s_TBF14_04_model_cable_croppy_lilac

I think I’ve found the most sustainable sweaters on the planet, and they’re gorgeous, too.

Tempest + Bentley sweaters are designed in San Francisco, ethically sourced in the U.S., and responsibly made in California. The yarn is from a historic ranch in Oregon dedicated to sustainable farming and yarn production. The buttons are from a historic factory that has been making military buttons for over 100 years using ethical standards. The yarn is dyed using a new metal-free reactive wool dye process that is fully in line with the leading initiatives of the International Wool Textile Organization. The garment labels are made of GOTS-certified cotton. Finally, the sweaters are packaged in totes made of 100% organic cotton farmed in the U.S. and shipped in 100% recycled boxes. You can get even more detail on the sustainability of the sweaters here.

Right now Tempest + Bentley is pre-selling the Fall 2015 collection at prices ranging from $695 to $995. I decided to interview the designer and founder behind Tempest & Bentley, Marissa Thieriot, to get to know this elegant and sleek brand even better. (I also like to talk to founders to do an authenticity check. You can usually tell if someone is the read deal.) Read my interview and find out more about the process of making sustainable, luxury sweaters:

Who do you imagine wearing your sweaters?

I think it’s someone that is into having pieces that last in durability, but also in style. That are trend-focused as well as elegant in the long run.

s_TBF14_02_model_ribbed_cardigan_poppy_red

I noticed you styled your sweaters with nothing else on the models. Why did you go that route?

The reason I went with the natural look with the photoshoot is because in introducing the line, I really wanted to connect shopper and people interested in the line to the fact that this is a very natural product. It is as natural as you can get, with the natural American wool, the eco-conscious processes in making the yarn and dying the sweaters. But also there are so many ways that people could style them, and I didn’t want to dictate how people should wear them. Down the line, I’m sure we’ll do photoshoots that have a more definite style direction.

s_TBF14_01_model_asymmetrical_hem_cable_sweater_natural

 

As far as sustainability, you have an incredible attention to detail, more so that almost any other brand I’ve seen. How long did this take you to develop?

I’ve been thinking about this for about eight years. Toward the end of my time at Gap, I started thinking about having my own sweater line. But I wasn’t necessarily focused on having an ethical and conscious line. I got into fashion technology and put that aside a bit. But toward the end of my career at Google, I met my husband, who is in the sustainable food world, in sustainable ranching, and was introduced into the Slow Food movement. It was something I was aware of and partook in in my own little way, but I learned what Slow Food really means, and how to be conscious of waste, and knowing how products are made. So that transferred into my idea of how fashion should be looked at, too. Considering waste and how products are made is equally important in that world. So the first idea of creating a sweater line developed into something much bigger for me, and was much more exciting. I could possibly educate people on how their clothing is produced. The actual date I sat down and started designing was in October 2013.

s_TBF14_06_model_ribbed_chevron_boatneck_sweater_skyblue

So it will be almost two years since you started development to when they are ready to sell.

Yes, exactly. I would say it’s probably a little long. If I hadn’t done it with some eco-friendly focus, I maybe could have gotten it out in a year. It was interesting to do all the research, because it did take a long time – the packaging and labels – every part of it I wanted to go the ethical route. Every sweater comes in an organic cotton bag. And to find a bag that is made of organic cotton in the U.S. took a long time. There were so many businesses that said they were making eco-friendly bags, but they weren’t to the standards I was looking for. And that was something I ran across a lot. There are a lot of businesses that are jumping on the eco-friendly bandwagon, which is great, but the level to which they are doing it differs.

You’ve worked at Esprit, Levi’s and Gap, whose sweaters are at a lower price point than yours. What is different about your sweater line from the sweaters you’ve designed in the past?

Actually, my first job out of school was for a high-end cashmere company. The sweaters were made in San Francisco, and all the yarns were imported from Scotland and Italy. That’s where I got my taste for designing knitwear. That was 18 years ago, but our price points were anywhere from $250 to $450, which back then was a luxury item. That went out of business, and in San Francisco, opportunities are in these more corporate businesses. I had always been a fan of Esprit, they have a conscious edge to them in giving back and their work environment had a very natural and conscious side to them.

To create a sweater, it’s about how long it takes to knit it, and the yarn. That’s why a lot of the mass market manufacturers, they don’t work in the natural yarn. Blends and synthetics can come in higher end sweaters, too, but acrylic is a good example of a go-to line for mass market brands. All the stitches I work in take a long time to knit, they’re not stitches that a mass-market apparel company could probably afford even if they were making an acrylic sweater.

s_TBF14_07_model_cropped_cable_sweater_heather_grey

What are the most popular styles so far?

It’s a real mix. I can’t put a finger on my top seller. The sweater dress gets a lot of attention as a very special piece. You don’t see a lot of full-length sweater dresses. The shoulder cut-out one has definitely been one people love. But the cardigan is so easy, it’s really like a warm, cozy version of an overcoat, so that has been a popular one. But the asymmetrical one too, the fringe … there isn’t one that is popping out yet.

Are there any challenges you are working on?

There are areas where getting the process down, going from the mill to the dye house, and working with some partners that are kind of new to this business and working in the U.S., it’s a little bit slower. I’ve ran into some issues through the whole process, where a yarn batch has come in with the dye not even, so I had to get new yarn. We figured it out and got through that, but the next order I do it will get easier and easier.

And also figuring out ways to bring the price down. Doing this wholesale isn’t a very lucrative business for me. It is really expensive to make a natural, highly eco-friendly product. That whole community is growing though, so I feel like it will be easier to find resources as we grow.