Fashion Business

Fashion with Heart: Q&A with Fair Trade Fashion Designer, Liz Alig

Liz Alig, with some of the women she employs
I am so excited to be able to catch up with Liz and her fair trade fashion line Liz Alig!

We carry her line at Change Boutique, and love her brand! Everything is so unique and carefully crafted using recycled materials or hand woven materials. Read more from our interview:

How did you start Liz Alig? Was it a work trip or vacationing in other countries and seeing the way the locals lived?

Liz Alig: I started Liz Alig just as a very small collection of dresses I made one Summer – to see if it was possible to make a whole collection out of recycled materials.  Then after a local store sold out of them and wanted more – I approached a small not for profit in Honduras I had interned for about producing 100 dresses for me.  Slowly, it has grown from there.

Do you have a background in Fashion Design or Social work?

Liz Alig: I have a background in fashion design.

What was the hardest part of starting Liz Alig? (ex. sourcing vendors who could supply recycled fabric? Securing labor? Importing?)

Liz Alig: I have a background in design and have had to learn everything about owning a business along the way – so that has been a lot of fun and a huge challenge.  I would say that the hardest challenge though about this is being in the middle between fair trade groups and high end boutiques.  These are two completely different worlds and I find myself in the middle a lot!  Things like quality control – the small little group who has never left their village that has no electricity or running water does not understand the kind of quality expected by a high end store in the States.  Also, the stores appreciate the story of the clothing, but it can be difficult if they don’t understand the difference between handmade and factory made clothing.  It can be difficult to help these groups to meet in the middle and understand the challenges of both.  It is a huge learning curb for both ends and it is sometimes overwhelming to be in the middle.

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What are your design inspirations?

Liz Alig: I find design inspiration everywhere.  I am currently in Northern Michigan and am getting a lot of inspiration for next Fall – I also get inspiration from traveling in colorful countries like India and Africa.

How do you find ethical and fair trade producers for your line?

Liz Alig: It is a pretty small network of ethical producers of clothing, so after being in it for a few years – I have heard of a lot of different groups.  I try to focus on groups that are not only producing ethical clothing, but are also using that to make a difference in their community and in the lives of their employees.  A lot of the organizations we work with use the profits to give technical training to women who otherwise do not have a lot of help finding a job outside of their homes.

Liz Alig has chosen to follow a few standards as outlined by global fair trade organizations.

How do you ensure that the production is ethical and fairly made?

Liz Alig: Most of the places I work with – I have a friend who either started it or works closely with them – so before we even think about a new partner we have a pretty good relationship with them.  Then, it is super helpful to visit them before we start the production to not only see how they are producing stuff, but to see what fabrics and equipment they have to work with.  One reason we use a lot of recycled and hand-woven fabric in the first place is to ensure the ethics of the clothing.  Each country has textiles, or recycled materials, that we know we can source from that country in an ethical way.

How big is your team/company at Liz Alig?

Liz Alig: Liz Alig is still pretty small – we have about 10 brand reps all over the country.  Myself and a part time wholesale manager.  I also have a whole lot of really great volunteers.

Any suggestions/advice for young designers who want to do their own fair trade fashion line?

Liz Alig:  Honestly, it is really hard!  As I said before you are kind of in the middle between two groups who don’t really understand each other.  I would say it is important to understand it takes time – my rule is it will take about five years for a group to be at a place to produce large orders at a good quality.

What are some fair trade ethical brands that you love that we should also check out?

Liz Alig: I really love Ace and Jig

Love her line?

You can order direct from her website or stop in at Change Boutique <3


What is Fair Trade?

Thousands of workers and their unions rallied across Bangladesh April 24, the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse that killed more than 1,100 garment workers. The Solidarity Center is training garment worker organizers--many of them women--and supporting their efforts to demand safe factories. Credit: Solidarity Center/Sifat Sharmin Amita

Thousands of workers and their unions rallied across Bangladesh April 24, the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse that killed more than 1,100 garment workers. The Solidarity Center is training garment worker organizers–many of them women–and supporting their efforts to demand safe factories. Credit: Solidarity Center/Sifat Sharmin Amita, CC BY-ND 2.0

Fair Trade Focuses on the Well-Being of People and the Environment

The purpose of any business is to make money. Yes, and especially when that business is a large multi-national corporation legally obligated to make as much money as possible for their shareholders. However, all too often it comes to the detriment of workers and the environment.

The fair trade movement is a reaction to this assault on people and the environment. The goal of this movement is to create a business model where the focus is shifted away from gaining profits for the wealthy few. Instead, the fair trade movement focuses on the well-being of both people who are actually doing the work and the ecosystems that make this planet the only one we know of with life on it.

