Once dominated by haute couture, fast trends and rapid consumption, fashion has taken on new meaning during this year of magical thinking.
While fashion may be in mourning for what it once was due to the onset of the coronavirus, the grief surrounding the loss of in-person fashion weeks and fast fashion retail proves to be an opportunity for sustainability and ethical thinking towards the garments that we wear.
I reached out to Mae Fatto, the co-founder of FOUR. She’s a Baltimore native artist and concept designer and has lived in NYC since 1995. Mae, along with her co-founder, Ku, share their experiences as teenage friends from Parsons School of Design. They brought their creative spirits together later in life and after a decade of international travel to form the partnership, FOUR.
Mae got her BFA from Parsons and BA from The New School. As a freelance concept designer, she completed projects for mass-market brands in the US and Japan. When she made it back to the United States, Mae pursued her MFA from Bard College. Everywhere she traveled, Mae sought out artists and local artisans and scoured thrift stores and flea markets for unusual finds.
Ku, originally from Chicago, moved to NYC in 1995. After Parsons, she went to work in high fashion and mass brands and left the United States to travel as a designer. From bustling, jammed factories of Guangzhou to the serene, family-owned studios in Veneto, Ku discovered people make the best products with passion for their craft. In every factory, in every country, many of these makers were women.
FOUR allows Mae and Ku to apply the lessons they learned from their separate travels: to experiment with compassionate ways of doing business that support women and families. FOUR’s garment collection is an artistic process. The collection is comprised of 16 pieces, with 4 released per year. Once finished, FOUR’s collection becomes an art piece in and of itself.
Their symbiosis is rooted in longevity and versatility. Mae and Ku’s voices are important to understanding conscious production and consumption that keeps environmental sustainability in mind. As they aptly point out, the issue of production and consumption in the fashion industry will not end when coronavirus does.
What inspired you to start FOUR? Did you have any fears when launching?
KU: After decades in the fashion apparel business, we were tired of being told “You can’t” and “It doesn’t work that way.” We were frustrated with what was out there. We knew how much it takes to start a brand: the failure you have to withstand, the money you need to get started and produce inventory. So, FOUR was an experiment. We wrote down things we wanted to prove: you can be a working mom, not rich and start a thriving business. Women want function and longevity from their clothing. You don’t have to drive the engine of “new, new, new” to be successful. You can be a company that treats its employees, manufacturers and consumers as one community.
MAE: I have never been a new clothes person. When I was a kid, I remember filling bags with crazy items no one else could find. I evolved my own style out of a family ethos of frugality. So, I came to start FOUR by already having so much joy in that process. In terms of fear, promising 44% of your profits back when you know you’ll be on a rolling production model was frightening. I could not have withstood that if Ku wasn’t the mastermind behind our operation.
What have you learned from starting a business? Perhaps about yourself, ethical production or business?
MAE: FOUR is fundamentally about our relationships with people. But almost immediately after releasing the Rabbit Jacket I realized we needed to pay more attention to our fabric from farm to mill. Ethical production is only one piece of the puzzle. It is an expensive jacket. So, I enrolled in FIT’s Sustainable Design Program. This program taught me where the fashion industry is and where it needs to be in terms of environmental and social sustainability.
I feel like everyone in the sustainable fashion business is clawing their way towards being more sustainable. You can look for the perfect vendor at every step of the supply chain, but this is an impossible endeavor. The only reason to start an ethical and sustainable fashion line is out of frustration. You’re not seeing the change you want to see out there.
Our most recent development has been a partnership with Shelly Gottschamer, an incredible industry leader in sustainability. She assists us in achieving a wider impact through our collection.
What makes FOUR stand out from other ethical fashion and collection brands?
MAE: FOUR doesn’t have direct competitors because we make a single collection of clothes. People can purchase a single piece, but women who get what we are doing love the idea of a single collection of clothes to love, repair and pass down. 16 pieces, with 4 released per year. We might continue to add a summer or winter fabric weight like the GOK shirts, but we will not be adding styles once the collection is complete.
We are committed to producing what we make on a rolling basis in small batches. We do this so that we can consistently improve our supply chain. We want to make clothes for every woman who wants it, so we keep a waitlist according to size. We are currently fit testing sizes 20-22 and plan to continue adding sizes with every production run.
What is your favorite FOUR piece?
MAE: Truthfully, I have worn my GOK chambray shirt 5 out of the last 7 days. It’s just absurdly comfortable all summer long #WFH. As soon as the temperature drops below 70 degrees, I throw my Rabbit Jacket over everything. In the house, out of the house, it’s my go to.
KU: That depends on the day! I wear all of the first four all the time. The BFT, our final prototype, and linen and chambray GOK Shirt are on my weekly rotation right now. Once things cool down, I’ll be getting back into the Rabbit Jacket, the Foundation Sweater and the GOK Shirt in wool.
What is your creative process?
