BY KATRINA RODABAUGH // There is so much to love about the clothing label Elizabeth Suzann it’s dizzying to know where to begin. The obvious entry point might be the beautiful lines and subtle geometric shapes of her garments that push these classic designs into cutting-edge contemporary minimalism but somehow beckon to the studio artist and the professional urbanite simultaneously. (Just look at that oversized diagonal pocket on the beloved Harper Tunic for solid proof.) Or maybe it’s the beautiful natural fibers, ranging from linen to silk to wool in the most delicious neutral colors, and how they effortlessly combine with other garments in her collections to make the dream wardrobe for linen-loving minimalists everywhere.
But if the designs and fibers didn’t immediately win you over, just scratch the surface of designer and owner Liz Pape’s ethical fashion philosophy — why she offers a living wage to all of her employees; how she’s kept her operations under one Nashville TN roof; that she sources beautiful biodegradable fibers, refuses to follow the traditional seasonal collections of the fashion world and instead makes three collections for all months and seasons (Signature, Warm Weather, Cold Weather). Then start reading her blog. Just start with any post. Just dive in with any question about why she creates clothing the way she does — and, yes, why she needs to charge the prices she charges — and I promise even the toughest critics among you will feel a quiver of light and hope in your Slow Fashion-leaning heart.
If you still aren’t convinced, take four more minutes to watch the video for the Diversity Campaign because it’s the best thing I’ve seen in fashion videos, maybe ever. What designers go this far to connect with their customers and to let their brand be defined by the actual community of humans supporting this important work? So much love. So much celebration. So much connection, all through clothes that are made with intention and worn with pride. Swoon.
I’ve loved Elizabeth Suzann for a few years but sharing her story in this series made me an official Fan Girl. If I could give Liz Pape the Gold Star of Contemporary Ethical Designers, I’d hand it over in two seconds flat. I can’t think of another fashion label that I’d rather support in all their efforts to create a more ethical and ecological fashion future. Liz Pape is the real deal and she’s raising the standards for designers and consumers alike.
. . .
Welcome, Liz. I admire your designs and your work ethos so much, and it’s truly an honor to be able to share your story. To get started can you just tell us about the beginnings of Elizabeth Suzann? When did you launch? What was your impetus for creating an ethical clothing brand?
I launched Elizabeth Suzann in late 2013. It was a very organic thing – I didn’t have this big concept or pitch or business plan. My husband and I moved to Nashville right after I finished undergrad so he could attend law school, and I was in a kind of limbo for a year. I was planning on pursuing grad school (studying art history), so I was taking some time to look at schools and make a game plan. I had sewn in college and made money on the side that way. I reevaluated what I was making, really simplified things aesthetically and thought hard about what I wanted to make, worked on my pattern drafting skills, and experimented with different textile techniques. I took a very small selection of pieces to a local craft fair – Porter Flea – and everything did really well there. After that weekend I realized there was some actual potential here, and I started taking things seriously.
I got a business license, did all of that jazz, and started selling online in addition to traveling to craft shows in cities like Brooklyn, Chicago and Austin. Customers I met at craft fairs would come back and order from my Etsy shop, and shortly after I had enough online business that I stopped doing the shows. I moved off Etsy to a standalone site, and we just kept rolling from there. I think it was a few months between that first craft show and moving into my first studio, in the back of a gym downtown. I was doing everything myself (design, drafting, sourcing, cutting/sewing, packing/shipping, support, web design, photography — all of it) in the beginning, but I brought on an intern, then hired a part-time seamstress, and another — it just kind of happened one step at a time.
In regards to starting an ethical clothing brand, I don’t really look at it that way. I started Elizabeth Suzann because I was making things I loved; things that I thought had value. The way that I made those things was just the way that made sense to me. There wasn’t a decision point where I chose to “launch an ethical brand.” I try to do the right thing whenever I have the opportunity to make a decision, and the result of many decisions like that is a responsible business. In the beginning I did think really hard about the choice to add physical products to the world. I knew that to feel comfortable bringing consumable things into existence, they would need to be damn good, and they would need to be made in a way that I feel good about. I have no interest in being one of many, in producing products you can buy elsewhere. I have no interest in being ordinary or adding detritus to an already detritus-filled world.
Your designs are timeless and classic, and yet they have this compelling contemporary edge. Your website says, “We seek classic silhouettes that are still modern, with style that transcends time and place.” Was this minimalist approach at the center of your brand from the beginning? Meaning, did you set out to create clothing that was somehow both classic and contemporary?
