This past December, I went to an art opening for the photographer Carmen Chan in the East Village. She was showing a dozen large-format, color portraits of employees at a silk factory in Hangzhou, China. One of them, captioned “Workers on break," was a candid shot of five men sitting around a table, laughing and smoking and playing mahjong; others captured various cutters, cleaners, and doorkeepers from the factory, stealing the odd moment away from the job to garden or hula-hoop or fish in a nearby river. All of the workers were smiling, and from the looks of things, the factory didn't seem like all that bad of a place to work: one image even displayed a bird's eye view of a shrubby-looking parking lot, described as the factory's “outdoor recreation area."
The exhibition felt a lot like your typical art opening in New York—free cocktails over at the bar, clusters of jacket-wearing visitors mostly ignoring the work and chatting among themselves—only it was hosted by the clothing and accessories brand Everlane. According to a placard near the entrance, the San Francisco-based company had staged the show so that those in attendance might “meet the people who bring us the products we love." A few days before, Everlane had hosted its first annual Black Friday Fund, where instead of running a traditional post-Thanksgiving sale, it decided to invest 35 percent of the day's revenue in “improving the lives of the workers at our silk factory." The brand had raised $113,928, and the money, per the workers' request, would be going toward “greening" the aforementioned recreational area and installing a basketball court.
At one end of the exhibition space, a woman wearing a black silk shirt was handing out informational leaflets about the factory and snapping Polaroids of the Everlane fans in attendance. “We're taking them so we can send them to the people at the factory in China," she informed me. Splayed out on a table before her were dozens and dozens of photographs, all of them adorned with Sharpie thank you notes from happy customers. “Thank you for all my favorite shirts," read one. “THANK YOU SEW MUCH!!!" read another.
Everlane is a brand built upon an awareness of a new kind of consumer—the kind of person who cares where her coffee and chickens come from, and also her clothes.
Everlane sells minimalist basics—like T-shirts and sweaters, hoodies, and weekend bags—made with high-quality fabrics but sold at low prices. The brand's offerings, for both men and women, have thus far all articulated a very specific, even unmistakable aesthetic, and it's one that I seem to be seeing a lot of these days, especially among young creative professional types in New York: a no-frills, utilitarian mode of dressing that privileges a smart-looking fit over any superfluous ornamentation, striking the viewer with an almost overstated simplicity. Several of my coworkers own Everlane clothes, and a lot of my friends wear Everlane. Most of them are media people and artists and grad students.
Everlane's clothes are mostly monochromatic, and they come in the sort of colors that won't stick out too much in places dominated by "New York black" (rust, navy, denim blue). The fabrics emphasize quality and durable softness (cashmere, merino wool, Italian leather, crepe de chine). For women, the cuts are boxy and slouchy, emphasizing clean lines and a comfy, oversized feel. They conform with the spirit of timelessness and waspy understatement that Ralph Lauren built his empire on, while incorporating the odd, counterintuitive cut. Their short-sleeve button-ups for women are cropped high, and their pleated shorts for ladies are roomy and high-waisted enough to recall something a camp counselor might have worn back in the '90s.
Head of design Petra Langerova—who arrived at Everlane in 2013, when it stocked a preliminary line of about 50 offerings, and has since added about 50 new designs to the catalog—attributes these "minimal design shortcuts" to her background in architecture, which she studied in her native Slovakia before shifting gears to fashion. Prior to Everlane, she did a stint as the design director for Gap's European division. "A certain angle to a regular shirt can add so much attitude to a super simple garment," she tells me over the phone from the company's design studios in SoHo. "I'm constantly observing and soaking up what is actually happening in fashion, what's relevant in the moment, and then [filtering that via] the most minimal design shortcuts into what we do. So even though a shirt is simple, I don't think it needs to be basic. There is no such thing as 'basic' if there is a specific point of view."
If there's anything particularly alluring about these simple clothes, though, it's the contradictions that they communicate. Everlane clothes suggest affluence as much as they do modesty. They enable you to "pass" within the corporate world while at the same time signaling a certain countercultural rebelliousness to those who are "with it" enough to pick up on their idiosyncrasies. (Perhaps to call attention to this, Everlane regularly features artists—like illustrator Langley Fox and painter, photographer, and furniture designer Ana Kras—as models.) Like the "normcore" fashion trend of the past couple of years, these clothes respond to the endless proliferation of choices and minute distinctions that living in the internet era entails by enacting a return to the "normal" or "average." Unlike normcore, though, they insist on the continued possibility of idiosyncrasy, of the sort of quirky people who need slightly quirky-looking uniforms.
