Q&A With Eco-Entrepreneur Sarah Van Aken

There is no question that eco-fashion gives us something fresh to talk about. But one thing that always seems to cross my mind is the question of whether or not our favorite green designers and fair-trade companies will ever make the leap into the mainstream fashion industry. Despite the fact that Fashion That Gives Back is often beautifully crafted and produced under positive conditions for a great cause, its success ultimately depends on additional factors that often fall outside of any eco-fashion lover’s hands.

So, let’s be honest—eco-fashion (like every other market) needs a business mastermind behind it to help spread its following. While this may seem like something extremely hard to come by, I think not. That ‘s because I found the go-to girl and her name is Sarah Van Aken.

Van Aken is an American fashion designer who launched her own linein 2004. Just last year she opened up her own flagship store in Philadelphia, which houses a complete line of ready-to-wear and accessories. But wait—there’s more. This past August, the fashion savvy, eco-entrepreneur launched her own website.

According to EcoFashionWorld, SAVA Fashion serves as the interactive site upon which Van Aken will “bring the same socially conscious retail choices from her successful flagship boutique SA VA, located at 1700 Sansom Street, Philadelphia, to the rest of the nation.”

The other day I got the chance to chat with Ms. Van Aken and she had some pretty awesome things to say. You don’t want to miss this, so be sure to check out the Q&A below.

1. First off, if you had to describe SAVA to somebody in an elevator (the famous elevator pitch), what would you say to them?

SA VA is an ethical clothing and accessories brand that is built on the platform of effortless, individual style and social consciousness. Based in Philadelphia, the brand is comprised of a flagship store and design studio at 1700 Sansom Street, adjacent garment center and an on-line fashion community and store. SA VA is locally made, globally inspired, and community focused fashion.

2. Have you always been interested in eco-fashion? What sparked your interest?

The shorter answer is that it wasn’t always as important – but my business and me personally went through a lot of changes about two years ago and I knew that I either had to do something else entirely, or turn this business in to something that had a larger meaning than making clothing for clothing sake.

I was always interested in ethically produced clothing, my first brand Van Aken has always been made here in the United States creating living wage jobs. When I manufactured in Bangladesh everyone was paid fair-trade wages. Sustainability in fashion is very challenging. For us, we chose to start with a core of manufacturing locally in Philadelphia creating local living wage jobs and then expand the sustainability of our garments by always using fair-trade textiles that are often also eco friendly. Each garment in our store has a compostable hang tag that indicates which elements of sustainability it has i.e.: local made, fair-trade, organic, recycled, all natural, made in the U.S. And the more check marks we can have on that tag the better.

3. How did you get the idea to start SAVA? Is there a certain person, event, or thing that inspired you?

It’s a bit of a long story and one that evolved over several years. However, my best friend passed away 6 years ago and it made me realize that life is too short to not follow your dreams. So, after some soul searching I realized that what I was passionate about was textiles and clothing. I knew that no one in their right mind would give me half a million dollars to launch SA VA so I spent a year writing a business plan that allowed me to get in to business with very little capital, selling men’s custom shirts under my brand Van Aken. I then grew to being a vertical manufacturer with a garment factory in Bangladesh and the bulk of my business for a few years was designing and manufacturing uniform programs for celebrity chef’s and high end hotels (Tom Colicchio, Alfred Portale, Aureole, the Borgata, the Fontainebleau etc). By 2008 I had grown my business large enough that I was finally in a position to obtain financing for SA VA, but I knew that it needed to be a different kind of clothing company. We needed to do something good and hit a different market. We are concerned with what things are made from, and how and whom they are made, but also our relationship with our customers and what we can give back to the community. We spent a long time branding and figuring out what our core values are.

4. Aside from SAVA, how do you market yourself and your brand?

We really have a diverse business and a multi-channel marketing plan. Each brand is different and marketed differently. Van Aken Signature, the custom hospitality uniforms is almost strictly relationship driven. Relationship building is probably the key and core to all of our marketing efforts, but with that brand it is how we do it exclusively. We use a lot of internet and social media marketing, some print advertising, and mostly public relations.

5. Do you think that eco-conscious fashion has a place in the mainstream fashion industry?

I think that it needs to become standard, but I realize that it is as much a political view as a personal passion. The industry has a long way to come, but the pollution that the textile life cycle process creates is huge. I think it will be easier to get people on board with a locally made, domestically produced angle, and that the industry will need to take the lead on pushing the eco end of things. Consumers won’t.

6. What are some of your favorite eco-fashion or fair-trade designers?

Bright Young Things has a really cool brand. I love their aesthetic and the feel you get from them. Very fun.

7. Do you follow any green or eco-conscious blogs? Websites?

Tree Hugger, ecofashionworld, there are really a gazillion that we follow – it is hard to keep track of everything.

8. What is next on your radar? You used to live in NYC, do you think you will ever open another retail store in the city?

It is certainly a possibility but it will not be the location of the next store we open. Right now we are excited about and focused on our new on line retail store. After that we will definitely be looking to expand our direct retail business.

9. If you could give one suggestion to someone who was looking to become an eco-conscious entrepreneur like yourself, what would it be?

Think outside the box. There is a difference between eco-conscious companies that are authentic and ones that are just good marketers. Strive to be the former.

10. Describe your favorite eco-conscious article of clothing or your go-to eco outfit.

Well, I would love to say it is something fancy, but I am really excited right now about our new denim line: SA VA honest denim. It is U.S. Grown and milled cotton (some styles organic), low impact dyes, made in Philadelphia and washed low impact in Philadelphia. Wear it with an organic tissue cotton long sleeve T and our wool adisson wrap with a great scarf and that is all I need for fall.

How inspiring is Ms. Van Aken? She is no-doubt one eco-entrepreneur with a huge heart and a lot of talent!

For more SA VA and Ms. Van Aken herself, shop the online site or follow her on twitter!

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