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Making fashion green with Rakel Tanibajeva




Courtesy of Rakel Tanibajeva

Last spring, Rakel Tanibajeva went to Turkey for spring break, then the world closed. Stranded there, the Yale sophomore ended up learning more about the fashion industry than she ever imagined. It ended up in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, one of the most massive covered markets in the world, covering over 30,000 square meters.

Standing in the bazaar, Tanibajeva said, she was struck by the scale of the mass production of clothing.

Going there was shocking, she said. I was overwhelmed by the way everything was reproduced. I watched the workers, and it seemed almost archaic how they had to lug all these things around these cobbled hills. It is one thing to learn about it in school or on your own. It’s another thing to be faced with.

The pandemic has slowed down many of the world’s creative efforts. But for Tanibajeva, the lockdown ended up piquing her interest in the fashion world. She ended up working in the big leagues as a sustainability ambassador behind the scenes at New York Fashion Week, one of the world’s most famous Big Four fashion weeks. Shes chose various other gigs of design and style while simultaneously working as a model.

It’s been quite a twilight zone over the past year, she said. Initially, I was doing an interview and I was talking about being an environmentalist. In short, they were like, it’s very cool, you seem very passionate about this topic, how would you like to have a job opportunity here?

And then, suddenly, Tanibajeva was in the middle of a colossal fashion business: starting her sustainable living business, Lots of berries.

I spoke to Tanibajeva this week via Zoom, and had the chance to hear the company’s story.

As an environmentalist, I’ve always had a conundrum of concrete things I could do to support the movement, she says. Obviously, I could educate myself and learn a lot about the subject. I could go to demonstrations but wanted to do something more concrete and practical. With all the free time I had sitting in my 40s, I was like, now is the time. So I put all my energy into it.

Lots of Berries, she said, is a sustainable lifestyle brand, so it doesn’t just include fashion, it extends to the kitchen, home decor and more. It all started from a product perspective, when she organized a community garden, and so the name Lots of Berries felt appropriate. The company starts off with LOB Fashion, the company’s clothing line. Soon they will attempt to tackle sustainable housing with an education program modeled on the Small house project.

I thought that was a pretty name too, she added.

She said the company hopes to create a workshop space in the Catskills, in order to create clothing on a larger scale, but still sustainable.

As Tanibajeva told me about all of this about attending New York Fashion Week, designing clothes, modeling, berries, one central question stuck with me: how had she learned everything? After all, she’s a full-time college student, working in what appears to be a high-level professional sphere.

The answer she gave me: that she comes from a fashionable family.

My mother is a huge inspiration to me, because she is an artist, Tanibajeva said. She taught me a lot of what I know and I always draw a lot from her. It was a very fashionable family. You could walk around my apartment, and most of my books are about fashion. It’s really nice to be able to bounce ideas off someone.

While working on her brand, Tanibajeva drew not only from her family background, but from the breadth of knowledge gained through her studies at Yale.

At university, she’s a surprise, surprise environmental studies student, she joked. She said she enjoys the environmental studies at Yale which are holistic and inclusive. Shes also had the opportunity to meet all kinds of students who are studying the subject. In New York, she met another prospective environmental studies student pursuing opera singing. Environmentalism has an impact on all aspects of life. It is very inclusive. I meet people with various interests. It’s really cool to hear their stories, and we can educate each other through it.

As she gained experience in both environmental studies and fashion, she said that she picked up on many misconceptions about sustainable fashion and wanted to demystify them with the elegance of its brand.

A stereotype of sustainable fashion is bohemian, hippie, or dippy clothing, but what I’m trying to showcase with my brand is that you can be fashionable and still be environmentally conscious, a- she declared. She also noted that while fast fashion brands sometimes seem cheap right now, they need to be constantly replaced. Long-term, high-quality clothes are cheaper than fast fashion, she said. You always have to renew it. With more durable materials, they last longer. She said that with her brand, she also strives to make clothing affordable.

As for the future, Tanibajeva said she hopes to continue the business and watch it grow for a long time, but takes it one day at a time focusing on the moment and doing what we can. More immediately, she said she couldn’t wait to get back to physical production. Before the pandemic hit, she got to work on a real photoshoot, and it was a blast.

It was a lot of fun working as a director and working with models and having them in my clothes, she said. It was a very rewarding process which was amazing. It was a good time.

Tanibajeva said there is so much that people can do to integrate sustainability into their daily lives. Turn off your lights when you leave the room, she says. Support sustainable brands. Saving money is a really fun thing to do, even during COVID. I find myself doing it even more. It’s a fun activity that you can do with your friends or on your own, and it’s long lasting.

Currently, Lots of Berries is trying to engage in online outreach activities. They are working on uploading videos to their YouTube channel on the basics of sustainable fashion and how to get involved. Tanibajeva said she hopes that if the Catskills workshop is launched, they can teach there in person.

And I hope to sell berries, she added. Maybe a lot of berries!

Owen Tucker-Smith | [email protected]

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