Cladwell fashion startup embraces sustainability and finds success in shifted focus

In 1930, the average woman had 36 items of clothing in her closet. Today, that average has reached 120 items. In resistance to this overstuffed trend, creators of Cincinnati-based fashion startup Cladwell are among those inspired by New York Times best-selling author Marie Kondo to pare down their wardrobes for a more intentional and sustainable mode of dress.

Cincinnati native Blake Smith, who co-founded Cladwell along with a small team, believes that when you declutter your life, you make room for more of what you truly want. To that end, users of his online service — which is now a member of  California-based venture fund and seed accelerator 500 Startups — are encouraged to trim down their wardrobes using Kondo’s KonMari method.
But that wasn’t always Cladwell’s business model. The company started out as a personalized shopping tool that attracted 300,000 users. Then, as Smith and his partners began to learn more about the catastrophic effects of fast fashion and the problematic ethics of some of the industry’s leading brands, they made a bold about-face, switching to a model that now emphasizes sustainability, awareness and, above all, personal joy.
To be clear, Cladwell doesn't sell clothes. Their mission is to help people discover what to wear, what to keep and what to add to feel confident. Cladwell guides users as they create a capsule wardrobe built on quality, timeless classics.
Smith is passionate about empowering people to look and feel their best. “Having a closet that only contains the things you love requires you to slow down and affects the way and pace in which you shop,” he says. “Cladwell helps you shop thoughtfully, with your entire wardrobe in mind.”
This month, Cladwell launches a new iOS app that offers daily outfit recommendations based on what a person owns, what they wear most often and what the weather is like that day. Smith explains that the average woman takes 15 minutes a day to choose her outfit. Cladwell’s new app strives to cut that down to less than one minute, and eliminate the daily frustration of having too much clothing and nothing to wear.

By logging what you wear each day, Cladwell helps users eliminate clothing they don’t wear. Cladwell stylists recommend daily customized outfits from the wardrobe users already own.

"I've found this program to be very useful," says Cladwell subscriber Cristina Garcia. "I spent a good one to two hours picking out the perfect palette for me using their advice and playing around with the quiz, then trying out different color combinations until I found exactly the right set of colors for me. This alone will help me tremendously when picking out clothing in the future, since it already helps you narrow down the endless clothing color choices available, preventing regrets later."
Social consciousness meets the bottom line
Smith remembers when he first began to consider leaving the security of his full-time job to chase his fledgling idea for a fashion startup. He had two young children at home. It was risky, but Smith knew it might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
His dad finally encouraged him to take the leap, but there were starts and stops along the way. Around the time that his user base reached 300,000, Smith was inspired by an NPR segment to learn more about the dangers of fast fashion worldwide. He began reading up on the subject, and soon, he began to suspect he had made a huge mistake.
Subsequently, he took a hard look at his business. He knew he could no longer turn a blind eye to his growing unease over recommending clothing companies that don’t value their factory employees. He grew painfully aware of the irony of promoting a service to help people feel their best, while partnering with and recommending retailers who weren’t equally committed to valuing their people.
“We looked at our service and realized we were only halfway there,” Smith admits. “Although we promoted intentionality, we didn’t care about who made the clothes.”
Smith soon got connected with Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion, along with other industry thought leaders, and began to explore other ways of promoting fashion consciousness without such dire effects on employees and the environment.
“We found a new opportunity to guide people to a simpler and better wardrobe, from manufacturing to Goodwill," Smith says. "So, we embraced the challenge.”
With that, Cladwell shifted its focus to capsule wardrobes. Smith emailed his subscribers, announcing the change in direction and even offering his cell number to anyone who wanted to discuss the decision further. Smith received hundreds of texts of support. The response was overwhelmingly positive, but Cladwell leadership knew that making a push against the fast-fashion industry would not come without obstacles.

"We feared the change would hurt the business, but we went from (making) a few thousand a month to a million a year in about nine months after making those decisions," Smith says. "It was an inflection point for the business, but we didn't know that would happen."
Shoppers slowly wake to new reality
Despite their renewed commitment to social consciousness, along with a new model that was proving profitable, Cladwell and his team realized they were up against deeply entrenched purchasing habits of the masses. With stores like Forever21 and H&M, consumers have come to expect the latest trends at rock bottom prices, a paradigm that Smith feels lands the average shopper in something of a vicious cycle and has hugely detrimental implications for the global economy.
“Consumerism, impulsive shopping and fast-fashion marketing cycles have led to poor garment quality, terrible conditions for garment workers overseas and an overwhelming array of choices for the end consumer,” Smith says. “This cocktail has left consumers with too many cheap, poorly made clothes — and still nothing they feel good about wearing.”
While fast fashion is a relatively new concept, developing over the past decade or so, its impact is already widespread. Smith points out that regardless of where you land on the issue, most fashion thought leaders agree that it has significantly changed how consumers relate to clothes and how companies sell clothes. Most clothing companies focus on high quantity and low quality — resulting in so-called "disposable" clothing.
Smith believes the impact has been catastrophic. “It's horrible for people who are manufacturing the clothing,” he explains. “If you're buying shirts for four or five dollars, there’s not a lot of margin in that to pay workers. As a result, it has essentially pushed the entire industry to move to third-world countries, resulting in unsafe work environments for those people.”
In the midst of this very real crisis, Cladwell founders have discovered a small but growing movement of people who want to buck consumerism and invest in fewer pieces to build a streamlined wardrobe of high-quality pieces they can mix and match. To that end, Cladwell’s service focuses on helping people curate a wardrobe that works for them, leveraging classic items they already own while purchasing only carefully selected pieces from responsible clothing companies.
Cladwell’s mantra is quality over quantity. Personal style over fast-moving trends. Less is more.
Smith acknowledges that the personal impact of fast fashion is part of a larger, more complicated conversation. “It can be overwhelming or you can start to feel condemned when people start talking about ethical fashion issues,” he says. “These are difficult things that we don’t want to hide from. Our role at Cladwell is not to condemn or judge, but to offer an alternative.”

Read more articles by Claire Rogers.

Claire Rogers is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Cincinnati Parent, Dayton Parent, LEAD Magazine and other online and print publications. She and husband Brian reside in Loveland with their two children. Connect with her on Facebook.
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