It's hard to get past a glittering portrait of the Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, painted in her court robe and her Jabot trademark. But also an egg blue embroidered robin sweater with the words "Booyah".
The portrait in Lingua Franca's West Village boutique in New York City, which is framed in the window directly above the slogan "Give a damn", captures the brand of the independent fashion label perfectly. Lingua Franca was founded in 2016 and is a line of sustainable, fair trade luxury cashmere sweaters from fair trade, all hand-sewn by women in New York City.
Fortune recently spoke with Lingua Franca founder, Rachelle Hruska MacPherson, about what it was like to run a small retail business with a growing platform in a time of social discourse and a public health crisis.
The following interview was edited and compressed slightly for reasons of clarity.
The Lingua Franca store in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan, December 22, 2018. Rachel King
Luck: Lingua Franca's signature sweater with a round neckline and italic embroidered messages has been recognizable in recent years (and some may even say iconic). What inspired this special aesthetic and what motivated you to turn it into a full-fledged company?
MacPherson: Lingua Franca started out as a happy accident. I learned sewing and embroidery from my grandma in sixth grade, and after my therapist suggested that I find a hobby with my hands to fight my fear, I picked it up on my own old sweaters last winter. Sew "Booyah" into one. I posted a few on Instagram and dozens of friends started asking about them. From there it started when I asked Instagram about shops to keep the sweaters in stock. I absolutely adore the idea of a common language – a common language – among people as a form of unity. I also loved that everyone is made by hand and is the opposite of mass production.
LF sweaters are also growing in popularity as they are worn by celebrities and influencers across Instagram. How do social media play a role in your company, from designing your brand to customer loyalty and customer service?
It all started for us on Instagram and I'm always amazed by the community of people we met on the platform. When building our brick-and-mortar stores, we were thrilled to be able to put the content of real meet-ups and events back online and to be able to share it with our online social community. I still manage our social media accounts personally. It's time consuming, but I think it's the best way to connect with our customers.
One reason why celebrities and influencers are often seen wearing LF sweaters is because of the embroidered messages, which often reflect a charity or social message. (I remember very well the actress Tessa Thompson who wore a red embroidered LF sweater at a party during the award season two years ago. The sweater had the first names of four directors who were excluded from the nominations at the 2018 Oscars. ) What motivated to turn the sweaters into a platform? What was customer feedback like? Have you ever received a backlash against any of the news?
Since I didn't "plan" any of this, we as a company could go with the flow in real time and be inspired by others. The piece "sweater as a platform" of course happened when people came up to us to sew words that are important to them by hand. I think it is something unique and special to see the care and time it took to embroider words. It somehow gives them more meaning.
And of course we got a backlash on some news. At the beginning we had a lot of hip hop lyrics in our repertoire. We thought it was a feast of the words that were the "lingua franca" of our time. We have since recognized that this was the appropriation of a culture to which we did not belong. In response, we decided to make important contributions to the black community and remove them from our shop. We are not perfect, but we listen and learn. Above all, we do not give up our struggle for love and justice in the world. We have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars for purposes that are important to us and have published every donation so that the world knows that we will use our money where our mouth is!
Lingua Franca owner and founder Rachelle Hruska MacPherson. Courtesy of Lingua Franca
All sweaters are sewn individually and are made of cashmere. Admittedly, these are quality and luxury clothing. However, prices range from $ 280 to $ 400 per sweater. These are certainly not fast fashion products, and quality requires a higher price. But for a brand that adapts to social purposes, for many consumers there is a socio-economic barrier to buying these sweaters. How are prices set where they are? To be fair, the prizes include donations to various social charities; Can you explain more about this process by deciding which groups you want to donate to and how much was raised from sales?
We are so proud to be able to make the donations we have made and to make significant progress in improving the world. That being said, every collaboration and every reason is different and unique. Many items donate 100% of their proceeds to a specific purpose.
It is also very important to us to ensure that we source all of our fabrics from environmentally friendly sources with the highest possible ethical standards. Our stickers earn above the minimum wage, and we are proud to offer many full-time jobs in New York City. All of this of course makes our product both superior and more expensive than something you can find in the fast fashion industry. I think consumers are more interested than ever in where their products come from and the ethics of the brands behind them. It is now more important than ever to make sure that we are thoughtful about everything we do.
You recently wrote a blog on Lingua Franca's website about Black Lives Matter that explains how you want to use your privilege to get better results. While you notice that this is a time when we should listen to and learn from black leaders, especially black women, what would you say to other white women founders about how they could do better and work harder for BIPOC communities?
I think listening is important, but I also think that acting is essential right now, especially as an ally of a white woman. I hate when white friends hesitate to speak out for the BIPOC community because they are afraid of getting mixed up or signaling virtues. Yes, it is terrifying to speak up, but we have to, even if mistakes are made. This is no time to be silent. A virtuous signal to our communities where we stand on issues is literally how changes have taken place in the past and how they will continue to take place today. I think it is also important to hire black women in key roles in your company and to include black women in your narrow social circle. Change has to happen from the inside. It requires real work and leaving comfort zones.
The "Tiny Pricks Project" was presented on July 25, 2019 in Lingua Franca's store in New York City. "Tiny Pricks" is a 900-piece collection of colorful handicrafts with Trumpisms.Eduardo Munoz Alvarez – AFP / Getty Images
It's no secret that retailers have been suffering from this for quite some time – especially before the pandemic. One of your boutiques is on Bleecker Street in the West Village, a section of property that recently housed Burberry and Marc Jacobs. But even high-end retailers cannot reconcile the rising rent with falling branch sales. What value is there for stationary locations? And which sales channels do you focus on most during and after the pandemic?
I have already mentioned this, but our brick-and-mortar stores have never been considered just "stores". From the beginning, they were extensions of our brand. We wanted real spaces to activate ideas and bring these things back online. Our stores hosted weekly panels, questions and answers, and author evenings, and were community centers for so many authors and activists. Last summer we even became a full-fledged gallery for an art exhibition for three months – the "Tiny Pricks Project".
Of course, this idea of "loading as a common room" changed a bit during the COVID period, but I'm still in practice for a long time. Although our e-commerce was significantly higher, we are still looking forward to re-opening in bricks and mortar and continuing to meet people in real life.
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