She Burned It All Down, to Build the Perfect Dress

Changing the look of the brand was relatively easy. “I can design something new tomorrow and transform. I’m good at that,” Ms. Hoffman said. More challenging was getting all of her back-of-house sustainable dreams to live up to what the customer was used to. It’s been a process of trial and error, baby steps.

A first order of business was switching to organic and recycled materials whenever feasible. But that is not always possible. “We started working with a system that is still considered a Band-Aid for us, taking plastic bottles, turning them into polyester for our swimwear,” Ms. Davis said. The problem is that once a plastic bottle is turned into swimwear, it’s difficult to recycle from there. Now Ms. Hoffman uses Pyratex, a fabric made out of wood pulp with no polyester or nylon, for swimwear.

Ms. Hoffman introduced compostable packaging, but no one knew how to compost it, so the company switched to paper, which people are used to recycling. She started Full Circle, the company’s take-back and resale program. She designed extended sizes that went beyond a basic black dress. The stretchy, sexy Popcorn dress — available in a range of colors and silhouettes and in sizes XXS to 3X — was released in 2020 and continues to be a hit.

“It was a swim line before — now it’s a fashion brand,” said Rachael Wang, a former editor and stylist who started working with Ms. Hoffman to shift the visual identity of the brand in 2015. “I think creating a more splashy, fashion-y brand that has this intentionality was exactly what people wanted to see, what people wanted to buy into.”

Ms. Hoffman has run her business independently with no outside investment. But she hasn’t done it alone. Ms. Davis has been with her for 15 years, and they oversee a staff of 25. There’s also the broader sustainability community, of which they are vocal and active members. The Mara Hoffman website is encyclopedic in its indexing of partners, policies and supply-chain transparency.

Ms. Hoffman was early to fashion’s awakening to the overproduction and climate crises, but she doesn’t consider herself a pioneer. “There were a handful of brands that we were able to see as beacons,” she said, naming Eileen Fisher, Stella McCartney and Patagonia. “They were doing something better.”

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