Shaina Mote Blends Circularity and Ethical Production to Make an Irresistible Story
Womenswear designer Shaina Mote established her namesake brand in Los Angeles in 2012 quickly becoming a leading voice in a new era of sustainable fashion. Her collections blend easy-to-wear shapes with a minimalist aesthetic, each garment designed with consideration for its onward purpose and interaction with the world. In contrast to Shaina Mote’s modest scale, the company’s achievements show a boldness that challenges all notions of independent brands being helpless industry actors. Leading with an uncompromising moral compass, Shaina turns concepts such as circular production into an alluring part of her brand story.
Today, Shaina talks about the importance of partnerships in creating positive change, daily benefits of local garment manufacturing and her dreams for the future of fashion.
Advance Copy: How would you describe your journey into fashion?
Shaina Mote: I was born in Los Angeles, California growing up on a ranch and having a very natural upbringing, it was there that I cemented my connection to nature and reverence of it. As a young girl, I was always interested in expression whether that was in shooting photographs or making films, sewing clothing or making patterns. I learnt to sew when I was 12 years old making my own clothes throughout high school to feel like I had my own identity. At 15, I started working at a little designer vintage consignment store, I was in the backroom of that store flipping incredible 90’s pieces inside out by Jil Sander, Prada, Miu Miu. These items may have been between 5 and 20 years old and they held up so beautifully, so I became fascinated with garment construction. What construction do you need to execute for a garment to become a future heirloom?
As a teenager, I felt driven to use creativity to bring awareness to topics I believed in and I thought I would become a photojournalist. I ended up going to photography school for some time but my life changed and I found a job working for a fast-fashion company in buying and creative direction. I was handling trend-driven polyester pieces, their selling window would be about two weeks and if they didn’t sell they would be severely marked down or donated. This was breaking my heart and it brought so much awareness to the problem of fast fashion.
AC: How did your path change after this experience with fast fashion and how did you pull together the various inspirations from your past to create an independent fashion brand?
Shaina: I had a combination of different influences in my life – growing up in nature with a deep reverence for the peace that I could feel in my heart when I was in the mountains with a horse, together with the peace of witnessing fashion that stood the test of time – both in its quality and design – and then I had the experience of working in fast fashion. These things combined propelled me to try to create something that I thought was missing. I began to create designs that were based on a timeless aesthetic, that were versatile and seasonless. I started off very small, all local production here in L.A. with people I knew personally, only using sustainable materials like Tencel, Cupro and organic cotton. The journey of learning about each textile is incredibly nuanced and one I am still learning.
“Take waste and excess materials out of the production cycle and use them creatively to make new products.”
AC: Could you tell us about the growth of Shaina Mote since its inception in 2012 and provide us with a glimpse into your current company structure?
Shaina: I’ve built the brand from savings of $10,000, I didn’t have an investor and I still don’t. I learnt how to do each part of the business and three years later, when I was able to hire people to fill those roles I felt, one – so grateful and two like I could understand and level with those different positions. Eventually, things grew and now I have a director of business operations, of e-commerce, a production manager, communications manager and many other satellite roles. Our internal team is four and our external team is limitless.
In terms of the structure, Shaina Mote started with about six wholesale accounts and now we have 80 around the world. We were showing two seasons a year but I was feeling a lot of pressure to do more than just two collections. I went ahead and created another season and looking back now I should have stuck with my instinct and kept things concise but I was so eager to please and to try to move forward. Today, I’ve rolled back to two seasons and exclusives for our e-commerce site. This allows me to do circular production styles, to take waste and excess materials out of the production cycle and use them creatively to make new products.
AC: How did you decide to start re-purposing off-cut materials to create limited edition pieces?
Shaina: We do everything locally so we see every piece of the puzzle: from bringing the fabric in, cutting it, to the excess that’s created. We can have that line of sight into how everything is done and if you go into the cutting room you will see so much scrap fabric there is getting thrown into the trash. As we’ve witnessed this issue in our production, we are making a more concentrated effort towards non-blended, natural materials. Furthermore, we’re taking the scraps back, looking at them and asking what can we do with this? Can we give this to a local quilting council? Can we make our production more circular? I’ve had a lot of fun designing within these parameters. It has been a unique challenge but one that I’m excited about and hope to continue and innovate around.
