North Carolina has always had its finger on the pulse of fashion in one way or another.
With strong roots in textile production and manufacturing, NC State’s College of Design, yearly fashion weeks, designers like Raleigh Denim Workshop and a growing community of local clothing makers (here is a list by ExitEvent), it isn’t entirely surprising that a New York-based designer would choose NC as a new home for her socially-conscious apparel company.
Loyale, debuting this month via online store, is a women’s clothing line dedicated to ethical production and transparency. Its founder is Jenny Hwa, known locally for recent leadership roles at Innovate Raleigh and the Hopscotch Music & Design Festivals.
Loyale is a labor of love that Hwa originally started in NY in 2005. As the company’s sole employee, Hwa worked for years developing her line and organizing the business. After a few years in the fashion industry, Loyale was featured in The New York Times’ Sunday Styles section and Vogue, 60 retailers were carrying the line and Hwa was awarded an Eileen Fisher Women-Owned Business grant to support Loyale’s development. But despite her brand’s recognition, Hwa was unable to create a profit margin that would allow her to grow or hire employees to help with the workload.
Hwa decided to search for a place to relocate that would provide a sustainable business environment to match Loyale’s business practices. Her search allowed her to travel to different areas of NC, where she fell in love with the beauty of the state and the friendly culture.
Thus began the seven-year journey that would lead to Loyale’s relaunch in Raleigh.
Lessons in failure and perseverance from the startup community
Upon moving to NC in 2009, Hwa began to integrate into the entrepreneurial and creative communities within the Triangle. Her roles as a director for the Hopscotch Music and Design Festivals and most recently, Innovate Raleigh, introduced her to other entrepreneurs and mentors, allowing her to assess the business model and revamp her favorite elements of Loyale.
In Hwa’s opinion, her role in the entrepreneurial ecosystem allowed her to accept the death of the original Loyale brand with grace and move in a different direction with razor sharp focus.
“As an entrepreneur, you get to live an amplified existence. You get to let go of fear, and I got to do this,” says Hwa, who resigned from Innovate Raleigh last year.
The local culinary scene is where Hwa found her final source of inspiration. Hwa pushed Loyale to meet the same standards many consumers hold their food to—organic, fair trade, responsibly sourced and wholesome.
“While we covet locavore, handmade, artisanal fare at any cost, there seems to be considerably less conviction about where the items in our wardrobe originate,” says Hwa. “We rarely, if ever, buy mediocre groceries at a discount market, yet most of us have found ourselves, on many occasions, combing through listless racks of fashions at a generic chain store or trolling e-shops in hopes of scoring a deal.”
But Loyale’s relationship with food does not stop there. Since the collection will not follow traditional seasonal cycles that are common in the fashion industry, Loyale welcomes the seasons with different food-based themes.
The company’s website, accompanying journal and newsletter will be filled with recipes, how-tos, photographs and features from other creatives to match the theme. Loyale’s inaugural theme is “Flock Wisely,” exploring the lives and use of domestic fowl.
Getting serious about sustainability
Hwa’s California roots may have made it easy for her to love sunny North Carolina, but the challenge of finding a mill where Loyale’s collection could be developed made her transition from New York a bit harder.
Despite North Carolina’s history of textile manufacturing, many textile mills had closed and moved operations overseas by the time Hwa began her search for a mill. Around 40 percent of our state’s jobs were in textile and apparel manufacturing in 1940, declining to 1.1 percent in 2013, USA Today reported.
“Our break was quite a journey with companies closing and facilities moving overseas,” Hwa says. “It was eye opening going to towns during my search that relied solely on a company and being completely devastated. It really opened my eyes and drove me to create a purpose driven company.”
But Hwa eventually came across Opportunity Threads, a worker-owned textile cooperative located in Morganton, NC, which aligned perfectly with Loyale’s mission. Opportunity Threads primarily employs minorities (Mayan immigrants) and women, who have the opportunity to become partial owners of the company after two years—something Hwa says spoke to her.
Opportunity Threads also sources materials from within North Carolina, unless otherwise instructed. And it sells excess material to a South Carolina company that will use it for fiber fill. Working with Opportunity Threads, Hwa says, took her “made in the USA” concept to the next level.
Other ways Hwa is keeping her sustainability model going is by only selling her products virtually to reduce their footprint, using environmental friendly packaging and keeping the collection dramatically smaller than the original line.
In fact, the new Loyale collection includes just two items, a ballet tee and tunic, both made of 100 percent cotton. Hwa wants Loyale to offer customers expertly crafted, comfortable pieces that can be staples in any wardrobe and reduce what she calls “decision fatigue.”
As sales begin in the Triangle and beyond, Hwa hopes that Loyale’s purpose and mission will encourage consumers to educate themselves on where items come from. And if that happens, Hwa’s clothes will represent more than just a fashion statement.