I met stylist Rachael Wang long enough ago that if I were writing this introduction about her then, I might have gotten away with a lede that made a big fuss about her ability to find “eco-friendly” clothing that is—finally, thrillingly, and yet still somehow inconceivably!—stylish.
But the year is now 2019 and we all know what’s up because it’s been up for quite some time. The question is no longer whether there is any good-looking sustainable fashion, but instead which brands suit your specific tastes and priorities. I’d say there’s an embarrassment of riches out there, but there’s no reason to be embarrassed when you’re wearing beautiful clothing that doesn’t send you into a shame spiral the second you think about how it was produced.
Anyway: Rachael! We worked together at Nylon magazine years ago, where I wrote copy for her market pages. After that, she was a fashion editor at Style.com and Allure, before she decided to take a sharp turn, resigning from her position as a fashion director to pursue a career on her own, as a stylist and consultant focused on inclusiveness and sustainability.
These values now inform every facet of her life, from her beauty regimen—her Top Shelf is very impressive—to the people with whom she collaborates. (Her shoot for Man Repeller, for example, took place at Brooklyn-based aquaponics farm Oko, which is owned by Yemi Amu, who she met at a Sustainable Brooklyn symposium.)
Her commitment to a new way of working and living is inspiring and her eye is as sharp as ever—so please enjoy these photos of some of her favorite brands and styles right now, along with a conversation about what quitting your job to bushwhack your own path really looks like.
I remember noticing that you started talking about sustainable fashion shortly after you left Allure. When did you become interested in it—around that time or even earlier?
I think I was starting to become more aware of it [before then], but I had a moment in 2016 when I went to Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. I was very moved by the Indigenous resistance there, and their connection to the land and the earth and reverence for the planet and mother nature and the importance of passing down that type of wisdom from generation to generation. After that—in combination with the political environment—my perception of how I was living my life just shifted. I went to work on a Monday and was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ It just didn’t feel right to me, in my gut.
So at that point, I felt like, okay, I can either leave the fashion industry altogether and find a career path that better suits my values or I can try to leverage my experience and see if I can find a way to continue in the fashion industry, but try to have more control and align my values with what I’m doing and make a living.
And how did you approach that change?
For a little while, I actually tried to do that at Allure. I tried to make more of an effort to educate myself on sustainable fashion and fair wages and to include brands [with those practices] in the pages of the magazine—and promoting a holistic standpoint of human liberation in general. I tried that for a few months, and it just wasn’t working. I didn’t really feel like I had that much power, even though I thought I would. I felt like I would be able to be more effective on my own, being a little bit more nimble, and seeing what was out there and just hoping for the best.
Obviously you know this, but fashion is an industry where people get into positions of power and then they never move. They don’t really care about their job, they don’t really put a lot into it, and it’s just a cushy thing and they collect a paycheck. I didn’t want to be that person.
So when you decided that instead of trying to work within the system you were going to create your own system—did you run that idea by any friends?
I didn’t. Maybe I should have? [laughs]
I didn’t imagine you would, honestly.
Yeah, I’m glad I didn’t, because I’m sure everyone would have been like, ‘What are you talking about? That’s impossible. There’s no infrastructure to do that or brands you can work with.’ Everyone is scared of change. The whole industry is so systematic about the way things are done—I mean, look at the conversation on the fashion calendar. No one can agree on what we’re doing and it needs to change but it’s not changing. Trying to do something in a different way is challenging, but I just couldn’t do it [the usual way] anymore, so I didn’t really have a choice. So I just jumped and hoped I would land on my feet.
I started working when I was so young, and I feel very, very lucky that I was raised by a single mom [who] taught me the value of money. I never worry about not being able to find work, and that’s partially privilege, but I’m also willing to do any job to make money. I was like, “If I have to go work at a store or be a waitress or do a job that’s not in line with the career path that I’ve been in because of these choices I’m making, then so be it.” I had to really grapple with my ego, but that gave me the freedom to jump and figure it out. I feel like the universe caught me in a way. I was so lucky that people came out of the woodwork to support me going freelance and connected me with brands and opportunities they thought I would be a good fit for. It was amazing.
How has prioritizing sustainable fashion changed how you personally get dressed?
I’m just more thoughtful about everything I consume. I find more contentment wearing what I already own because I feel good about it. I think that’s one of the amazing things that’s happening in the industry now: sustainability is becoming trendy, for better or worse. At least it’s becoming more visible, so people can feel better about wearing what they already own or wearing second-hand, taking their things to the tailor to get it reworked. People can feel really good and proud about that and not feel bad about not buying the newest thing.
When we worked together at Nylon, wearing a high-low mix was the trendy thing. I’ve always thought of you as having eclectic style. Has sustainability changed that? Or are you getting the same kind of look without fast fashion?
I’m thinking about it in a different way. I feel very lucky that I grew up in a place like L.A. where thrifting and second-hand and vintage has always been valued. I tutored and worked at an ice cream shop when I was in high school, and I would take some of the money I made and go to Goodwill and buy a bunch of things and then go home and play with them and rework them. So I’ve always really, really loved buying vintage, and the hunt for amazing second-hand things that would fit me.
