Collina Strada’s Hillary Taymour on fighting doom and gloom” with fun

The founder of the ethically-focused fashion brand sits down with THE FACE to talk sustainability, activism and what we need to learn from the 2016 election.

Hillary Taymour is searching for the right words to describe the president. He is…” she begins, before trailing off to catch her thoughts. He’s not a reliable human.” Dialling into our FaceTime chat from her studio in New York, the founder and creative director behind Collina Strada is doing her best to articulate how she felt in the aftermath of November 8, 2016, a day seared into the memory of every American – and maybe even everyone with an internet connection. During that moment, I really felt hopeless, to be honest. I think everyone did. It really felt scary [thinking about] how much was going to change and how much he could actually change things.”

All of these words that describe the president’s impact on the country so easily, the unreliability, hopelessness and fear, could be said by anyone, but coming from Taymour, they hold a heavyweight. Taymour isn’t just a self-described second-generation Middle Eastern immigrant woman who has had two abortions, and is known to date both genders,” she’s also a sustainable fashion trailblazer who, since founding Collina Strada in 2009, has built a brand that is as antithetical to the ethos of Trump’s America as possible. It has become a brand famed for its sustainable, eco-friendly and upcycled clothes, prompting Anna Wintour herself to nominate the brand as a 2019 CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund Finalist. But Collina Strada has also become known for threading activism into each collection, while retaining a reliably hopeful and optimistic outlook (despite the state of the world). Nowhere is that more apparent than in the clothes and shows she’s produced during the Trump era.

Over the last four years, Taymour’s collections have featured models from countries impacted by Trump’s immigration ban, rousing monologues from indigenous environmental activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and art by Sean-Kierre Lyons inspired by his image of a Black folklore minstrel”. She has produced tie-dyed Black Lives Matter facemasks to raise money for the Homeless Black Trans Women’s Fund and T‑shirts made of recycled fabric from Ghana that raises money for trans sex workers. In so many ways, Taymour has created a blueprint for how to create sustainable clothing that packs a political punch. That’s why, as we look back on the fashion industry’s most sustainability-focused season ever and enter the final stretch of the presidential election, there is no better person to call up to talk about doom, gloom and why admitting your faults is the most important step towards building a sustainable brand.

When did sustainability become one of the main concerns for you?

I started my brand in 2009 just making handbags. There was a point where I was working with leather and saw so many dead skins of animals. I just fell to the ground, basically. When I moved to New York to do ready-to-wear in 2010, I shifted my whole platform off of seeing that. I always used vegetable-tanned leathers anyways, but I told myself, this is just not sustainable. If I’m going to be doing this, I want to be doing it for a purpose. We’re so flooded with products, inventory and consumerism. Why are we doing this if we’re not going to use our voices for good? 

Even before you started your brand, how did activism factor into your upbringing?

I grew up in a really weird part of LA. My mom was in finance and my dad’s a doctor, and they became Democrats during the Clinton administration. I’ve always known we’ve had opposing views, so maybe I was into activism within my own household, but now I’m more like, what all of you guys are doing is wrong, and we need to do better. I’ve always been that way.

Can you walk me through your Fall 2019 Low Carbon Diet” collection? How did it come together?

With Xiuhtezcatl Martinez? That was a really pivotal moment for my career in terms of sustainability. That was right when I started getting an understanding of how to make a runway show impactful, which for me was a very hard learning moment. We’d always been working with such low budgets, and then I finally got really lucky that season and was able to work with Xiuhtezcatl. I’’d been following his career since he was six years old and spoke in front of these huge white men. A six-year-old boy just pleading for us to take care of his trees. The way he speaks has been so impactful for me for such a long time that I was really fortunate to just cold email him and have him be on board [to collaborate].

For that show, I’d been walking over the bridge a lot to work and saw all this trash and saw New York full of garbage, and just thought, we can be doing so much better. So much better. Simple things like bring your water bottle, use your Tupperware, and stop ordering shit. It was really hitting home for me in that moment in my life. I was really happy with that show.

Your Fall 2017 collection, Terraform Mars”, was in the first fashion season after his election and your casting process was a direct response to Trump’s travel ban. How did your perception of the world shift after the election?

I felt like, where else can I go but Mars? That was what that collection was based on, as well as casting models that were from countries that he was trying to put travel bans on. It just felt really sad during that time. We’ve come a long way, but it still feels as hopeless. That was a really interesting time in American history. Seeing how many young people were so captivated and how many people, at least in my sphere, wanted to flee the country because of that.

As the years have passed, have you seen more people in your friend circle or other designers become more politically active?

A lot of people are definitely becoming more politically active, especially in New York and in my friend circle. People who I never would have thought would go to protests are attending them. A lot of designers are becoming more political. I also see that Instagram is now like the new Facebook for politics for our generation – in a way that doesn’t feel so baby boomer. Everyone has seen how important [being politically active] is and how we all need to make a difference and change our ways.

Everyone’s a bit more woke nowadays.

Yeah, and people are keeping each other in check with their wokeness, which I think is important. People are having discussions at parties and at dinner tables that they weren’t having before. It feels a lot more real than it did before to most people.

Do you feel hopeful about the upcoming election?

