Mara Hoffman Wants This Crisis to Be a Wake-Up Call for Unsustainable Brands

The self-funded designer has spent 20 years growing her company slowly and independently. Now, she's poised to lead the fashion industry through an uncomfortable reevaluation of its environmental impact.

By Jenna Birch

In 2000, Mara Hoffman graduated from New York’s Parsons School of Design and immediately started hustling. She would bring bags of clothes into boutiques, asking store owners for just five minutes to assess her designs. If she didn’t make a sale, she would come back three weeks later with new material.

One day, while selling to a consignment shop, Mara ran into the legendary Sex and the City costume designer Patricia Field. She loved what Mara was wearing—her own designs—and proceeded to buy $200 worth of items Mara was carrying. The next day, Field’s buyers came to her studio apartment, where she was deconstructing T-shirts and dyeing clothes in her bathtub; they placed a $5,000 order. Such recognition was inspiring. “I locked myself in that studio apartment and I made every piece,” Mara says. “I hand-delivered it, too. That gave me the confidence that my work was viable.”

Mara grew her company slowly and independently, adapting to changing environments along the way. During the 2008 recession, she pivoted to make her price points more accessible by turning to synthetic fabrics, which ultimately had her questioning the brand’s impact on the environment. In 2015, she overhauled her processes again to make the company more sustainable. As the captain of her own ship, Mara has never taken on an investor or a business partner; and having undergone several operational changes to support her vision, she knows her business non-negotiables: reduce waste and use environmentally-friendly processes to create. Here, Mara opens up about what informs her decision-making today as she leads her team through another critical turning point, and how young founders can look back before they move forward.

Your colorful aesthetic was decidedly different from the sleek or tailored look trending in the late ’90s. How did you maintain your unique vision and not succumb to what was popular?

After graduating, I knew I wasn’t going to get a job at Calvin Klein or Donna Karen or the big labels of the time. I was always more in the art side of things, and the hands-on approach to fashion. I’ve always been inspired by movement and women; I love the body so much, and I spent many years as a dancer. Color is big for me, it gives me life. This is my 20th year now, and all of those things still ring true, but now, what also inspires me is these new perspectives of design and awareness. How to be a responsible creator is inspiring to me.

It was helpful that I had a really clear vision of the way I personally dressed; I created a moment with a lot of women that really resonated. My community was supportive, they were all wearing the pieces I was making and that really helped. Still, to this day, when people ask me what’s important about designing—it’s your own point of view. It has always been important. But now, more than ever, it will be an enormous part of surviving this pandemic in a business sense.

"I built my business on loans and factoring—it was always hand-to-mouth."

We’ll come back to how you’re navigating the current pandemic soon, but first, I want to know how you got your entirely self-funded company off the ground.

I became incorporated in May, 2000, but I wasn’t making money; I was just surviving for many years. I worked out of my apartment with one assistant when I could afford it. As I held onto a little bit of money, I was able to hire people to help me here and there in the beginning. But it was a business run out of apartments. It was a lot of work, and I hustled. This thing has always been a hustle, honestly.

Eventually, a wholesale showroom, eM productions in Los Angeles, loved what I was doing and wanted to represent me. When that happened, early on, I got a factor [a type of debtor finance, where a business sells its accounts receivable (i.e. invoices) to a third party], because I needed to be able to borrow against orders. I did not have seed money, so in the beginning, they were really instrumental for me getting the line going. I actually still have a factor, but it’s been a very long time since I borrowed from them.

As soon as it started picking up, I also took an SBA loan for $30,000. I brought all my orders to the bank to show them what I had, but that I couldn’t afford to produce anything. I remember having my first order from Barneys in my hand to be able to bring to the bank and say, “This is real. Look, here is my pile of orders.” That was probably about three years in. I built my business on loans and factoring—it was always hand-to-mouth. Sometimes it still is. I have never taken an investor or a business partner.

The Freya dress from Mara Hoffman's Spring 2020 collection, made in India from 100 percent woven lenzing modal

Was there a reason behind why you didn’t take on an investor or partner?

There’s a positive and negative to it. The positive is that I can make decisions on my own and not be held down by anything. So many decisions that I have made along the way, especially the ones around sustainability, if I had a “big money” person behind it, they would have absolutely shut it down. Five years ago, there was no making money in sustainably-made clothing; it was a business person’s nightmare. But as a founder, it was the only way to go forward for me. I am a very intuitive leader, and I think it would have been really hard to be under someone’s thumb.

But on the other side, it’s been extraordinarily difficult in a lot of ways. There have been times when I had no idea where the money would come from, or where I would be able to pay the few people who did work for me. But there was always something that would come through, and people had a lot of patience with me, showed me a lot of kindness, and believed in what I’ve tried to do; that really helps. We’ve built a solid reputation along the way for coming through on our promises.

