finding a factory based in the United States with labor practices she felt were ethical.

"Seamstresses are often paid by the piece, not by the hour," Bush said, which results in them making minimum or sub-minimum wage. The exploitation of garment workers is long-standing and sometimes fatal; one of the deadliest industrial disasters in United States history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, killed 146 in 1911, most Italian or Jewish immigrant women and girls. Today similar tragedies occur in factories fast-fashion brands outsource to in the Global South, including the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed at least 1,134 people—the majority also women or girls—in Bangladesh.

Acting on advice from her employees, Bush switched her original manufacturer to the Brooklyn-based Lauren Gabrielson factory where she says workers are paid twenty-five to thirty dollars an hour depending on their level of experience.

Bush wants to emphasize to her customers that the higher price of Rebecca Elizabeth's debut collection as compared to their fast-fashion equivalents—all the dresses are priced over two hundred and ninety dollars—is a result of her desire for greater sustainability in fashion and better conditions for its workers.

She sees herself as part of a larger community guided by the same goals, a community that includes other alumni of the sustainable fashion business school Factory45. Bush's shoutouts included creatives she knew personally like caftan designer Kristen Chester and swimwear designer Hannah McDermott. She also highlighted a variety of independent brands that included LOTIAlémais, and Ulla Johnson

For consumers looking to educate themselves on sustainable fashion, Bush recommended following Aditi Mayer—an activist criticizing the connection between fast fashion and colonialism—and the blog Sustainably Chic.

"So many people don't care and don't ask these questions," Bush said. "I think it's time to change that."

Adelina Nita

Alexandra Adelina Nita is a former America Domani editorial intern currently pursuing a journalism degree at Baruch College. At Baruch, Adelina is a graphics editor for its newspaper The Ticker (whose writing and photography has been republished in Dollars & Cents and Dateline: CUNY) and a marketing director for its arts publication Encounters Magazine. Adelina has also worked as a journalist for the Queens Post and a vote entry operator for the Associated Press.