When it comes to fashion design, Natalia Allen, Parsons School of Design alum, says no to waste, chemicals and cruel labor. Instead, through her unique apparel company, “Natalia Allen,” she delivers sustainable clothing that would make environmental enthusiasts proud.
She started the brand after being a consultant in the fashion industry for several multinational companies at which time, she says, she was exposed to the practices and issues that are systemic in the global fashion industry: product toxicity (found in the fabrication of a garment) being one, and waste being another.
“There’s a culture of waste that starts with making a product and extends to how clothing is sold. There’s a fixed amount of inventory in any store, and when that inventory doesn’t sell after the markdown period, the vast majority of it is dumped in poorer economies, disrupting foreign economies. Or, the clothing is burned or landfilled,” Allen explains. “So, from the beginning to the end, there’s an acceptance of tremendous waste. As the fashion cycle accelerates and brands introduce new products at a faster pace, this tonnage increases.”
There’s also the matter of worker exploitation.
“It was disheartening for me to learn that more than half of the workforce in this industry is comprised of women and children from poor economies, and some of the companies take advantage of the lack of worker protection, rights and pay. These are countries and economies that don’t have the same protections that we benefit from in the United States. So, as a designer, how do you develop a quality product, pay people fairly, etc.? This is where technology helps me achieve my sustainability goals,” she shares.
By using 3-d technology, Allen and her team are using a manufacturing process that is truly innovative and conscious of best practices in fashion.
“We leverage technology to transform the supply chain for the fashion industry
using 3-d manufacturing to design and produce sustainable fashion in a clean, fast, agile manner. The process is tech-enabled, but the end product itself is a beautiful, minimalist contemporary garment,” she says. “And we’re actually employing a workforce that no longer has to participate in manual and debilitating labor, but gets to function as technicians, programmers and designers. We have a better paid workforce, few people albeit, but they’re doing better and more humane work, and that’s important to the value of the company I’m building.”
Allen attributes her fashion manufacturing philosophy to her early days as a designer. Soon after graduating from Parsons (as designer of the year), she opened a boutique consulting firm, where she and her team functioned as an external research and development firm for big-name clients such as Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. It was right around the time when the fashion industry was just learning about wearable tech and the firm was doing a lot of forward thinking design development of fashion and textiles.
“I was quite successful and I really enjoyed it, and it was in that process of being responsible at an industrial scale for commercializing my concepts that I was exposed first-hand to the issues I described,” she notes. “Given that I already had a tech-centric approach to modern design, I felt that there was an interesting, business opportunity to learn. So, I adopted a new approach to materials, manufacturing processes, business model innovation and combined them to create a beautiful product in a modern, 21st century way. This was the inspiration and motivation behind my company.”
And what of the actual technology? It’s called 3-d knit technology, which is executed on machines that are often called robots.
“We program our designs on these machines, the same way an architect would create a cad drawing of a building she is going to create,” describes Allen. “On a computer, we create a 3-d design program of a garment we intend to make. One of the areas I spend a lot of time on in the business is textile development and sourcing which helps with fabrication; it’s important to note that the fabrics are sustainable and have to work in this modern process.”
Once the program is created, she simultaneously calibrates the fabrics and finishes the garment. “Once we have the fabrics and the programs, everything is entered into the machine and the 3-d knitting machine will then produce an entire garment in one step,” she says.
According to Allen, the technology takes away cutting, sewing and linking for a more streamlined process giving customers a more precise product.
As for the competition, Allen is confident in the mark she’s made on the industry.
“There might be other people who are utilizing 3-d manufacturing to create clothing and textiles, but we have designed an entire business and brand around the application of this technology in a way that is truly transformative for fashion,” notes Allen. “We’re not just making one garment that’s seamless and saying, ‘Hey, look at what we’re doing. We’re sustainable.’ We’ve actually opted to produce an entire line for women here in the U.S. and to do so on demand, with zero waste, and can ensure that our commitment to 3-d manufacturing runs through the entire line. I think we’ve approached it in a way that is really foundational to the business and gives us a point of distinction.”
“When the customer shops the brand, they have the confidence that it’s not one halo product; they’re shopping the company’s culture based on the integration of technology to produce higher quality products in a more sustainable way to meet their specific desires,” she adds. “Not every one can say that.”