I want to talk about 2008; not all independent companies have survived as long as you have. What do you attribute that success to?

2008 was brutal, but I don’t think anything compares to what we’re going through now. We were definitely a smaller team, maybe eight people then, and we are at 27 now, with a lot higher overhead. It is really hard to weather these things unless you have a ton of money and cash backing you.

It was definitely survival mode back then, and it was a big moment for change at that time. We had been doing so much in silks and more expensive fabrics, but after 2008, no one wanted our price points. We had to reconfigure ourselves to start making things at lower prices, so we shifted our production overseas and started using cheaper fabrics, like synthetics. A lot of things about the company changed to fit into how we could survive the other side of the recession. After that, the company was in this real upward trajectory. We were selling to 450 stores, including all the department stores. We were just making a lot of clothes. So 2015 was the crashing point for me where consciousness caught up with courage. I just couldn’t be part of [the climate problem] anymore. I felt we needed a massive change.

"2008 was brutal, but I don’t think anything compares to what we’re going through now."

What changes did you make in 2015 to retool what you’d done in 2008 as a survival mechanism?

I went to my director of production at the time and said, “We change or we die. I don’t want to do this anymore.” She is still with me now, but as the VP of Sustainability. She said, “Let’s find a way to change,” so did. We started with the complete vetting of all our processes from our materials up to the business operations within our walls, to every factory partner, to where our fabrics were coming from and what the fibers were, to how we were transporting, to the dyes, the printing processes—all parts, really.

We dug in. We started with swimwear because it was the lowest hanging fruit. It was something we could shift out of our conventional fabrics to recycled poly and nylon from plastic bottles, which, fast forward to today, is still not a great solution, because it still involves plastic regardless of it being recycled. But we began there. Each season, we became more confident that we could shift parts and still hold onto a customer who was still invested in the brand on an emotional and aesthetic level without her being so disrupted by the change. We have spent the past five years digging in, changing, reassessing and committing to new systems and new fabrications and continue to make new goals every year for ourselves. It’s a complete work in progress.

When you get to a moment where we are, right now, it demands an even more extreme evaluation of the parts of your business that feel okay. You realize some parts just need to be burnt down and built anew. We’ll be reapproaching the archaic calendar that the fashion industry runs on; examining the scale of our offerings and the demand of “newness” in product that has been placed on fashion businesses; establishing a new balance between wholesale and direct-to-consumer. We’ll be re-examining and course-correcting the existing relationships we have with wholesale partners. We will dig deeper into our supply chains and put a plan together that is even more in alignment with our belief systems of how this industry should be—and will be for us. That is what’s happening right now. It will happen with every company. I just feel grateful that we know how to do it—that this won’t be our first experience of contraction. We are expert contractors, in a way.

Did you communicate with your customers about these shifts in 2008 and 2015? Because obviously, sustainable decisions cost more and vice versa if you switch to synthetics.

In 2008, so much of our communication was done through our showroom. If you think about it, we didn’t have social media. We didn’t have e-commerce. We were not communicating directly through Instagram. A lot of the communication was just through our retailers and our showroom. We would say, “We are able to shift this price point, and these are the fabrics; are you okay shifting from a silk to a poly, it looks the same, but the price is way better” and so on. These are not things that I suggest people do right now; designers have a responsibility to move in the absolute, very different direction—in the direction we moved in 2015 to be sustainable.

But today, think about how quickly technology has changed in a short period of time. The ability to be a brand communicating to its customers so directly now is a very, very different world than what it was then. We had ways of communicating, but it was more like getting an article written in a magazine, it was more of a closed system. The stores had so much more power than the actual brands and designers do. Now, we control our narrative.

"I’m trying to be present with the fears that come up—financially, emotionally, and just all-around the fear of the unknown," says Mara Hoffman, pictured right, with a model from her Spring 2020 collection.

Thinking more internally about your team, how do you lead through these major shifts, having been through them a few times? What are you thinking about during today’s pandemic?

I am lucky to have an executive team right now that is very analytical and logistic and strategic, which is a balance. My personal leadership approach is more authentic, expressive, feminine—as in, the yin side of things as opposed to the yang. I’m not like, “get it done, everything is fine,” I am not faking strength at every corner, but instead I’m expressing the vulnerability of what is happening right now and having my company’s buy-in in their roles.

