The focus on sustainability has never been greater. As consumers demand more from brands in terms of environmental impact, and shift their purchasing patterns as a result, the spotlight is on the sustainable clothing market. Enter The Phoenix Brand, a sustainable clothing line aimed at eliminating the plastic and toxic pollution plaguing the textile industry. We recently spoke with Co-Founder Trina Assur about what inspired her to launch the brand, the challenges of starting a business at the onset of COVID-19, and the importance of remaining true to your values and mission in a growing space.
Tell us about your journey – what led you to start The Phoenix Brand?
Every piece of my background played a role in getting here, but I didn’t realize it at the time. After graduating from college and working in investment banking for a few years, I went back to business school at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. In my second year there, a friend of mine approached me with a vision he had for a company, and I spent the year working for him. It was an amazing experience. I had only worked in big businesses, where your role is pretty well-established. You’re a cog in a much bigger wheel. At this startup, though, I was the first employee and did everything – usually with no prior experience. At the end of our second year, we participated in Booth’s accelerator program, which admits 40 companies, of which 10 are chosen to go to a pitch day with local Chicago venture capital firms. We ended up winning that competition, which was such an amazing experience. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had built something that was going to make a mark on the world. After graduation, I went back to investment banking, and I loved what I was doing, but I was missing that piece of building something that’s different.
What finally drove you to make the leap to entrepreneurship with a focus on sustainability?
Eventually, an opportunity came up at Boll & Branch, which was predicated on the idea that there needs to be a worker-friendly supply chain – from paying workers a living wage, to ensuring a healthy work environment – all while making the best and softest textiles from organic cotton and nontoxic dyes. That’s table stakes today, but they were at the beginning of the movement. Once I met the team, I knew they were the kind of people I wanted to work with, so I accepted the offer to join the company.
Boll & Branch is where I learned about the textile industry, and eventually, my co-founder and I started focusing on the garment space. A lot of strides have been made in bedding because people prefer the breathability of cotton, but we discovered that more than 65% of clothes we wear are made from polyester, which is essentially a plastic. It was a horrifying revelation, and we were thinking, “How do people not talk about this?” We essentially spent about a year while working at Boll & Branch digging into this industry to understand what the depths of the problems were. We learned that it’s a hugely pollutive industry; the rise of fast fashion has led to more clothing ending up in landfills, and it doesn’t biodegrade. When you wash polyester, it releases microplastics. The filtration systems in place don’t filter microplastics out of the water supply, so they are ending up in our oceans, and eventually, back in our food chain.
At the same time, we saw this global movement in which people, particularly millennials, began to focus more on things that were formerly out of your control, health-wise. You can control what you eat and how you exercise, but when it comes to what you wear, you can only choose from what’s out there. To us, it was clear that there was a huge gap in the availability of elevated, non-synthetic garments.
We made a pact to see how long we could go without buying any clothing with synthetics or polyester in it. We went six months, and neither of us bought anything because nothing we found met our standards. There’s a lot of greenwashing in this space and companies calling themselves sustainable. More recently, our version of sustainability, which is plant-based, polyester-free and nontoxic (meaning no toxic finishes or dyes in any of our process), is becoming more in demand because the younger generation is very aware of the fact that plastic and toxic chemicals are in everything and need to be stripped out.
What is your target demographic?
Our target demographic is 20- to 30-year-olds who would consider themselves art enthusiasts. We found that people who like the arts tend to be a bit more liberal-minded, and as a result, they’re more willing to learn something and change their behavior as a result.
Speaking of the art community, The Phoenix Brand partners with local artists. Tell us more about the importance of these partnerships and how you identify partners.
My co-founder and I are both analytical people. Neither of us is what you would call a “creative,” but we know what we like. The artists bring a different perspective that helps us produce a product that matches our analytical side with their creative side – and results in a unique, differentiated garment.
How do you choose the artists that you work with, and what’s in it for them?
When choosing our partners, it comes down to aligned values. We want everyone we work with to understand the mindset of the target customer and, more importantly, to share in our mission. You get much better work when people are passionate about what they are doing.
Tell us about the logistics of building the company.
In late 2019, we told our founder at Boll & Branch that we were leaving. We gave him enough time to offboard our projects and hire new people, so we ended up not leaving until February 14, 2020. Three weeks later, the world shut down due to COVID-19. You probably could say that we couldn’t have picked a worse time. We spent March 2020 building a deck that we were going to use to court investors. We sent it out to a handful of people and got almost no responses. Those who did respond said it wasn’t the right time.
We were discouraged, but we decided to pour our personal resources into the business and just kept on moving. We took it month by month and laid out the framework for The Phoenix Brand over the course of a year. Ultimately, it ended up being the best thing we could do. When we went out to fundraise in February 2021, it wasn’t like we were coming from absolutely nothing. We had set up the infrastructure of the business and built a brand on our own terms. We had a website. We had practiced on products. We already had partnerships. We had experience receiving orders. So many things were accomplished in that first year just by doing things on our own. I think that authenticity translates through our messaging and our partners. We found partners that we felt were right for us at the time, and we were able to learn with them and make mistakes with them. We came out a lot stronger and learned so much having stumbled on our own.
How did you manufacture your first item of clothing? How does that work when you don’t have a manufacturing facility of your own?
We officially launched in February 2021 with our own manufactured product. Before that, we essentially bought products from wholesalers that met our criteria, so we were rather limited. Then, we found sustainable partners who could help us add design elements to the garments. That was phase one of our manufacturing. We wanted to make those garments early because we wanted to start learning as quickly as possible. When we have an idea, we want to test it and understand if we should keep moving forward or if we need to pivot. That’s how we got to where we are now. We eventually identified a manufacturing facility in India, where I have deep family ties, that employs the manufacturing standards that meet or exceed our defined parameters, and we can now produce our own garments on a proprietary basis instead of relying purely on partnerships and white labeling.
Making things sustainably is challenging. If you’re not solely focused on making this happen every day, it can take a lot of time. The partners we are working with are creators whose focus is on expanding their audience. We’re coming in and saying, “You focus on your audience and creating the best, most authentic content. We’ll focus on producing the cleanest, most sustainable garments and getting everything else done.” Young partners are interested in that dynamic and want the leverage and logistical expertise that we bring to the table.
Sustainable clothing has exploded in popularity over the past few years. What does it take to be competitive in the space right now?
Be true to your values and mission. Don’t deviate from them. That is what is most important to me. Because we are more business-oriented people, we know the importance of that. Even the way we source is so different. We set up our supply chain so that we would have direct access to our factories. Generally, people use a sourcing agent, who is a liaison, but often there is a lot lost in translation, and there’s no transparency. We are talking directly to the factories themselves, which has given us more direct access. Not only does it help from a pricing perspective, but it also helps with making sure we get what we want in the most expedient way, and we’re able to uphold all the values of transparency and ensure our workers are getting paid a living wage. From where I’m sitting, that’s table stakes. Now we’re just taking it to the next level and stripping out the plastic and toxins that are inherent in so much of the apparel that’s out there. We’re expanding the range of options, and our goal is to make that choice a more widespread one for the conscious consumer.
Trina, thank you so much for your time and insights.