Amy Andrews DeCew of Lily of Valley Isle worked on projects in the field of anthropology prior to receiving her design training at Parsons and FIT, where she entered the dynamic world of sustainability, designing products for social entrepreneurship companies in the New York area before partnering with Lily to launch their label.
Currently moving from California to Reno, NV (fun fact about Reno, Nevada—nearby Virginia City hosts camel races every year, and camel riders from Tasmania, Australia, come to participate. Shorty Smith is a celebrity here!) we caught up with the creative director to find out more about her and the brand.
Tell us about your brand Lily of Valley Isle
Lily of Valley Isle creates women’s clothing with a flexible fit, using our own sizing and grading system and sourcing limited-edition fabrics with prints only available from specific textile houses that utilize a combination of traditional artisanal techniques and modern technology to achieve high-quality sustainable materials.
Behind the scenes, it’s a mix of the old and the new in every aspect. I hand draw all the designs, scan them into the computer to make tech packs; the patterns are made by hand but the clothes are sewn on a machine; the prints often use heritage methods but have low-impact fixatives so that they’re colorfast for modern washing. Everything is a fusion.
We’re also an option for color. Black is the default option in fashion, and it’s many people’s preference, but as international tastes and influences change our perspective on combining print and pattern and using color in creative ways, we offer a bright piece that pops your look. And nearly every top works with jeans—blue jeans, white jeans, black jeans, grey jeans, colored denim—it’s what people live in, and we work with that.
Good workplace practices, fair wages, eco-friendly materials, yes—but it’s also a brand that has to stand on its own by its look and its quality. We use French seams in construction, small-batch hand-polished buttons from natural materials, those details are very important. That’s the difference between a fast fashion shirt that doesn’t hold up over time and a shirt that you still wear five years after you’ve bought it. Plus, we use natural fibers that breathe and feel good on the skin, especially with the organic content, there is a tangible difference in the feel to the wearer.
Can you give us a sneak peek into what you’re working on for 2016?
I’m currently working with a stylist in Reno, NV to expand the user-friendly fashion aspects of Lily of Valley Isle so that customers can get wardrobing expertise to find their unique style, or shrink their closet while expanding their outfits, get tailoring advice on items they’ve had in their closet a while, and help integrate a full product-and-service experience that goes beyond just my own brand. I’d also love to be able to expand our fabric types and our size range, it’s a dream to be able to make plus sizes, as that’s a very underserved market, especially in sustainable options; I’m keeping my eyes open for the partnerships and funding to make that happen. I’m getting very helpful feedback from customers and store owners on what they’d like to see, which helps hone the look and zero in on offerings that work in more ways for more women. Co-creation and collaboration are essential.
What is the key purpose you hope to achieve through Lily of Valley Isle?
The impact of what we do is not limited to the supply chain. We start with that, working with a fair trade facility that not only pays living wages and has a medical benefits program for their employees, but also has a new program to train women who are the only source of family support and bring them into the workforce. We use organic fabrics and nontoxic dyes. But the customer benefits, too.
One of the most appreciative groups of customers we have are breast cancer survivors. Surgery and chemotherapy often leave their skin very sensitive to what fabrics are on their bodies, and issues like lymphedema that can cause arm swelling mean they have to seek out items that give them a little sleeve room. Our alternative silhouettes and natural fiber fabrics are a welcome solution, and I’m thrilled to be able to help in some way with such a major life change for this group of women. I also love the shock value of asking a woman who is five feet tall to try on one of our pieces and then asking a woman who is six feet tall to try on one of our pieces, and sometimes they can both wear the exact same piece, in the same size.
When you think into the end user experience and are willing to change traditional sizing ideas and practices based on your own knowledge of what human body proportions are usually more similar between heights and shapes, and what body proportions tend to differ more, you can get a fit that goes beyond a typical size 2, 4, 6, etc. I love experimenting with that because it serves more women more of the time. So it is about sustainability, but it’s also about how to make clothing a more user-friendly experience for women, where they don’t dread their own bodies or feel there’s nothing out there for them, because they simply shouldn’t have to feel that way.
