Meet Carly Burson: Ethical Designer, Activist and Founder of Tribe Alive

"Tribe Alive is less about fashion and more about the issues of the world, and it’s important to me that we’re working with women that utilize their platform to say something of value and importance."
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Full transparency: Carly Burson is a long-time friend of our digital space.  Before The Fold existed, I had the pleasure of traveling to Haiti with Carly to see the work her then newly launched line Tribe Alive was creating and to meet some of the individuals and organizations she was working with at the time. It was a transformative experience and it introduced me to a woman I knew, even then, would make a lasting impact on the fashion world. 

Tribe Alive has grown since our adventure in 2015 and last summer opened its first physical storefront in Fort Worth, Texas. Today Carly gives us a tour of their beautiful brick and mortar shop, explains her design non-negotiables (for both her shop and her line), talks about the importance of designing for future-minded women and the way "ethical" is becoming devalued. She also share her struggles with the idea of an "influencer community" and why she believes a call-to-action is the most important way to influence the masses.   

Read on for wise words and sartorial inspiration (the two are not mutually exclusive!) from this powerful activist and female founder. 

How does it feel to finally have your own physical space? Was this a long-term goal for you?

It’s been such a fun transition for us, especially after so many years of working in a private studio. The new space has definitely added another complicated layer to our business model, and it’s a lot to balance alongside all the other channels of sale that we manage, but having direct access to our customers has been incredibly rewarding. 

The store allows us the space to engage in more meaningful conversation centered around ethical fashion, and to more deeply share the stories of the makers behind our products. Brick and mortar retail was never what we set out for, but, now that we’re here, and with an incredible community behind us, we can’t imagine being anywhere else.

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Where there any essential non-negotiable elements that were on your "must have" list when it came to designing the store?

I’m a believer in minimalism and often feel overwhelmed by all the unnecessary “things” that fill up perfectly beautiful spaces. I wanted to approach the design of the store in the same way that we approach the design of our product line — intentionally, simplistically and minimally. I was only willing to fill the space with beautiful and meaningful things, and refused to compromise on that standard for the sake of selling space, marketing tactics or merchandising best practices. I wanted to design a space that was the physical representation of who we are as a brand, and feel confident that we’ve achieved just that.

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Tell me about your latest collection: How is it different than previous seasons? What or who inspired the designs?

This line is a bit of a change for us, yet it feels more representative of who we are than ever before. In our constant attempt to move fashion toward a more sustainable approach, we’ve taken conscious steps away from industry practices that encourage waste and undervalue the meaningfulness of the things that hang in our closets. With less of a focus on seasonal designs, fading trends and discount culture, our new collection was designed with the future-driven woman in mind. From eco-friendly materials such as ground-breaking, up-cycled denim, timeless color palettes, minimally-inspired accessories and silhouettes intended to include all ages and sizes, we’ve set out to create a line that honors the maker and the earth equally to the consumer.

It’s been a year dominated by an alarming newsfeed, where an overwhelming number of issues seem to require our time and attention. Personally, it’s been a challenging season that’s required me to re-focus my energy in a more sustainable and intentional way. I’ve always been more about the sprint and less about the marathon, but this particular time in history has taught me to find value and intention in the small, everyday steps we can all take toward a better world. Our 2018 Autumn/Winter collection is inspired by those small steps forward and I couldn’t be prouder of our Fort Worth based team and our artisans around the world for their part in creating a line worthy of representing a future we believe in.

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What from the AW18 line makes you the most proud (be it the designs, the production, the women involved)? And what are a few of your favorite pieces?

I’m proud that we continue to take steps toward a more sustainable approach and that we’re constantly striving to be better. After recognizing waste in our own apparel production we worked tirelessly to design, develop and launch an apparel collection made entirely from upcycled denim remnants. I’m incredibly proud of this line and how hard our team and artisan partners worked to create something relevant and beautiful without having to use or exhaust any new energy resources.

