If you are a fashion startup, or an established brand trying to clean up their supply chain and are interested in my sustainable fashion consultancy services - you can check them out here. But, if you are curious about the woman behind this business (hi, I'm Melanie) and my experience in fast fashion, and how I started my company to change the fashion industry, keep reading. Today, I am opening up about my time spent living and working overseas in fast fashion, and what it's like now on the other side as a sustainable fashion consultant!
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Why I Got Into Fast Fashion
This was taken at a factory in the Philippines. On days when containers were being loaded the factory workers would set up hammocks under the trucks to relax in during their breaks.
To understand why I left fast fashion, I think I first need to talk about why I got into it. I didn't just fall into the world of dirt-cheap manufacturing, I worked my ass off to get there. So, let's start at the very beginning.
How A Story From My College Professor About Another Student Shaped My Entire Career
For anyone reading this that doesn't already know, I have an associate degree in Fashion Merchandising and Management, and a bachelor's degree in Textile Development and Marketing from FIT (the Fashion Institute of Technology - one of the best fashion colleges in the country).
When I started out at FIT I didn't even know textile science was a thing. I wanted to be a retail buyer at a big department store. But, thanks to a breadth requirement I found myself in a Textiles 101 class, that completely changed my life.
Anyway back to my story. I remember this one teacher told us about one of their students who had recently graduated, and after spending time overseas in factories they had to take a leave of absence from their job and were in full-time therapy because of what they saw while they were over there.
To most people that probably would have been a warning sign to choose another career. For me, I was like, I have to get over there and see what this is all about.
So, when I got an offer a position for a company that made products for brands like Walmart, Target, and all those big players, I jumped at the chance. When my other co-workers would make up excuses not to travel and visit factories, I would go in their place. I wanted every chance I could have to really see what this industry was really about.
Here is why the experience was so important to me. I believe that to change the industry, and like really change it, you need to know how it works. And, the only way to understand the beast that is fast fashion is to become part of it. There are no shortcuts, to life experience - sorry influencers.
My Time In The Industry
Throwback to that time I was shopping for fabrics in HK, and this snake literally fell from the rafters and onto my foot. There is no such thing as an uneventful day in product development.
When I worked in fast fashion I spent a lot, a lot, a lot, of time overseas. As I said, I never said no to a trip. And, this experience was invaluable to me becoming a sustainable fashion consultant.
Getting to be on the ground and really see, learn, and understand how the industries systems and supply chains work was the best experience I could have ever had to make me a thought leader today (ugh that sounds kind of conceded but I guess I kind of am with publications like Forbes, Sourcing Journal, and Business of Fashion quoting me, and SXSW asking me to be a speaker on the topic).
But, It Was Worth It
While looking back on it I am grateful for the journey, but the truth is, living it was hell. I would work 20 hours days. I once traveled for over 85 hours straight, never actually leaving the 9 different airports I stopped in along the way while taking my meetings in parking lots. One time I landed in New York after being away for 1 month, to receive a phone call from my boss a few hours later telling me to get on the next plane back to China.
And, these aren't even the craziest stories I can tell.
Again, looking back on it all I am happy I did it and got such a unquie experience that so many people (even ones in the industry), do not have access to.
When I Was Ready To Leave
More fabric sourcing from the good old fast fashion days.
I knew I was ready to leave when my body couldn't take the days without sleep and general stress anymore. By the end of my fast fashion career, I had gained 20 lbs, was losing my hair, had hormonal stress acne that would not go away, and when I got home had no motivation to do anything but sit in my bed, eat Seamless delivery, and cry.
By the time I left, the job was slowly killing me, but because I felt there was no more I could learn (I was already a Director level before the age of 30). And, I had saved up enough money that I had a nice safety cushion to start my consultancy business.
It was time to move on for so many reasons. And so, I did.
The 3 Promises I Made To My Self When I Left Fast Fashion + Started My Sustainable Fashion Consultant Business
I did get to have some fun when I worked in fast fashion, see some amazing places, and eat some unbelievable food. And, when I started working for myself as a sustainable fashion consultant, I promised myself a whole lost more of that.
After I left the industry I took 6 months off and traveled. I relaxed and recovered from a job that quite honestly makes The Devil Wears Prada look like a cakewalk. I remember seeing that movie before working in sourcing and product development and thinking wow that boss is horrible. By the time I left, that movie felt like a total joke, Meryl Streep's character was a pussy cat compared to the beasts I had encountered in fast fashion.
After my 6 months off, I was ready. Armed with real working practical knowledge of the industry, I felt prepared to break it, and help rebuild it.
