Nightswim founder, Diana Ganem shares what it's like to operate a eco-driven fashion business, especially her dying process with The Wellness Feed — a lifestyle and news publication devoted to the eco-friendly scene. To read the full interview head here or simple browse below.
Ten years ago, conventional fashion schools didn’t offer courses on fashion's environmental impacts and how to avoid water pollution from dyeing. So, what’s a designer to do once they learn about the unfashionable side of their environmental footprint? For Diana Ganem, it’s been a journey of research and a lot of faith stepping into the unknown. After working in the fashion industry for several years, she sought something “more fulfilling”. Falling in love with Costa Rica, she sold a lot of her things to pack up and call the country home for 7 years. By removing herself from excess consumerism and consumption, Diana gave herself a new design aesthetic that eventually caught on — one represented in her minimalist leisurewear and swimwear brand, Nightswim.
As a sustainable designer whose brand has become more sustainable since its debut collection 3.5 years ago, Diana has had to blend creativity with trial and error to find the most sustainable solution that makes sense for her brand. Fashion, as an industry, is still catching up on ways to reduce its environmental impact and that creates challenges for budding brands like Nightswim. Diana shares how these challenges impact a new brand and how she’s still managed to offer better dyes and materials for her customers who invest in her sustainable brand.
What are some of the difficulties you face as a designer using natural dyes?
In general, on a grand commercial level, natural dyes have never been fully available. They’ve almost been experimental. It was never looked at as mainstream. I experimented with it in the very beginning and it just fades. It’s hard to seal a natural dye on natural fabric. We can’t scale it and it’s hard to do. Even brands like Mara Hoffman, they only do a limited collection of naturally dyed pieces. When it comes to the uniformity of it you’ll get patches or discolorations at times. There are a lot of challenges. We’re not there yet.
If a shopper sees a tee with a streak going down it when we’re used to uniformity they’re not going to buy it. On our tags I have to mention that the discoloration is part of the responsible production, in case the consumer comes across some irregularities.
There are some really cool innovative dying companies coming out that aren’t available to the market at the moment. But, change happens on a smaller scale and then it might be.
Why did you decide to use azo-free dyes?
When we couldn’t find all-natural dyes, we moved on to what’s stable in the industry. I wanted the dyes to be the least toxic option. One of the mills (who went out of business during the pandemic) told me about azo-free dyes. It’s the lesser evil.
Azo-free removes a lot of formaldehyde, and heavy metals. But it also reduces the vividness of color. There are benefits to these AZO chemicals, but not for health and to the environment. I think people don’t really know what these toxins can do to the body. We just trusted government and corporations for a really long time to know what they are doing. Finally there’s that movement for concern and question about how everything is being made and who we’re trusting.
How do you vet dyeing factories to ensure fabric is being dyed responsibly?
I buy my raw fabric in LA and take my fabric to a local dye house. They are regulated by the city of LA and they do get inspections regularly. When I go in everything looks good and isn’t alarming, like what you often witness in overseas dye treatments. To get my fabrics from India or China already dyed was something that I didn’t want to do. It’s a privilege to live in the United States and not elsewhere. Where as in other places, you might see the rivers being colored, people working hands-on with toxic chemicals and such. Overall the workspace for dying facilities is very different in the US.
Here in the US the dying process is generally machinery from what I see in the dye house. For novelty dyeing I might see people physically touching the clothes.
In Los Angeles she can’t find anyone who is doing natural dyes. But, I know that they’re working with items like avocado seeds in smaller production runs. There’s a limit on how much you can obtain from food discards like avocado seeds. A dye house must first collect the seeds‚ you need large volume to produce larger scale. Another option is to do natural dyes of already sewn garments. She believes that has more control of what the fabric would look like in the end. Some companies are working with natural, but she has yet to see one operating on a bigger scale. The cost is also a big challenge.
Some say that choosing fabrics are more important than design when it comes to sustainability. Do you agree?
Everything starts from the available fabrics. I source what is the most sustainable fabric and then move from there.
For instance, I've been wanting to do swimwear, but it’s all synthetic fabrics and to this day I haven't encountered a natural fiber so I haven't expanded in this area. When I walk into a fabric showroom and I’m only focusing on sustainable options, what do I have? There will be just a small area for sustainable fabrics. The conventional designer has a playground to choose from. But, when you try to focus on sustainability you have 1/ 100th of those options.
Where do you source your fabrics?
I work with terry, challis and cupro at the moment. I source almost all of the fabrics from L.A. and one from Japan.
How do you source fabrics sustainably?
When I began, I'd go to showrooms to find the most sustainable fabrics but it really they weren't any available. For a small brand, the only option was recycled PET. This was about 4+ years ago. So, I had to buy and develop the terry fabric myself by weaving the recylcled fiber and organic cotton. Now, I don’t do that anymore. The market has evolved and when I recently went back to the showroom I realized that they were now presenting to others the fabric that I had developed. Slowly, I see more sustainable fabrics in the showroom.
What challenges do you face when using organic fabrics?
As I began to move away from synthetics (Recycled PET), I started working with a mill who is able to work with organic cotton on terry. It’s nice to know that natural fibers are being used now. But, working with natural fabrics can be difficult. For instance, our bathing suits are made from natural fabrics, but they’re not good for swimming, they’re more for lounging especially away from chlorine I’m trying to introduce swimwear in the most responsible way. A stretchy material that’s natural. So, I’m using recycled synthetics and a cotton blend going forward.
How did you become a slow fashion designer?
When I first started I was used to producing clothing for a brand with an exuberant number of styles a month. I felt that it was insane and that we didn’t need that many styles. I knew that with my own brand I didn’t want to do it at that extreme amount, but I had no idea that it would be this slow. I only add to the existing collection - revising what is already existing instead of building a entirely new collection with new colorways and silhouettes and dropping styles.
A completely new collection every season plays into the mindset of people buying into trends. I don’t want to play by that book. I want to be super slow and be better. It’s evolved that way.
How you eliminated single-use plastic from your collections?
I also knew she didn’t want to do plastic baggies. Unfortunately, that’s not really possible. If you get orders from a retail store and they don’t receive your pieces individually wrapped in a plastic bag- you can be charged and fined. In the beginning I wasn’t using anything at all and just shipped items in a box. I was being super minimal- no plastic bags or tissue paper. But, I started getting complains about it. Poly bags are the norm, gradually brands are shifting to poly alternatives. Nowadays I use bags made from recycled poly and biodegradable material. The cost is insane so I balance it between both. But, she knows that the retailer will be happy.