I think the seeds of it were there in the beginning. When I first started selling clothing in college, it was ridiculous. It was all incredibly kitsch, bright, printed – lots of vintage inspired things, lots of lace and trim and excess. It was popular with the college crowd, and it was what I was wearing at the time. But I never felt like myself in garments like that – I always felt like I was wearing a costume. That’s still how I feel about a lot of color, or anything too “of a style.” So when we moved to Nashville and I started working on that first little collection for Porter Flea, I tried really hard to get to the root of why I never felt comfortable in my clothes. I found that the images that really resonated with me as a person and the things I felt most comfortable in were the simplest ones. Denim, white cotton, blacks and creams. Basic button downs, well-fitting pants.
This kind of light bulb went off, and I realized that I was trying so hard to express myself with all of this color and noise and complicated shape, but in reality I was drowning my identity. I began to appreciate the challenge of communicating more with less. I think the first year of ES I was still figuring this out and navigating my relationship with color and shape. (I am naturally drawn to exciting, loud things and still love this in others’ work – I just knew it wouldn’t be my highest point of contribution.) I think I really hit my stride aesthetically at about year two, in 2015. The sustainability of simplicity is huge to me as well – you will get exponentially more wear out of a garment that feels timeless and can pair with anything than you’ll get out of that beautiful but highly particular printed blouse.
I admit, I first fell in love with your silhouettes, but I was really sold on your use of natural materials. Since beginning my Slow Fashion project in 2013, I’ve become very interested in the fibers used to make my clothing. Your designs use the most beautiful natural fibers like linens, silks and wools. How do you go about choosing your fibers and fabrics? Which one is your personal favorite?
Natural fibers are so divine. Sometimes it’s hard to describe to someone who isn’t familiar with textiles why natural fibers are so wonderful, but it’s one of those things you can’t ever go back on once you’ve fallen in love with them. As a teenager and early twentysomething, I couldn’t tell the difference between polyester and silk. But I did know that all of those poly-chiffon tops I wore made me incredibly sweaty, and they looked great on the hanger but always fell flat when I put them on. I somehow ended up with a silk blouse in my closet from a thrift store, and it just felt so different. It felt alive; it felt luminous. It was comfortable and soft, and complemented my skin. Now I can’t unsee the difference — I can spot polyester, nylon and viscose from a mile away. Silk and linen have been my favorite fabrics from the beginning. Silk for it’s luxurious and unbridled beauty (the subtle sheen, unbelievable movement) and linen for it’s durability, rustic but elegant aesthetic, and complete comfort. I added in cottons and wools where we needed them for pants, coats, etc., but linen and silk will always be our core. I really love fabric and enjoy getting to the bottom of the source to make sure we’re using the best product possible. Last year we developed a new wool supply chain with an incredible ranch in Oregon, and I’d like to go that far down the supply chain with each fiber, one by one. When designing products now, I always start with fabric first. I review swatches, order sample yardage and test wash a few yards. Then I can start looking at silhouettes and get a feel for where the fabric will serve best.
So your designs are incredible, your fibers are beautiful, but your work ethos really melted my heart. When I read the post about your transparent budget — when you shared your costs on the Artist Smock and showed blog readers your actual profit — I was hooked. I so appreciated this cost breakdown and your thoughtful approach. Were you nervous to show these figures? Did you think it might dissuade costumers in some way? Sharing finances can seem so private.
Thank you! That was definitely a scary piece to write. As I’m sure so many of you are familiar with, the price of high quality, ethically produced clothing made with good materials is a sensitive subject. Some shoppers feel that prices are astronomically high, some think they are fair, others are willing to pay it but think that companies like ours must be rolling in cash. I felt a need to kind of clear the air and get our story out in the open. I am really proud of our business, the unique way we manufacture things, the opportunities we’re able to provide for our staff, and the products we make. I don’t ever want there to be any confusion or doubt surrounding the way we run our business. I was really nervous to share real numbers, primarily because private companies almost never publish that kind of information. I was bracing myself for a lot of negative feedback, but it never came. It was our most popular piece of content ever, and customers really appreciated the concrete, no-frills information. I think brands can get so caught up dancing around the truth, trying to present things in a way that customers will understand. That is exhausting, and customers are smart. Telling the truth in a non-watered down, non-salesy way resonates really well with our audience.