The Fair Trade Federation, an organization dedicated to promoting the global fair trade movement while building equitable and sustainable trading partnerships and creating opportunities to alleviate poverty, explains further:

Fair trade is an approach to business and to development based on dialogue, transparency, and respect that seeks to create greater equity in the international trading system.

Fair trade supports farmers and craftspeople in developing countries who are socially and economically marginalized. These producers lack economic opportunity and often face steep hurdles in finding markets and customers for their goods.

Fair trade is about making a tremendous impact on artisan and farmer communities while offering great products to the public. Communities are improved; nutritional needs met; health care costs are covered; the poor, especially women, are empowered; the environmental impact of production, sourcing, and transport is mitigated to the fullest extent possible. Such an impact is created because Fair Trade approaches development as a holistic process.

Garment Factories and the Cost of Big Fashion

To understand the goals and the value of fair trade it is important to understand the way big fashion works. As most fashion companies move their production overseas, they are inherently capitalizing and exploiting the built in currency strength of the US dollar in foreign countries. This undermines the major strides unions made in the early to mid 1900’s that built the American middle class. That’s not to say all companies that produce overseas are treating the workers badly or exploiting them. Even in the case of the companies that are exploiting their workers, the jobs they are providing may be better than the alternatives for some. But those workers now find themselves in a situation that American workers in the early 1900’s were in, while the jobs that helped so many Americans climb into the middle class are disappearing.

ILO in Asia and the Pacific., Child labourers work at the small garment factory in Jakarta with tasks, such as sewing, packaging, etc. Photographer: Asrian Mirza.   Go to:

ILO in Asia and the Pacific., Child laborers work at the small garment factory in Jakarta with tasks, such as sewing, packaging, etc. Credit: Asrian Mirza, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Quality of the goods factors in as well because of the fierce competition within the fashion industry. But because of this the quality of the environment is left behind and the lives of the people involved are often conveniently overlooked in the name of profit. Major US apparel corporations generally have an extended network of overseas manufacturers that they have worked with before or are connected to through other corporations. These factories are specialized for particular types of production (e.g. cut and sew knits, leather, denim).

A veteran Production Head, will have a sense of how many styles they are producing for the season. They determine what the cost is to get it produced and will then negotiate on how low the manufacturer can go to meet their needs. Many times when this is done with overseas manufacturers, their desire to keep clients happy and place huge orders means that the factory reps will start seeking other local laborers who can help them meet these orders.

For additional information on the subject, the Human Rights Watch has discussed labor rights abuses in Cambodia’s Garment Industry in their report “Work Fast or Get Out”.

The Detriments of Overseas Manufacturing

This is where the breakdown in the supply chain happens. USA apparel companies “trust” that their overseas manufacturer sources local labor to help meet their demands. It easy for situations like this to turn corrupt, because the Factory Owners & Merchandiser knows the local laws, and does whatever they need to do to make the order happen. They are not obligated to operate by the same ethical or fair trade standard that a “USA” apparel company does.

Another common practice for overseas manufacturers, who work strictly with a brand or label is to have your “show” factory or headquarters. When outside NGO’s or quality control auditors make “surprise” inspections factory seems compliant. The overseas manufacturers may hide the extensive network of sub-contracted satellite sewing operations that are not directly associated to USA apparel brand and probably don’t meet the U.S. Apparel companies ethical or labor standards.

Since these satellite operations are only managed by the local manufacturers contact point, it is not surprising that horrific incidents such as the Rana Plaza factory building collapse could happen. Western brands that were getting made in this factory did not comment or reply, because they honestly might not have known the level to which their 1000+ units of orders were getting subcontracted out to. Transparency is hard to trace in the multi-national corporate machine of big fashion and that’s why the transparency promoted by the fair trade movement and the production of traceable small units made locally or by third party certified global organizations or NGO’s is so crucial in protecting the workers.

Meanwhile while public pressure may have some impact it is easy for large companies to slip back into their “profit before all else” ways. Companies may make changes while the pressure is on and then once people have forgotten about the issue, somehow find themselves doing exactly what they had committed not to do.

Back in 2002, H&M for example, promised to ban PVC from all their products, a commendable commitment in response to campaigns on what was back then a hot topic. Fast forward to 2011 and with other environmental issues making headlines H&M have inexplicably backtracked and are using PVC once again.

