Collage by Allyssa Yohana using a photo by Katie Friedman.

Yael Aflalo is the CEO of Reformation, a clothing line she founded on the idea that fashion can be sustainable without having to sacrifice style. Aflalo entered the fashion industry when she was young—she grew up around her parents’ clothing store in Los Angeles, and by the time she was 21, she had started her first clothing line, Ya-Ya. On a business trip to China, Aflalo discovered how much pollution the fashion industry creates, and she vowed to do her part to make fashion sustainable. She returned to Los Angeles and began a new line called Reformation where she sold reworked vintage pieces instead of manufacturing new garments in factories overseas.

In 2013, Reformation opened up their own factories in downtown Los Angeles so that they could domestically produce their clothes and focus on reducing waste and pollution. Today, they use renewable energy and efficient methods of production, and they source vintage, eco-friendly, and deadstock fabrics.

Aflalo spoke to me about how she built her own factories and the importance of having a mission for your business.

SHRIYA SAMAVAI: What were you like when you were younger? What hobbies did you have in high school?

YAEL AFLALO: Growing up as the oldest in a big family, I would always play dress up and have fashion shows, using all of my younger siblings as models. I love the power of fashion and its ability to change a person’s mood and persona, and I loved playing around with this idea throughout my childhood. Fashion has always come naturally and effortlessly to me and growing up I used it as my vehicle to do something meaningful.

When you were 21 years old, you started your first clothing line, Ya-Ya. Did you have any prior fashion training? What made you feel ready to open a business?

I got started in the fashion industry at a young age and spent a lot of time in the downtown LA garment district where my parents had a clothing store. When I was 20, I created some hand-made skirts from pashminas and sold them to Fred Segal; I’d say that kick-started my career as a designer. In 1999, I went on to launch my first clothing line, Ya-Ya.

You started Reformation in 2009 as a side project, and by 2013 you were running it full time. What were those first few years of running Reformation like? Did you have anyone else working with you?

When Reformation first started, I had my hands on everything. In the beginning, there were only a few of us – we cut up vintage dresses and had a sewer in the back of the first store who would stitch everything up for us. It was a lot of experimenting and playing around to see what resonated with our customers and what felt true to us – it’s still like that!

Would you recommend that a new brand focus on one style to produce or try to make a range of items to sell?

I’d recommend that a new brand should first develop their overall mission and design styles from there. When starting Reformation, we wanted to focus first on sustainability and create a brand to change the way people think about fashion by demonstrating that it can be eco-friendly without sacrificing style. We first launched with a few signature styles, and have been working on expanding into new categories – our newly released fully sustainable collection of Reformation Jeans has been a goal of mine since the beginning.

I read that you opened your own factory in Los Angeles. This seems like a big endeavour—both financially and logistically. What was the process of building your own factory like?

I always wanted to open my own factory so we could have the freedom to design, manufacture, test and photograph product by our own rules. Sticking to our core value of sustainability, the factory uses the most efficient, eco-friendly and pro-social technologies available. It’s powered by renewable energy and construction features LED lighting, a sustainable garden that operates on recycled gray water from the factory, and was built with the maximum amount of recycled or tree-free materials. We are committed to transparency around our factory so this past April, we decided to open up our doors to the public, offering tours on the first Friday of every month.

Because you have your own domestic production, you’re able to have new products on your site every week. Is this quick turnaround difficult to keep up with? How long is the typical lead time from sketch to final product?

Being able to do everything under one roof in our factory in LA allows us to produce new styles from sketch to rack within 42 days. Owning our production and developing a proprietary manufacturing cycle enables us to have a true dialogue with our customers about what they are loving and what they want and create styles for sale within weeks.

Do you see other brands in the industry also working to become sustainable?

Recently, we’ve seen a shift in the industry where more and more brands are adopting a sustainable philosophy and doing their part to be more eco-conscious. I’m hopeful that more and more brands will follow suit.

Who are some business owners you look up to? Do you have any mentors?

I admire brands like Patagonia, who are helping destigmatize “eco-fashion” and effecting positive change on the fashion industry and environment. I’ve admired Patagonia for years and had in my wardrobe ever since I was young. It’s the holy grail, start-it-all sustainable brand that I think a lot of people have a close connection with. They have pioneered some of the most innovative materials and production methods, motivating other companies to do the same. And that’s what I hope to do with Ref.

What advice do you have for young people who want to start their own businesses?

I think the best idea is to figure out what’s missing, holes in the market, and what your vision is. If you have a clear idea of what it is that you want to create the steps in which to get there seem much more clear. ♦