I imagine there are plenty of hurdles in running a sustainable fashion brand but could you tell us about one of your biggest challenges to date? I imagine sometimes just finding time to sleep might be the week’s biggest hurdle, no?
Ha — I think you are right on. We’ve certainly had our fair share of unexpected challenges, and every day is an exercise in fire-fighting and rapid problem solving. But I think the longest, hardest hurdle I’ve encountered is figuring out how to not always be working. The growth and never-ending pace is exhilarating, but also a recipe for burnout. Our team is incredible though, and this year we’ve seen staff really step up, which has brought a bit more balance to my life.
And then, what’s been the biggest reward in running a Slow Fashion company? Because I think your work is SO important, but I wonder what you think is the most satisfying aspect.
I think the biggest reward has been seeing and hearing our customers and staff articulate our vision in their own words. That feeling that others are really understanding and believing in what you’re doing — and also feel invested in it on their own — is incredibly fulfilling. It’s like our mission has a life of its own, and it resonates a bit differently with everyone, which is magical.
In my opinion, your work is some of the most exciting work in fashion design right now. But I’d love to know what you think: Who do you think are the most exciting Slow Fashion designers creating work today? Could you name a few of the folks you think are truly at the forefront?
Han Starnes is a local favorite. She has such impressive aesthetic discipline — she never puts out any work that doesn’t perfectly align with her vision and perspective. I admire that so much, and wish I had a bit more restraint. She uses absolutely divine fibers, and manufactures things in a very careful and intentional way.
Alabama Chanin is one of the icons here — they have taken slow fashion to the next level. Their hand-stitched pieces are literal works of art, made by a team of artisans in Florence, Alabama. All organic cottons, all beautiful silhouettes from the mind of Natalie Chanin. She’s also created such a strong community around the brand — I love the whole ecosystem there.
Your Diversity Campaign made me love your work even more. I watched the video of the selected customer-models visiting for the photo shoot and I was actually teary by the end. There was so much joy and connection in that room! Did you expect it to be so moving?
We absolutely did not expect it to be so moving. I was incredibly excited about the project, and of course had high hopes for it, but man I was totally unprepared for the emotion and strength in that room. Meeting the women who embody the spirit of the brand, hearing how our clothing has impacted their lives, watching them be both vulnerable and strong in front of each other and the camera — it was incredible. It felt like summer camp, and we all left with a group of friends for life. It was so powerful and meaningful both for our customers to get this immersive, personal experience with the brand, and for our team to get this immersive, personal experience with the women we serve. Epic.
Okay, top three creative tools you couldn’t live without?
1 – My iPhone. I know that’s probably awful! But seriously, I take notes all day long (I send myself emails with thoughts all day long — by the end of the day my inbox is a mess), screenshot images that inspire me, and use it to stay connected with our customers. Our business would be very different without this device!
2 – A good, fresh pen.
3 – A blank bulletin board. I just can’t get that into Pinterest, I need to see things physically, on a large scale. Old school mood boards all the way.
Lastly, advice you’d offer to emerging fashion designers interested in sustainable and ethical fashion? Any tips or encouraging words you might lend to someone who is just starting out?
Don’t be afraid to take risks, but more importantly don’t be afraid to work your ass off. This isn’t the exciting, magic trick advice most people hope for, but I truly believe that what separates most successful businesses from those that never get off the ground is sheer effort. The product must be great, the process must be great, but those two things alone won’t cut it. You have to be willing to put everything into it. The encouraging flip-side is that, if you’re willing to put in the effort, I’m pretty confident you can do just about anything. Focus on filling a need, find an original way to contribute to the conversation, find your unique perspective — that is where you’ll add value. Don’t try to cash in on an idea that’s already saturating the market — you’ll just be playing perpetual catch-up. Trust your instincts, do the right thing, and you’ll be fine.
. . .
Thank you so much for joining us, Liz. It really is an honor to share your story in this series. Your commitment to Slow Fashion — or more simply to people and the planet — is so exciting and inspiring. I can’t wait to see what you do next. I’ll be cheering from the sidelines.
See also: How much can we know about where our clothes come from?
Katrina Rodabaugh is an author, artist and slow-fashion advocate. Visit her website www.katrinarodabaugh.com or follow her on Instagram at @katrinarodabaugh
PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion Citizens: Tom of Holland
Photos © Elizabeth Suzann, used with permission