We’ve long admired New York-based fashion label Nicholas K—run by brother-sister design duo Christopher and Nicholas Kunz—for being a champion of sustainable luxury fashion. The brand was founded back in 2003 on the ethos of being less harmful to the planet, as well as creating garments that are long-lasting—both in terms of aesthetics and the overall quality of the product.
“Over the years, we’ve moved our starting materials toward more sustainable alternatives, such as organic cotton, Tencel, silk, alpaca, and undyed yarns,” explains Nicholas. With these alternatives in mind, the designers are now focusing on eliminating one major contributor to the fashion industry’s pollution for their latest endeavor: fabric dye.
“Our industry contributes to over 20 percent of the water pollution in the world,” says Christopher. “The dye process is a large contributor of this and continuously dumps hundreds of different kinds of chemicals into the environment. Aside from destroying our worldwide community, these chemicals are also hazardous [to our own health] when worn as they leach from fibers. As we see the cosmetic industry moving toward more holistic products, consumers will become more concerned with what they wear.”
This month, the brand is launching a small collection of sweaters, exclusive to its New York store located at 435 Broome Street, created from 100 percent un-dyed black alpaca fibers—making these pieces virtually chemical-free. While this new drop is not only sustainable in terms of creating less pollution and being safer for its wearers, it contributes to the overall well-being of our planet's inhabitants—including the alpacas themselves. “The collection is great for the long-term diversity of the alpaca herd. Generations of cyclic demand for dyeable yarns has created a mostly white herd, while the alpaca has 29 naturally colors and hundreds of variations,” says Nicholas.
From the outside, one might think that the industry as a whole is beginning to make major strides toward a more eco-friendly existence. Sustainable brands are popping up left and right, and even mass market and fast fashion brands have made promises to become more sustainable in the future. However, according to the two, there hasn't been nearly enough effort, as Christopher explains:
I think there are great people and groups doing amazing things. Eileen Fisher, Patagonia, and others have great programs and spend resources on education. Overall, however, solutions already exist and it comes down to implementation. Everyone seeks a silver bullet to deflect accountability, but sustainability won’t be a finale, but a long journey of continuous improvement. We still seem all too eager to celebrate celebrities, making a show, and promoting seasonal disposability, rather than educating even in a small way. Big brands have the ability to affect change, but I see most of the attempt as a marketing expense and one-time collaboration, rather than an ongoing solution.
According to Nicholas, there are a number of things that brands can do individually. “I think any step is a good step, as long as it’s in the right direction,” she says. “I feel that the cost of goods can not only be a financial factor. The true cost of making something requires an understanding of all the costs to communities, the environment, etc. Maybe a bit altruistic, but I do believe that all industries need to operate above a certain line of acceptability. From a legislative perspective, we need a universal standard.”
This “universal standard” that Nicholas speaks of is not only a necessity in terms of the industry, but for the world, as consumers, as well. “The end consumer can’t be expected to learn about dozens of stands and the intricacies of each. They need a single point of measurement to say, ‘Yes, they do great,’ or, ‘No, they aren’t doing enough.’"
Until that universal standard is clear, however, the consumer still has a role in helping to implement true change within the industry. “As we learned more about smarter [sustainable] decisions, we found our industry supply chain to be so convoluted and often disingenuous,” says Christopher. “Some brands even provided contrary information on the sustainability of certain fibers. I think the best thing consumers can do is ask questions or educate themselves on which particular fibers are better options. I think learning early the importance of value is also key.” Instead, he urges consumers to focus on spending more on quality, rather than spending less on quantity.