America seems to be fascinated with the idea of being a “girl boss,” but I am most impressed with women who build their empires with social responsibility and a genuine commitment to social consciousness in mind. Mara Hoffman fits that bill. From how she got her start — resisting the cookie-cutter nature of the fashion industry to launch her own eponymous label over 15 years ago — to the moment she decided to radically shift her business to be more environmentally sustainable, the CFDA designer’s career has been a lesson in growth. Her response to our current political crisis is no different.
In a portrait project titled Women’s Work, a partnership with the non-profit advocacy group Art Not War, 25 feminists and activists serve as models for Mara’s newest collection and, in the process, make a statement about the intersection of fashion, beauty and politics. During our conversation, we touch on her journey, the multiple calls to consciousness and change that she has answered in her life and career, what it means to be an “woke” creative entrepreneur and how to push through uncomfortable moments to reach authentic transformation.
Give it a listen above; an excerpt from our conversation is below.
Mara: The main focus, for so many years, was just keeping a company running. I’m still independent, I never took on partners or investors or backers…And then when it starts working, you need to keep it working. You have these people who show up for you every day, and you need to take care of them.
So 15 years pass, and the company gets to a nice place, it’s healthy, running pretty seamlessly…and I’m aware of the harms in our industry. What this industry puts out can be really tragic, on a human level and an environmental level. Our manufacturing processes, in the fashion industry — it’s pretty intense, from the wastage to the pollution (fashion is the second-highest polluter after gas). [I was] rooted in that spiritual place of wanting to do no harm in my life, or towards others, and you realize that you’re participating in an industry that does do harm. I had to make proactive, ballsy changes. And I wanted to change everything.
This was two years ago. I went to my production director and I said, change or die, what do we do?
Erica: Were you scared?
Mara: I was super scared! She’s a Capricorn, and very pragmatic, so she said, chill out, we don’t have to close. We can transform. And neither of us knew what we were doing. I just knew that I had to change our processes. It wasn’t so much on a human level — the factories we were using were hyperly vetted — but on an environmental level. My focus [had] never [been] that. It was always on just maintaining this business. We started from that point, of trying to figure out the changes we can make. It wasn’t about then getting a microphone and being like, hey, we’re sustainable. Cause we’re not. And nobody that is running a fashion business can say that they’re fully sustainable, they’re just not. The only way to do that would be to close up shop. But we wanted to create an alternative for people that do want to buy beautiful things…
Diving into that shift, [I realized] it doesn’t end there. The work doesn’t end on an environmental level. Now it’s a global level. Now it’s a human level. Now it’s a human-rights level. It’s all of those things. I really feel that making those shifts in the company gave me a key to unlock the awareness of the bigger mission I need to be on as a human, not just as a clothing designer or a businesswoman.
Collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.