Tara St. James of Study NY on Prison Collaborations, Being Made in NYC and the Beauty of a Simple Cross-Stitch


EcoSalon caught up with fashion designer Tara St. James of Study NY on her latest socially conscious collaboration with prison women in Mexico, ethical fashion and what made in NYC really means.


Juliette Donatelli: Your newest work involves a collaboration with a women’s prison in Mexico. How are you working together and how did the partnership evolve?

Tara St. James: On a recent trip to Oaxaca I discovered a shoe line that I really loved called Taller Nu. I got along very well with the designers, they invited me to their workshop in Mexico City, so we decided to do a collaboration together. They work with a women’s prison group. They train them to do cross-stitch on leather, and they use that cross-stitch for their shoes. What I did was send them an image of one of the sweater knits that I am doing from Peru, and I asked them to reinterpret that knit pattern into a cross-stitch. So they did the interpretation themselves, I approved it and we designed the shoes and the bag together. That will be for late summer, fall delivery because of the lead time. I will be working directly with the designers and the collaboration co-op.

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JD: The cross-stitch is done in Mexico. Are the shoes also made in Mexico?

TSJ: Yeah, everything is done in Mexico. They source the leather there, it is all domestic leather. They have it perforated so the cross-stitch can be done more easily. They bring just the panels to the prison and give them the instruction.

What is really kind of interesting that I love about it, is that if you look inside the panels each one has a different finishing on the inside. You can tell it is done by different women, and it’s just the way they interpret it. So on the outside they are all uniform, but on the inside they all have this signature.  I love that. And I love that you can see that.

And the only other thing I am importing are these alpaca knits from Peru. I have been working with this women-run co-op there for about a year now and this is the first development that we have done together.

And then the rest of the collection is made here in NYC.

The other thing that I am launching for this year, which will be early than fall, it will be a spring launch, is the open back shirt dress style that I always do. But instead of one piece, I am doing it as a piece that can be worn different ways, and convertible. So you can mix and match the fabric and remove certain panels or add on other panels.


JD: What about made in NYC? Is that a selling point for your brand?

TSJ: As far as wholesale buyers are concerned, I find the reaction not super encouraging. They are not all that inspired by it, although I think they like having the story to tell to their customers. Because I do see the reaction, you know when we had this space [Market 605] as a retail space, people coming in, whether they were tourists or New Yorkers, loved the fact that everything was made here. And so I think having that story associated with the brand, or even part of the brand, is important for the buyers, not for themselves necessarily, although some of them really care, but they like to communicate that to their customers.

I am not sure a lot of people are seeking it out yet, but they are definitely interested in it.

I have always felt the same way about the sustainability of the brand: I don’t think people really care about organic cotton, as long as it felt good and could be worn easily and washed easily and cared for easily. So it was really my responsibility to make it sustainable, but also my responsibility to make the design last long and be a quality good. And part of that is making it here in New York, I think the workmanship here is just good. I am lucky, I have a great factory that I work with and they do a really great job. I am not going to lie, I have had great factories in China too that do a really really great job but if I can get that quality and workmanship here then why shouldn’t I?

Want more interviews? See also:

Hannah Jones, Nike VP of Sustainable Business: Behind-The-Scenes Interview (Part 1)

Interview: Nike’s VP of Sustainable Business Hannah Jones (Part 2)

Interview: Author Kate Fletcher On New Fashion & Sustainability Book

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

images: Study NY

Juliette Donatelli

Working in the field of sustainability for over seven years, Juliette is passionate about its intersection within the fashion industry. Juliette began studying ecological conservation, and led consumer awareness campaigns around the world from water usage in southern California, riparian restoration in South Africa, food distribution in Paris and bison habitat in the Great Plains. She has launched her passion--consumerism and sustainability--into a place where it hits home--fashion. Juliette is the founder and editor-in-chief of spadesandsilk.com, Director of Sustainability at Manufacture NY, and loves to read, dance, swim and enjoy the occasional glass of champagne.