In this unknown, now is the time to use feeling as a leadership skill as opposed to just muscling, you know? There’s been a lot of muscling. This masculine approach to business has gotten the fashion industry into the situation we are in right now, with the fast pace and the impact on the environment. We’ve got to connect to these parts that we have cut ourselves off from, connect to nature, connect to one another, and connect to the entire aspect of humanity through manufacturing. Where do the people exist within your business plan? Where does the planet exist within that plan? These are really uncomfortable parts to dig into, and I am not saying that I have it all figured out; there is a ton of discomfort in this pandemic for me. So much discomfort. It is demanding a reevaluation and a real hard look at all your parts. I’m trying to be present with the fears that come up—financially, emotionally, and just all-around the fear of the unknown. I really want this to be the wake-up call that works on what needs healing. This is a pretty incredible opportunity to be courageous.

You also have to represent some state of calm; I can’t be losing my mind either, to a team of people who are still showing up and having their own personal fears about their livelihoods. And we have to make really incredibly challenging—and heartbreaking—decisions through this. Every person on my team has been affected by this, we have had to furlough employees, cut salaries. This is a really emotional and heartbreaking time, and there’s no pretending that it isn’t. People are so used to keeping business in this one bucket and the emotionality of things in another bucket. But that is part of the problem: we disconnected from feeling in business. And we are seeing the repercussions of that now on the environment.

"Where do people exist within your business plan? Where does the planet exist within that plan?"

Your honesty and vulnerability is refreshing. It’s nice to know that even amazing women with established businesses do not have it all figured out.

Oh, no way. Who could have this thing figured out? And every time you think you get close to it … I’ll have this eureka mindset, and think, Okay, I got this. And then something happens and it’s like, No. I keep thinking of this time like there is a tornado hitting your house. You can’t think of the blueprint for the house’s addition until you see what’s left of your house. And it’s hard. I feel for anyone in this place of leadership right now who has teams they are trying to support and hold onto. These people who trust you to take care of them and their families. This is brutal, and each day you have to keep waking up to it, and do your absolute best with it. You have to be in both a heart and brain space right now; you really can’t check out of one or the other.

Unfortunately, and fortunately, a lot of businesses will not make it to the other side of this. I think there is a clearing that is happening right now, and the planet is doing everything in its power to restore and save itself. Big things are happening. Certain things will survive this. But intentionality is going to be key. So, how do you lead? You lead with honesty, you lead with authenticity.

Indeed, on the other side of this pandemic, there are other issues to address, like the environment and sustainability. How are you doing things differently today versus when you made that radical shift in 2008?

We have always been a resilient group. I think resiliency is one of my stronger qualities. In 2008, it was just an adaptation; change or die. Then in 2015, it was an inner voice, not an economic crash or outward catastrophe, that led me to the next phase. Now we are at this point in 2020, and I think, Oh my god, everything has to change again. Even in my own company, I will not come out on the other side looking the way I did before we went in. And you know what? That’s okay. That’s going to have to be okay. My goal is not to be at the same scale on the other side of this; we can’t be. To actually use that as my goal feels ridiculous.

"So much inventory got canceled by retailers, but how to get out of the stuff we have is not by making new stuff," says Mara. "It’s figuring out how we are going to use what we have."

So what are the goals? How are you intending to come out of the other side of this stronger?

There are so many things I have wanted to do in these past few years that have felt impossible, like slowing down. I want to make less. I want to do it slower. I want to get out of this ridiculous, archaic fashion schedule. These are things that we have been deeply longing for, but when you are in the hamster wheel, it’s so hard to step off to actually implement big, systematic changes.

I’ve been thinking, “We don’t need to do this many seasons. We don’t need to be on this crazy schedule. What are we doing?” Now, everyone has been kicked off the wheel. We’re going to come out on the other side of this on our own terms. It’s not going to be playing by the old rules and the old systems that were set up and make zero sense for a planet that is trying to heal itself and a humanity that has been desperate to heal itself for many years.

Right now, we’re sitting on a lot of “stuff.” So much inventory got canceled by retailers, but how to get out of the stuff we have is not by making more stuff or new stuff. It’s figuring out how we are going to use what we have. Let’s re-use it, be creative, upcycle, make it relevant, and bring it into supporting this company. That is what we are really honing in on right now.

"I want to get out of this ridiculous, archaic fashion schedule."

How do you think that new founders can come out of this pandemic with that sense of focus?

They should ask themselves where they were before this. Was everything great? Were all your systems super-sturdy? It is about looking backward right now. It’s like examining where you had weak parts of your house, and getting deep into those areas before you think of building something new. Think about the parts that were broken. We as a company are looking at our broken parts right now. And I think that’s really important. You can’t go forward until you understand where you’ve been and what you are.

Everyone is trying to figure out what’s next. What’s next and when are we going forward? Just stop doing that for a minute and actually look at how well you were doing before and what you are basing that on. How profitable were you? Or how committed were you to the least amount of harm? Really take stock. Fix those broken parts first. And that might mean not going forward with the same plans or the same business structure. For a lot of people, I hope that is the answer.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity

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