We recently caught up with Mariano deGuzman Jr., one of the founders of Asheville N.C. based knitwear designer and manufacturer, Appalatch. Mariano told us more about the ethics and sustainability behind Appalatch, the inspiration for their collections and his vision for the future of fashion and on demand local manufacturing.
Where did the idea for Appalatch initially come from?
Appalatch is the result of seemingly disparate experiences all coming together – from being a first generation American of sustenance rice farmers in the Philippines, to living in a manufacturing town that was broken by globalization to working in AmeriCorps and international development – the result of all this ended up, surprisingly, being fashion. But in the end it’s really not all about fashion…
The company is named after the Appalachian Mountains, tell us a bit about that.
There is an unmatched beauty and culture within Appalachia that many people don’t realize. The food, music, and art, which is entirely unique and authentic to the area, often times gets buried by people’s presumptions. I made the the area my home because I was inspired by the culture, sense of community, sustainability, and beauty. Appalatch is rooted in Appalachia and I hope through what we do, we are able to share that story.
Before starting the company, what were you up to? What's your background?
My passion is in economic development. While working in developing countries, I saw how some of the 98% of the clothes bought in America were being made. Sometimes it was heartbreaking, and I began seeing how the apparel industry was broken, leaving the environment and the most vulnerable at risk. While working, I started a master’s program at Harvard where I incubated the idea of a responsible, locally manufactured apparel company, which eventually became Appalatch.
Sustainability is an important part of the Appalatch culture and process. Tell us a bit about your office and mills in Asheville and your zero waste manufacturing process?
Our friends built one of the world’s only LEED Gold certified mills in the world. They process raw animal fibers and make yarn to make all kinds of products out of. Luckily, they had some extra space that they offered us while we were starting up. The beautiful solar powered building spoiled us, but we knew eventually, we needed our own space. Appalatch is now remodeling structures on a 1900’s farmstead into our design space and knitting studio. This allows us to increase our capacity to make more knitwear that is made entirely without cutting or sewing – so practically with zero waste.
Your designs are pretty classic, where do you draw inspiration for the collection?
We love the idea of emotionally durable design. What that means is that something is designed to last and be with you through the thick and thin. I want to be able to depend on and find joy in my clothing, and much of the clothes these days are designed and engineered to last only for a few uses. I want to build things that last again, and that means doing the R&D to find the raw materials, the spinning techniques and finishing processes to allow this. But durably made clothing is nothing without durable design. That’s why I look historically to see what clothing designs have bucked trends. I take these designs and paired with the most durable, softest yarns, we make knitwear that people can depend on through all their adventures.
How do you decide what materials to work with?
Deciding on materials is one of my favorite things to do. It’s the basis of responsible design and fundamental to making the incredibly durable, soft knitwear that we make. There are really hard decisions that need to be made though, and mostly it’s a balancing act between responsibility, durability and quality of wear. For example, we would love to move towards natural dyes instead of synthetics, but our testing shows that natural dyes end up crocking, rubbing off or fading after a few uses. We would love to use tighter wound yarns that come from coarser fiber, but everyone would find it itchy with no drape. We would love to use recycled cashmere, but the yarn staple is too short and pilling occurs after only a few uses. What we don’t want is for people to buy our knitwear and then ditch it after a few uses because its not holding up over time.
Why do you think American manufacturing is so important?
Local manufacturing is so incredibly beautiful. Local manufacturing can adapt instantaneously to demand, reduce the carbon footprint of our products and create local jobs in the area. It also provides a way for consumers to come to know how things are made and who makes them. America is the largest consumer of apparel in the world. Right now, 98% of the clothing bought in American is made abroad. I want local manufacturing by small businesses to flourish in America and all over the world, and with the technology that is present today, I think it can begin to be possible in the apparel industry.
What’s next for Appalatch?
I believe one of the largest reasons why the apparel industry is unsustainable is because of globalized manufacturing that is slow and relies on cheap labor. Brands start sometimes one year out in designing and manufacturing clothing before even knowing demand. This is because apparel is highly globalized and requires movement of a huge amounts of materials across the globe. To make that profitable, brands have to make tons of products where some may sell at full price, some may be discounted or even worse, burned if no one buys them. Forecasting demand becomes a huge risk and consumers and retailers ends up paying for it with higher prices. Appalatch wants to change that with on-demand local manufacturing where we can make knitwear only when it is ordered. What makes this so special is that since we are making each product individually, we can customize knitwear and have that delivered to a store or a customer in a few short days. This is what we are currently working on and excited to roll-out in the near future!