This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
It’s hard to say it in an original way: The fashion industry has a waste problem.
It trails only the oil industry in terms of pollution, and often relies on the oil industry to ship textiles made in sweatshops in developing countries to the U.S. Once discarded, about 85% of those garments—a total of about 25 billion pounds—go to landfills, sometimes even in the same developing countries where they were made under deplorable working conditions.
The cycle repeats every year. And that’s no good if you ask Sarah-Jayne Smith, founder and CEO of Houston-based design house Magpies & Peacocks.
“There’s nothing clever about an industry that’s so reliant on gas,” Sarah-Jayne says. “It makes no sense whatsoever for materials to be made, shipped halfway around the world, bought by us, used by us, then sent back to landfills halfway around the world.”
We’ve previously featured some folks trying to upend the industry’s wasteful status quo, whether that means diverting excess inventory from landfills or creating carbon-negative garments from the get-go.
A third option, upcycling discarded material, can be quite tricky.
Waste as a Resource
But upcycling is exclusively what Magpies & Peacocks does, and for good reason. By enlisting local makers and designers to create unique products using 100% post-consumer clothing, scrap textiles and accessories, the Houston-based nonprofit seeks to have a holistic impact.
“If you don’t tackle a challenge from the perspective of people, profit, and planet, you’re going to be squeezing the problem into only one area,” says Sarah-Jayne.
Magpies & Peacocks can ensure people are getting paid a living wage for their labor and invest profits from the sale of their unique products into local grassroots organizations and education for emerging designers—all while diverting textiles from landfills and raising the profile of circular fashion innovation.
The U.S. tax code is one big reason all of this works. “We don’t buy any of our material,” says Ahshia Berry, VP and director of development. As a nonprofit, Magpies & Peacocks takes in materials by donation, so sales of finished products can fund education, mentorship, support for emerging designers, and other forms of community development.
The phenomenon is reflected in one of the brand’s namesakes, the magpie, a bird known for its habit of scavenging for discarded objects. The peacock, by contrast, is known for being characteristically ostentatious. Proud, even.
The result is a distinctive product range that has captured the imagination of style mavens from Elle Magazine to London Fashion Week. Picture bold, modern kimonos in a unisex style or boring office blazers transformed into a funky fashion statement through hand-painted detailing.
Magpies & Peacocks offers accessories, too, including clutches, toilet kits, wine bags, and laptop sleeves. There’s even a line of pet products: old T-shirts braided into tug toys, men’s ties transformed into dog collars, or old blue jeans that find new life as a dog bed (complete with back pockets!).
Because the materials are scraps, samples, and castoffs, every item is unique by definition. As Ahshia notes, the idea of using post-consumer material to make luxury-end products is not a far cry from what artists have done since time immemorial: working with constraints to make something greater than the sum of its parts.
Granted, it doesn’t hurt that a lot of the discarded material Magpies & Peacocks receives from the Houston community is higher-end.
“There’s a gala every damn day in this city,” Sarah-Jayne says with a laugh, explaining how local demographics influence both the products and mission of the organization. Compared to the $15,000 a year that the average Magpies & Peacocks customer household donates to charities, they tend to spend an average of $40,000 a year on luxury goods.
That spending trend presents a huge opportunity for a brand like Magpies & Peacocks. Any market share they can capture is an opportunity to employ more designers, invest more in the community, and educate more consumers about the provenance of their purchases.
To boot, it can start a virtuous cycle when it comes time for those same customers to offload clothing. “When they hear the story, they might think more about donating instead of discarding,” Ahshia says. “Maybe next time they clean out their closet or have to shop, they rethink what they do.”
Like Kids in Candy Land
Besides being a buoyant market for luxury retail, there are two other things about Houston that are perhaps nationally underhyped, but of extraordinary consequence for an organization like Magpies & Peacocks.
For one, Houston is incredibly hospitable to artists, particularly those who’ve been costed out of other U.S. markets like New York and Los Angeles. “You can still afford to be close to downtown,” Sarah-Jayne says. “That wouldn’t be affordable in a lot of cities.”
Houston is also a prime location for finding designers and makers of diverse backgrounds. “Houston is kind of a hotbed with arts education because the fashion industry has grown so much here,” Ahshia says. “We’re not known as a tourist city. When Hurricane Harvey hit, and now with the pandemic, it’s been the arts that have saved the city. That’s not what you think of when you think Houston, but it’s the truth.”
Through relationships with local colleges, art schools, and other incubators for aspiring designers, Magpies & Peacocks certainly has a deep pool of talent to involve in their work. And that’s entirely connected to their larger vision around sustainability.
“We want to make sure that we groom designers not to make the mistakes of the previous generation,” Sarah-Jayne says. “Colleges and universities feel like a really significant place to be because those students are the future of the trade and industry.”
And by all accounts, student designers are pretty stoked when they get to work with Magpies & Peacocks, where a 6,000-square-foot warehouse is crammed with every imaginable type of fabric, leather, trim, and more.
“For that kid at Carson’s Art School or UT Austin—that person who just graduated—they’re in Candy Land when they’re here,” Ahshia says.
“To actually interact with, see, and have a resource library like ours, and give the designers access to it, imagination really grows,” Ahshia says. To date, that imagination has helped Magpies & Peacocks divert over 110 tons of waste textiles from landfills while employing a large network of local designers and makers to create over 6,500 unique, zero-waste, up-cycled, and small batch re-manufactured clothing and accessory pieces.
Spend for good: Visit the Magpies & Peacocks website to shop their unique variety of upcycled, high-quality, socially responsible products. Their bestsellers include bags, apparel, and most recently, those face masks you may have seen us feature right here. Most importantly, all profits help Magpies & Peacocks continue to lead the way in circular textile design.
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