Fashion Style

Lily Forbes: Sustainability is the New Black

April 2, 2020

Meet Detroit designer Lily Shafroth, who’s fighting back against fast fashion with her ethically made line, Lily Forbes

By Carmen Nesbitt

That $14.99 crop top from Zara is cute, trendy — and will almost certainly end up in a landfill next season.

And it’s not alone: 85% of textile waste in the U.S. eventually makes its way to landfills. That’s the reality of fast fashion, a term reserved for styles that are constantly churned out, but that aren’t built to last. The business model — which is also practiced by major brands like H&M and Forever 21 — keeps costs low for consumers by offshoring production, but workers often endure inhumane labor conditions and make barely livable wages.

Detroit-based designer Lily Shafroth is trying to disrupt that cycle of human and environmental abuse. Her clothing line, Lily Forbes (a nod to her middle name), features ethically made garments designed with longevity in mind. “People see Bella Hadid wear something on Instagram, and then the next day, they’re making it,” she says. “Essentially, what that has created within the fashion industry is a ton of waste and a ton of exploited people.”

Lily Shafroth, founder of Lily Forbes Photography by Fhuad Braimoh

Shafroth (wearing one of her designs) started Lily Forbes in 2018 as a response to “fast fashion,” a business model that keeps prices low for consumers but takes a toll on laborers and the environment.

The 26-year-old, who launched her business in 2018, has reduced her burden on the industry by partnering with Work + Shelter, a fair-trade organization based in Chicago and Delhi, India that employs women who have been marginalized by gender and caste discrimination to produce clothing. She also intentionally sources all of her textiles with the environment and worker well-being at the forefront of decision-making. “For me, [practicing] fair trade [and] doing the right thing is an ‘of course,’” says Shafroth. “I firmly believe that business can be a vehicle for positive change, particularly in the fashion industry.”

Shafroth’s pieces include silk robes and jackets and hand-woven, naturally dyed denim. They range from $150 to $450. “I’m a snob when it comes to textiles,” she says. “I don’t like cheap ones.”

Sustainable fashion brand Lily ForbesPhotography by James Adams
Sustainable fashion brand Lily ForbesPhotography by Lily Shafroth

Shafroth recently designed a collection of slips made out of silk remnants. “I’m a snob when it comes to textiles,” she says. “I don’t like cheap ones.”

Raised in Boulder, Colorado, and later Washington, D.C., Shafroth says that fashion and activism defined her upbringing. She comes from an artsy, politically active family — her grandmother, mom and aunts all painted, while her great-great grandfather fought for women’s suffrage — and spent her childhood drawing, knitting and making dolls. As the youngest of three, she usually wore hand-me-downs or thrifted clothing. “My mom and I used to thrift together,” she says. “You get an appreciation for a silhouette or material that was made 30 years ago and still looks amazing. That shaped my design sensibility.”

Her father’s conservationism rubbed off on Shafroth as well. “Growing up outside, you understand that you don’t want to pollute these rivers,” she says. “There’s a reverence for and connection to the outside world that feels very primal.”

Lily Shafroth, founder of Lily Forbes Photography by Wilfred Cisse

Shafroth in Douglas, Michigan, sporting one of her signature robes.

After high school, Shafroth taught art classes and worked for a fashion designer in New York before attending the University of California Berkley, where she majored in geography and minored in global poverty and practice. A trip to Varanasi, India, where she was doing research for her minor, set the stage for her career. “I was looking at how female artists and groups operate in rural India,” she says. “And I was studying myself: how I was received, coming from the West, and how do [I] productively engage in globalized trade relationships?”

She paired up with a fair-trade women’s production house in Varanasi and launched her first fashion business, Artful Scout, a line of unisex outerwear and accessories. In 2016, Shafroth moved to Detroit to open a pop-up, gallery and event space in Eastern Market called Girl Girl Girl where she sold Artful Scout. (She’d been interested in the city since studying inclusive urban planning in college.)  She folded the company in 2017 because her then-business partner lived in Serbia and she wanted to start her own line.

She reached out to Theresa VanderMeer, the founder of Work + Shelter, and in 2018, after saving up through waitressing, styling and retail jobs, spent two months in Delhi creating her line. She visited every facility she sources from, including the natural dye house, the weavers, and the garment tag factory. Most importantly, she spent time getting to know her team at the production house.


Sustainable fashion brand Lily ForbesPhotography by Lily Shafroth
Sustainable fashion brand Lily ForbesPhotography by Anastasia Cheatham

Shafroth is drawn to “silhouettes [that] have remained relevant throughout time,” she says. That’s the inspiration behind her robes, which are made from naturally dyed, hand-woven denim (top) and recycled vintage silk (middle; Shafroth is on the right). Many of her pieces are made in Delhi, India, by women like Sooman (above).

“It’s important for me to know every person that I work with and have a relationship with them,” she says. She also points out the delicacy of talking about her team: “I don’t want to use their poverty [to market Lily Forbes]. Their story isn’t mine.”

“Lily cares deeply about the production and the women, but also [about] the environmental impact of the materials that she’s using,” says VanderMeer, who adds that Shafroth has pitched in to help Work + Shelter employees with things like scholarship applications. “She’s not only our client, but she’s a supporter of us.”

Sustainable fashion brand Lily ForbesPhotography by Anastasia Cheatham

Post-India, Shafroth moved back to Detroit, where she hand makes some of her own pieces (some are also produced in Los Angeles). She’ll soon debut a line of pants and Western-themed jackets, and she also has a new showroom in southwest Detroit where customers can browse her designs. As for those trend-hungry shoppers, she has some advice: “Invest in classic pieces that are going to wear well over time,” she says. “For sustainable designers like myself, it’s so much more than just supporting my company,” she adds. “You’re supporting all these other people behind me.”

Check out Lily Forbes online at lilyforbes.co or at the Lily Forbes studio, 1505 Hubbard St., Detroit.

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