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Newark Life

Building a home for responsible fashion

Oct 07, 2019 02:24PM ● By J. Chambless

Michelle Fite started her own luxury fashion line to combat the pervasive trend of ‘fast fashion’ that hurts workers and the environment.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

For Michelle Fite, who launched her own luxury fashion line last summer, the goal is to “set an example of a fashion brand that operates responsibly, ethically, and makes our world a better place.”

Fite Fashion is based right now in the midcentury modern home that Michelle and her husband, Thomas, share in Newark. The workroom where Michelle creates her elegant gowns has several pieces in progress, draped on dressmaker’s dummies with impeccable style. The business is small – it’s essentially Michelle and two or three others – but its goals are revolutionary in an industry where cheap labor making disposable clothing is the norm.

Fite has longtime Newark roots. She’s a graduate of St. Mark’s High School and the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. She began as a painter, and her large canvases still hang throughout her home. “I got into mixed media, which brought me back to what I always wanted to do, which was fashion,” she said. “I started working with alternative materials, like paper and screen, to make sculpture dresses. That made me realize that I just loved doing it.”

As a child, Fite loved drawing elaborate gowns in the Queen Elizabeth style, and fell in love with the spunky, independent style of Molly Ringwald in the 1980s film Pretty in Pink. “That movie had a giant impact on me,” she said. “I just loved how she wasn’t afraid of having her own aesthetic and speaking up for herself, and being really resourceful. She didn’t go for off-the-rack things. She thought about crafting a style. I didn’t have money growing up, so it was inspiring that she didn’t let that stop her, either. I take that resourcefulness to heart today.”

Fite graduated from the University of Montana in 2007 and finished an MFA in fashion in 2013.

“My collection now is basically my final design project from grad school,” she said. “I made my own wedding dress, and realized that’s what I needed to launch my collection. I knew if I kept working on my skills, I could start the line from that.”

While the fashion industry is based in major cities, Fite said she isn’t interested in competing in a high-rent and high-stress fashion center.

Newark, she said, is close enough to commute to New York City, Baltimore and Philadelphia when she needs to, “but I have everything I need here. Newark has a special place in my heart. I can go chill on Main Street and I can go to the beach. In a place like New York, where you can throw a rock and hit a fashion designer or performer,” she said, laughing, “it’s so much harder to find your voice and your niche.”

The hallmark of Fite Fashion is its one-of-a-kind exclusivity and its dramatic flair. It’s the opposite of the mass-produced, shoddy merchandise pumped into stores nationwide.

“I’m very sensitive to material. Once you start sewing, you can think about issues of quality. If it looks like the hem is not nice, or it’s a cheap feeling material, I don’t want it on my body,” Fite said. “I shopped Goodwill a lot as a kid, because I was always a little bit more eccentric in my taste anyway. When you’re young, you get to find your identity. I liked a lot of the vintage pieces because they were still so sturdy, and I’ve always loved natural materials. I don’t use synthetics in my own line.”

The global shift toward cheap clothes produced by underpaid workers began in the 1980s-1990s prosperity bubble in America, Fite said, “People got accustomed to consuming more. As you get older, there’s this pressure to not look like you shop in a thrift store, and not repeat the same garments over and over again. Professional people get stuck in this trap where it’s not cool to keep re-wearing things.

“You can’t separate the rise of fast fashion and the grip it has on the marketplace without examining wages,” she added. “You can’t solve the problem when too many people can’t afford anything else. If we really want to solve some of these consumer habits, we’re going to have to increase the minimum wage so that people can say, ‘Listen, I know this is a bad purchase, so I’m going to save up a little bit and buy a good coat, for example, because I know it’s going to last forever.’

“At a store like H&M, for instance, a brand new T-shirt is $6. That’s essentially the same price as Goodwill. What’s your incentive to buy a used piece?” Fite said. “Fast fashion is so cheap that it competes with thrift stores. If you’re someone who is making $8 or $9 an hour, which thing are you going to buy?” 

