Can good fashion save the world?
New Zealand’s Bay of Islands, where Maggie Marilyn founder Maggie Hewitt grew up, may be as close to earthly Shangri-La as one may reasonably find on this planet. A three-hour drive north of Auckland, the small, rural enclave encompasses 144 pristine islands, each of which has its own subtropical habitat to call home. Golden beaches and hidden coves dot a coastline rich in marine wildlife, while on land, rainforests provide an optimal ecosystem for coastal farmland to thrive. Hewitt’s childhood was spent nestled between the two, sandwiched amongst land and sea.
“Most of our days were spent climbing trees,” Hewitt says over Zoom from Auckland, where she’s now based. “I grew up on a farm and by the water, so I feel a strong sense of wanting to protect that environment, thinking about what it might look like in 20, 30 years time.”
Hewitt still spends a lot of time contemplating the future — but now, it’s a future much closer than three decades away. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international body of the United Nations, has stated that to avoid what it calls “climate catastrophe,” global greenhouse gas emissions must be halved by 2030, just nine years from now.
Fashion, however, isn’t exactly on the straight and narrow to get us there. Today, more than 8% of total emissions are produced by the apparel and footwear industries, according to a 2018 Quantis report, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation finds that those emissions are projected to increase, not decrease, by more than 60% by 2030. This was a tough pill for Hewitt to swallow when she first got to college, where she planned to achieve a lifelong goal of studying fashion — the same business that, if unchecked, could one day contribute to the destruction of her Bay of Islands paradise.
“The lecturers pulled back this glamorous curtain of what fashion was responsible for, socially and environmentally, and I remember being completely shocked that this was the industry I always wanted to be a part of,” she remembers. “It was a hard thing to take.”
Hewitt, though, is not the wallowing type. It wasn’t long after this lightbulb moment that she identified a gap in the market that could be served by her own unique cocktail of beautiful, conscious design. And so, that’s exactly what she did: create a transparent, inclusive, circular and regenerative label at a price point Hewitt herself could afford to buy into.
In 2016, just one year after she graduated from her fine arts university in Auckland, Hewitt launched her own eponymous brand, Maggie Marilyn, using her first and middle names. Tracing the footsteps of her design heroes Stella McCartney and Gabriela Hearst, Hewitt set out to build a supply-chain-first business with sustainability and ethics at its core, all while offering the kind of clothes — bold, elegant pieces infused with a now-signature sense of play — that made her fall in love with fashion in the first place.
“I'm such a creative at heart, and I love what clothing could do for women,” she says. “Not necessarily fashion as an industry, but the way beautiful clothes can make you feel and how they can empower you. And I still really believe in the power of that.”
Hewitt’s label walked the sustainable walk from day one. The brand exclusively uses organic, recycled or otherwise sustainable materials — like a new-to-market silk alternative that's derived from rose petal fibers, as well as fabric sourced from hemp, bamboo, and banana — and ships its garments in biodegradable bags made of cassava, a root vegetable commonly found across Indonesia. It even aligns its own internal strategies with the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, ranging from gender equality to reduced inequalities.
The designs themselves, courtesy of a new, environmentally minded New Zealander, caught the attention of some of fashion’s most influential figures. She quickly landed Net-a-Porter as her first-ever stockist, only to be shortlisted for the 2017 LVMH Prize months later — all by the time her brand had turned one. The mix of simple, elegant silhouettes, playful colors, and statment details even caught the eye of Meghan Markle in 2018. By 2019, Maggie Marilyn was sold in almost every major luxury retailer across the globe, and business was booming indeed. But Hewitt began to feel a disconnect emerge between what the label was becoming in practice — including the scale and speed of production — and what she once dreamed up in theory, way back in her Bay Islander days.
“Honestly, for the first three or four years of Maggie Marilyn, I don't even know if I could have told you exactly who our customer was,” she says. “I didn't just start Maggie Marilyn to create beautiful clothes and sell them to great customers. I started Maggie Marilyn because I felt our industry needed a change, and it needed a change fast. I wanted Maggie Marilyn to be a mission-led business that could make a positive impact.”
