This St. Louis Brand Uses Denim Jackets to Enter the Conversation on Fashion and Sustainability
Jessica Conick has always had a penchant for sustainability. “I’ve always been the friend that gets made fun of—or the roommate—for trying to recycle everything,” she says. She’s also spent the past seven years working in public relations for a fashion company. She never thought the two would merge until she watched “The True Cost,” a documentary unveiling the unethical practices of how clothing is made and who makes it.
“With the women’s empowerment movement going on right now, how does that really translate when there’s women overseas that are not being treated well so we can have cheaper, faster clothes?” Conick asks. The question is one of many festering in fashion, an industry that is finally reckoning with negative impacts that were swept under the rug for so long. Another question is the ways in which we in the United States think in a positive way of recycling clothing and sending it to other countries—but we’re not thinking of what happens when the clothing arrives. And then there is climate change, where the urgency for action is becoming more apparent (and the fashion industry is also implicated).
Conick, through her nascent brand Mount Indigo, is looking to build awareness and encourage consumers to develop better shopping habits. In an interview with Guided: St. Louis, she discusses fast fashion, upcycling, her vision for Mount Indigo and how younger generations are becoming the leaders in some of the most important conversations shaping the environment.
Guided: Why did you decide to launch Mount Indigo?
I had been working in the fashion in the fashion industry for a couple of years—I’m still in the industry with my day job. I have a business background; I never went to a fashion design school or fashion merchandising school, so I wasn’t really that aware fashion was one of the most polluting industries in the world until I saw a documentary a few years ago called “The True Cost.” That just opened my eyes up. A couple of years ago, there was this big factory that collapsed in Bangladesh. There was a lot that was brought to light with that.
My mom’s a geologist, so she’s always given me that scientific interest in thinking about how things affect the world. I’ve never thought that I would combine the two—fashion was over here as my day job (it’s not like I’m curing cancer or anything), and then I had a passion of what can I do to protect the planet. I didn’t think those things were ever going to overlap. So I saw the documentary and started researching more and more about the sustainability efforts that are already going on in fashion. This was like three-ish years ago, so it was kind of like when the conversation was just starting. Now, luckily, it’s everywhere.
I was like, “Oh my gosh!” This is my opportunity to combine the two passions and make a difference. That’s when the idea of Mount Indigo was born. I didn’t launch it until last June because I was doing a bunch of research about the different aspects of sustainability and [wondering] if I launched something, what would that look like? What could I do in the little bit of time and resources that I have to really be impactful? I went through so many different ideas of what it was going to look like and ran into a lot of roadblocks. In fashion, … it’s really hard to do something on a small scale that’s affordable that’s also sustainable.
I went to a lot of the trade shows and met with different designers—and I was going to work with a local factory in St. Louis that ended up shutting down. I was traveling a lot during that time for work, and I realized that the item I kept wearing was a denim jacket. It’s one of those things that you can wear anywhere, and a lot of denim jackets have those giant pockets on the inside, which I love. I had already decided that I wanted to call the brand Mount Indigo. I had been inspired by a project that’s going on in St. Louis at the Danforth Plant Science Center, where they are working with a natural indigo farm in Nashville that creates indigo plants to help scale up denim brands using natural indigo instead of toxic chemicals. Pretty much everything we wear is covered with chemicals instead of natural dyes. That started the indigo name, so I wanted to have denim in it.
But just like with all these other roadblocks I was seeing, I realized having a denim line is really hard. So I realized I have this denim jacket that I bought used from a local resale shop in St. Louis called The Vault. It’s just a Gap 1969 basic denim jacket.
That was [also] kind of around the time that statement tees were really big. Everyone was wearing their message that they were trying to promote at that time. Even statements on the back of the jackets were getting to be big. So it kind of clicked that that could be the vehicle that could promote this cause that I was trying to get behind. It was something that I could feasibly do in my little bit of free time, just find good used denim jackets like Gap and Levi’s denim jackets and stamp these sustainable statements on the back.
Guided: Well, you’ve answered a lot of my questions already! [Laughs.] You mentioned having a background in fashion already. Can you talk a little more about that trajectory?
Yeah. So, I work in public relations for a locally based brand here in St. Louis. From a PR perspective, [I’m] promoting a message. So I’m excited to be able to fuse what I’ve learned from that to help promote this message that is kind of like a passion project for me with Mount Indigo.
Guided: It’s interesting, too, because public relations is multifaceted in that it’s supposed to create this messaging around different brands or people, but it also handles kind of the dirty work of when people or brands get in trouble, right?
Guided: I’d like to shift the conversation to sustainability in the fashion industry in particular. I remember “The True Cost” documentary coming out when I was at Parsons in New York, and it really drove this conversation around the ways in which fast fashion companies are producing clothing overseas, and these predominantly women of color are accruing the cost physically, mentally, emotionally, financially. And recently, an acquaintance from Ghana posted on Instagram that she’s doing an initiative of cleaning up its shores because a lot of the donated clothing is polluting them.
It’s like outsourcing our pollution.
Guided: Right. What are your thoughts on moves by companies like H&M and Zara, who create these “sustainable lines”? Is sustainability trendy in the same way that people have said diversity has become a trend?
Obviously, it’s one of those things where it’s this trend—and at least it’s a good trend!—but you don’t want people to take advantage of it or have it just come and go. That’s what certain brands are doing. The H&Ms and the Zaras, they are the ones that are so called out for fast fashion, even though the concept of fast fashion goes across so many brands. But since those are such easy ones for people to call out, and they have these little collections in place, that’s great, they can get a little gold star for that.
