Sustainability or Style? Alex Crane Won't Sacrifice on Either

"At the end of the day, we are going to make great clothes that look good at a great price point. And if you happen to be along for the sustainability and health journey, that's even better."
April 2, 2024

Welcome to Unwrapped, a series with a simple premise: to explore the people pushing forward the plastic-free movement. In each installment, we'll sit down with a vagabond – someone denying the easy way out of consumerism today to do what is right for the health of people and planet.

Sustainability. Comfort. Style. Most companies pushing the limits on all natural, 100% plastic-free clothing might have one or two of these aspects. But all three? Not often.

Alex Crane stands apart for it's ability to lead with style. A quick look at the company's website make this clear immediately.

To explore how this came to be, we sat down with Aaron Smith, the company's COO for a wide ranging conversation.

Tell us a little bit about Alex Crane as a brand, how it started, etc. 

Aaron Smith: The story of our brand all starts with Alex Crane himself, who started as a bag designer at Jack Spade in New York before going out on his own in 2016. At that time, the focus of the brand was more about its materials and less about sustainability. 

It was at the end of 2018 when I linked up with Alex after realizing our lives overlapped pretty bizarrely. We both grew up in San Francisco, lived on the same street, had the same guitar teacher and so we just became friends. 

And over time I was like, “hey, you've got a really good idea, a great brand, but there are certain things that just aren't flushed out.” 

The company was already doing sustainable fashion, and was very progressive, but the brand wasn’t really communicating that. 

So we just started thinking about it as okay, maybe inadvertently, Alex Crane is a sustainable fashion brand.

And at the time we were like, maybe that doesn’t mean anything to customers, but it did give us a new perspective to run with. 

It took us a while, probably a season or two, to really hone in on the messaging. We pivoted from being, "hey, this linen feels really good" to being like, "okay, linen feels great and that's nice, but also it’s sustainable and all natural." 

So, since I started working with Alex, we've really taken the company and figured out what our perspective is, how to scale, how to source materials sustainably, and how to look at season after season growth of the collection.

How much does Alex Crane's success owe to its sustainability and natural materials, versus its brand appeal and the feel and look of the products?

That's a great question. We don't really know yet.

I’ve chatted with a lot of customers and my feeling is that being all natural is definitely on the list of reasons why people buy stuff, but it’s rarely the first thing.

If you're a customer looking for a linen shirt and you see ours that is 100% linen, that might be the end of your research and you will just buy. 

But we also meet people all the time where it is reason number one. For example, I met a guy last week who says that he breaks out in hives from wearing polyester, and he is like, I wear Alex Crane because there aren't many other brands out there that aren't cutting things with poly or have just a little bit of elastane here and there. 

So, it's nice that people find us for different reasons. But I'd probably say that our all natural materials are still probably the second or third reason most people come to us initially.

You know it's really hard to promote being a sustainable brand in an authentic way because it's kind of been so bastardized along the way. There’s just so much greenwashing. 

You'll see brands out there, and they are saying things like we're a sustainable, eco-friendly brand. Then you look at what their clothes are made out of and you're like, you're no better than any other mass-produced brand.

So it's really tricky. Although we can back up our claims, we don't want to come across as disingenuous. 

I think that's something that the industry is trying to figure out. We sure are.

What are you working on right now? 

Right now, we are working on getting our B Corp certification. It's just cumbersome and we're a pretty lean team, so unfortunately things get in the way of that. 

But there's always more we can do. For example, our next big goal is to make the brand 100% biodegradable.

Our dream is that when you're done with your pair of shorts or whatever, you can cut 'em up, throw 'em in your backyard, and let 'em become soil.

How far away from that are you? 

Well, I think the final frontier for us is natural dyes. And we're really coming up against the fact that we are on the cutting edge of this industry. 

Now, I'm not saying that our dyes are toxic or anything – we just use regular GOTS certified reactive dyes. But are they entirely biodegradable? We really don't know.

We've done a lot of research with our suppliers and our production teams to figure out what's in these dyes and to make sure that we're not part of the problem ourselves.

And I think that takes a level of honesty to be like, okay, we're on the mountaintop, but maybe we're not all the way there with what we want to do. 

What’s holding you back from reaching that mountaintop? 

These things are happening and we are working on them, but it mostly comes down to scale. 

You’ll often read about these amazing pilot programs and you meet the people involved and they're just as ambitious as everybody else, but instead of making a tech startup, they are making natural dye companies or new fibers out of biomaterials. 

As a brand, it's fun to experiment with these and run little pilot programs, but we're kind of waiting for a couple of these companies to hit a certain level of commercial availability.

At the end of the day we need to make tens of thousands of units if we want to really overhaul our entire production process. So we're waiting on the industry to catch up. 

And so it's been a really interesting ride just figuring it out. We know what we want to do, but we also have to get there without sacrificing the price and the quality.

You’ve mentioned new technologies once before. How do they intertwine with Alex Crane?

A lot of companies out there that I think are really going to do something incredible are experimenting with groundbreaking technologies. 

For example, there's all these fabric expos that happen and I see people working on future fabrics. And I meet people who are making puffy jacket materials that are 100% plastic free and it's so cool. Personally as an individual, I love that stuff, but how does that work with our brand?

We might be a few years out from building a fall/winter line where we could have a puffy jacket. So knowing that these things exist is important but so is knowing how to bring them into the fold.

Or for example, there are some really cool companies who are using seaweed to make plastic-free bags. 

For us, that's truly the only place in our entire supply chain where there's any plastic – our packaging. Unfortunately for a lot of reasons we need our bags to be transparent and resealable. So with technology like that, there's a light at the end of the tunnel. We're working on a pilot program right now. 

