What makes a collection feel right for the times? In 2021, comfort and pragmatism are a given—both Phillip Lim’s “at-leisure” capsule and Alber Elbaz’s new leggings for AZ Factory come to mind—but of equal importance is an eye to sustainability. Maria McManus would argue that was the case long before the pandemic; she started working on her line of chic wardrobing staples in 2019. Nonetheless, one of the few benefits of launching her business in #TimesLikeThese is that she’s engaging with newly climate-conscious shoppers.
While her peers are working backwards to improve their sourcing and labor practices, McManus started from scratch with an aggressive “edit point,” as she calls it. “If the fabric isn’t recycled, organic, biodegradable, or sourced responsibly, I don’t use it,” she says. “It’s actually been nice to be this edited, because there’s so much stuff out there. I don’t even have to look at anything else.” Even her labels and hang tags are recycled, and her buttons are made of corozo nuts. With the fabrics, she relied on a laundry list of objective certifications: Her recycled cashmere and nylon are both certified by the Global Recycled Standard; her organic cotton is certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard, meaning the yarns cannot be treated with chlorine bleach, formaldehyde, or other chemicals; her merino is verified by OEKO-TEX and the Responsible Wool Standard; and her Lenzing Tencel is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which ensures responsible forest management.
Yes, that’s a lot of industry jargon. But for the consumer who cares deeply about how their clothing is made, those certifications are often the difference between progress and greenwashing. Terms like organic, eco, natural, and sustainable are flimsy; if a designer tells you their cotton is “100% organic,” they should be prepared to prove it. “I just feel more confident that what I’m saying is the truth,” McManus adds. “It can be harder from a manufacturing perspective. The mills I’m working with in Europe are amazing—they reuse 50% of their water, and they’re covered in solar panels—but this year I’m focusing on making sure those practices are really sustainable.”
A former merchandising exec for Rag & Bone, Ralph Lauren, and Edun, the ethical label she helped Bono and Ali Hewson launch in 2005, McManus is aware that women rarely invest in fashion for its virtues. The reason her collection will resonate is because it’s filled with the kind of “essentials” we wish we had on a daily basis: They’re easy, classic, and comfortable, but with a hint of attitude and a bonus commitment to the planet. (Consider them your foundation for more experimental, artistic pieces by Marine Serre or Rentrayage.) With a contemporary-ish price point—shirting is around $400, and a cashmere cardigan is just north of $800—they also fit nicely between mass e-commerce brands and high-end runway labels.
There’s also McManus’s acute attention to detail and fit, which she credits to her uber-talented technical designer friend: The organic cotton button-down has curved seams and deep slits at the sides, so you can half-tuck it into your jeans or leggings without altering the shape. Her body-conscious compact knits come with varying weights and gauges for a closer, smoother fit (the yarns are identical to Alaïa’s, but McManus chose a 60% recycled nylon version). The “skater shorts” and wide-leg trousers—the kind you’d sooner wear with sneakers, not heels—come with a flat black elastic band around the waist, a sleeker alternative to the sloppy “hidden” elastic in other pants. And her striped recycled cashmere cardigan has slashed-open sleeves, so you can reveal a bit of skin or push your arms through to wear it more like a cape.
It’s easy to see McManus’s leggings being extra popular: In a compressive 93% recycled nylon (a considerably higher percentage than other leggings boasting recycled content) with pintucks down the front, they look chic—not athleisure-y—with a shirtdress or oversized trench. The olive trench photographed here is actually a vintage French military piece, which McManus is selling on her website alongside other vintage treasures. She offered hand-picked vintage finds to her retailers, too, which include La Garçonne, By George, and The Conservatory. Styling new pieces with old ones complements McManus’s bigger vision, which is to create items women will keep for years—and if they don’t, she hopes they’ll share them with friends or find other ways to extend their lifespan. Eventually, she plans to launch a take-back scheme where customers can return worn garments to be recycled into new ones. “Right now, I’m too small for my factories to take me seriously about it,” she joked. “But it’s my ultimate goal. These are wardrobing pieces, so you should be wearing them again and again.”
Also very 2021 about McManus: her transparency and honesty. After seeing the fallout of Silicon Valley companies who embellish the truth or claim “100% sustainability” (which is literally impossible!) she’s quick to say it’s all a work in progress. “We are not perfect,” is printed front and center in her brand book. “We offer a better option, a less harmful way to dress.” If that’s precisely what you want—and who wouldn’t?—McManus’s debut collection is available now at mariamcmanus.com.