IN CONVERSATION WITH FITE FASHION

Fite Fashion is based out of Philadelphia, PA and was founded in 2018 by Michelle and Thomas Fite, but their journey to create a sustainable fashion business started long before then. For well over a decade, Michelle has been honing her design, patterning and sewing skills to fulfill her dream of launching a clothing line that does not compromise sustainable and ethical practices for design.

The fashion industry is guilty of extreme wastefulness, pollution and exploitation of labor. Fabric scraps from the factory floor more often than not end up in a landfill. Harsh chemical dyes can make their way into streams and groundwater, poisoning ecosystems. Sweatshop labor practices abound in the world of fast fashion, a race to the bottom to make clothing cheap and disposable as possible. Every garment we sell is made to order in Philadelphia by people who are paid fairly. We source the most sustainable fabrics available, and focus on fabrics that are produced with clean dyeing techniques and non-exploitative labor.

Michelle understands that “the eye buys” and in order for sustainable choices to compete, they must first be visually stunning. Too often the term “sustainable fashion” brings up images of drab fabrics, frumpy designs, and muted colors. We want you to fall in love with a design because it makes you look beautiful and feel amazing, with the added bonus of knowing that you’re helping fight fast fashion.

THE FOUNDERS

Michelle Fite – CEO + DESIGNER

From an early age, Michelle had two goals: become an artist and help the planet. When she was in grade school during a field trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, she was awe-struck by Vincent Van Gogh’s sunflowers. She knew then and there that she wanted to be an artist.

After graduating with a degree in fine arts, she turned her focus to fashion, graduating with a masters in fashion design from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

Michelle’s first collection launched in 2019.

Thomas Fite – TECHNOLOGY + BUSINESS OPERATIONS

Thomas graduated from the University of Montana with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. In 2010, he first met Michelle while they were both living in Montana, and they’ve been basically inseparable since.

In addition to dealing with the tech side of the business, Thomas is in charge of numbers and paperwork, as Michelle is allergic to both. His duties also include breaking out his uncanny Tim Gunn impression to give Michelle a pep talk when she gets discouraged.

THE INTERVIEW

Describe yourself as a creative and how your label was born? 

I draw upon my Fine Arts background a lot as a fashion designer, I honestly see myself as a sculptor and my label was born when I realized that. I wanted to combine my love of art history, marble sculptures, amazing architecture (specifically Zaha Hadid’s work) along with elements from origami and nature and that became the mood board that my current collection has grown out of. 

What is the most challenging issue in for an independent label ? 

Achieving brand awareness through PR placements and marketing. There are so many brands out there and it can be tough to stand out and be noticed. Especially with a limited marketing budget. 

How do you manage to choose your models in order to spread better the diversity issue through your label?

I’m not always in charge of model casting for every project. Sometimes, I’m part of a group show and the organizers choose, or my work is selected by a stylist for press or an event and they already have a client or model, which is typical. I recently had my largest casting opportunity during Philadelphia Fashion Week in September and I was able to choose a group of ladies who represented a spectrum of backgrounds and I was quite pleased with the resulting balance. I think I even had every hair color besides ginger! 

What do you think is the biggest challenge regarding your work? 

I would say it’s twofold. I need to use particular types of fabric in order to create specific garments and I’m trying to be as sustainable as possible. Unfortunately, the textile industry isn’t offering many sustainable choices that work for things like structured, sculptural gowns. The few things that are available are sometimes only offered to well established brands because their production requires high minimum order quantities (MOQ). If they’re offered at all outside of that it’s usually at a trade show with high MOQs which are prohibitive to start up companies like mine. 

The other core issue for me as a formal wear designer is related to the technical side of things. It’s very difficult to learn many of the techniques I need to employ. I certainly didn’t learn the vast majority of what I do in my grad school program. I needed to find online tutorials to teach myself because many high end techniques are not found in books. You can imagine how much longer it takes to develop couture style skills in this manner — it’s not what I’d call efficient! Luckily, I was able to take a couture class with Rachel Ford at Made Institute in Philadelphia which is the school she started and runs. This class really helped me with some of my foundational garments like the couture bustier that I build inside of my gowns for support and structure. She made so many similar things during her 10 years at the Opera and was generous enough to teach a class on it and it was truly a turning point for me!

The challenge related to these skills extends to hiring. It’s rare to find anyone who knows the necessary couture techniques. I have to train anyone I work with on how to make my specific items which is a slow process. These skills take years to learn and perfect but I’m committed to mastering them because it’s a dying art form that is worth passing along, the beauty and quality is unmatched when these techniques are employed! 

How do you think your label can play an important role in your daily client’s life?