At Nylon, I thought of the high-low mix as more about the mix of what people have access to and getting inspired by what you see around you—on the runway or whatever it is—and then getting the look with things that are acceptable to you. Instead of buying fast fashion now, which I’m obviously much more mindful of, I look for pieces that are going to last much longer and live through several washes and I’m probably going to be paying higher price points for [that]. I mix those in with second-hand things or stuff I already own.
So, I do still feel like I have an eclectic personal style, though I’m certainly more geared toward a uniform than I’ve ever been in my life. I think that’s a combination of age and putting all my creative energy into the work I do.
On a really practical level, how often do you turn down jobs now because it’s just not a brand or company you’re willing to work with?
That’s a complicated question. I think the amazing thing about putting my intentions out into the world is that I’m starting to be hired or sought out specifically for my take, which is such an insane magical thing. I think that’s partially the beauty of the internet and Instagram: You wear your heart on your sleeve, you talk about the work you’re doing, and you show imagery that coincides with your values, and then all of a sudden people find you based on that.
But I don’t want to paint a picture that I’m perfect or that all of the jobs that come to me are for these perfect companies. I do certainly turn down some jobs that go against hard-line beliefs I can’t get behind, but to be perfectly transparent, I don’t have enough privilege at this point to turn down every job that’s not working for a woman of color-owned business that’s fully transparent in offsetting their carbon emissions, ethical in production, sustainable in manufacturing, and offering paid family leave and fair wages to their employees. Honestly, I don’t even know if there is one brand that incorporates all those values.
Though most opportunities aren’t perfect, if I feel like I can make an impact in some way— whether internally or visibly with the outcome of the content we’re creating—I’m up for the challenge. I obviously look forward to a future when I can make a living working for brands like the one I described before. It’s not realistic at this point and there are fine lines I have to navigate on a case-by-case basis.
This makes me wonder if you’ve considered starting your own brand….
I would love to, that would be so cool. I would totally geek out on putting energy toward researching amazing materials and textiles. [But] I would only do it if I could do it right. It would take a lot of research, technology, and effort to find better ways to do things than there are now. I’m overwhelmed by that prospect and how much capital it would take. If there was a pre-existing brand that I could work with on a capsule or something, that would be so cool.
In terms of shopping, what do you do when you need a cheap thrill? That’s something I’m working on—redirecting my brain and changing my habits in that way.
Totally. It’s interesting, I feel like I don’t get that pang anymore. I definitely do other activities that give me a thrill. This past weekend I did a DIY project where I tie-dyed old socks with boiled cabbage water. That’s something I learned about on the internet—that you can boil cabbage into water that turns purple, and then by adding vinegar or baking soda, you can change the purple to either green or blue. Then you just rubber-band your socks and toss them in. And now I have cool tie-dyed socks! Doing a fun project where I take something I already own and turn it into something new that feels trendy reminds me that instead of buying something maybe I can just do it myself. And not only do it myself, but make it natural. That is awesome.
I also have things tailored a lot. If I’m inspired by a new silhouette of a pant or a blouse or whatever, I’ll look in my closet for something I have, and I’ll change it. I found a local dry cleaner that has a pretty good tailor and I give them instructions. So that’s fun for me.
Otherwise I just like finding something different. Like, instead of shopping, now I’ll seek out new plant-based recipes and try to make it. Really aggressive ones. I made a vegan lasagna with homemade cashew ricotta and that fully took all of my attention and was creative and fun and playful and challenging.
When I read your Top Shelf interview I came away from it feeling like, “Whoaaa, I use way too many products.” And don’t even use that many! I wondered if you see a connection between your beauty and fashion routines. Does taking care of your body make fashion less of a Band-Aid or something?
Totally. It’s all consumption. Whether you wear it, eat it, use it on your skin, use it to clean your house, sit on it to watch TV—it’s all part of the same conversation on thoughtful consumption. For me, it was a slow process. It started with what I ate. I started by going plant-based, and then I eventually shifted my wardrobe to become animal-product free and more sustainable. Then that started to spread out into my beauty routine. It comes with time, but I do think they’re all part of the same conversation on consumption. There’s definitely a connection between reading beauty product labels and looking for natural ingredients in the same way you look for natural fabric. I also try to eat in the same way I buy beauty products: as holistically and clean as possible. It’s just a holistic worldview of trying to consume less, be a better person from the inside out, and being more accepting and loving of myself in the same way that I want to be more accepting and loving of the people around me.
Stylist: Rachael Wang
Photographer: Amber Mahoney
Model: Lee Armoogam
Producer: Harling Ross
Prop Stylist: Melissa Walbridge
Makeup: Linda Gradin
Hair Stylist: Eric Williams
Market: Elizabeth Tamkin
Stylist Assistants: Raziel Martinez and Grace Tully
Shot on location at Oko Farms