That feeds a market for ever-cheaper production, clothes that fall apart, and subsequent sales of even more clothes. It’s a cycle that is crushing pay rates for workers in dangerous sweatshops, most of which remains hidden from the outside world.

“The fashion industry is guilty of extreme wastefulness, pollution and exploitation of labor,” Fite said. “Fabric scraps from the factory floor more often than not end up in a landfill. Harsh chemical dyes can make their way into streams and groundwater, poisoning ecosystems. Sweatshop labor practices are common in the world of fast fashion, creating a race to the bottom to make clothing as cheap and disposable as possible.”

Fite said she pays a $15 per hour starting wage to her local contractors, and will incorporate profit sharing as the company grows. “It’s very important to me that workers benefit from the profits they generate,” she said. “And that incentivizes people to show up and bring their best. People who feel valued and can pay their bills and live with dignity tend to be better workers.

“It’s hard because you cannot make ethically produced, sustainable fashion at the same price as an H&M T-shirt,” she said. “They should be paying a living wage, but we know that they’re not. And even if they switched to more sustainable fabrics, they’re still producing in sweatshops.

“Burberry was attacked about a year ago because they overproduced and they didn’t want people to buy their things on clearance and walk around with Burberry items. So they burned millions of dollars worth of garments,” Fite said. “All of my formal wear is made to order. Things like my trousers and my pencil skirts, I may have one in each size that I make for a trade show or something, but I’ll never overproduce. You’re going to know that everything you get is made in small batches or is custom made.

“There are so many problems that mega-corporations could solve, but they don’t even try. Because greed is still a prime motivator, unfortunately. Personally, I don’t think my success has to come at the expense of others.”

Fite aims for an upscale customer for her gowns, which are sold online as custom orders only at this point. “I want to make sure everything I create is beautiful, and photographs well from every angle, but is also very sturdy and made from good materials,” she said. “I love color theory and sculpture and how light affects an object. I want my dresses, specifically, to make you feel like you’re putting on a sculpture.”

She’s aware of the uphill battle in getting people to realize that one well-made garment can last a lifetime, while the $10 jacket at Target is going to fall apart and need to be replaced. “I’m aiming to support my ideals and take steps toward enacting those principles,” she said. “But I know there are a lot of people who care more about how something looks. So I don’t mind my dresses being a Trojan horse for those ideals.”

Fite is reaching out to boutique owners in the region, perhaps to see a few samples of Fite Fashion pieces and solicit orders for custom work. In addition to the gowns and dresses, she makes a limited number of one-of-a-kind bags and understructure pieces from her scraps.

For now, Fite Fashion is a small operation. “I work mostly with one woman who is good at helping me solve problems that I get stuck on. And then I’ve brought in two other people to help me with things like pants, and cutting and tracing fabric,” Fite said. “But I did about 80 percent of what’s on my website. It’s all me – I come up with the ideas, I do all of the research for the materials, I do all the patterning by hand.”

The company’s guidelines extend to all aspects of production – all packaging is plastic-free, high-grade recycled paper. Garment tags and tissue paper are recycled as well.

Ultimately, Fite would like to reach into the Wilmington downtown renaissance, possibly with a base of operations that could provide job training and opportunities. “I would like to do some job training. I make some couture garments. How amazing would it be to maybe reach out to one of the organizations that helps women get out of domestic violence? We could teach them these couture techniques and have a fashion house in Wilmington. No one else is doing that. Why can’t I?

“I need a convenient workspace so that when I do hire workers they can take public transportation to get there,” she added. “I don’t want barriers to employment. As I get enough orders coming in, I will put money aside for that. I want to buy a building instead of renting, because I can renovate and make it a wonderful place to work, for myself, but also for other people. I want to be the kind of mentor that I didn’t have, but who would have changed my life.”

For more information, visit www.FiteFashion.com.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.

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