But like I said before, none of those companies right now really are at the scale to produce tens and tens of thousands of these. So we are starting small. We will see how things age over time, what the effect is on the clothing, and what the effect is if its sitting around in a warehouse.

Sometimes I get frustrated because I want to see these amazing things come to fruition, but things take time. You’ve got to look at it from the bigger picture and be like, okay, maybe in two years we can really get rid of all the plastic in our entire supply chain by replacing poly bags with seaweed bags, and that's awesome. But it's not going to happen overnight. 

Regardless, I get so excited about it all because there really is a lot of money coming in to fund these technologies, and there's all these great awards that are trying to promote science and fashion.

The fashion world bears a lot of responsibility for plastics in the world. And like climate change, a lot of people are like, oh, someone else will figure it out. But I think there are brands out there who are really trying to make a difference in their clothing and trying to do something that raises an eyebrow.

Speaking of plastics in the world, let’s talk about microplastics.

The microplastic problem is very, very real, and I think people don't really see how they're responsible. But if you have a pair of gym shorts, every time you put that in the wash, little microplastics are getting in the water. We have to find a way to not make clothing with any synthetics at all so that doesn't happen. 

I'm hopeful that people will figure it out, but we are doing the best to contribute where we can. 

The situation is a tricky one. You can kind of get in this pit of despair where you see brands making millions of garments, and you're like, oh God, that negates any good thing that any other brand would do just because of their scale. 

But you gotta just keep pushing on and hope that at some point the US brings in some legislation that forces these brands to be held accountable.

A lot of that happens in Europe first. There's a lot of stuff that's happening where laws have been passed forcing brands to change their ways, whether they want to or not.

And I think that's fantastic. But we are a ways away here in the United States trying to get legislation passed about sustainability, fashion, greenwashing, and transparency in the supply chain. 

Personally, I'm all for it because at Alex Crane we’ve got nothing to hide. And if someone asks "hey, where do you make this?" I’ll put them on an email thread with the people who are making the clothes if they really want to chat with them. But I think people need to be asking those types of questions with anybody that they work with or buy from.

Ultimately, I think we’re 5-10 years away from legislation in the US that's pushing people to use fewer synthetics and use less plastic in their clothing. In the meantime, I'm hopeful that money continues to flow into these businesses, proving that people are interested and want to find a solution.

Have they been convinced that recycled plastic is the way?

Yeah, I mean, I think that's kind of where brands like ours have to do a better job showing people that there's a problem. We're very much of the mindset that recycled poly isn't the answer.

If anything, when you recycle synthetics and polyesters, you make the fiber shorter. And in that process, more and more microplastics are made. There's all these studies coming out that it’s actually better to make stuff that's 100% poly rather than a blend.

The companies that are making stuff out of recycled fishing nets or garbage that's found in the oceans, and I think that’s great. And, obviously, it's a step in the right direction. 

But the way that we think about it is that any plastic in your clothing is bad. And that's just the reality of it.

We’ve been conditioned to hear the word “recycled” and think that’s not only good but better. But it’s not. It’s possible that it's even worse for the environment. 

But as more studies come out, I really think microplastics will be the issue that gets people to get it together. They're finding studies about how many ounces of plastic each human consumes a year unknowingly. These aren't the BBC articles you want to read in the morning! And so I think it will happen at some point, but obviously if big brands are making stuff that's 100% polyester, they're not the ones who are going to bring about this issue and talk about what's going on.

The way I look at it, it'll be like organic foods at some point. There's a reason why people are like, okay, maybe I'll pay a couple cents more to buy organic bananas instead of other bananas just because of labor practices or pesticides and this and that.

But there's definitely a lot of education that needs to be done, and part of that onus lands on us if we want to see this change. We need to let people know. 

So yeah, it's always an interesting balance, but I'm very hopeful that in the next few years, people will just continue to care more and more. 

For people checking out Alex Crane for the first time, what are the staple or most popular pieces? 

Our tried and true best sellers year after year are our Cham Pants and Bo Shorts in the Lines print.

Our sun tees, which are our linen knit t-shirts that we make in Portugal, especially in the bone color, have been a smash hit. 

We also had a lot of new products that we only released in small batches last year that we will be going bigger in. The Bo Pants and the Ola Shirt are great examples. 

What are some other brands that inspire you or that you love to shop at? 

Industry of All Nations is doing some really cool innovative stuff with materials and their supply chain. 

I also love Paynter Jackets out of the UK. They do limited run small batch jackets. Their perspective and their content is just fantastic. 

Another one of favorite brands is Knickerbocker based out of New York. They make great pants. 

As for inspiring companies, there is a company called eleven eleven, which is making some really cool stuff that we're always keeping an eye on. 

Alright, before we go, you have to tell me about Breeze FM.

Haha. Yeah, that's my brainchild.

I used to be a college radio DJ. And in my dreams, I’m like the next Sirius XM hot shot. 

I think a lot of our ethos as a brand is not taking everything so seriously. So one day, I decided I just wanted to make a radio show. I set it all up, gave myself my persona – DJ Shea Butter – and just hit record. 

Now with timing and things, it's gravitated more towards Spotify playlists. But I think it's really all about just setting the tone of not taking things too seriously.

What’s next for Alex Crane?

At the end of the day, we are going to make great clothes that look good at a great price point.

And if you happen to be along for the sustainability and health journey, that's even better. We can still accomplish sustainability goals and not sacrifice design and not sacrifice how things look.

And then our goal is to show people that by buying our clothes you're also doing great for the environment and for your health. And if people care, that's great. And if people just want the clothes because they look good and feel good, then I'm all for it.