I give my client ethical and sustainable choices for her special occasions without compromising her style. So many women want to buy responsibly for their weddings and special occasions but there are not many options for brands that also offer truly fashionable pieces. If a woman is considering how a dress or gown will be photographed and received she’s going to prioritize how it looks and feels on her first because the eye buys. She wants to feel elegant, empowered, timeless and regal. She wants to turn heads for the right reasons and receive compliments all night. If a cocktail or red carpet dress fulfills sustainable criteria but doesn’t make her feel these things she’s not going to buy it and  the stigma around sustainable fashion being simple, boring, frumpy, or too casual remains. If consumers don’t have the full spectrum of sustainable and ethical choices there will be no pressure upon mills to produce better materials. It’s up to designers to step up and help increase demand by making sought after garments.

What do you think about the opportunity of selling your pieces online nowadays?

I think it’s a great way to connect with people in the industry as well as customers and obviously allows brands to reach people they would otherwise be disconnected from. I think we can address the unsustainable issues surrounding return culture and online shopping by emphasizing quality and fit and offering far more small batch and made to order shopping models.

ABOUT FITE FASHION

Sustainability

We recognize that sustainability is a multi faceted issue and we act accordingly knowing that there is always room for improvement.

Sourcing and Design

Every garment starts with design and sourcing so this is where we start to consider our environmental impact. We only source high quality fabrics that are suitable for each type of garment and we choose fair trade, certified organic and low impact dyes whenever possible. Sometimes these fabrics are conventionally made and dyed which isn’t ideal but we only order what we need and we make sure that each piece is well made, meant to be reworn and is either made to order or as a small batch. Mass production of anything, even the most organic, naturally dyed, low impact items, is inherently unsustainable and high quality items that can be worn repeatedly without falling apart are always the best choice.

We only use higher impact items like leather, sequins or any other synthetic if it is designer deadstock or remnants that we are diverting from the waste stream. These deadstock pieces are sourced from places like FABSCRAP or Etsy. We do not purchase any “virgin” synthetics.

Our lining is special because it is Cupro, a cotton seed by-product created via a partnership between Bemberg and Asahi Kasei. It is low impact, breathable, biodegradable and not the typical petroleum based rayons and poly blends that the majority of brands use for woven linings. 

Waste Management

We design in order to minimize waste by creating pieces that let us maximize our yardage layout so that there is less leftover in the first place. Whatever is not part of a garment is sorted into containers based on size. These will become clutches, bustiers and embellishments. Whatever is truly too small to sew is sorted into bags that we take to FABSCRAP where it will be sent to a shredder who makes shoddy for things like insulation.

We maximize sustainability within design by emphasizing separates within the collection. Increasing versatility increases wearability and makes an item more valuable to the customer therefore less likely to be tossed after being worn once or twice. Our strategy is to make beautiful high quality things that fit well and are very versatile because loved clothes last! 

We pay attention to garment fit so that it is less likely to be returned. Return culture is inherently unsustainable. It requires driving or shipping an item repeatedly which uses packaging and fossil fuels and most brands don’t actually have the capacity to deal with more than a few returns so tons of new garments end up in the landfill!

Most people don’t know that when they clean out their closets and donate used clothing to local drop off points that they may not end up for resale in this country or anywhere else. Cargo ships full of baled, donated clothing are often sent from the global north to the global south where they may be piled up waiting for local bidders or sorted through and then trashed. This doesn’t minimize textile waste and has the added impact of the diesel fuels used to power a giant ship for thousands of miles.

Packaging

We only use plastic free packaging with high post consumer recycled content and lower impact dyes so that our customers can easily recycle or reuse it. We order from companies like EcoEnclose for boxes and stickers and noissue for our recycled tissue paper.

Circularity 

We understand that most people don’t have experience with basic maintenance or mending of high end garments in specialty fabrics. We don’t want that to either be a barrier to purchase or to cause an item to sit in a closet or be tossed when it just needs a little love from someone with relevant experience so we want to help customers extend the life of their loved item.

To accomplish this, we will implement a buyback program to increase circularity. Once an item is worn out a customer will be able to print out a shipping label and send it back to us. We will then inspect it, determine what we can salvage and issue store credit. We will also encourage customers to send items back for repair if they don’t have any local options.

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Animal Friendly

We do not use new or reused fur in any of our designs. If we ever use faux fur it will be deadstock or some of the new plant based fabrications. We only use leather that is deadstock, thrifted or remnants from other designers, never new. We plan to add new vegan leathers in the future that are plant based and derived from things like pineapple waste fibers and apple peels.

Follow Fite Fashion HERE: https://www.fitefashion.com/

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