When the tragic factory collapse in Bangladesh made international news last spring, a magnifying glass was placed over certain quadrants of the fashion industry and their sketchy production practices. Shop ethically! we pleaded. Someone needed to do something to force the industry’s overlords to change their wicked ways. Brooklyn-based entrepreneur and Parsons grad Rachel Kibbe is trying to do just that with her e-commerce shop Helpsy, which specializes in ethical, positively-sourced clothing and accessories that also look good. Kibbe has created her own special criteria of what constitutes socially conscious fashion, and personally hunts down the items she sells, based on her taste and, more importantly, her convictions.
What were you doing before you founded Helpsy?
A little bit of a lot of things. Mostly freelance fashion writing, going to Parsons for Fashion Design, living in Spain for a few years. HELPSY came about organically—I wanted to write more about good companies doing good things in high fashion, and there wasn’t any platform specifically for that. So I decided to do it.
Give us an example of ethical fashion vs. unethical fashion.
Ethical fashion is fashion produced and designed with the impact of production methods as well as the afterlife of the garment in mind. It is fashion that is transparent about these methods to the consumer. I’ve developed 11 categories of ethical criteria and believe a garment is only ethical if it falls under at least three of these categories.
Unethical fashion is that which does not consider the lifecycle of the garment, the impact of the materials, or the life of the people who put it together. Most“fast” fashion, large chains, fall under this category. Any garment that is disposable and will fall apart quickly was probably made under largely unregulated conditions and buying these items contributes to an ethos of conspicuous consumption and a disposable fashion mentality that’s, literally, toxic.
Why is it important to shop ethically?
Next to oil, the retail manufacturing fashion is the most polluting industry on the planet. The fashion industry employs close to 1/6 of the global population and yet it is hardly regulated, which leads to sweatshop conditions and child labor. You vote with your dollars about how you want our planet and the people living on it to be treated. To be unaware and shop without consideration for where the garments comes from and where it will go once you don’t need it anymore, is to contribute the detriment of your home, the earth, and the people living on it in.
Are there specific brands who are on the forefront of producing ethical fashion? Which ones are they?
My ‘thing’ is that ethical fashion should not be an aesthetic (I wrote a whole piece on it for the Guardian). In a nutshell, ‘ethical fashion’ should be just as beautiful and design conscious as any other type of fashion. In fact, ideally there would be no difference, all fashion should be ethical. Some designers who are doing this especially well are Study, Titania Inglis, Freedom of Animals, and John Patrick Organic.
How do you find your items?
I troll the depths of the internet. I also have friendships and relationships with designers in the New York community who are producing ethically and, through this network, I am continually introduced to designers producing ethically.
How would you describe the clothes that end up on Helpsy?
I strive to be an anti-cruchy and anti-green aesthetic. Fashion forward, quirky, fun, sophisticated, irreverent, and consciously produced.
How would you describe your fashion sense?
Allison Mosshart meets Bob Dylan meets Kate Moss meets Jackie O.
Is this your full time job or something you do on the side?
It’s my main project. I do other things as well to pay the bills but this is hardly a “side” project. More like a constant obsession. I’m a one woman show and don’t have any funding at all. This has been a project of passion and it’s all very do yourself on a shoestring. Punk. I’ve tried to keep it this way because I don’t want to be beholden to anyone. I want to develop this business in a new way that’s not really been done before, and answering to investors etc I’ve decided is best to put off until how I want to run things is pretty set in stone.
What’s the most annoying thing about the fashion industry?
Entitlement and lack of thoughtfulness. To be good at fashion you have to be a bit of a follower, or at least have a wicked antenna for what is happening in terms of the zeitgeist and group consciousness. But we have a responsibility to be conscious citizens who give back or at least take care of what we’re given, not to just be succubi. The fashion industry, for the most part, has missed the boat on this. Fortunately this is changing.
Who are some of your heroes in the fashion industry?
Vivienne Westwood. I think she might really be my only hero in the fashion industry—she stands for things and says them out loud. She’s not afraid to “not be cool.” That is what makes her the coolest. Also the depth of her aesthetic is on par with the sophistication of her social message.
Photo credit: Armando Zubieta.