Emma Gage, the founder of the fashion label Melke, established the brand two years ago after losing her job in fashion because of COVID-19. Melke debuts at this season's New York Fashion Week 2022 – and she's focusing on sustainability.
The 26-year-old from Minnesota in the United States is not the first to bet on this trend, at a moment when the fashion industry has faced criticism for its environmental impact.
Another designer, 23-year-old Olivia Cheng, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that "everybody now wants to be part of this conversation."
Her brand, Dauphinette – known for its jewelry and outfits crafted from real flowers – was featured on New York Fashion Week's official calendar for the first time, showing over the weekend at a Chinatown restaurant.
Gage cited the use of hemp, organic cotton and recycled fabrics as materials that are less environmentally harmful, and also voiced her mission to purchase materials from companies committed to respecting human rights.
"I would never want to come out and say like, yeah, everything's 100%, sustainable, everything's perfect, because that's a lie," she said.
Speaking from her studio in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood, a trendy area for New York creatives, Gage said she's "focusing on making pieces that will last."
She said "zero plastic" remains an elusive goal at the moment because synthetic materials often slip into recycled fabrics.
Thus the focus on durability, and making use of every piece of fabric on hand: Gage creates "scrap bags" made out of small bits of material, for example.
Far from voluminous or elegant evening gowns, one of Gage's favorite items is the humble sweater, which she makes a play on every collection with embroidered motifs – flowers, fish and now sheep have graced her pieces.
But keeping it simple doesn't translate to less creativity. The designer's second collection – inspired by the Anne Carson book "Autobiography of Red" – emphasizes this strong color, often incorporating dark tones and using fringe reminiscent of lava flows.
For her fall/winter 2022 collection, set for presentation Tuesday, Gage wanted to evoke memories of a trip to an Irish medieval castle and her discovery of falconry: "The symbiotic relationship of two predators working together – you have human and a bird trying to work together for the same common goal."
Cheng's presentation Sunday bet on old clothes and floral materials, preserved thanks to a resin she said is nontoxic.
She also ventured into experimentation, offering one outfit made of gingko nuts and a dress studded with beetle wings – which she assured died of natural causes and not for her project.
Both designers said they favor local suppliers but aren't against sourcing from elsewhere.
Gage said that only sourcing stateside "completely eliminates all of the beautiful craftsmanship that exists around the world."
She does face a dilemma of keeping her brand, which makes pieces to order, affordable.
"I can't be the only one making things more affordable, if they're sustainable," she said. "I need other people to also be buying what I'm buying so that the price can go down," she urged.
But that kind of popularity could create its own problem of overproduction and waste. Gage has tried to approach the problem by creating a product line with varying price points, the least expensive being a T-shirt for $75.
Cheng, the daughter of Chinese immigrants who has two dresses on show in the Metropolitan Museum's current fashion exhibition, is able to keep prices lower for her fruit and flower jewelry, with some pieces going for less than $50.
"It's most central to me to remember why we started our mission and how we can kind of further that story," she said. "And to not get caught up in kind of the illusions of grandeur," she advised.