An Interview with Mai Vu and Dimitri Koumbis of Bishop Collective

Bishop Collective co-founders Mai Vu and Dimitri Koumbis launched Bishop to provide a more responsible solution to the current retail model- one that is stagnant and dependent on less than humane international labor practices.

Bishop Collective co-founders Mai Vu and Dimitri Koumbis

Tell us about yourself – familial/personal story, education, and prior work.

Dimitri studied Graphic Design and Design Management and Mai studied Merchandising, Textiles and Fashion History. Together, we have over 25 years of experience in the fashion industry ranging from merchandising and retailing to research and academia. Prior to launching Bishop Collective Dimitri worked at Gap Inc. and Urban Outfitters, and Mai was at Conde Nast and Ralph Lauren. We both met while teaching fashion design and merchandising. Working with students was really the motivation behind Bishop Collective and seeing that there was such a need for change, transparency and most importantly supporting smaller brands and emerging designers.

How did you get interested in ethical and sustainable fashion?

Ethical and sustainable fashion has been an interest for both of us through our education and early careers. When you study any aspect of design there is an immediate awareness of production standards, globalization, and to put it simply, how your ideas fit in with the world. Everything that is produced belongs somewhere, to someone, and for a specific amount of time. Pair that with the youthful naivety of becoming a rock star and BOOM… you have sustainable design. Our experience has shown us that of course it is not so simple.

Our careers have been mostly with big label fashion brands and we’ve seen the burden of the industry’s inability to follow suite of other design disciplines, which have been advocating for sustainable measures for years. The conversations in our classrooms really sparked the need for us to personally get involved, but not having a background in fashion design made it difficult to know where to start. Instead of focusing on design, we then decided to focus on distribution as a way to connect ethical and sustainable designers to equally conscious consumers.

How did your educational/professional experience inform your fashion work?

Our education and experience taught us what to do and more importantly, what not to do. All else aside, we have worked with some phenomenal industry leaders, as well as those in academia, and the commonality between them all is their positive outlook, determination and ability to problem solve quickly. We like to think some of this has rubbed off on us. The other part is learning as you go. We have had many struggles since forming Bishop, but at the end of the day, we believe in what we are doing and know our customers, students, friends and family believe in us too. As much as we have gained through our experience, we are just as excited to learn more and see the world of sustainable fashion grow and evolve. Working with those from this particular sector in the industry has been inspiring and humbling.

What is the importance of ethical and sustainable fashion designers and companies?

It should not even be a question. Sustainability is more than recycling or buying local, it is about looking at all shareholders in the system, in this case, the supply chain, to ensure they are making the right decisions that will positively effect them today and in the future. Fashion is not inherently ethical, but it can be, and to do so it has to start with our human capital. With every decision we make, we think about the short term and long-term impacts, often negating our own personal needs to ensure we are doing the right thing. Sustainable fashion may be a fad for some, but luckily it has really gained momentum and thanks to social media, designers and companies have to be transparent to survive.

Who is a personal hero or heroine within the ethical and sustainable fashion world for you?

There are so many! Eileen Fisher and Stella McCartney are two major brands that have created positive change as large, established companies, showing other retailers that change is possible at that level. Livia Firth is a major advocate for sustainable fashion reform, and her work is always inspiring. We were also greatly inspired by Elizabeth Cline and her incredible research into the fashion supply chain. However, it is the brands we carry at Bishop that are the true heroes for us. They have gone against industry norms and still managed to stick around, providing high quality, ethically sourced, American made clothes. They are the reason Bishop Collective is able to do what we do.

Bishop collective zero waste designers

What is Bishop Collective?

Bishop Collective is a culmination of our shared awareness, commitment to change, and the work of countless people who inspire us to do the right thing. We are part of this great community that includes industry professionals, academics, and consumers that continuously inform our everyday business decisions. Our basic set-up is as an online retailer but it’s the relationship we have with our vendors, our customers, and our community that truly make-up our business model. Sustaining a business based on sustainability can be complicated so we constantly have to keep focused on our mission to support domestic manufacturing, being part of an ethical supply chain, and promoting great designers.

What are some of its feature products?

Aside from domestic and ethical production, the other aspect of our company is to never negotiate on good design. Design and our relationship as consumers to good design is a part of sustainable practices. We want to sell products that are loved and “bring joy” to the wearer over and over again. To do this we are constantly looking at the market, doing trend research, and listening to our customer so we can best deliver this product.

All of our products are unique and are sourced from various designers from around the US. Many are early in their careers and some already have deep roots in the industry. To point out one particular product would diminish the importance of another, and each product is special to the consumer who buys it. We do however have a namesake candle and capsule tee collection that we struggle to keep in stock.

Cut out top by Ali Golden

What is your customer base – the demographics?

The Bishop customer is mostly in her mid-20s through 40s, is in tune with the zeitgeist but does not let it define her. She is educated, confident and strong in her convictions. She prefers quality over quantity and spends her time and money on experiences. She has a strong sense of community values and appreciates hard work- but also knows how to live it up. When she buys a Bishop piece, she isn’t buying just the fashion garment, but also the story- the story of the designer, the maker and the processes throughout their journey.

How can individuals, designers, fashion industries, and consumers begin to work to implement those rights so that these vulnerable populations in many countries of the world have better quality of life?

Look at your garment tags. Be aware of where your products are coming from and the local laws that govern them. Be aware of what is taking place in those countries from the economy to politics and support those designers and brands that promote better social welfare within the supply chain. If your dress costs the same as lunch, you may have gotten a deal but someone definitely paid for it. Buy local, shop small and keep profits out of those firms that don’t invest in YOUR economy.

What personal fulfillment comes from this work for you?

Here is where we have to answer as individuals…

Dimitri – I love retail, I love everything about it. Doing what I love, while doing something good for society is a win-win for me. On top of that, I am able to instill the passion I have for the industry in my students. That is icing on the cake!

Mai – The many practices of fashion from cultural to business to sustainability satisfy my constant curiosity. I love challenging the norms and believe that there should be good reason for everything. Why do we wear something different everyday? Why do New Yorkers love black? Why can’t we treat people with respect and offer them basic human rights? Clearly some questions are more important to challenge than others but it’s this thinking about normalcy and systemic injustices that really drives me.

What other work are you involved in at this point in time?

We do a lot of consulting at Bishop Collective, working with fashion start-ups and established brands that need to better align themselves. Occasionally, we will take on a writing project, but between teaching and Bishop we’re pretty swamped.

Any recommended authors or fashionistas (or fashionistos)?

There are a lot of great fashion documentaries and various TED talks that we show students, these are always great to get inspired by. We read a lot of books on entrepreneurship, design, consumer behavior, and of course sustainable fashion. Some of the better ones are:

Paco Underhill- Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping

Jonas Berger: Contagious: Why Things Catch On

Tim Brown: Design Thinking

Elizabeth Cline: Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

Kate Black: Magnifeco: Your Head-to-Toe Guide to Ethical Fashion and Non-toxic Beauty

And for sure the “True Cost” movie!

Pocket tee by Dusen Dusen and necklace by Laura Lombardi

Any recommended means of contacting Bishop Collective?

If you want to get a hold of us, drop us an email at info@bishopcollective.com

If you are looking to invest in the US economy and support American-made brands, you can visit us at BishopCollective.com

Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?

Figure out what you are passionate about and figure out a way to make it a part of your every day life. Also, travel the world when you can, as the perspective you get from emerging yourself in other cultures is invaluable. Lastly, do your research and be informed. Education is the key to smarter minds!

Thank you for your time, Mai and Dimitri.

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