If the fashion industry were ranked alongside individual countries’ gross domestic product, the global fashion industry would represent the world’s seventh largest economy. As giant as the fashion world is, these days it requires more grit than glamour.Unpredictability is the new norm. Just like other markets, fashion has felt the pains of an uncertain environment, marked by tremors in economies and shifting trends.
To survive is to stand out, and to do that many designers go against the grain, creating their own space for their creative genius to thrive. Or, in the case of Rachel Faller ’08 (Fiber B.F.A.), to align with their moral compass.
Despite her affinity for fibers and design, Faller did not see a traditional fit for herself in the fashion industry. “When I was younger, I always envisioned a more entrepreneurial path that also had a positive impact on issues of social justice,” she said. “I didn’t see anything that combined these two passions in the fashion world, so I thought, ‘I’ll have to create this.’”
Ten years into her entrepreneurial journey, Faller employs over 50 people in Cambodia under her zero-waste, ethically made fashion line, tonlé. When Faller went to Cambodia on a Fulbright grant in 2008 to learn about fair trade, she intended to do just that — learn. She researched conventional textile organizations and examined why, in a country whose economy was largely built off the textile industry, there was a lack of fair labor ethical standards to protect workers and manage waste.
“I had an epiphany. I realized nothing will change unless there are alternative options that allow for change from within,” Faller said.
She went to Cambodia to learn and left with a purpose. Back in the U.S., she hit the ground running, raising a small amount of seed money to open two fair labor clothing stores in Cambodia, selling to tourists and expatriates.
Today, tonlé employs marginalized women, such as single mothers or women with HIV, in its small Cambodian factory. The company has been zero-waste since 2014, incorporating additional waste management practices to minimize their carbon footprint. Also, unlike large manufacturers that cut wages when sales are low, all of Faller’s employees are salaried.
“Every new step we take, each time we grow a little more, we encounter growing pains. My priority is maintaining stability for Cambodian employees.”
The tonlé line follows suit to Faller’s operational practices and is designed to reflect the values of the company and the wearer. Comfort and function are priorities, and the style of her clothes, accessories, and jewelry comes to life through the resourceful ways her team leaves no thread unused. For example, the smallest waste scraps are tediously hand cut into tiny strips and sewn back together to make “yarn,” which is then either hand-knit or handwoven into new fabrics to make their signature jewelry line.
“It’s important to think of entrepreneurship like art,” she says. “Finding new solutions to old and big problems.”