But how does that impact their long-term plans? Because I know that it does take a long time for companies to really turn things around. They’re working a year or so out. But I just hope that their long-term plans are more sustainable. I’m sure that they’re using these little capsule collections to tap their own market. My hope is that they expand that across the board. Customers are demanding it so much more now.
When I think back to a few years ago, when the conversation first started, it was nice to have for some brands. Now people are demanding it. Millennials care about the environment, but now it’s the younger generation and the older generation that are starting to get interested. So what I’m hoping is that all these brands that are doing these mini capsule collections to check that box realize that is what the customer demands—which, at the end of the day, is what’s most important. I’m just hoping that the more the awareness gets out there, the more the customers are waking up to the issues. …
I’m definitely an advocate for shopping resale as much as possible. And, if you’re going to shop new, try to be more aware of the brand that you’re shopping from and do your research. But no one’s going to ever stop purchasing. Hopefully we start purchasing less because we don’t need it. We produce a lot, and then it’s on sale and then if it doesn’t sell, it gets burned. It’s just a horrible cycle. My goal is to just raise awareness in general, to empower consumers about what we can do and how we can make a difference.
It’s a really political year. The environment is definitely top on the list of what people are saying to vote for this, vote for that. And that’s so great, but we all know how long it takes for those types of things to roll out. I really want to empower consumers to know the differences that we can make.
Guided: Speaking of consumers, what’s been the response to Mount Indigo?
I’ve kind of just been testing the waters this past year. I say that I soft launched it over the summer. … I’ve been doing a lot of pop-up events and social media and things like that to see what people’s reactions are. I think people have been really responsive and excited.
I always get that question of “What does sustainable fashion mean?” The whole point of the line is for me to start the conversation or keep the momentum going and be another voice for the movement because there is a really strong movement, but it just needs more voices. The thing that I think surprised me the most when I was talking with people was parents of kids in high school and college telling me, “Oh, my kid literally only shops sustainable brands or only shops used.” Some of them even think of it as rebelling against fast fashion, which is such a cool concept.
And then with Greta Thunberg, with her movement—it’s really showing that empowerment of a younger generation. I think everything is always so millennial focused, and then all of sudden we’re looking to the power of even the high schooler. We didn’t used to think of the high schooler having this fashion power. Or maybe I just wasn’t aware of it. But not even fashion. Environmental, political—this younger generation has so much power and such a voice.
Guided: What is the future of Mount Indigo? It seems like the brand is in one part trying to produce products to promote conversation and also part education about sustainability. So, going forward, how do you see the brand expanding?
Being that it’s the beginning of the year, I’m still wrapping my head around that. People say “Create your reality.” I’ve been focused on sustainable fashion, so that’s what’s popping up in my news feed all the time. I’m talking to people [about] how we can take a step back and realize there’s so many people who don’t know what that [sustainable fashion] means. Once they find out about what it means, they get so excited about it.
I’ve had people tell me, “I have started researching this and getting behind it just from watching your Instagram or just talking to you.” That really is the goal for me. Especially since this is like a side fashion project for now. First and foremost, getting the word out and education out.
I just started an Instagram book club on my social media. Getting the conversation around it more is a key thing that I want to roll out this year. Also, spotlighting what other brands are doing. There are so many great brands right now that are sustainable and ethical in certain ways. I think that PR girl in me really wants to spread awareness and shout out what other brands are doing because that’s also educating people about who to look for—because I can’t produce every type of fashion. Right now, I have my fun set of jackets and fun statement tees, but I know that I’m not capable [and don’t] have the resources of creating a whole wardrobe. I really want to focus this year on educating people on where they can shop for certain things.
Guided: Your T-shirts are made in St. Louis, which gives you that “Made in the U.S.A.” tagline that’s prized by a lot of brands either starting off as sustainable or shifting toward sustainable. Talk about your choice to produce these T-shirts in St. Louis—and to produce T-shirts in general, considering T-shirts are one of the go-to items that could be critiqued in conversations about fast fashion. Finally, can you also talk about the textiles you use for the fabric?
The T-shirt thing was something that I really struggled with. I don’t want to be just a T-shirt brand. The T-shirts are printed in St. Louis. So, the ones I have right now are made in America and then printed in St. Louis. And the denim jackets that I have are also printed in St. Louis. So I do try to keep it local as much as I can.
It’s not that I’m attached to having Made in the U.S.A. products. The factories in America are a lot more ethical and regulated than overseas. I try to make the shirts 100 percent cotton or 99 percent cotton because cotton breaks down when it eventually one day goes in a landfill versus polyester. Even though we love that soft feel that we get from those polyester shirts, it takes them like a thousand years to break down in a landfill. If there has to be some polyester, I try to make sure that it’s recycled.
Going back to the T-shirts: I have trouble with that because T-shirts are kind of like the worst fast fashion culprit. For me it was like having something that you could spread the message with, like those staple shirts that you’ll wear a lot because you’re able to wear your values and spread your message with them. But I do want to be careful with that.
When I launched, I had a few different styles, but I’m going to really narrow it down to just a couple of T-shirts that are complementary to the upcycled, recycled denim jackets that are kind of the center of the brand. But, yeah, that’s such a great question. You have all of these fun ideas of like “Oh, I should put this on a shirt.” And then you’re like “Oh, OK, this part of the problem.” You have to really back up. I do think about that.