More than for its aesthetics, though, Everlane has generated headlines for its core marketing concept, which revolves around something called "radical transparency." Check out the product page for Everlane's line of ladies silk sleeveless blouses, and you'll find an infographic with a breakdown of all the costs that went into the production of the item: $18.39 for materials, $1 for hardware, $5 for labor, $1.68 for duties, and 85 cents for transport, for a "true cost" of $27. You'll also get a comparison between how much Everlane is selling it for ($60) and how much a traditional retailer would sell a comparable item for ($115), along with information on the factory that made it (in this case, it's the Hangzhou, China factory).
With its emphasis on transparency and efficiency, Everlane brands itself more like a web startup than a fashion company. Its origin tale resembles those of countless internet ventures: in 2010, founder Michael Preysman grew aware of the exorbitant markup schemes in fashion retail—with companies often pricing items at eight times the amount they cost to make—and saw a window of opportunity. He left his job in venture capital in New York and moved out West. Now, Everlane's staff includes former Google and Yelp employees alongside people who used to work for its actual competitors, such as American Apparel, The Gap, and J. Crew.
Like internet-era retail companies Warby Parker (glasses) and Casper (mattresses), Everlane is premised on the ideal that one can render goods more affordable by selling direct to customers online, cutting out the costs that come along with brick-and-mortar stores and the additional markups tacked on by secondary retailers. And where most brands buy up more inventory than they're able to sell—thereby necessitating the financially cumbersome practice of sales shopping, where products go through a series of markdowns—Everlane deliberately produces fewer items than people will order, and places customers on waitlists for items that are temporarily sold out.
So far, this "disruption" of the traditional retail landscape, as Preysman, now 29, describes it, seems to be paying off. The company declined to disclose its 2014 revenue for this article, but as of this writing, it employs some 45 employees across two offices (in San Francisco and New York). The money it raised for the Hangzhou factory on Black Friday suggests that it sold about $325,508 worth of clothes on that day alone.
Everlane seems to represent the paradox of a profit-driven company that wants to do capitalism the "right" way, refusing to get away with the sneaky profit-optimizing strategies that other companies depend on, and exposing its own labor practices and costs so that consumers can make informed decisions. The factory profiles on the brand's site repeatedly point to the company's practice of only working with facilities that treat their workers with integrity, and, according to Preysman, Everlane is currently developing its own internal set of factory auditing standards, which he hopes will go into effect next year. "I think what makes us ethical," Preysman says before pausing. "It's not necessarily ethical, but it's brutally honest. We're brutally honest internally, and we're brutally honest with the customer."
But if gestures like the Black Friday Fund are authentically anti-greed, they're also possibly profit-friendly. American Apparel has long used its labor practices as a branding tool ("Made in the USA," "Sweat Shop Free"), and smaller boutique companies—like indie men's basics label Fanmail and online designer retailer Honest By— have built compelling identities with their emphasis on fair labor practices and pricing transparency. "We like feeling connected to the objects we wear and surround ourselves with," explains Charlie Morris, Fanmail's founder and creative director. "For some, Fanmail's materials and practices align with their personal values. For others, it's an interesting story. Either way, it creates a connection with the customer and has absolutely helped to differentiate the brand. When you put a window into your process for your customer to see, it tends to bring about more considered choices."
Larger businesses now see transparency as a useful strategy, too. A trade organization called the Sustainable Apparel Coalition—which includes companies like Nike, Walmart, and Gap—is currently developing something called the Higg index, described on the group's website as "a suite of assessment tools that standardizes the measurement of the environmental and social impacts of apparel and footwear products across the product life cycle and throughout the value chain." According to a recent report by Stephanie Clifford in The New York Times, this is likely a response to a shift occurring within the retailers' target demographics: last year, a study at MIT and Harvard revealed that "some consumers—even those who were focused on discount prices—were not only willing to pay more, but actually did pay more, for clothes that carried signs about fair-labor practices."
Everlane is a brand built upon an awareness of a new kind of consumer—the kind of person who cares where her coffee and chickens come from, and also her clothes. "Right now, the Everlane customer is somebody who's urban, educated, and is a conscious consumer," says Preysman. "They pay attention to where things come from, how long they'll last. I think it's [about] confidence and being smart. When people buy Everlane, they feel smart for having bought it. They know who they are and what they stand for. "It may be true that the people who buy Everlane clothes are smarter for doing so—who wants to pay $325 dollars for a classic beige trench coat, when at Everlane they can pay only $138? Still, the way we dress tends to be much more personal and psychological a matter than a mere question of wanting to make sound ethical and economic choices. A company interested in "radical transparency" could easily make clothes that looked very different from Everlane's, and to judge from some conversations I had with a few loyal Everlane customers, it's the combined look, feel, and affordability of the clothes—more than any professed "do-gooder" intentions—that keeps people coming back.
