Conscious Cashmere: A Chat With Margaret Coblentz, founder of Frances Austen

There is so much that goes into the production of the clothing that we wear. When we stop to think about what goes into creating our favorite shirt, it is a long and extensive process.

I had the opportunity to chat with Margaret Coblentz, founder of Frances Austen and learn more about her conscious collection of 100% biodegradable cashmere staples like this Lantern Sleeve sweater in lilac from their new spring collection.

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Let’s start with your story and inspiration for starting Frances Austen:

It all started back when my grandmother gave me her collection of vintage cashmere sweaters. They were incredible - I wore them religiously and loved them, but struggled to find any other pieces of the same high quality in stores today that didn’t come with a price tag upwards of $1,000. After spending much of my career in fast fashion, I decided to create something unique that spoke to my personal values and passion. I’ve always loved to mix a carefully considered investment piece with other affordable closet favorites. Other women do as well, and I knew there was room in the world for a brand with thoughtful sourcing and luxury designer quality offering beautiful, wearable pieces.  

How do you define sustainability?

The answer to this question is rather complicated. I try not to use the word “sustainable” when talking about Frances Austen because there are many different ways to approach sustainability. Foundationally, I’d say the largest sustainability problem facing fashion is the overconsumption of cheaply constructed, low-quality clothing that will never stand the test of time in our wardrobes, nor have a second life.

Additionally, holistic consideration of the material used is critical. For example, is it going to biodegrade when it eventually reaches the end of its useful life? Was the material produced in a way that respects those that worked to make it? There are several actions we can take to support sustainable practices. As consumers, we must commit to buying less and choosing thoughtfully - and paying attention to where we purchase clothing. Shoppers hold significant power in this regard. As brands, we have the responsibility to create products that won’t simply contribute to the overabundance of future scrap clothing. This includes pushing ourselves to utilize better materials, produce in responsible factories and refuse to settle for “good enough” when there are superior alternatives out there.  

 
I’d say the largest sustainability problem facing fashion is the overconsumption of cheaply constructed, low-quality clothing that will never stand the test of time in our wardrobes, nor have a second life.
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What have the challenges been producing your garments consciously?

From my perspective, it is largely independent companies that are pushing for sustainable, ethical production. Credit is due to brands like Everlane, Cuyana and others for leading the way, but compared to the likes of H&M, Zara and Gap, they are still relatively small within the global supply chain. Sourcing eco-certified, ethical fabrics and factories is both an uphill battle and an expensive undertaking for small brands because the path is being led by high-end, independent producers. We have been lucky when it comes to cashmere in our partnerships with Oeko-Tex-certified Cariaggi and Johnstons of Elgin, the gold standard of ethical production.

Tell me more about sustainable silk & cashmere?

The amazing thing about silk and cashmere is that they are truly renewable resources. Because both materials are animal-based and naturally biodegradable, they don’t contribute to landfill buildup as nylon and polyester-based clothing does.  

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How did you come to discover the materials you use and the small factory you work with?

For cashmere, I did heavy research into the factories used by luxury brands to make their sweaters and had the opportunity to pitch Johnstons of Elgin on Frances Austen.  In sourcing silk, I was referred to a supplier through a friend who worked with them on two previous collections. We have not introduced new silk styles in about a year, though, because I wanted to relocate our production to Los Angeles which enables us to work closely with the factory and have more access to the process. While this may not be the best business decision from a cost standpoint, it gives us the opportunity to produce in the U.S. and further support the local economy.

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I love that your fabrics are biodegradable and that you’re thinking about nature in the clothing you are creating and would love to hear more about how the process is helping reduce your footprint.

 
There are some things I haven’t found a way to avoid, though, such as the plastic bags used to protect our clothing. They bug me so much but I haven’t discovered an alternative solution that works quite yet.

From the start, I wanted to be thoughtful about all levels of production. We use recycled cardboard boxes made in the U.S. to ship orders and our hang tags are hand-letterpress by my friend, Alissa Bell, in Los Angeles.

Pushing ourselves to reach a stricter production standard with our silk is also a part of this commitment. There are some things I haven’t found a way to avoid, though, such as the plastic bags used to protect our clothing. They bug me so much but I haven’t discovered an alternative solution that works quite yet. I’m still looking, of course, so if you hear of something out there, please me know! I keep a running list of this and similar problems that I want to solve as Frances Austen evolves and grows.  

It was such a pleasure to talk to Margaret and learn more about the beautiful work she is doing with Frances Austen to bring conscious, made-to-last heirloom pieces back into the fashion industry.


Photos by: Felicia Lasala

Sweater: Frances Austen

Pants: Whimsey & Row

Shoes: Vintage