I Made Your Clothes

By Colleen Keller Mishra

Photo by: Matthew Rhein

Photo by: Matthew Rhein

Sara Keel spent over a decade as a designer for the brand Anthropologie. She now owns her own company, Penrose Design Studio. Sara is an entrepreneur, mother, and advocate for slow-fashion. 


How did your career begin?
I have always been interested in fashion. I think it stems from my mom teaching me to sew and growing up sewing my own clothes, but I didn't consider a career in fashion at all because I wasn't exposed to it much as a child. My parents are in the medical and science fields so when I was younger I assumed I would do something similar in college. A year into college, I realized business marketing wasn't for me and I just wanted a career making clothes! I ended up transferring to Savannah College of Art and Design for Fashion. Soon after graduating, I signed on as an intern at Anthropologie, and ended up designing with the company for eleven years. The concept for my own design studio formed after I went part time so I could stay home and raise my baby daughter. I started designing and making clothes for myself while my daughter napped, and launched Penrose Design Studio (named after my daughter Penelope Rose) as a way to share what I was making with others. After a year of working part time I was accepted into a designer residency program in January 2017 which led me to commit full time to being an entrepreneur and running my own fashion business.

What does your day to day look like?
Every day is so different. My business is very new and it is just me running the show. So, I am doing a little bit of everything during the week. I am currently hand-making all of my garments, so a lot of time is spent sewing and sourcing materials. On Mondays I work with an incredible intern who is a textile designer and helps me with hand-dyeing fabrics. She also doubles as my model so we use Mondays to photograph new products to add to the website and Instagram. I also use Mondays to review the budget, and plan social media marketing for the week. Tuesdays and Thursdays I keep my daughter home with me. She is two-and-a half so you can probably imagine I don't get much work done when she is there! I use those days to run errands, deliver new product to local stockists, and take her with me when I need to go out on inspiration trips. I am currently in a year long designer residency program called the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator, which helps designers start and grow their businesses in Philadelphia by providing workshops, resources, and mentoring. On Wednesdays, I have weekly meetings with the other five designers in the program and often following the meetings we have our workshops. Since I am still a new brand, I try to get as much exposure as possible. Many Fridays and Saturdays are spent preparing for and attending pop-up shops and events with local businesses so I can meet new customers face to face.

How would you define the style of Penrose Design Studio?
Penrose is free spirited and feminine, and I love vintage so you can usually find a touch of vintage influence in my designs. The silhouettes are relaxed and flowy and often are of one size so they can fit a variety of body types. Plus, they are super comfortable to wear. I use vintage materials like silk scarves so each piece has a unique print and pattern, creating one-of-a-kind pieces. I also hand dye so the outcome is completely different on each garment. My hope is that my customers feel as good buying a Penrose garment as they do wearing it.

What are your thoughts on the slow/ethical/sustainable fashion movement?
It is an absolute necessity for the future of our planet. The fashion industry is one of the worst on our environment, second only to the oil industry. The amount of pollution and waste created by manufacturing clothing is huge, not to mention the tons and tons of clothing that we throw out every day because something may be a little worn or out of style. It’s really terrible and has to change, and it is everyone's responsibility because we all wear clothes, right? I think consumers are becoming more and more aware of these effects and are starting to demand higher standards when it comes to the clothes they buy and wear.  I believe larger companies that don't offer ethical/sustainable clothing options are going to have to make changes to meet the demands of the consumer. We have talked about this to some extent in our group at the Fashion Incubator. It’s like the organic food movement: you used to have to go to a farmers’ market or specialty store to buy organic food, but now almost every grocery store has an organic aisle, and it is because the consumer made the demand of the stores. But it is also the responsibility of clothing companies to help educate the consumer on how to make the change and join the movement.

You’ve mentioned that you watched the documentary The True Cost. Did it in anyway influence your work or change your own shopping habits?
It completely changed the way I consume fashion. I was pretty naive about the negative impact the fashion industry has on the environment and the often terrible working conditions of many factory workers in the industry. After watching the documentary, I decided to shop way less than I had been, and to only purchase ethical and sustainable clothing in the future. It actually felt very freeing in a way. I didn’t feel the pressure to buy the newest Zara pieces that drop on an almost weekly basis in order to stay “on trend” with my wardrobe. I had been working in the fast fashion industry as a designer for eleven years and had been sort of blinded by my work for so long. I felt like I gained a new sense of individuality with my wardrobe because I wasn’t guided by trendy fast fashion anymore. I went back to shopping a lot of vintage and remembered it is such a passion of mine! I have had to do a little research to find ethical and sustainable brands but it has been encouraging and fun learning about the slow fashion movement. I watched the documentary around the same time I was forming my clothing line so I vowed to create a brand that keeps sustainable and ethical practices at its core. And I am proud to say that Penrose is part of the slow fashion movement.  Even if you are not into fashion I encourage you to watch this documentary, it is truly an eye-opener. We all wear clothes, so we are all responsible to educate ourselves (and our friends!) on the impact of what we wear.

