Redefining The Luxury of Fashion – A Conversation With Kindred Black
Sharing their belief that sustainability is the new luxury, we wanted to talk to founding duo Alice Wells and Jennifer Francis of NY based online store Kindred Black, who we not only find to be utmost inspiring, but would love to be able to call our friends.
Kindred Black has in short time become one of our favorite online boutiques. This is partly due to their unique, hand picked assortment that reflects our own taste and love for everything ‘eco-responsible’, ‘craftsman produced’, and ‘ethically manufactured’ – these being the words they themselves use to describe their wide range of luxury lifestyle goods.
We also love a surprise, something you didn’t expect, which is another reason why the New York-based e-tailer is the ideal shopping destination. What do you say to hand painted ceramic dildos from Italy, Mescal Wishing Beans, or sea sponge tampons? These objects are of course offered in addition to great fashion pieces, accessories, home goods, books and beauty that has been carefully selected by Alice and Jenn. We go there for inspiration, to find out about new, cool brands, and to botanize in their unconventional apothecary.
Tell us a bit about yourselves and your background!
Alice Wells: I have a background in photography and design. I went to art school and started my career more on the fine art side of things – interning at the The Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, as studio manager for a photographer in Chicago, and did all sorts of photo assisting. After I moved to NY I opened and operated a gallery and performance venue in the Lower East Side for a little while, but started doing more branding and art direction to pay the bills, eventually working in-house for a New York-based accessory company running the creative department.
Jennifer Francis: I started my career working with touring artists on their merchandise. I worked for other people doing that and eventually started my own company working with smaller bands touring clubs in vans. When I’d had it with not being paid one too many times, I moved to Sweden and spent a year traveling with a tattoo artist. Returning to the US, I put the word out that I needed a job, and a friend happened to know an accessories company that was desperate for a production person. I had to convince them that my skill set making band t-shirts would translate to making high-end leather handbags, and ended up doing accessories production and development, and eventually design, for the next 10 years. This was when all of the manufacturing was still done in NY and I could hang with the pattern makers and craftsman all day on 29th street.
How and why did Kindred Black happen?
Alice: We were working together at another company – I was Creative Director and Jenn was COO – so we already had years of experience partnering on all sorts of projects and essentially running another business. We kept talking and talking about collaborating on something that was ours, something that was more aligned with our styles, our interests, and values. We were putting so much of ourselves into handbags – bags packaged in plastic and fabrics coated in toxic chemicals – it began to feel very disconnected from where we were going in our personal lives.
Jenn: I was traveling to Asia a lot at that point and getting more and more anxiety about each trip. The air quality, the cleanliness of the water – it was all completely destroyed by this need to churn out product faster and cheaper. Contributing to that was a real crisis of conscience for me. Alice and I had been talking about doing something together for so long but to be honest; I was the chicken. Conscience aside, it was hard to walk away from a good job making solid money. Finally one day she said to me something like ‘I don’t care what you’re doing, I’m leaving.’ It was blunt but effective.
Alice: Kindred Black came together fairly quickly after that. Jenn left several months after I did and we hit the ground running – meeting with designers, doing studio visits, pulling together products we’d been using in our own lives, and building out the assortment. It was challenging because we were both really committed to the shop having an eco-focus, and that can be expensive and somewhat harder to do in that everything under the sun isn’t available to you.
It seems like we have a similar goal – to redefine the luxury of fashion. How do you define this new luxury?
Jenn: I think luxury is defined by how well made something is, and it doesn’t have to mean expensive – we have this amazing $12 peppermint lip balm packaged in paper tubes that I use every day, and it makes me happy every single time. It has this awesome shine to it, the tingly peppermint is just right. The things that we sell at any price point are luxurious because they’re natural, and well-made, and often have meaning, history, and interesting back stories.
How do you think we can change people’s perception of what is luxurious?
Alice: We present everything in a way that’s beautiful and special, and really focus on the story behind each item, highlighting what makes it unique – whether that’s talking about the designers and makers themselves, the incredible properties of an ingredient or material, the significance or symbolism of something throughout history. We put a lot of time into our curation and if something is $4 or $400 we spend the same amount of time photographing it, editorializing it, and writing about it. The more you can connect with an item, the more you are going to cherish it.
