An Interview with Tribute Collective
Meet Tribute Collective, a responsible design and fashion brand led by four women co-founders, who aim to make a positive impact on the DC retail scene. This month they will be popping into our very own retail space in Dupont Circle from May 5-15th. As long time admirers of their work, we thought what better time to showcase their brand with our community, and so we sat down (virtually) with Joelle Firzli, CEO/Curator, Fashion Researcher and Historian at Tribute and talked about all things fashion, sustainability, and ethical manufacturing.
Helene: From one co-founder to another of a small, independent brand, I'm always interested in hearing origin stories. How and when did you decide to start Tribute Collective?
The idea to create a brand focused on responsible design and fashion came together over a series of dinners with friends, discussing what we could bring to the D.C. retail scene that could make a difference. We are four women co-founders with different multicultural and professional backgrounds. We wanted to create an impactful platform that tells our story and reflects our culture and values. We know D.C. is a great creative crowd; we felt that we could tap into that mix of creative and political energy to push the industry of ethical fashion forward. So in the fall of 2018, we opened Tribute Collective. The name is inspired by the idea of paying tribute and honoring makers, designers, history, and art. It’s a tribute to creativity, to artisanship, to ethical business, to community and to all of the humans involved in making your clothing and the treasures that adorn your home. The first iteration of Tribute was located in Dupont’s Heurich House. The collection was drawn from designers we already knew and loved.
Helene: Tribute is a responsible retail and cross-disciplinary space - can you tell us a little bit more about the collective and its vision and ethos? And what is meant by a ‘cross-disciplinary space’?
We are a small independently owned and funded company. We work with small responsible and self-funded alternative designers, brands and artists from around the world. So every dollar that you spend with us contributes to the growth of our and their communities. Our mission is really to bring you a product that is good for the planet and for the people and make sure it stays with you for a while.
We believe fashion is more than a piece of clothing; it is an industry, a discipline and a cultural phenomenon. It tells the story of civilization, of people, so the idea is to integrate that historical aspect of fashion with the retail aspect, to contextualize the pieces we offer at Tribute, to introduce the humans behind the brands and emphasizing the craftsmanship of the items, we hope to help our community make better choices and intentional purchases that will last longer than a seasonal trend.
By cross-disciplinary space, I mean that we work across creative practices and disciplines and provide a medium for thoughtful and intentional discourse in the field of fashion, presenting programming such as exhibitions that feature garments of historical or sociological significance with accompanying retail collections, workshops and educational initiative including conversations and workshops that encourage critical thinking and engage with local artists, thinkers and activists.
Helene: As CEO and “The Curator” at Tribute, what’s a typical day like for you? On any given day, I seem to wear 5 or 6, as I imagine you and most people running small businesses do. Which 'hat' do you enjoy wearing the most?
To be honest, everyday is different for me. Usually, in the morning, I focus on desk work, replying to emails, making sure the website is up and running, checking the inventory, updating linesheets and budget sheets, and fulfilling orders. My afternoons are usually a bit more creative, I'm usually sitting with the collection, trying to imagine what creative direction we would take for the next fashion shoot, what is the inspiration for the next visuals. I also like to spend time with my books and my research.
As a small business owner, I think that the secret recipe is passion + discipline. I made peace with the fact that I have to be involved in all the different aspects of the business. I have also learned to delegate when needed. I am grateful that I am surrounded by a wonderful team of women who are passionate and motivated about Tribute.
Helene: Sustainability and ethical manufacturing are a huge part of the Tribute ethos. A lot of (usually bigger) brands practice green-washing, how do you vet your brands in terms of sustainability? What are the markers?
As a small company, we believe that it’s our responsibility to support, contribute and encourage a more responsible business model and support other small businesses with the same mindset. We believe in bringing an honest and transparent approach to retail. The brands we offer have shown that it is possible to sell great pieces with lower environmental impact than their fast-fashion counterparts. They have shown that it is possible to design innovative products, manufactured with integrity, attention to details, craftsmanship, respect and beauty.
Every brand we choose is carefully selected and we like to develop a close relationship with them. If we can, we visit them in their studios and workshops to discover the products first hand and meet with the team. We share our concerns, our passion and our vision. It's very important that we have products that we can be proud of. To that end, we share a list of fifteen questions with each designer, we call it our Brand Transparency Interview. The questions serve as a way to better understand their manufacturing process, supply chain, garment workers and textile treatment. The answers are published on our website and everyone has access to them. Finally a big chunk of our collection is vintage or secondhand. Buying secondhand and vintage clothing is triple sustainable. Fewer new clothes are sold and hence produced. It keeps clothing out of the landfill and from being shipped around the world to secondhand markets. We source our vintage collection throughout the country and during our travels.
Helene: I honestly love all the pieces I've seen in person and online at Tribute. And to know they are ethically made with sustainability in mind, makes me love them even more. Beyond the ethos behind the brands you choose, how would you describe Tribute’s aesthetic? What are you looking for in each of the pieces you pick?
Tribute is a mix and match of old and new, eccentric and classic, familiar yet strange. During our buying session, we look for the best combination of cuts and fabrics. We focus on natural fabrics, recycled and/or biodegradable, avoiding fabric blends or synthetics, except for vintage. It's always challenging but ultimately we find the right balance without compromising our mission. We do not follow the typical market cycle: we try as much as we can to offer pieces that are trend-less, no does and don’t, no in and out. The pieces must be long lasting, functional and well-cut. We also do not carry too much inventory and stock, to avoid excess. Our buying is very strategic, we follow the demand in our community. And whenever we can and if possible, we send back the unsold products to the designers.
Helene: Tribute curates a wonderful collection of designers and brands from across the world. How do you find new designers to work with?
Research remains the first step in welcoming a brand into the fold: a brand must be able to prove that its practices are sustainable and its employment is ethical. Each one of us can identify brands, we then do the research, try out the clothes, study the market. I've also been working in the fashion industry for almost 15 years. During all those years, I have met wonderful independent designers and artists with whom I've partnered or just developed a relationship. I'm lucky and grateful to be able to offer them a platform today and open up a new market for them.
Helene: What’s next for Tribute?
Joelle: We are still growing and experimenting and we will continue to do our work. We plan to continue to be thorough and transparent as we grow. In the future, it is our hope to create a transparency report to be able to deliver more value for our clients, our collaborators and the business. As for reopening a physical space, while there’s no schedule for moving into a permanent brick and mortar, we are always on the lookout for creative pop-up ideas and intriguing spaces in different neighborhoods. We are excited to partner with Laiik for this Spring :)
Helene: And finally, what advice would you give to those who want to shop sustainably and/or ethically?
Joelle: Check out The Good Map of Washington D.C. for some inspiration.