The day my website went live and I launched my sustainable fashion consultancy business, I made three promises to myself, all of which I still honor to this day.
Promise 1 - Educate
My first promise to myself was to educate people about how their clothing is made. My friends in the industry and I would go crazy reading information made up by influencers and believed by the public.
For consumers to demand real change in this industry they need to be dealing with hard facts, not clickbait or brand takedowns. The purpose behind everything I do at virtue + vice has always been to educate.
To educate consumers about how to shop, and to educate brands on how to create the best products possible. That is why my tagline is for brands and their customers - because, we are a full package sustainable and ethical manufacturing resource, that also gives curious consumers a behind-the-seams look at how fashion is made.
It's education for everyone.
This blog has always been a priority for me. My goal is to give you the tools you need to understand the fashion industry. Then let you make your own decisions about how you want to participate in sustainable and ethical fashion. Whether you are brand deciding if recycled polyester or deadstock fabric is the right choice for you and your sustainability goals - or, a consumer that isn't sure where to make their next purchase - I view my job as a sustainable fashion consultant as not to tell you what to do, but to give you the information you need to decide for yourself.
Promise 2 - Not To Be Everything To Everyone
What this means is that I will stick to my scruples. In fast fashion, I found myself so many times in questionable situations. Sometimes where I looked the other way because, at the time, that was all I could really do.
When I started my company and become a conscious fashion consultant, I promised myself that I would remain true to my values. And, part of this is the clients I choose to work with.
I actually turn away more clients than I work with.
Why Do I Turn So Many People Away?
Because I want to feel invested in the businesses that I help. I only want to work with people I like, and people who I believe in. For me, I don't want my job to just be a paycheck. If that was the case I would go back to fast fashion), as cheesy as it sounds, I want to feel inspired every day.
I want to be just as excited as my clients are when they get their first samples. Or, when they ship their first sales. And, when they reach out to me in the middle of the night with urgent questions (because hey, this is fashion, and that just happens sometimes) I want to feel excited about helping them create a strategy and problem solve, not feel annoyed.
And, the way I stay excited about my business and the clients I help is by not being everything to everyone. I don't change myself and who I am to fit the client (because honestly that is exhausting).
But, I do want to help as many people as possible. While a lot of new client discovery calls for sustainable fashion consulting end in me saying - this isn't a good fit, I really do want to see those brands succeed, and that is why I create so much free content on here. I think everyone deserves a little help.
Promise 3 - Amplify Others
Before I entered the sustainable fashion space I watched the trolls and the cancel culture.
I am not down with cancel culture, and I vowed I would never be part of it. Here is what I think. There are only so many hours in a day, you can fill them trying to cancel and call out others or you can fill them trying to bring awareness to and amplify others. So, I choose to spend my time doing the second and creating a positive impact.
I believe in karma, and circular energy, what goes around, comes around - so only put good stuff out there. And, I expect the same from my clients too.
One of my original goals for virtue + vice was to create a platform for garment industry workers to speak directly to customers. And, thanks to my amazing partners all over the world, I have some really exciting content, direct from factories and artisans, to share with you in 2022.
We are all in This Together
That goes for work and career too. I am working with a young designer that wants to become a sustainable fashion consultant also. I have been helping her grow her business, referring her clients, and mentoring her. Helping the next generation is important to me. Helping other women start their dream businesses and sharing my knowledge with them to help them make it happen is why I am in this.
Even my "competitors" I don't view as competition. In the United States alone, the fashion industry is worth 1.5 trillion dollars. There is more than enough room for all of us. And, new fashion companies, please believe me on this, sometimes the people you think were your biggest competitors end up becoming your trusted inner circle who help to lift you up too.
Fundamentally, I think that when you bring others up, it makes everyone stronger together and that is how real change happens.
Are You Thinking About A Career Change?
Every day I could not be happier that I left the world of fast fashion and started my business as a sustainable fashion consultant. And, part of the reason I opened up today, is I hope that my story give you hope and inspiration to make the jump in your own career.
What Do You Think?
I know for the past 4 years most of the content on this blog has been mostly informational, and get's straight to business. But, do you want me to get more social and start sharing more about myself and my personal experiences in the fashion industry?
By the way, not all of my experiences were horrific in fast fashion. The images I chose to use for this article were of some great memories made with amazing supply chain partners. I choose to use these good memories while talking about the bad as a reminder to everyone that fast fashion is not all bad. There are good people, doing good things, and providing equitable work for people in this space.