Garment Workers in Deathtrap_ Taslima Akhter_ Nobody knows who are they, what is the relation between them but the crude reality make them closer and may be they are trying to save each other and the last moment of their life from the death trap of Savar Rana Plaza_. Embrace in Death. Near about 438 workers died as building Collapse at Savar Rana Plaza. Most of them are women. Savar Dhaka, Bangladesh, 24th April 2013

Garment Workers in Deathtrap_ Taslima Akhter_ Nobody knows who are they, what is the relation between them but the crude reality make them closer and may be they are trying to save each other and the last moment of their life from the death trap of Savar Rana Plaza_. Embrace in Death. Near about 438 workers died as building Collapse at Savar Rana Plaza. Most of them are women. Savar Dhaka, Bangladesh, 24th April 2013. Credit: Times Asi, CC BY 2.0

What Do We Do?

We can turn a blind eye and say “it’s just the way it is”.

Or we can raise a ruckus with the media and our representatives in government.   Because of the the over 1 million consumers world wide that have raised their voices and pressured the major fashion brands that were manufactured in the horrific Rana Plaza collapse, we have a great victory today.   But, we can’t stop now.

We must support alternatives business models that are making real impacts on the lives of the workers producing the goods and the environment that is sustaining us all.

Fair trade is making those differences and the more people who become aware and support fair trade with their purchasing choices, the bigger of an impact it will have on workers, the environment, and the businesses currently operating under the classic exploitative model.

Local Entrepreneur: Heather Wentler

Heather Wentler is a local entrepreneur and Executive Director of Doyenne Group. Below she shares with us her insights on building businesses, defining personal success, and the benefits of fostering an entrepreneurial fashion community in Madison.


Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role in Madison’s entrepreneurial community.

I graduated from UW-Whitewater with a degree in Elementary Education. After teaching for about 4 years I was feeling a disconnect between how I wanted to teach my students and how the district wanted me to teach. I felt the schools were focused on teaching to the test and pushing textbooks with outdated examples on students. Whereas, I wanted to make learning experience-based, so students could learn through doing instead of filling in worksheets and taking paper tests.

In 2011 I founded my first business, Fractal. I had never taken a business class and was really hesitant on launching because I didn’t feel as prepared in the role of entrepreneur as I felt in the role of teacher. But I also knew I couldn’t continue to teach in schools. Fractal provides STEAM enrichment workshops and camps for school-aged participants to help bridge what they learn at school to how it applies to every day life. Since founding Fractal I’ve learned a lot and have also founded a community-based micro-granting event called Madison SOUP and co-founded Doyenne Group.

Doyenne Group has been, in my perspective, what’s “put me on the map” and immersed me in the entrepreneurial community in Madison. When I started Doyenne, Madison already had a thriving entrepreneurial scene that worked with a lot with startups in the tech and bio-tech sectors. But there weren’t many resources for entrepreneurs starting small businesses or lifestyle business in other sectors. I also noticed a huge gap in the gender diversity within the entrepreneurial scene as far as who was being represented and showing up to the events. Doyenne works with women entrepreneurs starting and growing businesses. And is also helping reshape the entrepreneurial scene in Madison and across Wisconsin to make sure events and programming are benefiting all entrepreneurs and all types of businesses.

What has been your biggest personal or business success and why?

This is a really hard question. I have always been a goal oriented person who set challenges for myself and works really hard to accomplish them. In that way, I’ve had a lot of successes. However, none of them register as my biggest success. I think that by having a hard time answering this question it also shows how our society doesn’t really acknowledge success as much as failure. Any failures I’ve had and how I overcame them are bigger successes to me than the outright success I’ve had.

If I had to pick, I would say seeing the success of others I’ve worked with are my biggest successes. When you see the proverbial lightbulb turn on within a student or see a business owner go for the big goal and reach it – those are the moments that stick with me the most, more so than what I’ve achieved on my own.

What principles and values do you live and work by?

“Nothing comes easy” and “It takes a community”. Everything that is worth having in life takes hardship and struggle to earn. If it doesn’t then was it something you really needed?

I recently met with an entrepreneur who was looking to build a brand. When I told them everything they needed to think about when launching their business they dropped their head in their hands and exclaimed “Oh my God, I didn’t think it was going to be this much work!” But when we worked on taking all of the tasks and breaking them down into smaller more manageable goals, that helped bring down the stress. During this experience the entrepreneur also realized that they couldn’t do it alone and that they would have to bring on others to help. When you start engaging your community around what you’re doing it helps bring in customers, clients, potential partnerships and other resources that you didn’t even know were available.

What kind of impact do you think a strong fashion community will have on Madison?

A strong fashion community will bring talent to Madison and help retain our current talent. Right now we hear a lot about “brain drain” happening from the University. Entrepreneurs and young professionals are feeling like they need to leave the city in order to make it big.

Fashion is a sector that brings many industries and people together. And even if some people don’t want to admit it, fashion is part of our everyday lives. It influences so many aspects. I think there are a lot of people in Madison who are interested in the fashion industry and are looking for ways to get more involved locally.

