What is in a pair of jeans? You may be surprised. The global fashion industry has a long way to go when it comes to sustainability and environmental impact. 24-year-old environmental activist and designer Niani Phillips was shocked to learn about water and textile waste created by fashion. She shares, “As I really started researching more about materials … the amount of gallons it takes to make one pair of jeans, it’s about 1,800 and people don’t know that, and there is so much water scarcity in the world.” Phillips shares her plan to make the world a better place one fashionable solution at a time as part of Mcdonald’s “Future 22,” a consortium of young, dynamic Black leaders of tomorrow who are making waves today.
Armed with her sewing skills, eye for great style and a commitment to the planet, the Bethesda, Maryland native started Not Your Normal Denim (NYND), a sustainable denim brand “that focuses on the process of ‘upcycling’ and the importance of second-hand shopping.” Her brand specializes in high fashion and custom-made pieces, all with recycled materials. NYND is not Phillip’s first foray into eco-friendly fashion; even at a young age, she was exploring alternative materials. She says, “I started designing when I was a kid. I started off with duct tape, I used to make duct tape bags.” Her love of design carried her through childhood to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, where Phillips graduated with a degree in Fashion Business Management.
At NYND, the commitment to sustainability extends beyond the finished garment. Each order is shipped in a denim bag also made from recycled materials that can be reused. The designer shares, “Not Your Normal Denim was created as a way to advocate for sustainability as a whole.” And when she’s not wearing her own brand, Phillips’ wardrobe consists of thrifted pieces and upcycled clothing she makes from a variety of materials (like candy wrappers!), proving that you can look your best and minimize your carbon footprint.
Art from recyclable materials is definitely not a new concept, and this young artist is continuing the tradition while staying true to her style and her commitment to the environment. She says, “[I want to] show artists that you can stay true to your art. You don’t always have to create for other people, you can create for yourself.” Niani Phillips is committed to growing her brand and her influence to show both the fashion industry and her customers that a great pair of jeans can be good for them and the planet. She says, “People can make sustainable items and it’s something that can be affordable for everyone.”
The self-proclaimed #SustainableGuruoftheNewFashionIndustry is part of a new guard of young changemakers who aren’t waiting for established brands to step it up — they’re creating what we need now. And what we need are more sustainable options that don’t break the bank and that can slay the runway we call life — for Earth Day and every other day.