Paradigm Shifters is a series of interviews with a select group of women and men from eclectic walks of life. It will highlight unspoken, real life insights on how they have been able to turn weakness into strength. A naked soul point of view of how their breakdowns were really a preparation for breakthroughs. They are your quintessential Paradigm Shifters; internal shifts converted into genuine change.
Everything I have ever done has been focused on this underlying theme of shifting the paradigm because, "what we think determines what we feel and what we feel determines what we do." Hence why Empowered by You takes lingerie, which has traditionally been seen merely as a tool of seduction and redirected that energy as a tool of empowerment.
I hope from these stories you will look at your own situations, struggles and accomplishments through a different lens. At the very least you will be more equipped with real life tools to change your own paradigm. At the end of the day we are our own Alchemist turning the silver we were born with into the gold we are destined to become.
Yael Aflalo - Founder of Reformation (Photo courtesy of Celeste Sloman)
What is your proudest moment with Reformation?
Well a general thing [that makes me proud] is how Reformation has reshaped the way people view sustainability and fashion. A more specific example would be [the feedback I receive] on my personal Instagram account. Someone will reach out and say, "I wasn't aware of fashion's impact on the environment, thank you so much, I'm so excited now that I know this stuff." It's about having that platform and doing something meaningful with it. Seeing the impact and the shifting of the perspectives [is what makes me proud.]
What challenges have you had being a sustainable and eco-friendly company?
The first thing you need to do is educate consumers. I think the most important thing with that is to know that nobody wants to become involved in a movement that is "self-righteous" or "angry" or "judgmental." So how do you develop awareness that is magnetic and easy to understand? This leads to the second thing. People want to make small changes in their lives. It's very rare that people will have an "eat, pray, love" moment that completely shifts their entire lives. But people are shifting through small iterative activities. So the success of consumer targeted sustainable initiatives will be determined by how effortless they are to adopt. I believe that the onus is on businesses to set up solutions for consumers. I'll give an example through Tesla. I call this the no trade off approach, the effortless approach, and the product first approach. You buy a Tesla because it is the best car - the fastest, best designed, the best user interface. So it is better than other cars but it is also sustainable. The same concept goes for Reformation. People will buy Reformation because it is the best dress. Sustainability is secondary. It's actually tertiary...the second most important thing is value. Value is critical. People don't want to pay a premium for sustainable things [of low value]. And actually, sustainable things should cost less money because they use fewer resources. I think going forward sustainability isn't going to be an additional element to companies...it's just going to be expected.
What was your breakdown to breakthrough moment?
I had another business that I started when I was 20. It was a typical wholesale fashion business called Ya-Ya and it was really successful. But by my late 20s, I didn't like the business. I felt very trapped by the fashion industry and I felt like it wasn't a fit for me. And then the recession hit. [The business] quickly turned to owing a significant amount of money. Then it was like, "Ok, do I fight to bring this business back to life or do I close it?" I hadn't believed in [the business] in a long time and I just didn't want to do it anymore. And so I closed it. There was debt associated with it and so there was a lot of, "What are you going to do?" How are you going to do it?" Even though I had a nice house and I had nice cars, I wasn't happy with my life. I wasn't happy with who I was, I wasn't happy with the business I had built. Shedding that stuff felt great. It felt good in a way I can't describe.
I had the debt problem, but I wasn't depressed about it.... I am a person who is really motivated by failure. And there was this element of having a fresh start; I moved to NYC. I had some good people from my last company and I was just like, "let's see what we're going to do next." One of our businesses was a private label for Urban Outfitters. It did very well and over 2-3 years I was able to pay off the [Ya-Ya] debts. It was starting to be okay again and I was feeling good. Urban and I had been talking about doing a shoe line together so I went to this area of China to [work on this project]. Leading up to this trip, I spent a lot of time learning about things. I was becoming very interested in the tech industry. I didn't grow up in a world where everything is possible like in today's world. [Back then] you didn't think you could start a business that could change the world. There was no social entrepreneurism. So I started to get really inspired and I began thinking "this is a world where anything's possible, I want to get in on this."
And then I had a dinner at my house [before I went to China] and this woman, who's an Economist at the UN, was there. She put it to me and asked, "How do you feel about the labor and the negative environmental impact in China?" And I was totally taken back by it because I hadn't thought about it. I ended up going to this manufacturing area of China that wasn't Hong Kong and Beijing, which were two places I had already traveled to. This manufacturing area, where they mostly manufacture fashion stuff, pollutes on a level that you can't communicate. I then learned that fashion is the third most polluting industry in the world. It was [the realization] that it was not just this capitalist polluter in the middle of America silently dumping this toxic waste next to a schoolyard and not caring about it. It was me, I was the capitalist. I started to get really depressed about that but then I had this moment of heightened empathy and heightened accountability. Everything in your life happens super fast and you're not empathizing all the time because you can't - that's impossible. But then you're sitting there and you see this pollution and all the sudden you have an empathy for it...you have an accountability for it.
I came back to America and, you know, I wanted to buy clothes. So I told myself that I was going to shop sustainably, which I soon realized was impossible. But then I had another realization: I can build a sustainable fashion brand. I can use my interest in solving this problem of sustainability, I can use my expertise in fashion that I've developed, and I can use this real passion and interest for new business models. And then it was like, "How am I going to do this? How do I raise capital? How do I create a brand that talks to [consumers] about sustainability without telling them what to do?" It became a journey of how to do all those things.
How do you create this perspective-changing experience for other people?
I think that you do it slowly. I think people always want to highlight an "aha" moment where everything suddenly turns on for everybody. But I don't think its like that...I think it's a series of events. There was a click moment for me, but it wasn't like one thing made it click. When you think about those clicks, and you think about it across mass markets, it's incremental. So you look for incremental indicators of change, such as how people perceive sustainable fashion.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I want to solve problems that are worth solving. I always say that I'm not an engineer. But I know how to make clothes and there's a serious problem with sustainability and fashion, so that's what I'm going to fix. If we can change the fact that fashion is the 2nd or 3rd largest polluter in the world, that's a really big accomplishment. I'm utilizing my key skill sets to go after big problems. I want to have an impact on a broad scale. I want to solve the problems that we need to solve.
Yael is a testament to what unwavering determination to have a significant impact on the world looks like. She is very practical in her approach but her relentless drive is what makes her a true visionary. She is paving the way to show others that you can have both. You can drive profits and purpose. You can look super fabulous and not damage our Earth. However most importantly, she shows us through her actions that knowledge not only is power, but it is also a responsibility. She has taken this responsibility as the purpose in her life and with the most rockin' clothing is allowing us to be part of a positive catalytic change. Thank you Yael.
Reformation launched a new platform today called RefRecycling. Powered by CR, RefRecycling helps consumers take unwanted clothes out of landfills and put back to good use, all from the convenience of their homes. So we can wave goodbye to all those acid wash jeans, and say hello to huge CO2 savings. Those extra conscious consumers can log into their account on TheReformation.com and track where their items are going along with the positive environmental impacts they've made.