I live in our new High Rise Denim Pant. They’re everything my minimal and casual fall wardrobe needed. I also love our oversized Split Neck Top in stripe and pair it with just about everything in my closet.

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Who is the Tribe Alive woman in 2018?

The Tribe Alive woman is a modern woman aware of the world around her and the impact that she has on it. She cares less about fashion and ever-evolving trends and more about finding her own voice, sense of self worth and ease in expressing her own personal style. She’s involved — never complacent — and strives to stand up for issues that matter to her. She’s a woman that recognizes the power of her purchase and makes choices based on that consciousness. Most importantly, we believe, she’s a woman focused on the way forward and that our mission speaks to her deeply.

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We've known you for some time and have seen your business evolve and flourish. What has been the biggest transition for your business thus far?

It has taken us some time to find our voice and to gain the confidence needed to shut out the noise and influence of the industry. We spent many years chasing trends, color-forecasting and designing collections that we ourselves couldn’t fully get behind. Last year, our Senior Designer and I were finalizing Spring 2018 styles, and though we agreed that everything on the board was beautiful, we just weren’t able to move forward. We finally made the difficult, but freeing decision to completely start over and re-design an entire season to better represent a vision we had long shared. 

Since then we’ve been laser focused on a less-is-more mentality which has enabled us to be more thoughtful about final design selections, and the way in which we choose to represent the brand. It was incredibly empowering to transition into a place where I felt confident refusing to put anything out into the world that I didn’t fully believe in.

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Do you have plans to open a second storefront? If so, when and where?

We never intended to open more than one storefront, but after receiving such an incredible response from our first location, we’ve decided to consider opening more. The locations are still undecided, and it’s a growth initiative that we’ll take slowly, but more Tribe Alive storefronts are definitely in our future.

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What has been the hardest thing about growing and evolving a business in the ethical industry?

It’s becoming harder and harder to grow in the ethical space, because the word “ethical” is now used so loosely. So many brands — some newly budding startups and some industry powerhouses use words like “transparent,” “sustainable” and “fair-trade” as marketing tactics without fully honoring those words throughout all facets of their business model. Because the marketplace has become so flooded with socially conscious companies, consumers have become complacent and have stopped asking important questions about living wages, safe work conditions, sustainably sourced materials and fully-transparent supply chains.

As a business owner fully committed to an incredibly high level of standard when it comes to every aspect of our supply chain, it can be frustrating to share a similar story with brands that, in actuality, are not taking the steps needed to ensure that the maker and the earth are considered equally to the consumer. I happily collaborate and share market space with brands who are who they say they are, but the need to compete with companies that use the word “ethical” as a marketing gimmick rather than a strict outlook on non-negotiable business practice has become extremely hard to navigate in our space.

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In a day and age when brands are relying upon "influencers" to promote and expand aware of their line, how do you find unique and sustainable ways to thrive?

The value of “influencers” cannot be denied, and I’m incredibly grateful to every woman that we’ve ever had the privilege of working with. I personally approach these collaborations very thoughtfully and make the final decision on everyone we choose to work with, because the representation of our brand matters deeply to me. 

Tribe Alive is less about fashion and more about the issues of the world, and it’s important to me that we’re working with women that utilize their platform to say something of value and importance. We want our clothing to be shared alongside empowering conversation, calls-to-action and healthy lifestyle discussions — not just another #OOTD. 

As an activist and someone who has spent the last three years fully engaged in the current state of our country, I struggle to find relevance in most of what I see on social media and in the “influencer community.” I see a lot of white American women sharing a watered down message of self-love, middle of the road feminism and safe content for the sake of neutrality. 

We want to work with women that are less concerned with like-ability and more concerned with saying what’s necessary in a time when their uncensored voice is so badly needed. When we discuss influencers and potential collaborations in office, the first question we all ask is “What does she stand for?” That’s what matters most to us — women who really stand for something, and that’s the type of “influence” we want to help perpetuate. 

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