KU: We take the concept of “16 things you want to keep and wear forever” seriously. We debate what has more longevity and versatility to get down to 16 final pieces, and ultimately where our different styles cross over and find common ground. We sketched out the whole collection and now execute piece by piece.
One of the most important parts of executing, and I consider part of our creative process are our “fit parties.” Once we are happy with a product prototype, we make the full range of sizes and have a party with as many women of as many different shapes and sizes. Each fit party has been enlightening and fun. The same woman can wear multiple sizes and look and feel great in every item. It’s about how they want to style it. This tells me that we nailed that fit.
How has FOUR adjusted to the pandemic?
KU: Things slowed down and sped up at the same time. All of our suppliers stopped production or closed. And of course, we managed our work and families and had to change our pace at home. Simultaneously, we just signed on to launch advertising on Instagram. The response to our small test of initial outreach on IG immediately resonated. All of a sudden orders were flooding in! We are still catching up with orders. I am grateful our new customers are patient and embrace our “slow” pace.
MAE: Major production delays, all the way to the farm. We are still waiting for our BFT, our summer t-shirts, and have been selling offseason since May.
Conventional fashion tells you to sell next season, but everything is selling. It has been an experiment. We have customers buying wool shirts and alpaca sweaters in the summer. The general trend shows that our patient, sustainable customer, is also attracted to conversation, connection, transparency over a transaction. There is no conventional transaction between buyer and seller. Our experiment is working. Many people are all in without seeing all the items. They see the collection as a lifestyle choice.
So, customer service and honesty are more important than ever. I make sure our customers know we’re happy to refund orders when an item is out of stock. But even on a waitlist, we have buyers come back and buy three of the same thing. It’s incredible.
How has fashion impacted you personally?
MAE: I spent many years as a Concept Designer, which is basically an in-house forecaster. I worked for heritage brands; My work involved synthesizing historical research and market trends into viable products for different clients. Simultaneously, I maintained a folder named “Me?” where I collected everything I loved both from an aspirational and a practical vantage point.
Ultimately, I was attracted to the same silhouettes and styles over the course of two decades. I brought it out when Ku and I were sketching out the 16 pieces. We’re very different. This made it fun and inspiring to see where we aligned and what we couldn’t find elsewhere and what we simply HAD to make.
Being pregnant and having children reinforced what we already knew—everything you put in and on your body matters. Just look up how many chemicals are on conventional cotton on GOTS. That may be over hundreds of chemicals absorbed by your largest organ, those are chemicals on my newborn baby! I can’t consciously put that on my children, and no one should have to. I think these are fundamental aspects of fashion that need to be internationally regulated.
What steps can shoppers take to shop mindfully?
KU: Purchasing clothing that doesn’t last and throwing it away is the worst contributing factor to people and the planet. The energy put into that item is wasted and put in landfills. If you do anything, use your clothes longer and purchase ones you get the most use out of. Give yourself permission to spend more because you buy less. You’ll find your total annual spending doesn’t increase. You just end up with nicer stuff! Beyond that, look for natural fibers that biodegrade and recycled and organic content wherever possible.
MAE: The only thing I would add to that is repair your clothing. When you are finished wearing things, sell, swap and donate! Do everything you can to keep your textiles out of the landfill. In NYC, we are fortunate to have municipal textile recycling and Fabscrap. And anything polyester can be recycled and made again. There is no need for virgin poly content. There is enough out there for the next millennia.
What is your hope for the impact your clothing will have on other people and the planet?
MAE: The fashion industry and other industries have to systematically change and take responsibility for what they make. I think every business should pay a carbon tax to offset the environmental cost of doing business. The tax structure should be re-written to incentivize taking responsibility for the future and penalize damage done.
We should revolutionize our waste streams to recycle what’s already out there ad infinitum. We should be producing fabrics that can be recycled; All patterns should be engineered to get as close to zero waste as possible, scraps from production should be collected for recycling, dead stock should be sent to design schools and sold for home makers, etc. Furthermore, I would hope that nothing is produced that isn’t certified Fair Trade. It is unconscionable that the men, women and children make our clothing and can’t afford proper housing, food, education or healthcare.
I would also hope that products that make use of animals be certified for the five freedoms. I could go on… but worldwide governments and producers are only two variables in this equation. As consumers we need to acknowledge our role and accept the fact that every dollar we spend is a vote for or against the future.
Specifically for the FOUR collector, I hope we offer another opportunity for consumers to see that their choices matter. We have a generous return policy of six months because we want our customers to get the collection into their daily wardrobes. Once we have enough returns we’ll launch FOUR WORN as a secondary market and FOUR BORO a repair service. When the garment is over, we’ll take it back and recycle it. We aim to be as circular as possible.
What do you see for the future of fashion?
KU: In the short term, we are going to see a huge change in the landscape of fashion companies. There will be more bankruptcies, consolidations and new brands coming up. Many traditional rules and structures will be ignored while brands make their own rules. Ecommerce will be king, but will also depend on meaningful IRL experiences. Fashion is emotional and tactile. So I don’t believe it will ever stop having a physical retail component.