With capital wearing thin, sustainable fashion business falters in Philly


A small fashion design firm in Center City, which has been one of the shining examples of socially  and environmentally sustainable manufacturing in Philadelphia, will close.

Sarah Van Aken started SA VA in 2009 to show that women’s fashion design does not need to tax the planet.


“The apparel industry is one of the largest polluters of the environment in the world. I don’t think many people know that,” said Van Aken. “The water pollution, the amount of garments that go into landfills, all the chemicals required to make fibers into textiles, and textiles into clothing — it’s insane how much of an impact it has on the environment.

“And there’s also 200 million people working in slave labor conditions in manufacturing,” she  said. “Those things to me are pretty offensive.”

With seed money from the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, Van Aken was able to build a small empire of retail, wholesale, and manufacturing in Center City’s high-end shopping district at 17th and Sansom streets.

At the same time, she became a virtual poster child of what sustainable business practices can accomplish. Every season, she designed a new line of high-end clothes made from organic materials and manufactured in the building next door to the retail shop.

“You didn’t look at it and think ‘granola,’ like people think about organic clothing,” said Van Aken, who wanted to “create this women’s lifestyle brand.”

But four years in, she is closing her doors for good.

Van Aken says her sustainability practices weren’t the problem. It was a lack of capital. While the retail side of the business was 87 percent more profitable this November than last, the wholesale side was dragging down the ship. She needed a lot more money to expand, and investors were not coming.

“This business is incredibly capital-intensive,” said Van Aken. “In no way is my decision to close a statement on the business model or the movement of socially driven fashion. There is a viable way to do it.

“If I had a lot of capital, I would open more stores. It works,” she said. “It’s just that by the time this happened, it was too late.”

Ultimately, it was a personal decision.

“I didn’t feel I could spin my wheels and do that grind without — this many years in — a significant growth path,” said Van Aken.

She is selling off her assets, and helping her handful of employees find new jobs. For herself, she is looking for opportunities, which may or may not be in the field of “lifestyle fashion.”

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