Foraging for Wisdom with Story mfg.

 

Words by Willow Defebaugh

Photographs by Ashish Shah

Styling by Kshitij Kankaria

With consumer concern for sustainability trending upward, tending to one’s wardrobe means sifting through glades of greenwashing. But as the founders of the sylvan-inspired slow fashion brand Story mfg. have learned, people and practices that align with your values are worth foraging for.

Words by Willow Defebaugh

Photographs by Ashish Shah

Styling by Kshitij Kankaria

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The fashion industry is not so different from a forest.

 

To start, appearances can be deceiving: What might look like a dense array of towering trees that all look alike betrays a complex network of organisms and energy exchanges, much of which happens below ground, undetectable by the untrained eye. Similarly, in fashion, we often only see what’s on the runway, rather than the many processes that had to occur for it to get there.

 

Then there is the fact that resources in a forest are finite—a fact that fashion only just now seems to be accepting. A recent World Economic Forum survey found that 86 percent of the 21,000 people surveyed in 28 countries want to see more sustainability and equity products post-pandemic—meaning that the incentive (and pressure) for brands to go green has never been as high as it is right now. And while this can be seen as a net-positive, separating the labels engaged in greenwashing from the authentically sustainable can feel like trying to tell trees apart. 

 

Enter Story mfg., the vegan and cruelty-free “positive product” brand with an (eco) cult following. Founded by husband and wife duo Katy and Saeed Al-Rubeyi, Story mfg. brings the forest metaphor to life in the form of textiles dyed with roots and tree barks—dying that happens in a replanted forest, the waste from which is used to fertilize gardens. Chief among their mottos is that “waste is lazy.” As a result, all of their natural fiber scraps are recycled into lining and stuffing, or turned into packaging in which they package their products.

 

As they tell Atmos, Katy and Saeed know how easy it is to lose oneself in the woods when setting out to start a brand. But they know another thing that forests and fashion have in common: The secret to success rests in relationships.

Willow Defebaugh

Let’s start from the beginning. Tell me the story of Story mfg.

Katy Al-Rubeyi

We met through mutual friends and started dating. At the time, I was working for a trends forecasting company doing denim trends. It was very commercial—[working on] the reports that go out to big companies and telling them all about new innovations. Saeed would always say to me, “Well, why don’t you do your own thing? You’re looking at all this really incredible stuff that is two or three years ahead of getting to market.” And that terrified me completely. Somehow he managed to persuade me to have a go. But he did it in a really cunning way that was like, We’ll start really small. We’ll just do one really tiny thing and we’ll take our time over it. Actually, you say the same things to me now to get me to do some things.

Saeed Al-Rubeyi

[laughs] I’m like, It’ll be a really small time investment. But yeah, Katy would tell me about all these things that were not being done. Like, “Oh, there’s this place in Spain that’s doing 100% recycled denim, but no one’s using it because it’s too expensive, or because of this.”

Katy

And this was eight years ago. It was before anybody “had” to be sustainable. It [was] mind boggling—I remember doing reports about how to inject a little bit of eco into your collection. Everything had this huge marketing thing around it. It had to have a spin on it to be interesting for the customer because the customer wouldn’t get it.

Saeed

So Katy was seeing what developments were happening, and she got to talking to someone at an Indian [fabric] mill called Arvind. The guy was like, “We are working with communities of farmers who would usually weave in their own time and giving them as much work as they would like or as little as they would like, and teaching them about natural indigo dyeing, and connecting them with this network of spinners and weavers and dyers. And then we are buying up all the fabric that they make.” So it was natural dyed, handwoven denim. Messed up denim. And they weren’t really selling it. He was like, “If you’re interested in this, here’s a few other places you could hit up if you’re gonna make it all within India.” One of them was this dye house in the South of India called The Colours of Nature who do natural dyeing but take it to an extreme. ‘Cause, as it transpires with the natural dyeing that happens elsewhere, sometimes the part of it that’s natural is the dye and the process itself is not natural. Or the process is but not the ingredients. But The Colours of Nature are extreme purists.

Katy

So we went to India.

Saeed

We went to India. We stayed working with The Colours of Nature and we’ve worked with them from the beginning until now. So basically we started making one pair of jeans in a few different fabrics using deadstock. And then we made a jacket, and then shirts, and we just made a sample of everything, offered up for pre-order. We’d sell, like, one or two. And it would be enough to make a few more. Then it just kinda grew from there.

Willow

What would you say your core values are?

Katy

We talk a lot about positive products rather than calling our products “sustainable”. I think the word “positive” is quite a good one, because it’s all-encompassing. We really feel like everyone should feel positive about [the clothing] rather than just the customer feeling positive, but then the people who make them are having the worst time or they’re not getting paid enough.

