As wasteful and unethical practices within the fashion industry are being uncovered and scrutinised more than ever before, ethical and conscious clothing brands are gaining global recognition. New York’s Cienne, founded by Nicole Heim and Chelsea Healy in 2014, is one such brand acting as an antidote to fast, cheap and harmful fashion.
Working with artisans across the world and manufacturing in the city’s Garment District, Cienne is a sustainable fashion brand with a modern design aesthetic. Having received the runner-up prize at the 2018 CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative, (a first for the initiative as traditionally only one brand wins) Cienne was then a finalist in the recent International Woolmark Prize, and all of this within a few months.
ORDRE met with Heim to discuss the origins of the label, the inspirations behind the brand’s minimal aesthetic, and the challenges and opportunities involved with being an ardently conscious fashion company in 2018.
ORDRE: How did the idea to launch Cienne come about?
Heim: My plan was never to start my own brand. I was always passionate about having my own company, but I didn’t want to go into fashion. I researched manufacturing in East Africa and over time I started to build this idea of what a modern fashion brand looks like today — whether we could build a meaningful supply chain into how we operate as a company.
I was interested in the values behind brands, but aesthetically I couldn’t find anybody who was answering that [for me]. Often sustainability has a certain aesthetic that has always been a bit bohemian. I wanted an opportunity to do it in a clean, modern way. It was driven from frustration into an opportunity to create something different.
O: What is more influential as inspiration for the Cienne aesthetic: sustainable materials or your own design?
H: It’s a mix of both, but aesthetics always come first. In regards to sustainability, it has to be design driven and for us it always starts with a concept. In the beginning, it started with the materials because we were 100% hand woven and 100% certain fibres, which was more limited but more experimental. In choosing materials from mills and artisans, one thing we do is to channel our aesthetic as the central filter to make it all work. It’s a push/pull.
Our biggest source of inspiration is antique textiles. We take a lot of early 19th century textiles and reinterpret them. Because we’re conceptually starting with those materials and in that way, the materials are inspiring the process.
O: What is one of the biggest challenges in maintaining a sustainable business as you grow?
H: How to control waste is something we think about a lot. One thing about making everything in New York, is that we are able to do smaller batch production runs. We pay more for it, but it means we reduce waste. We do controlled runs depending on the style, and we’re also toying with on-demand manufacturing.
Our vision is scaling with integrity, being very thoughtful and intentional about how we do it, and continuing that thoughtfulness in controlling how much we make. At the end of the day, we’re a business and we have to sell to be able to stay in business. We definitely want to scale, but we have to figure out how to balance that dichotomy.
O: Other than creating sustainable clothing, what will be key to the longevity of Cienne?
H:[We believe] the importance of your brand in totality is just as important as your collection. From the beginning, I felt very passionate about that. As an independent brand, it can be challenging to focus on everything: the collection and product, but also the brand. We are learning to make sure that we properly convey that.
We started with a really big vision and the desire to build a brand — as opposed to a collection — and that’s always our biggest goal: to build a lasting brand. We think about that a lot.