*This post is generously sponsored by Reprise Activewear. I only partner with brands who I fully believe in and support. Your support of Reprise helps Sustaining Life thrive! All opinions are, as always, honestly my own.
I'm sure you already have a great pair of leggings in your closet - but what's lurking in those leggings? Most activewear is made from polyester (aka plastic) because it's cheap to manufacture and has some nice performance qualities. That polyester, however, not only leaches toxins as it rubs up against your skin, it also sheds microfibers into the world's waterways every time it's washed. As those microfibers are made up of plastic they never biodegrade, instead they circulate through rivers and oceans and are eaten by marine animals all throughout the food chain. This begs the question, is your polyester workout gear worth the impact it has on the environment and personal health?
As it turns out, the performance qualities that make it so great for activewear are not exclusive to polyester. Enter; Tencel, a man-made material derived from sustainably-harvested trees that happens to do an even better job of moisture wicking and promoting airflow than polyester ever could. In addition to being a high-performance fabric, Tencel is naturally anti-microbial (which helps to keep the stink out of your workout gear) and gentle on the skin. While other activewear and athleisure brands look to recycled plastic for sustainability, there is one emerging brand that has discovered the many wonders of Tencel and that's Reprise.
Reprise Activewear was born out of Mary Bemis' desire to find a happier, more sustainable life and her love of getting active in good looking, comfortable gear. Reprise's first collection celebrates Tencel because it allows her to do just that - work out, look great, feel good, and combat climate change all at once. I had the opportunity to catch up with Mary at the start of her now almost fully-funded Kickstarter campaign to get the details on Reprise and how she came to create her brand with innovative, sustainable, all-natural Tencel.
SL: What has your journey been to bring you to this point of launching your own sustainable clothing line in NYC?
MB: I’ve always been an environmentalist deep down, but I have taken a bit of a non traditional path - I started off working in finance on Wall Street and ended up at a breaking point because I was super unhappy. So in August of 2016 I quit, wanting to try something that I was more passionate about. I took some time off to do things that made me happy and a friend recommended a book to me called I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was. It forced me to think more creatively.
Around the same time I was learning about Reformation and their RefScale, the way that they quantify their impact, which was really interesting to me. So reading this book that was very inspiring and learning about the stuff that Reformation does got some ideas swirling around in my head and eventually it just clicked. That’s when I decided to take a course at FIT - which has an amazing sustainability and design entrepreneurship program. I had this idea but it seemed totally crazy because it was new to me, so I went to FIT to learn more. That’s where I really started to learn the magnitude of the issues in the fashion industry and was able to connect with people who were making a change. Learning and experiencing this motivated me and really was the push that helped me jump into this decision.
SL: What is it that caused you to go into activewear specifically?
MB: Oh, I’ve always loved working out and being active so when I looked at my favorite pieces that I loved to wear, it was pretty clear; I love leggings and athletic wear. When I was on my break after quitting my Wall Street job I was in the process of moving which involved a lot of going through old clothing and looking at the labels because I was trying to sell some things online. I was looking at these labels and I discovered that most of it was polyester. Honestly, at that time I didn’t even know what that meant, but seeing it over and over made me ask, what even is this?
SL: Can you share some of the resources that you turn to when you want to dig deeper and learn more about sustainability in fashion? You must have gotten quite a crash course in the past two years!
MB: FIT has been an amazing resource. I also took the Factory45 online program which includes a private group for sharing information. Aside from that, I’m a huge fan of newsletters and keeping up with current events. I get a lot of good information from Business of Fashion, a number of the Ethical Writers & Creatives blogs, and I read up on brands as they launch new collections or sustainable initiatives. I also attend a lot of events. It feels like there is a great community of people I see pretty often at sustainable fashion events in NYC so I’m always learning from them and from the events themselves, too.
SL: As someone who is so new to the fashion industry, what are some challenges or surprises that you’ve run into?
MB: The first thing I learned was just how much goes into building a brand. I had no idea...I first started off thinking that I could come up with some designs, pick a fabric, and be ready to go. Of course anyone who hasn’t started a business before is just kind of naive. I originally thought that I would be able to build Reprise from totally biodegradable, organic fabric all naturally dyed, cut and produced zero waste, and delivered in sustainable packaging. You know, completely perfect!
I’m not saying that it will never happen, but I’ve learned by this point how silly that was. Kate Black of Magnifeco was one of my professors and she said to me that if I wanted to have a profitable business I was going to have to pick a few things that I’m most passionate about. So I decided to start with the materials we put on our bodies - I went with Tencel because it is completely non-toxic and is OEKO-TEX certified. Making it local was important as well, which is why I’ve kept all of my manufacturing here in New York.
I ran into some challenges with production as well. I never thought about the fact that what we wear really isn’t so simple - drawing some leggings and expecting them to come out nicely just doesn’t work. I didn’t realize that the fit would change completely based on the material I was using and on technical design. Luckily, I have some friends through FIT who have been in the fashion industry for a while and who have been so helpful in guiding me through the process of going from concept to development. My patternmaker, too, who I work with in the garment district is experienced and has been super helpful in suggesting edits and just being willing to go back and forth with me on everything.
SL: Out of everything you’ve learned in your crash course, what’s one thing that’s really stuck in your mind?
MB: It sounds cheesy but I did realize that I can do anything I put my mind to! I was coming into this totally new space with no idea what I was doing but the more I asked questions and tried to understand - as opposed to coming into the space and acting like I am doing something brand new that nobody has ever done before - the more people were willing to help me out. There are so many kind and passionate people in the sustainable fashion world who have taught me a lot and helped me realize that if you have a passion for it, you can do whatever you want.
