How a Local Boutique Produces Sustainable Fashions From Start to Finish
By Kellie Doligale | Fashion & Beauty
The American fashion industry is the most lucrative in the world, valued at approximately $359 billion in 2015. While the majority of designers and retailers focus on carving out the biggest slice possible of the profit pie, a select few are instead turning their attention to ethical, sustainable practices that buyers can feel good about as well. One such wunderkind is Amanda Dare Dougherty, owner and operator of The New Blak.
Beyond selling conscientious styles, Dougherty also designs the garments available at her storefront in the Oxmoor Mall. Together with a small team of seamstresses, she carefully assembles little black dresses and figure-flattering separates in the store’s back room, thereby removing the sequence of middlemen all too prevalent and often unfair in the fashion industry.
“We embrace slow fashion, which is about higher quality pieces that you keep in your wardrobe for a long time,” says Dougherty. “It’s all hand-cut in the creative studio in the back of our store. I have no back stock. After the seamstresses make a garment, it goes straight out onto the floor after it’s been cleaned and ironed. We’re part of every process. We have a massive connection to the clothing, and we want that for our customer.”
As a former retail manager at a fast-fashion store, Dougherty says she received 30 to 50 boxes of inventory a day. With no idea who designed or produced the garments and therefore no personal connection to them, she found herself quickly running through paychecks just to keep up with trends. The result was a closet full of inexpensive, poorly-made and likely wasteful clothes.
“When I came out of those jobs, I didn’t have a lot of extra cash,” she explains. “I had just worked two years of my life and so much of my income was gone. When I started this business, I was my own target customer. None of our garments are over $112, and we have stuff in our store that’s as little as $2.50. We want to be open to every price point and age.”
Dougherty’s hands-on business began as a blog three years ago with a mission to “support, empower and encourage women through a sustainable and ethical wardrobe.” In early 2015, Dougherty and her then-partners launched a Kickstarter to raise a launch budget of $5,000 for their first sample styles and start-up costs. A year after they first went into production, she bought out her partners and embarked on a “mobile boutique.”
Working out of a 1991 Ford E350 shuttle bus affectionately named “Betty,” Dougherty brought her fashions to events such as festivals and private parties starting in April 2016. A year later, she transitioned to the current storefront in Oxmoor while Betty rested on the sideline. “I’m not sure if I’ll go back to the bus or not, but I loved the experience and feel like it was the best way for me to get my name out there. Driving a massive billboard is really useful for marketing.”
Clever advertising aside, garments from The New Blak need little explanation. Dougherty’s smart, breezy designs prove that modern fashion can still be timeless. Because the dresses, tops, jumpsuits and skirts mostly stick to a solid grayscale pallet, they’re easy to style countless ways. Made from 95% bamboo, they’re also intensely comfortable. Further, each piece is made thoughtfully right there in the store, eschewing the unfair labor practices often adopted by overseas manufacturers.
“The entire store look and the clothing line is from my imagination. Once the design is sketched out, we’ll draft a paper pattern as a guide to cut the fabric and grade them in each size. We work on the pattern-making process while we wait for the fabric to arrive, so we spend probably 20 or 30 hours on a piece before the fabric is even cut.”
Dougherty points out that with social media driving the pressure to not only look good but also look unique in photos, consumers have an opportunity to reconcile their budgets with their appearance by purchasing investment pieces like her versatile styles. “Clothing has a life cycle of two to five wears when you buy it from a fast fashion company,” she explains. “You can wear a dress like mine 365 times, and that saves so much money per wear. If you buy quality pieces that you can mix and match, you won’t need as much and don’t spend as much.”
To extend the life of such pieces, she stresses the importance of washing instructions: “People over-wash their clothes, and the washing and drying process really puts the fabric to the test. We do really stress this at The New Blak. We always want you to wash it in cold and then hang it dry. Read the care instructions, pay attention to them, and follow them. Whoever made your clothing has thought about it.”
It seems there is no facet of her business Dougherty hasn’t given due consideration, which would be impressive on its own not accounting that she’s self-taught. Having found such success with no formal fashion or business education, she now hopes to empower other women with useful skills and a supportive network. The New Blak recently began hosting sewing classes and private tutorials or parties, which Dougherty plans to build upon as she simultaneously develops the Fall 2017 line called “Go Getter.”
The New Blak’s mission of empowerment runs deep and far beyond a great LBD. The store represents the idea that doing the right thing can lead to a creative and fulfilling career. “We have so many facets to our business,” Dougherty says, “but I really just want our girl gang to feel the same amazing feelings I have when I’m around the seamstresses and stylists here. We can make a big impact.” VT
The New Blak
7900 Shelbyville Rd.