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Ex-Victoria's Secret Designer's New Startup: Source Globally, Make Locally

Nearly a decade working in corporate fashion led the founders of Cienne to seek out a radical new business model.

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When apparel designer Nicole Heim quit her job at Victoria's Secret three years ago, she wanted to get as far away from the drudgery of the corporate fashion world as possible. She wound up in Ethiopia, working for the non-profit Charity: Water. "It was kind of crazy, I was by myself with almost no resources in the mountains in Ethiopia," she says. "One day I saw Ethiopian weavers prepping their looms in the same way they have for centuries, and it got me interested to see if we could adapt that in a modern way."

So she re-entered the fashion industry with a new business model in mind. In June, Heim and fellow designer Chelsea Healy launched Cienne, a women's label that sources materials from all over the world and brings them back to New York, where local manufacturers turn them into stylish garments. Using textiles lovingly made from artisans and mill workers in countries like Japan, Peru, and Ethiopia, Cienne offers a conscientious alternative to the cookie-cutter fashion of big chain stores. Carefully tailored pieces and modern cuts make the line simple and sophisticated—a far cry from the crunchy, formless aesthetic you typically think of when you hear "global fashion."

"It’s a balance—when I was out traveling, the thing I found personally was that I wanted the uniqueness and best craftsmanship of traditional materials, but in a modern and versatile way," Heim says. The designers let the materials inform the design. A colorful, structural material from the weavers in Ethiopia, for example, gets a high neckline and feminine cut in the Ryan Dress ($245). In the Rae Poncho ($265), a chunky, oatmeal-colored wool from Japan takes center stage. Cienne's Fall/Winter collection also features some fine silk from India and Alpaca wool from Peru.

The diversity of materials and geographical locations allows for scalability, Heim says. "We’re balancing out each individual artisan or supplier’s ability—if they can only do a certain amount of fabric in Ethiopia, for example, we’ll do larger volumes with the modern mill in Japan," she says, noting that they manufacture pieces locally because they trust the expertise of New York's Garment District (plus, as the company grows and quantities increase, the cost per garment shrinks more than it would if they produced clothes abroad). "We hope to bring on more countries as we grow the business so we can mitigate risk across the different artisan groups."

Until then, Heim says they will produce simple, easy-to-wear pieces in small batches with the idea that the collections will build on each other. Shop the Fall/Winter collection on Cienne's website and catch a preview of their Spring/Summer collection in the slide show above.

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