SL: That’s amazing - a very powerful sentiment for women in any industry that you can do anything. I want to go back, though, to talk more about the materials you’re using. Why did you choose Tencel and not something like recycled polyester, cotton, or wool which are all well-loved activewear materials?
MB: I first heard about Tencel through Reformation. On their hangtags at some point they said something like “Tencel is the Beyonce of fabrics.” Of course I had to find out what this amazing material was! Funnily enough, when I walked into Texworld (a fabric trade show in NYC) last year I ended up walking into a huge display on Tencel by Lenzing, the company that owns it's trademark. It was like fate - here was this material I was curious about and I got to ask every question I had. I found out that Tencel is naturally cooling, sweat wicking, it prevents bacteria growth, and it’s natural...to me it was a no-brainer. I almost didn’t even consider anything else.
I am intrigued by wool (I love that Allbirds started with wool and has now launched a Tencel sneaker) and really love H&M’s innovative materials award where I think there was just a material made from compost. I do want to push the idea of thinking about what we put on our bodies, it goes alongside the movement for eating clean and using green products on your skin, so recycled polyester doesn’t appeal to me. It just doesn’t feel new and innovative in the way that Tencel does and I want to stay away from working with plastic altogether. Of course it’s hard to say that I’ll only stick to natural materials. If I do move to another material regardless of what it is it would have to have the right qualifications for sustainability.
SL: What are your dreams for the future of Reprise?
MB: Oh I have big crazy dreams! There are great products out there that I’d love to promote and sell through Reprise’s platform - The Simply Co’s non-toxic laundry soap and the GUPPYFRIEND™ bag and things like that. I want to make Reprise more of a sustainable destination and to offer wider solutions to the issues we have today.
Then in terms of clothing, it makes sense for Reprise to move into loungewear as well as active/everyday athleisure wear. I love the idea of being comfortable in your clothing and like I said before, the whole athleisure thing is kind of my main look - as soon as I get home and when it’s the weekend that’s what I wear. I’d love for people to be able to wear Reprise all the time for everything.
SL: I love the way that you’re incorporating zero-waste and plastic free into the ethos of the brand. Can you tell me a little more about your personal relationship with plastic and how you reduce using it in your own life?
MB: It’s been tough. When I first learned about the issue with plastic I really dove into things and became very passionate about it. I started to see plastic on the streets all the time every day - I think once you become aware of it it’s impossible not to see it everywhere. I started overthinking it and guilt tripping myself every time I would open a drawer or grab something while I was out.
I decided not to do everything all at once and pick one new thing each month to switch out. I’m a big fan of Mable, the bamboo toothbrush that does a subscription service. I’ve stopped getting coffee and other drinks out so I just use my reusable mug at home and keep one at my desk just in case. I always have a set of reusable utensils at my desk at work. I get made fun of for having them but it means that I can bring my lunch from home and not have to rely on plastic utensils. Those are the most recent things I’ve done and I’m always looking for more step by step things to incorporate!
SL: So what are you switching out this month?
MB: Haha, well the Kickstarter launch of Reprise definitely got me a bit sidetracked! My switch in April was sheets - it’s not really a plastic switch but I bought new Tencel ones which I’m obviously excited about.
Ideally I would love to get rid of food packaging waste, but that’s one thing that just seems impossible to ditch. I struggle with it because I work full time and am building a brand full time...I do my best to cook at home but it’s difficult. Trader Joe’s is incredibly convenient and affordable but everything there comes in plastic. So I’ve been trying to go to the farmers market and shop in bulk but there are still days that I’m running around and need to grab something quick. Trader Joe’s is a habit, a convenience because it is a one-stop shop. It sucks that even pasta and healthy things like spinach come in a plastic bag there. So my biggest challenge has definitely been food packaging, I just can’t seem to escape it.
Getting ideas from others, though, from the online community that has shared their own plastic-free and zero-waste journeys has been really inspiring. Those tips and stories make this challenge feel more like a group effort, it gives it a community feel, makes it more fun and helps me not to feel so guilty. Hearing that other people are trying but that it’s not easy for them and learning the fact that everyone will have to make different tradeoffs in their lives - all of that has helped me calm down a bit and just strive for the best I can do rather than freaking out if I forget my fork or something.
SL: Yes, definitely! Going plastic-free is quite a process and it’s sort of never-ending. But that’s all the more reason that it’s so great to have plastic-free options like Reprise out there that people can choose as an alternative.
My last question is actually about being active rather than about plastic. What does your personal workout routine look like and do you have any classes that you’re loving right now?
MB: Yes I do! I religiously attend this boxing class at New York Sports Club on Monday nights. It’s called Box n Beats and it’s run by a friend of mine. They set up a DJ table which makes it so fun. I’ve been doing that for 4 years now, every Monday that I can make it and I’m always sad when I can’t. I like high intensity workouts and the feeling you get from boxing - that feeling of strength and power is very stress relieving for me.
Box n Beats is actually helping me promote Reprise and I’ve been wearing our stuff whenever I go. I’ve got my boxing gloves, my punching bag, and my Reprise leggings usually. I love getting to rep my line when I work out! I find myself reaching for the leggings all the time, it’s something about the super high rise. The other day I tried running in a different pair because my Reprise leggings were dirty, but I found myself constantly pulling them up. I love our leggings because they tie and stay in place through running, jumping, yoga, boxing and everything else. They’re comfortable too and they hug you in all the right places. Boxing and Reprise leggings, that’s my favorite combination if I had to pick.
Support Reprise Activewear and their dedication to innovation, sustainability and high-quality performance by contributing to their Kickstarter campaign (ends May 3rd, 2018), following along on Instagram, or signing up for their newsletter.