Photo by: Sara Keel

Photo by: Sara Keel

Do you have any advice for readers who want to move towards purchasing a more ethical wardrobe?
I think there is a general misconception that an ethical or sustainable wardrobe means expensive, frumpy, organic, cotton frocks, but that is so not the case. There are many ways you can start to make little changes to your wardrobe without sacrificing your style (or shopping habit), and it doesn't have to be all or nothing. It is important to know there are different terms to be aware of: ethical, sustainable, organic, fair trade, and all can help you move toward a more ethical wardrobe. Buying vintage clothing is a great sustainable practice and probably the best way to cut down on clothing waste. If you aren’t into wearing clothes from a different era, online retailers like The Real Real (a luxury consignment retailer) or Rent the Runway (designer clothing available for rent that allows you to wear something “new” every day) are other great alternatives to buying new clothing. When you are shopping, look for brands that give clear information on where their goods are made. Ethical brand will often show photos of their factories and will even name the individuals who sew their clothes. This is a good sign the brand follows ethical manufacturing practices. There are some great websites like Ecocult which is an ethical fashion blog and lists ethical and sustainable brands on their site. Another great place to start is right in your neighborhood!  Try shopping in local boutiques. These are small independently run business and a lot of the time stock locally designed and made clothing and accessories. Lastly, try to make the clothes you already have last longer so you need to purchase less. I think proper laundering is a largely overlooked aspect of an ethical wardrobe. Washing machines and dryers can be hard on clothes and really wear them out if they are not washed properly. Make sure you understand the care labels of your clothes so you don’t ruin them in the wash, and you can avoid throwing out that sweater you shrunk and buying a new one (this has happened to me so many times). Many companies will list garments as “Dry-clean Only” (a process that uses chemicals which harm the environment) but often the clothes can be washed in cold water and line dried. You can also put clothing in the freezer to refresh your clothes and kill odor causing bacteria, which also cuts down on the water you would otherwise use to wash in your machine.

Photo by: Matthew Rhein

Photo by: Matthew Rhein

In what ways to do you think Penrose gives back? (to the customer? to your community? on a global scale?)
It feels great to say that because I am still a very small brand. It is easy for me to incorporate sustainable practices into my business model. I am able to use vintage and materials like silk scarves in my designs so I don’t have to buy and produce new materials. Several of my pieces are made to order so I am not over-producing and creating waste if something doesn’t sell, and sometimes I even cut and re-sew or overdye pieces from a previous collection to create new designs. I also use leftover scraps from previous designs in new pieces. I realize it is a brand’s responsibility to educate the consumer about the importance of sustainable fashion so I am using social media and marketing to give this message to my customers.

What have you received in creating Penrose? (freedom to be more creative? a new outlook on environmental impacts?)
It has been an unbelievable blessing and gift to have the opportunity to start my own business. Since being in the Fashion Incubator, I have experienced an incredible amount of personal growth, learning about business and entrepreneurship with a talented group of designers and amazing mentors. The creative freedom of running my own business has given me new life and much fulfillment I didn’t realize I was missing. Above all else, the most important thing at this stage of my life is time with my daughter. Working for myself has given me a flexible schedule that allows me to have my daughter at home with me two days during the work week (she is in daycare the other three days). We have had the best time learning and growing together and I would not trade those moments for anything in the world.      

What are your hopes for Penrose in the future?
As my brand grows, I want to be able to partner with artisan groups globally to produce my designs and develop programs to help give back to their communities. With the rise of fast fashion it is harder and harder to find beautiful handcrafted goods, so I hope to do my little part to help preserve those practices and give artisans the wage they deserve for their craft. And I am dreaming of developing a system for recycling materials (like scraps from past seasons’ designs or vintage materials) into new garments on a larger scale to help reduce waste. Any weavers out there interested in using fabric scraps to weave new materials, give me a call!

Photo by: Matthew Rhein

Photo by: Matthew Rhein

Here’s some of Sara’s favorite  brands and resources for anyone wanting to learn more about ethical and sustainable fashion:

Penrose Design Studio - My brand’s website

Reformation - Great dresses and other fashion basics; this brand is committed to sustainable practices and it gives information on the environmental impact of each of their garment.

Maiyet - A luxury fashion brand that partners with artisan groups around the world, which promotes self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship within those communities.

Study New York - A sustainable fashion brand that is manufactured in New York and is transparent about where their raw materials come from. They even use the scraps from previous designs and weave them into fabric for new designs.

Rent the Runway - A huge selection of designer clothing available to rent. They have several subscription options so you can wear something “new” every day.

The Real Real - A luxury consignment retailer.

1st Dibs - An amazing designer vintage and home pieces.

Accompany - An ethical fashion online retailer that stocks artisan made goods.

Ecocult - An eco fashion blog with tons of great information and a comprehensive list of eco and sustainable fashion and lifestyle brands.

Fashion Revolution - A global movement and organization. From their mission statement: “We want to unite people and organisations to work together towards radically changing the way our clothes are sourced, produced and consumed, so that our clothing is made in a safe, clean and fair way.”

Fashion Transparency Index - Created from research done by the Fashion Revolution, it highlights the business practices of the top 100 fashion brands. Definitely worth looking into brands you shop - some of the results are shocking.

Philadelphia Fashion Incubator - I am currently a Designer-In-Residence in this Philadelphia based program aimed at fostering small business in the Philadelphia area.