At five feet tall myself, with some six foot relatives, I know how hard it can be to be a body type that no one seems to make clothing for, or where only a certain kind of clothing is available and it isn’t the fun or hip or interesting stuff. We’re made to feel so negatively about our bodies as women, we’re so limited by our size as to what type of clothing we’re told is for us, and we’re so harshly judged for our physical appearance. But what if it’s the clothes, not you? Clothes should serve the person, and when you change up how that garment is designed from the outset, you can do a better job of that.
What made you go down this path?
My personal motivation in creating a brand based on sustainable practices comes from many directions. I was raised in a reduce, re-use, recycle household, long before that was a common term or practice. I was ridiculed at school as a kid for wearing hand-me-downs and participating in Earth Day, and my only thought was “what’s wrong with these people that they don’t do this?”.
My own health struggles have caused me to question the chemicals we put into our environment and how that impacts human health, for not just one but many generations. In many ways, like many businesses, starting my own venture came out of economic pain. The humiliating difficulty of earning a living as a woman on your own is not just faced in developing nations but right here in the United States.
I graduated from Parsons into a post-2008 fashion landscape that had been devastated economically and the only jobs I could get were part-time freelance jobs. It was an incredible variety of experience to get, and it was the path that led me to people who connected me with amazing sustainability resources, but financially it was a nightmare. I slept four hours a night if I was lucky and I couldn’t see a future for myself. The stark reality for me, after years of trying to get to a place where I could support myself and feeling like the ultimate failure because I couldn’t get there, was either end my life or do something differently; there are just those moments in life when you face a radical departure in one way or another.
I was fortunate in getting enough of a financial boost to start my own company with Lily, who I’d known for 20 years who brought her own experience from the LA fashion industry. I figured it was time to step off the treadmill of being someone with several college degrees whose permanent prospects looked to be part-time retail work with no benefits, living in working poverty, and see what I could do for myself that incorporated both my values and my skills. It sounds both selfish in a way and ridiculous in a way, given the odds, to go into sustainability for your own economic survival, but what is great about ethical fashion practices is that you are contributing to other people’s stable career paths as well. And I was working with people in our supply chain who had that same understanding, who knew that experience, too. In the sustainable world there is a tremendous synergy that way.
Main source of inspiration?
My current sources of inspiration are the people in the small-business entrepreneurial community here in Reno, NV. I’ve heard perspectives here I’ve never heard before, and the encouragement I’m getting to find my own voice and change whatever needs changing, even if it’s the country you live in or taking on a new occupation, are refreshing and powerful influences that always see opportunity. There is an impressive lack of fear and a shared belief in your fellow human beings, and we all need that. Anyone who has been knocked back in life, anyone who is still searching for how to make who they are, what they are interested in, and what their skills are add up to a fulfilling life for them needs the people who hold that candle.
What actions do you take in your daily life to lead a more sustainable lifestyle?
My living space is furnished with a combination of old family furniture and consignment furniture; nearly every piece is second (or third or fourth) hand, and still in very good condition. Part of sustainability is making things well in the first place so that they last, and caring for those things well, so that there isn’t always a need for “more”.
What are some of your favourite brands in the sustainability community?
Some of my favorite sustainable brands aren’t necessarily brands, they’re people I’ve met along the way, organizations I worked with, and practices I learned about. Rachel Miller, who taught at FIT and now teaches in Canada, was an amazing source of knowledge and inspiration on plant dyes. I worked with Cynthia Alberto of Weaving Hand, in Brooklyn, NY, to create a handmade fabric and product program for weavers with disabilities. The inclusive nature of the sustainable community and people’s ability to think and practice beyond the usual boundaries we often imagine are set in stone are the most critical elements of re-invention in the fashion industry.
Without Patagonia, I don’t think we’d be having the same conversation we’re having about sustainability in fashion. From their rock-climbing origins in California to their worldwide presence today, they’ve lived the practice and continue to seek solutions. They’re a huge influencer at so many levels.
Influencers in sustainability range from brands like Patagonia to designers like Tara St. James in her line Study NY. Tara doesn’t just design sustainably, she’s also an educator at New York fashion colleges. Without the Fashion Institute of Technology’s interdisciplinary design program, I never would have gotten my start in the sustainable world. It’s not just about who is out there as a tastemaker, it’s about the training and exposure that people can get to take it to the next level, and the deepest influencers are those who spread the knowledge and the practice, opening that world up to more and more people, giving them the tools to make ideas into realities.
Images Courtesy of Lily of Valley Isle