It’s hard to walk by and not notice a glittery portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, painted in her judicial robe and trademark jabot…but also a robin’s egg blue embroidered sweater that reads “booyah.”
Framed in the window just above the slogan “Give a damn,” the portrait at Lingua Franca’s West Village boutique in New York City captures the independent fashion label’s brand perfectly. Founded in 2016, Lingua Franca is a line of sustainably sourced, fair trade luxury cashmere sweaters—all hand-stitched by women in New York City.
Fortune recently spoke with Lingua Franca founder Rachelle Hruska MacPherson about what it has been like running a small retail business with a growing platform during a time of social discourse and a public health crisis.
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Fortune: Lingua Franca’s signature crewneck sweater with cursive embroidered messages has become instantly recognizable (and some might even say iconic) in the past few years. What inspired that particular aesthetic, and what motivated you to make it a full-fledged business?
MacPherson: Lingua Franca started as a happy accident. I learned how to sew and embroider from my grandma when I was in sixth grade, and after my therapist suggested I find a hobby to do with my hands to combat my anxiety, I picked it back up again last winter on my own old sweaters, stitching “booyah” into one. I posted a few to Instagram, and I had dozens of friends start asking for them. It sort of started from there as I got stores asking over Instagram to stock the sweaters. I absolutely adore the idea of a common language—a lingua franca—among people as a form of unity. I also loved the fact that each one is done by hand and is the opposite of mass-produced.
LF’s sweaters have also surged in popularity as they are worn by celebrities and influencers all over Instagram. How does social media play a role in your business, from shaping your brand to customer engagement and service?
Everything got started on Instagram for us, and I’m continually amazed by the community of people we have met through the platform. When building out our brick-and-mortar stores, we were excited to be able to bring content from real-life meet-ups and events back online and to share them with our online social community. I still personally run our social media accounts. It is time-consuming, but I feel it’s the best way to engage with our customers.
Part of why the celebs and influencers are often seen with LF sweaters are the embroidered messages, which often reflect a charitable cause or social message. (I keenly remember actress Tessa Thompson wearing a LF red embroidered sweater at a party during awards season two years ago. The sweater had the first names of four female directors shut out from nominations at the 2018 Oscars.) What motivated making the sweaters into a platform? What has feedback been like from customers? Have you ever received any backlash over any of the messages?
Because I never “planned” any of this, we as a company have been able to go with the flow and riff off inspiration from others in real time. The “sweaters as a platform” piece has happened naturally as people started approaching us to hand-stitch words that matter to them. I do think there is something unique and special about seeing the care and time it took to hand-embroider words. It somehow gives them more meaning.
And, of course we have received backlash over some messages. In our beginning, we had many hip-hop lyrics in our repertoire. We thought it was a celebration of words that were the “lingua franca” of our times. We have since realized how this was appropriation of a culture we didn’t belong to. In response, we decided to make significant contributions to the Black community and remove them from our shop. We aren’t perfect, but we are listening and learning. Most importantly, we aren’t giving up in our fight to put love and justice into the world. We have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to causes that are meaningful to us, and publicize each donation so the world knows we will put our money where our mouth is!
All the sweaters are individually stitched, and they are made from cashmere, so admittedly these are quality and luxury clothes. But pricing ranges from $280 to $400 per sweater. Certainly, these aren’t fast-fashion products, and quality demands a higher price. But for a brand that aligns itself with social causes, there is a socioeconomic barrier for many consumers to buying these sweaters. What goes into setting the prices where they’re at? To be fair, prices include donations to various social charities; could you explain more about that process in terms of how you decide on which groups to donate to and how much has been raised through sales?
We are so proud to be able to make the donations we have been able to make, and make significant strides in making the world better. That being said, each and every collaboration and cause is different and unique. Many items donate 100% of their proceeds to a cause.
It is also very important to us to make sure we are sourcing all of our fabrics from eco-friendly sources with the most ethical standards possible. Our embroiderers make above minimum wage, and we are proud to be able to provide full-time jobs to many embroiderers in New York City. This all, of course, makes our product both superior and more expensive than something you will find in the fast-fashion industry. Right now, I think consumers care more than ever about where their products are coming from and the ethics of the brands behind them. It’s important now more than ever to make sure we are thoughtful in everything we do.
You recently wrote a blog posted to Lingua Franca’s website about Black Lives Matter, explaining how you want to use your privilege to do better. While noting that this is a time we should be listening and learning to Black leaders, especially Black women, what would you say to other white female founders about how they could do better and work harder for BIPOC communities?
I think listening is important, but I also think acting is imperative right now, especially as a white woman ally. I hate seeing white friends become hesitant about speaking out for the BIPOC community because they are afraid of messing up or virtue signaling. Yes, it’s terrifying to speak up, speak out, but we must, even though mistakes will be made. This is not a time to be silent. Virtue signaling to our communities on where we stand on issues is literally how change has happened historically, and it’s how it will continue to happen today. I think it’s also important to hire Black women in key roles in your company, and to incorporate Black women into your close social circle. Change has to happen from within. It takes real work and coming out of comfort zones.
It’s no secret that retail has been suffering for quite some time—bricks and mortar especially, even before the pandemic. One of your boutiques is on Bleecker Street in the West Village, a stretch of real estate that had recently hosted the likes of Burberry and Marc Jacobs. But even higher-end retailers can’t line up the rising rent with falling store sales. What value is there still for brick-and-mortar locations? And during and post-pandemic, which sales channels will you be focusing on most?
I touched on this earlier, but our brick-and-mortar stores were never seen as just “stores.” From the start, they were extensions of our brand. We wanted real-life spaces to activate ideas and bring those things back online. Our stores held weekly panels, Q&As, and author nights, and have been community centers for so many authors and activists. We even became a full-on gallery for an art exhibit—the “Tiny Pricks Project”—for three months last summer.
Obviously, this “store as a community space” idea has changed a bit during COVID times, but I’m still long on real-life experiences. While our e-commerce has been significantly higher, we are still looking forward to reopening in bricks and mortar and continuing to meet people in real life.
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This story was originally featured on Fortune.com