“Partnerships are critical for smaller brands, people unite over ideas that help to create change, they respond and share resources.”
AC: A core aspect of Shaina Mote is your commitment to ethical practices and investment in the regional economy. Could you introduce us to the history of garment production in California and tell us a little about its current state?
Shaina: There is a real deep history of clothing manufacturing in the United States and Los Angeles. The sector has dwindled down because the wages here are much higher than producing overseas but some amazing people have very well run factories, they are incredibly skilled, care for their employees, provide education, health and resources to make it a viable place to work. Many brands want to be able to get the best price and it’s more expensive to produce here in Los Angeles but, in my opinion, it is worth it. I’m able to walk into the factory and see exactly what they are working on for us today, I can have that visibility of the process, hear their feedback and design around it.
AC: What advice would you have for designers who would like to follow a similar path – increasing local production and cutting down on waste – but may feel overwhelmed?
Shaina: Several aspects come to mind. The first thing is to call in an expert, we work with a consultant who is very knowledgeable about human rights as well as the environmental implications of garment manufacturing. She audited our company in a manner which enabled us to see blind spots that we couldn’t see ourselves. This person has been the most pivotal in helping us create change, map it out and make a structure with clear goals and commitments that are doable. If that’s a little too far out of the question then I would say partnerships; write to a company that has a similar mission statement to tell them what difference you want to make. I think partnerships are critical for smaller brands, people unite over ideas that help to create change, they respond and share resources. I’ve had a lot of challenges presented by the size of my business, but if brands of similar sizes band together I think the possibilities are endless and I feel very hopeful about designers working together around environmental issues to create change. Taking the time to visit your manufacturers is also very important because seeing things with your own eyes will inspire change.
“Long-term business and relationships are what I’m interested in, just like designing clothing that’s built to last.”
AC: In your interview with Rêve En Vert you spoke about department stores pressuring brands to produce more trend-driven items. I would love to hear how your relationships with wholesale partners have developed since then and how you would like to see them develop in the future?
Shaina: I started with a very pure, black and white collection of 24 pieces. I felt like what I was doing was timeless and seasonless, using regenerative materials and local production – and I stuck with that. It hasn’t been easy because there is the temptation to create more trend-driven styles or partner with huge wholesale accounts that are going to place big orders one season and then the next you don’t design the way that they want you to and your brand gets dropped. It gets a little hard to hear your own voice but we never ended up doing business with stores that were not true to the vision of Shaina Mote. Long-term business and relationships are what I’m interested in, just like designing clothing that’s built to last that you can keep relying on. The stores that we work with now are run by people who understand what I’m trying to do and have stuck with me through thick and thin, and likewise I with them. So I’ve had a slow and steady trajectory of growth, developing a strong base of consistent customers and foundational relationships with our wholesalers.
“We are looking at who we are supporting even on small things like our envelopes and fabric importers – is their company value aligned?”
AC: Taking into consideration your experience of running a multi-brand Shaina Mote boutique, e-commerce store and collaborating extensively with wholesale accounts – what’s your opinion on the future purpose of retail spaces? What role would you like to see them play outside of a consumerist one?
Shaina: Moving forward retail is going to have changed a lot. More people are shopping online and getting a digital experience but I think that experience in a physical space is really valuable. It’s those moments that are essential, where you have sight, touch maybe even a taste of something. Being able to create an atmosphere for people to feel like they are entering into a different world, to let their guard down and have a new experience is still so valuable. It will probably become rarer but gathering in a physical space, especially after Covid-19, is going to feel so good, to have a community space where you can hold events, congregate and exchange new ideas, to share a world created by a brand.
AC: What are bigger industry shifts would you like to envision in fashion?
Shaina: I’d like to see more accountability and transparency from brands. Within a retail space that can translate to having repair stations and recycling programs. Companies, and even small businesses, making an extra step to take their garments back in – donating them, repairing them or making something new out of them, to guarantee their product so that it is kept out of landfills. I would also like to see more accountability in terms of where people are putting their money. For instance, as a brand, we are looking at who we are supporting even on small things like our envelopes and fabric importers – is their company value aligned with Shaina Mote? I’d love to see those kinds of partnerships become more important, I wish that our world would shift towards people and the planet, hold each other accountable and call each other out if there is something that needs to be mended. I think collectively is the only way, as a single force it’s like a drop in a bucket, we need to band together to make a difference.