So Hewitt got to work trimming the fat, if you will, to get back to Maggie Marilyn’s plant-based meat and potatoes: clothes that women love to wear, and that love the planet right back. In November 2019, Maggie Marilyn unveiled its “Somewhere” line, a sub-collection of more affordable, season-less essentials designed for circularity, in which garments are no longer disposed of after use, but can be recycled or reused, all living under the broader Maggie Marilyn umbrella.
To be sure, Somewhere isn’t cheap. Its ultra-basics can run anywhere between $68 for a crisp, confident A-line tee and $466 for a tailored boyfriend blazer. But shoppers are paying for something that goes even beyond the clothing itself, and that’s what happens to it when it’s done being worn.
“Everything in our Somewhere line is designed to be recycled or composted,” Hewitt says. “That's probably the biggest challenge we face right now, that products aren't designed to sit within a circular system. We have all these garments out there, and to try to dismantle them and figure out what to do with them at the end of their lifestyle is challenging.”
“Challenging” is putting it gently. The world’s entire global economy is built on a linear system, which means that goods are used until they’re discarded as waste, at which point the whole cycle begins anew. In a circular economy, though, that waste is transformed into new resources, either by recycling, composting or something else altogether. And for the whole of the fashion industry, transitioning from one robust system to another cannot be achieved overnight. But remember, Hewitt is not the wallowing type.
“If we're continuing to grow on this linear path, we know it has no future, so to speak, because we live on a planet with finite resources,” Hewitt says. “When we're talking to customers, we're very bold and open about where we are within our environment. But at the same time, I think it's important to lead with optimism. I do think that there are tangible solutions out there to the climate crisis.”
For Maggie Marilyn, the brand, one of those solutions has been to focus on regenerative agriculture, a system of farming that aims to both restore and enhance degraded soil. As The New York Times only just discussed, “regenerate” may be the latest fashion buzzword du jour, with brands like North Face, Allbirds, and Patagonia, as well as the Kering luxury group, all-embracing farming for materials (like cotton, most prevalently) that can be used to make clothes, and for good reason. Hewitt reminds me that the world could run out of topsoil — which the planet needs to grow 95% of its food, for starters — as soon as 60 years from now, if current degradation rates continue.
Hewitt is focused on regenerative agriculture, too, but she’s doing so with a human touch, building out partnerships with suppliers and manufacturers that share her brand’s ambitious goals toward a happier, healthier planet. That includes beginning conversations with Good Earth Cotton, the world’s first carbon-positive cotton farm in Queensland, Australia.
“If we can continue to grow raw materials that actually have a regenerative impact, then fashion can change the world,” Hewitt says. “And that's where, instead of getting crippled by fear of how all-encompassing the challenges are, it excites me to work in fashion. Being one of the largest emitters of CO2 as an industry, I feel we can be part of the solution, and that should be exciting for all of us.”
This past November, Maggie Marilyn exited wholesale altogether to transition to a direct-to-consumer model, allowing Hewitt and her team to have complete oversight of their supply chain, as well as consumer base. This fall saw the first Maggie Marilyn brick-and-mortar location, a warm, roomy boutique in Auckland’s downtown Britomart neighborhood. And just this month, the brand released its Sustainability Strategy through 2022, intentionally made available to the public to encourage collaboration.
Hewitt has also reinvested herself in the design process of Maggie Marilyn’s ready-to-wear Forever line, which comes out in limited runs and is made to be kept, you guessed it, forever in customers’ wardrobes. And Hewitt does mean forever: She has confidence that her community will still be shopping with Maggie Marilyn in half a century’s time, and after that, maybe their children will go on to shop the brand, too.
“Maybe our customer buys one piece from us a year,” she says. “But maybe it makes her think, ‘I should shop at my local market instead of a supermarket, or maybe I'm going to ask more questions of the organization I work for and challenge my managers about what the business should be doing. And that's where the ripple effect happens, and where we're going to see change.”