I feel hopeful. Hopefully, we can vote Trump out of office. I’m hearing a lot about Gen Z kids feeling like they don’t want to vote for Biden because they don’t like Biden, instead of voting for the lesser of two evils. I think we need to look at it like that. We are voting for the lesser of two evils, every vote counts, and if we’ve learned anything from 2016, you don’t just not vote because you don’t like the candidate. Hopefully, Biden will win. Hopefully, in future years to come, we can get rid of the Electoral College so every vote actually does count.

Hillary Taymour

I know a lot of people don’t want to vote for Biden because he doesn’t fully support the Green New Deal. Are you hopeful that if he is elected, we can push his administration to adopt more climate change policies?

I think it will still be slow, but I think it will be better than where we’re at now. I don’t think it would happen overnight. 

I’d rather be going slowly forward than moving backwards.

Yeah, unfortunately, that’s where we’re at. We have people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and good people advocating for change. If their voices could be heard more, that’s all we can hope for.

Your Spring 2021 collection, Change is Cute”, was focused on climate change. As a voter, how high in the ranking of the issues is climate change for you?

Honestly, it’s probably number one. Americans are being so selfish about making any changes, whether it’s gas or oil or plastic. Refusing to make these small changes is just killing us. If we could make the change, as Americans, then everyone else will follow. I’m not saying that America is the most important country in the world, I’m just saying that if we can do it, then everybody can.

The video for the collection was very sunny and optimistic. In the face of everything that’s happening, especially growing up in LA and now seeing the wildfires that are happening in California, how do you stay optimistic?

Okay, so my whole theory about getting people to change and make a difference is if you can make it fun, they’ll engage with it and want to be fun, too. But if you make it about doom and gloom, they are going to be less interested – unless it’s shockingly doom and gloom. I think the way to get people to enforce change is through positivity and caring and love. That’s always the route I’ve taken, which I think is authentic. Everything needs to be fun, because [if] it’s not fun, why are we doing it?

You’ve been incorporating sustainability initiatives into your work for so long. Do you feel like you’ve inspired other brands on that front?

I’m not going to name who, but this one girl who is in the same tier of New York fashion brands was like, Oh my god, I saw that you had Klean Kanteens backstage for your show. We had these plastic cups backstage for everyone drinking water and I was like, oh my god, Hillary would be so upset right now.” So then I gave her our Klean Kanteen contact for her backstage use for future seasons. It’s stuff like that. 

I’ve been sharing our sources to get more sustainable fabrics with a lot of brands. A lot of people are really more interested in it, but it does limit you as a designer. I’m not going to say that it doesn’t. It’s difficult. We’re starting to run into problems where we can’t use printed deadstock anymore because another brand will say that it’s theirs, but it’s their garbage. Why can’t we use their garbage?

That reminds me of the report about Burberry burning millions of dollars worth of clothes. The fashion industry really doesn’t have any set guidelines for sustainability. 

There are no set guidelines for anything. When you think about it, there’s no one regulating what you’re putting on the care labels. There’s no regulation. Brands can get away with saying whatever they want on a tag and big brands do. I’ve worked with big brands on fabrications and asked them what the fabric is made of and they’re like, Oh, it’s recycled materials.” Is it? No, it’s deadstock. They’re just spewing out names for different versions of sustainability but they actually don’t know what happened to the fabric. They just know that it’s sustainable, but is it?

That’s so frustrating because the fashion industry is so wasteful. It’s just so performative with so many of these brands. 

That’s why if you are a designer, or you are trying to start a brand, just be real and admit your faults. Be like, this is where I’m trying to improve and this is what I’m doing the best way that I can now. Sustainability technology is changing every day and there are different options every day. Sometimes something really good comes out that we think is good and then we learn that it’s not very good. It’s all a learning process. 

This is new territory and it’s going to change overnight. We’re not going to have the best results every single time. For instance, look at recycled plastic clothing, where you recycle water bottles and turn it into clothing. We learned now that that’s maybe not the best thing in the world because of all the microplastics. People are still saying that’s sustainable. Everything is different and everything has its own problems to be said about it. It’s a slow process of figuring it out together. 

You put T‑shirts in your Spring 2021 collection made from materials you got from Ghanian markets that were destined for landfills. Tell me more about that.

Basically, it’s all these scrap tees from Ghana’s Kantamanto market in Accra. [The market] is called Dead Man’s Trash because more than 15 million items of clothing from North America go there. It’s killing the whole environment there and 40 per cent of everything we send will end up in their ocean. I’ve been shipping it back and using it as fabric to remake clothes. We did a capsule collection out of those T‑shirts for Browns that’s out now. We used Sean-Kierre Lyons’s artwork that they provided for the show and then auctioned them off so we can raise some money for G.L.I.T.S.

For people who might not feel optimistic about the future, especially in terms of climate change and politics, do you have anything you want to say to them?

For everyone who’s having a hard time with this, all we can do is be the best version of ourselves and try to do what we think is right. Just know that, whether you have 200 or 2,000 followers on Instagram, you are still being looked at and those people might know 2,000 other people. What you say is considered amongst your peers and if you’re standing up for what you think is right, you can maybe influence those people to also believe in that. Influence is everything right now to help guide this election in the correct way.


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