"When people buy Everlane, they feel smart."—Michael Preysman
Over email, a 29-year-old, New York-based magazine editor who's bought tees, sweaters, and bags from Everlane put the appeal to me this way: "The clothes are basic enough to go with anything, but also nicely tailored for fit and style. They're also well-made and not overpriced and very easy to order." When I asked him how much the whole radical transparency idea factors into his willingness to shop there, he said it doesn't, really. "I haven't looked into it closely enough to feel satisfied that it's different from any other clothing manufacturer, frankly." Another customer I spoke to, age 27, said that Everlane's clothes feel worth their asking price, but not the higher "traditional retail" price they're supposedly saving customers from. "The cashmere sweater I paid about 100 bucks for at Everlane is less nice than the cashmere sweater I bought for 100 bucks on sale at Club Monaco," she said. "And both were made in China."
Questions of quality aside, every brand that captures a dedicated customer base will do so through the perpetuation of a certain mythology, and Everlane's mythology seems to encapsulate the many contradictions of a rising, urban, millennial professional class—creative and politically liberal but not necessarily averse to working in a corporate environment, rebellious but not too rebellious to grow up and get a job. During my conversation with Preysman, I asked him whether he thought Everlane clothes were better suited for work or leisure. He seemed to bristle at the question. "We don't think about it that way," he said. "I think the notion of work and leisure are pretty synonymous nowadays. You go to work and then you go out afterwards. I don't think people even think about what to wear to work versus what to wear for leisure, unless they're working at a very formal place. If you're in any sort of creative industry, what you wear to work is always what you wear out afterwards." That's true for many people in post-Silicon Valley America, as the increasingly around-the-clock nature of work requires us to be so constantly plugged in that we may begin to lose touch with the difference between work and play.
Indeed, it's this particular, internet-driven entrepreneurial spirit that sets Everlane apart from a competitor like American Apparel, which, through the 2000s, rose to prominence selling no-label basics to the very same young, urban customers that Everlane is targeting now. In the last quarter of 2014, American Apparel reported a loss of $19.2 million, its largest in four years. Notwithstanding all the negative publicity surrounding the alleged misogyny and sexual misconduct of founder and former CEO Dov Charney, it's interesting to look at American Apparel ads and consider the widely disparate images that the two brands project. When I think of American Apparel, I think of a bunch of sex-crazed and drugged-up young people, all model-hot and lounging around a bed on a sunny afternoon. Of course, you can choose to view American Apparel's emblematic skinny-girl-wearing-a-T-shirt-and-panties campaigns as either sex-positive or objectifying, but the brand of femininity projected therein is certainly a far cry from that of the Everlane woman, who puts only those parts of her body on display that are less conventionally fetishized (her arms, her neck) and all but completely hides her curves, perhaps not wanting to be perceived as a sexual object at work.
Langerova says she is "personally 100 percent drawn" to the more androgynous silhouettes that she's been articulating through Everlane's women's items, and explains the direction as a matter of growing workplace equality. "I think our woman has a land of opportunity in front of her," she says. "She is an equal partner in this world, and I think it's very important that she feels that she doesn't need to be perceived in certain ways." Head of creative Alex Spunt, who came on board at Everlane to helm the company's brand identity after working for five years as American Apparel's content director, echoed the sentiment. "I just think women look best when they look comfortable and relaxed, so I'm loving that this is the moment right now," she says. "We have busy lives, and I think modern women don't want to be thinking about squeezing themselves into high heels when they have so much going on."
To the extent that its appeal could be said to encapsulate a generational attitude, maybe Everlane's rise is a sign that the so-called "hipster" era—with its connotations of a city-dwelling, white college graduate with niche tastes, artistic affinities, and not much of a need, or desire, to work—is finally coming to a close. The new young, creative professional may be just as much of a "rebel" at heart, but she doesn't let her progressive ideals stop her from entering the marketplace. Maybe that's because she's simply a bit more willing to compromise than she was before. Or maybe that's because, like Preysman, she believes in the internet, with a faith in its power to make the world a kinder, more democratic, more "conscious" place to live.
As for Everlane's plans for the future, Langerova says she hopes to do some experimenting in the coming year, moving beyond the minimal wardrobe staples the brand built its name on to encompass more occasion-specific collections. For his part, Preysman says he doesn't see Everlane opening a brick-and-mortar store anytime soon. "We'd rather skate where the puck is going rather than skate where the puck is today," he says, explaining that he'll instead focus on slowly diversifying the company's offerings within its current form. "15 years from now, I don't think most people are going to be buying clothes offline."
I ask him if he thinks it's possible for a niche company like Everlane to go mainstream, and he seems hopeful, if not entirely certain, about being able to make it work. "I think you can be mainstream while maintaining brand values and brand aesthetics," he says, seeming to speak not just for Everlane, but for an entire generation of young people who want to have it all. "We'll never sacrifice our values or our aesthetics or our point of view on the world. There is a way to do both."
Pre-order a copy of The Spring Style issue of The FADER now. The issue hits newsstands March 3rd.
In her column, Social Anxiety, Emilie Friedlander peels back the layers of contemporary culture and taste.