Pandemic born brand Vivat Novum creates unconventional and versatile loungewear to feel good about. Sublime Magazine talks to founders Reilly Johnson and Brandon Williams about encouraging social change through their elevated unisex garments.
Sublime: What impact did the pandemic have on your life?
Brandon Williams: There was a lot of upheaval. Reilly and I both ended old careers and started new ones throughout the pandemic. Reilly lost her job as a dyer for Broadway, and I working in an HIV research lab in Maryland at the time. I ended up going remote, so I joined her in New York for several months, which is really when the work on Vivat Novum began. Reilly spent a lot of time re-skilling while working on the more technical aspects of product development which ultimately helped her land a new job at an apparel tech company in the city. This past year has both given and taken a great deal. Doors were closed, but so many new ones opened.
S: As a sustainable fashion brand, what are your goals for Vivat Novum?
Reilly Johnson: Our goal is to design weird clothes for people to feel good about.
We want to create a brand that focuses on adventurous, inclusive, and comfortable styles without sacrificing fair wage and environmental considerations in the process.
Brandon and I are both artists and know first-hand how often creative and technical skills are undervalued. Everyone involved in the realization of Vivat Novum is paid their asking price and we want to maintain that energy. I firmly believe that sustainability does not just mean better for the environment, but better for people, too. In terms of environmental impact, we want to consider sustainability at every step of the supply chain, production process, customer use phase, and end of product life. We still have a lot of work to do, we’ve focused first on the supply chain and production phases.
S: What inspired Vivat Novum to be a unisex brand and what are the positives?
BW: We have always had more fluid ideas about gender and gendered clothing, we even share a lot of our clothes. Many of our closest friends, and Reilly, are part of the LGBTQ+ community. We noticed that most unisex clothing was decidedly masculine or understated in appearance. There existed a need for unisex apparel that walked the line between feminine and masculine with designs that were more adventurous than standard basics.
The idea grew from one that was catered specifically to gender non-conforming individuals. I think there are a lot of positives to unisex clothing. It can be worn and appreciated by a wider variety of people and, when done well, flatter a wide variety of body shapes. I think there is also a tendency for people who have more fluid ideas about gender to feel very uncomfortable in obviously gendered clothing. I love the idea that there may be other couples out there (or even just friends) who want to share clothing without having to worry about a gendered fit.
S: Could you explain the benefits of using eco/ vintage fabrics?
RJ: Eco-fabrics are materials with a diverse range of benefits such as recyclability, lack of hazardous substances, low energy manufacturing processes, and efficient or resource-saving cultivation/production processes. We primarily work with organic cotton and lyocell fabrics. Our fabrics have been dyed with low impact fibre reactive dyes. These dyes are safer for people and better for the environment than most other dyes currently in commercial use. They are free from some of the most harmful chemicals found in other fabric dyes such as heavy metals, mordants, and azos. Additionally, the dyeing process requires less water, meaning less waste-water runoff, or effluent.
Many of our fabrics also have the added benefit of being OEKO-TEX Standard 100 certified. This means our fabric supplier’s products have undergone rigorous testing and have been verified to be free of substances harmful to human health. All our brand and care labels are also OEKO-TEX Standard 100 certified.
As for using vintage fabrics, this gives new life to materials that may otherwise have sat indefinitely in a warehouse or ended up in a landfill. These fabrics require no additional resources or energy to harvest and produce, reducing the overall environmental impact of the product.
S: What is the process of creating a garment from Vivat Novum?
BW: We take a lot of inspiration from the media we consume, which lately has been mostly Japanese or science fiction. Reilly will usually go through a series of sketches per garment, so what we create is rarely based on the first iteration of an idea. Once we have a set idea, the next consideration is how we want the garment to fit and function. Between the idea and development stage is always the ‘how can we get this to look great on either of us’ (and just about anyone in between) stage. Ultimately, the need to engineer an adaptable fit becomes a key component of the design itself.
S: Are you faced with any challenges when choosing to manufacture your clothing in NYC?
RJ: I’d say the biggest challenge is cost and how that translates to the retail price. There will always be prospective customers who love the idea of buying local but can’t accept that locally made will mean a higher price. I think that fast fashion, which takes advantage of countries with lower-cost labour markets and limited safety regulations, has warped perception about what an item of clothing (especially a speciality item) should cost.
S: How important is it to be completely transparent about your supply chain?
BW: I think there is nothing more important to us than transparency. I think sharing that with our customers not only builds a relationship based on trust but helps spread awareness about issues with the current state of the fashion industry.
I think people underestimate how much power they have to demand better of brands. I think being transparent has a lot of power as a marketing tool, but what is really important is helping to drive widespread change in the industry.
S: How do you ensure that the clothes you design have an adaptable fit?
RJ: Working primarily with knit fabrics helps since knit can stretch where needed, but we don’t ever rely entirely on this. An adaptable fit always becomes a key component of the design itself. A dropped shoulder silhouette looks very flattering on someone with slender shoulders but will accommodate and look well-fit on someone with broader shoulders. We frequently rely on strategic design choices like this. How can the garment ‘grow’ or ‘shrink’ in areas of the body that tend to vary a great deal? We find creative ways to incorporate extra material in these areas. Brandon and I technically wear the same sizes but have drastically different body types. The true test of an adaptable fit is if a style looks good on each of us as fit models.
S: What makes Vivat Novum different to other loungewear fashion brands?
BW: We occupy the unique intersection of unisex, sustainable, and alternative apparel while providing loungewear levels of comfort. Most of the loungewear tends to be more casual and understated with limited occasions for wear. Vivat Novum designs versatile statement pieces that can dress up or dress down.
S: How important is it for you that people shop ethically?
RJ: It’s incredibly important to me, but I am also very conscious of the fact that there are significant economic barriers for many people to shopping ethically. Since sustainable practices are not widespread and are most frequently in use by smaller companies who are unable to cut costs by massively scaling, ‘ethical’ products tend to come with a higher price tag.
What we need is widespread change and greater collaboration between industry stakeholders so we can work towards more cost-effective solutions that lead to greater value and lower prices that can be passed along to the customer. I think what people fail to realise is that the big companies, the ones who can offer products at more accessible prices, will not change without demand-driven, market-based incentives. Customers can leverage their purchasing power to demand better, but those of us in the industry need to continue to do our part.
S: Could you explain the difference between your made to order collection and your ready to wear collection?
BW: Our Ready to Wear collection is made in small batches to reduce waste but is ultimately still stocked as inventory. These items already exist when purchased by the customer, so they have much shorter lead times.
Items from our Made to Order collection are not made until after a customer purchases them. Nothing from the collection exists until it already has a home, eliminating the waste of unsold inventory. These items have much longer lead times but allow for more customization.
As we add more styles and more vintage fabrics, customers will be able to select a style in their desired fabric. These fabrics exist in extremely limited quantities, so what you’re getting is a unique, one-of-a-kind item.
S: Looking towards the future, what can people expect to see?
RJ: We have a lot of goals for the future to continue to make Vivat Novum more sustainable and more inclusive. We have plans to offer carbon-neutral shipping and to implement tighter waste management strategies with our manufacturer in the garment district with the aim of eliminating all cutting room scraps. As a unisex brand, inclusivity is also a big focus. Our current size range is very limited, so we plan to expand this range to include plus sizes in the coming months.
About the Writer
Emily Bowles is a young fashion journalist with a passion for social and environmental issues. She likes to explore the culture surrounding sustainable lifestyle, especially ethical fashion. She is currently studying final year at Southampton Solent University.