When people say “Wisconsin is about 3-5 years behind the trends” there is a lot of truth to that statement. Many of the people who would help influence trends and contribute to a fashion-forward culture are leaving, instead of helping keep us up to date. Building a strong fashion community will help talented and creative entrepreneurs stay in Madison and combat the brain drain.

What advice do you have for our readers who may be wanting to start their own fashion business?

Do it! I meet too many people that hold back on their dreams, are waiting for the perfect time, or for the stars to align to follow what their gut is telling them is the right choice. I would guess that you already have people within your network that would be able to help you figure out how to start or who to get in touch with to create a plan to start. Don’t hesitate, you can do it! I’m not going to lie, it’s going to be a scary, up and down roller coaster of a ride. But not matter what, it’s going to be the best ride of your life. Even with all the failures or stressors that come along, there are going to be huge highs and accomplishments that you never thought you would be able to reach.

Finding someone to help you create a plan of action and create a business model is the first step you should take. There are lots of resources in Madison that are able to help. Don’t settle for someone just because they’re there. Find the right people to support and help you along on your journey.

Give us the deets on Doyenne Group! What sorts of things do you have happening and how can we get involved? 

Doyenne is currently fundraising for two years of programming and an Evergreen Fund to start dispersing funds to women-led ventures. There are various ways for anyone to get involved, no matter their experience or level of commitment. I would suggest every woman become a Doyenne member ($100/yr). Membership helps open the door to our network of mentors, investors, corporations and connections to help you on your journey. The next step would be to attend a Retreat, which are held three times a year with the next one being June 25-27. At the retreats we help entrepreneurs develop a plan of action to move you forward with your business and get you down the right path to reach your goals.  There are other ways we work with entrepreneurs throughout the year so continuing to watch our website and joining our mailing list are great ways to stay up to date with what we’re doing.

Understanding How Fashion Products Are Priced

We all have different motivators to buy a product: price, brand, availability, materials, style, and the list could go on. Regardless of what motivates you to buy, it’s important to know the factors that determine how fashion products are priced and this post is just the tip of the iceberg.

Variables in determining the product pricing:

  1. Where is the product made and who by? Is the product made in the US? Since most manufacturing moved overseas, there aren’t many facilities or skilled people which increases cost, especially as demands for local manufacturing rises. That coupled with the fact that labor/environmental laws in the US are better regulated and higher minimum wages makes US manufacturing costly.
  2. Where are the materials made? Same concept as where the product is being made.
  3. What materials is it made of? A more obvious contributor to higher cost: high quality materials made with care cost more.
  4. In what quantities are they being made and distributed? The more made and distributed, the cheaper the item is and vise versa.

One exception to the rule is when a product is over produced, not made to expectation or made before the buyer removed it from the order and then sold off for much cheaper. Outlet malls are an example of where the product might go, although that’s not the majority of items at an outlet mall. There are a other exceptions, some of which I list below the pricing structure.

So how are products priced? Here’s a basic formula for how they’re calculated: 

calculating retail and wholesale prices for fashion

Another variable which isn’t in the ‘basic’ pricing structure above is an additional markup for a showroom or sales rep which usually takes anywhere from 20-30% of the wholesale price. Also, if you’re selling to a larger retailer/department store, they will most likely want a discount on your wholesale prices because they are ordering a large sum. Every brand had a slightly different markup that works for them.

Another exception, which seems to be a trend now with online sales, is selling direct to consumer. This allows for you to significantly reduce the price as you don’t have to accommodate the retail markup. The hardest part about this is that you have to sell your product online in a competitive marketplace. This also means that you could never sell anything wholesale to retailers. When you work with a retailer, they have their own market which reaches new clients that you likely won’t have access to online. Direct to consumer sales are not easy, but for niche products it may be the way to go.

At the end of the day, the product you’re buying is from a business which hopes to make a profit in order to continue making products for you. When you buy something, you’re choosing to support that business so it is important to be informed.

This thought can be exhausting, I know. No one has time to research and make sure that everything they buy is ‘morally made,’ let alone, have the money to spend, likely on a higher ticket item. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just trust that the company is doing what’s best? This is one reason why buying from a specific company which has the same morals as you is great. They will do the filtering for you, rather than you having to investigate every product you buy. Just like paying an expert in another field, you’re paying a store to know what products you should buy.

So the next time you have ‘sticker shock,’ ask yourself, how was it made, and where was it made? Same thing with a product on the lower end. There is always a reason for why fashion products are priced the way they are.

Related/Recommended readings:

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

More on fashion business: The Fashion Designer Survival Guide, Start and Run Your Own Fashion Business