Saeed

The value that I can say is really important—aside from the ones that are on our manifesto—is that we have to be close to the people that make our products and the people that buy them. When companies start to add levels between, that’s when people seem to have the capacity to make really mean decisions. We speak to our partners every single day on Slack, even though they’re in India. And customers that email us also come directly to me. Everybody has direct contact with us because then we know we’ve got this human connection that doesn’t break.

Katy

And there are so many temptations. The industry throws so many temptations at you to compromise on your values. Like, you can make it cheaper if you do it like this or you can make it quicker if you do it like this. By us being involved every step of the way, we know that we’re not being forced to compromise on them.

Willow

Well it strikes me that what you are talking about is relationships, which is interesting because your brand was born out of a relationship.

Saeed

Yes, exactly. The relationships are the most important part. That’s the part that we cherish the most.

Willow

Speaking of your manifesto, one of the pieces is that “there is no waste in nature.” Tell me a little bit more about how that informs your manufacturing and your whole creative process.

Katy

That’s something that we really learned about when we went to visit The Colours of Nature. Because everything that they do there, with their natural dyeing process gets completely recycled back around. It’s a fully closed loop. In comparison to the big factories that make fabric where all the water that runs off pollutes the local ecosystems, this is all completely beneficial. It goes back into the Earth. There’s no waste in nature because when a plant dies, it then feeds nutrients back into the soil and then more plants grow.

Saeed

It’s an archetype for a positive system. Nature doesn’t just recycle, it upcycles. It creates positive loops. So that opened up our thinking. Like, better than recycling, what can we do? How can we create more positive loops?

Willow

Where do the dyes you work with come from?

Saeed

We rely on the communities we work with, leaning on them to pull together local knowledge and [materials]. It’s a lot of fruit, roots, woods, and bark. Jackfruit, indigo, madder. Babul bark in India. In Thailand, we use a different type of indigo that’s local to Thailand and they use other fruits, like mango leaf. We’re working with a lot more dyes now, because when we work with new communities, then we find new dyes and new colors. Like purple—we’ve only just started being able to use it so we’re obsessed with purple at the moment.

Katy

We can say to the people we work with, “Oh, we really want purple” and they’ll be like, “Cool. But we can’t just create purple.” We could’ve bought purple, synthetic purple or purple from a different place in the world, but it [wouldn’t be] natural.

Willow

Our culture is based around the fallacy that there are no constraints in nature, that everything is infinite and we have endlessly available resources. We want to eat what we want to eat, when we want to eat it, and so we go to the grocery store and we find it there, as opposed to thinking about what’s local and what’s in season.

Saeed

Exactly. And I think it’s actually quite freeing to find out something’s not possible. ‘Cause then you either take it up as a challenge, or you decide not to do it and go in a different direction.

Willow

And it makes the thing, the product more special, right? Like, you have this relationship to purple now because it’s something that you have been seeking and then you found a way to do it, and that makes it rare. It’s sort of at odds with this culture where so many people are just disaffected because we can have anything we want all the time and so, nothing is special.

Katy

Yes.

Willow

There are some key phrases that come up in some of your designs. One of them that I love is “forage for wisdom.” What’s the story there?

Saeed

You can go on Instagram and get told a million things, but you have to discern which things are pertinent and which things align with you. Foraging is that act. It’s the act of looking and not just taking everything that you’re given and using your wisdom to understand what to pick up. That, and for a while we were just very, very into mushrooms.

Katy

Not magic mushrooms. Just normal tasting mushrooms.

Saeed

Regular mushrooms.

Willow

[laughs] I’m right there with you. What are some of the most important pieces of wisdom that you have foraged in creating Story mfg.?

Saeed

I would say being able to change our minds is probably the most important thing. If we as people never changed our minds, then Katy and I would never [have become] vegan, which we judge to be one of the most important changes we’ve made in our lives. Some of the best things that have happened have come from listening to people and changing our minds.

Katy

And not listening to people! We’re kind of encouraged to make a new collection every season, but we don’t want to. We’re not ready to move on. So it’s quite nice to just not do it and just be still for a little bit. To not feel pressure or be rushed into something, or be something we’re not.

Saeed

Something else we’ve learned this year is how important it is to have a good network of people you can work with. Usually we go to India every few months to speak to the dyers, but we haven’t been able to do that [since the pandemic started]. But we know we can trust them. It goes back to building relationships. Our collective work together is what I love about Story.

HAIR AND MAKEUP Saher Ahmed Gandhi ASSISTANT Keshvi Kamdar

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