words by lauren cochrane
The drop model, where a brand releases a limited run of items every few weeks, is often linked to overconsumption and waste. But a new wave of designers are utilizing the strategy as a way to run sustainable fashion businesses.
If you live in any major city, you’ll probably be familiar with streetwear queues—the lines of mostly young, mostly cis-gendered male customers snaking outside stores like Supreme in New York or Palace in London, waiting patiently to get their hands on the latest limited edition “drop” from their beloved brand.
These drops—which come every few weeks, and are fueled by the desire for scarcity but also newness—can’t be called sustainable. But, with the drop model now familiar throughout fashion—and used by luxury brands as well as streetwear companies—more mindful small brands are using this model as a way to produce clothes on a slower schedule outside the traditional fashion calendar. The reasoning varies: from a prioritizing of creativity to the use of different materials and a desire to work at a pace that suits makers.
Sunday Monday, a U.S. brand founded by Nisha Mirani and Brendan Kramer in 2017, makes block-printed accessories and homewares working with artisans in India. Respecting the time of this team is paramount, and dictates when they sell items. “I’m Indian myself, my parents are immigrants,” says Mirani. “It’s very important to me to go in and understand that I’m the outsider who has the privilege of working with these very talented people.”
Mirani says that this way of working has shaped their business. “The monsoon season is definitely our biggest obstacle,” she says. “It can be hard for bigger retailers who are excited about our product but still on these very traditional calendars. I can’t necessarily produce anything from July through September.” Marani says this has also impacted on Sunday Monday’s design process. “We can’t really adhere to trends, and I think trends are really fun,” she says “but they are very temporary and one of our goals is to have our products have a long lifetime.”
A product-for-life attitude is something that Marre Muijs, the founder of the Melbourne-based shoe brand Essen, also adheres to. After working for some major footwear brands, she created Essen—a play on “essential”— in 2016, originally launching with only three styles. While the brand has grown since then, Muijs still produces small runs, and it has multiple benefits. “I can eliminate all overproduction and minimize up to 90% of waste compared to the traditional manufacturing process,” she says. “I’m not tied to the fashion calendar so I produce when it’s quiet for the factories. There’s 100% sell through, because I only top up what I’ve actually sold.”
“The monsoon season is definitely our biggest obstacle. I can’t necessarily produce anything from July through September.”
Although the material is very different, Zero Waste Daniel also works with a model that focuses on a finite amount of products. The brand, also founded in 2016, uses “scraps” of upcycled materials, to make the four to six limited edition drops the brand releases every month. “It’s a really special way to use materials that we know we cannot get more of,” says founder Daniel Silverstein. “We’ll design a limited edition just to utilize those materials. And then when they’re gone, they’re gone forever.”
While the culture of our society means we are accustomed to instant newness at the swipe of a smartphone screen, there is a growing demographic—those who are not struggling with the cost of living crisis, of course—who are learning the thrill of delayed gratification. “I think the people we attract are interested in the human connection,” says Sunday Monday’s Mirani. “And I think there’s a part of, you know, educating the customer about our process and showing people: This isn’t an Amazon and what I’m receiving is really special.” Silverstein says that he has found a way for his brand to work within the desires of his customers. “In order to operate in the world in a way that allows me to afford a life where I can continue to be a designer, I have to have things available to buy today,” he says. “And when I put a new limited edition out, even if I can’t ship it today, I have it ready to buy today. It keeps people engaged, and it’s almost like marketing for our business.”
Silverstein’s brand is one of a number of labels that use upcycled fabrics in a drop-based model—see also Sevali, Duran Lantink, and Matty Bovan. Bovan launched BOVAN, a diffusion line, during the first COVID-19 lockdown. It was a way to make items from a mix of new and deadstock fabric in small drops, sold directly through his website. He says it was about taking back creative control. “It was important to have a direct connection to my consumer, especially the younger people who wanted to buy into the brand,” he says. With most pieces priced at under £200, they aren’t cheap but they are certainly more attainable than a lot of designer fashion, and a chance for more people to get their hands on something unique. “I believe in each piece and I add a lot of soul into each item,” says Bovan. “That to me is luxury.”
“We’ll design a limited edition just to utilize upcycled materials. And then when they’re gone, they’re gone forever.”
Silverstein is keen to make upcycled items something part of more people’s wardrobes—with designs mostly under $200—but Zero Waste Daniel also creates made-to-order items. “We find there’s no shortage of interest in that,” says Silverstein, who reveals the client buying these pieces is after something memorable: “this is a brand of head-turning attention-getting clothing. If you wear something from my line, you know people are going to stop you.” Essen has ventured into made-to-order too, and Muijis finds a different attitude to these designs. “[Customers] are a lot more considerate and they are prepared to wait for a pair of shoes that are made especially for them,” she says.
Lauren Bravo, the author of How to Break Up With Fast Fashion, is effusive about the benefits of this model, as a way for new fashion to continue. “[It] minimizes waste for the brand, and in our culture of instant gratification…it feels quite radical to wait weeks or even months for a new garment.”
While we might think of limited edition or unique pieces as something modern, Silverstein argues it is actually revisiting our past. “If you go all the way back to pre-industrial fashion, one of the hallmarks of fashion is individual style,” he says. It’s only a recent development that fashion has become “signaling, so the Chanel Cs [for example] which just means: this was expensive.” Silverstein says his upcycled, one-of-one clothing provides a new message, but also uses the power of style semiotics. “What I’m trying to do with the patchwork is have its own meaning in the lexicon of fashion, which is: this is upcycled and it shares my values.”
Bravo hopes that these kinds of messages, and necessarily limited edition drops like Silverstein’s, may become the norm for future designers. “Personally I’d love to see a fashion college take the bold decision to stop using new fabrics at all, and challenge all its students to work only with used materials, transform[ing] what already exists,” she says. “If you’re going to be a designer for the future, that’s the best skill you could possibly have.”