Luxury almost always comes at a higher price point. Do you think there’s a way of making sustainable fashion more democratic and inclusive?
Jenn: It’s true that making things in the US, using higher quality, sustainable materials, and paying a living wage to manufacture are all more costly ways to do business. Designers trying to stick to a certain ethos can never compete with the H&Ms, Zaras, and Forever 21s of the world. The real answer, one that’s hard for everybody to accept, including us, is that we just simply need to consume less. Buy well-made, less trendy pieces that last, and repair them when they begin to wear out. Find a good shoe maker and seamstress and build some vintage into your wardrobe. Cast off clothing is a huge issue for the environment, and if we all incorporated a little bit of the other man’s trash, as the saying goes, it would be a fantastic step for environmentalism.
How do you source the brands you’re selling, and what criterias do you have?
Alice: A lot of our assortment comes from research, travel, and recommendations from friends, customers, and other brands. We’re always on the hunt for new designers or companies we’ve never heard of, and small business trying to do something beautiful in a new way. It’s important to us to not have the same assortment as other lifestyle shops – we want our personalities to come through when you look at our shop.
Jenn: We also have a set of rules that we run everything by: Is it made using eco-responsible materials or in low waste packaging? Is it manufactured locally to the maker and in a fair way? Is it something unique or unusual that we find intriguing? We put together a business plan before we launched that laid out some specific guidelines for how we would handle our product selections, and it’s been an amazing thing to have – you can’t run off the rails of what you set out to do if you have these ground rules that you have to follow.
As consumers, what are the responsible questions we should be asking when shopping for fashion and beauty?
Alice: Do I really need this!? Really stopping to consider your purchases and consuming less overall. We’re not as minimalist as we’d like to be… sometimes a useless objet, a seashell, or a beautifully carved piece of stone just makes you happy and you get it. But as a society we’re going to have to become more conscious of increasingly limited resources and each live more simply.
Jenn: And going beyond paring back how much we buy, there are tough choices that need to be made when we do want or need something. I was addicted to Burt’s Bees lip balm, but had to stop using it because each one comes in a heavy plastic container that gets thrown away to choke whales for the rest of time when you’re done (am I talking too much about lip balm today!?). Even in the natural beauty world there are so many makers creating these amazing, exotic, plant-based creams and cosmetics and then packaging them in thick, disposable plastics. It always shocks us that there’s still this disconnect between natural product and caring about the impact of what that product is packaged in. It should all be connected and it’s only going to happen when consumers start to rebel. Demand creates that change.
Finally: What do you consider to be the most interesting brands at the moment?
Alice: I’m super into what Tigra Tigra is doing – their interpretation of traditional garb and how they use traditional materials and techniques in a very contemporary way. They work with artisans in India and Africa, it’s all handmade and hand-beaded, in very limited releases, and often out of recycled materials. It seems about as eco-responsible as fashion can get. And Kjaer Weis’ line of makeup, because not only is it all-natural and often organic, but they have beautiful packaging and a paper-based refill program (including an amazing mascara).
Jenn: I’m a broken record about Botnia these days. It’s one of the lines in our apothecary and the formulas are all designed by an esthetician and a plant biologist. I’ve yet to meet a person that tries anything Botnia and doesn’t become obsessed with the line, and they’re working on packaging everything in glass and maybe even a refill program.
My biggest brand-crush is and has always been Patagonia though – not that it’s necessarily my style, but they’re extremely brave with their marketing and have championed the environment since the company was founded in the early 1970’s. The famous Cyber Monday campaign ‘Don’t buy this jacket’, essentially telling their customers ‘don’t buy what you don’t need’ just because of this BS holiday, pioneering childcare at work and organic cotton when these things were fairly unheard of, traceable down, taking back Patagonia gear to be refurbished and recycled… they’ve stuck to a code even though it would probably be far more profitable to let it fall by the wayside. I really admire that.
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