Fashion with a Conscience: Building Community Sustainably
Caeresa Richardson stands behind a white register as she rings up a shopper. Pink and white flowers and light fixtures dangle from the ceiling. She hands the customer a shopping bag with a bright smile. Though she’s wearing a mask, her eyes shine with gratitude. Her sustainable boutique and showroom, Gypsy Freedom, is a part of her mission to create a better environment in the field she loves.
“This is the first time in my life that I feel proud of myself,” Richardson says. After graduating from Syracuse University in 2007, Richardson entered the workforce as a mechanical engineer. Although this career was stable, she wanted to put her efforts into something meaningful and worthwhile. “Thinking about leaving engineering for something as risky as fashion was scary for me,” Richardson says. “I grew up in a modest low-income household. I didn’t have a safety net to fall back on.”
Her decision to open her business was no surprise to her younger sister, Sandra Scott. “I knew she would want to do something in fashion,” Scott says. “I always thought she would design her own clothing line.” Richardson had full support from her eldest sister, Shequelia Birdsong. Richardson introduced her to sustainable fashion. “It was not on my radar,” Birdsong says. “But because of her it is.”
Sustainable fashion sits at the intersection of environmental and social justice. Consumers are becoming more aware of the disadvantages of quickly-produced clothing at low price points. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe reports that the fashion industry produces 20% of global wastewater. Popular fast-fashion companies have been criticized for paying sweat-shop workers unlivable wages. According to Forbes Magazine, the fast-fashion industry is putting the planet at risk with its use of low-cost and short-lived fabrics that take years to decompose. Production Planning & Control, a trade journal, reported that fast-fashion significantly increases carbon emissions due to its rapid production process.
Before she opened her business, Richardson made an effort to reduce her and her husband’s energy usage and reassessed her spending habits. “I wanted to figure out a way to spend money at places that really aligned with my values,” Richardson says. For years she would research fashion company manufacturing processes. She started to look into her own closet and read clothing labels to learn about the sources of each fabric. It was difficult for her to find the information she needed. “I was looking for something that provided everything in one place,” Richardson says. It dawned on her that it was the perfect time to create something of her own.
As a Black woman, Richardson is aware of the importance of Black entrepreneurship in Syracuse. She says that local business owners should reflect the communities they serve. Gypsy Freedom is located on South Salina Street, zip code 13202, where African Americans make up more than half of the population. “If they don’t see it, they don’t believe that they can be it,” Richardson says.
Even though she’s a full-time entrepreneur, Richardson works to open doors for young people and budding entrepreneurs. Her internship program allows fashion-loving youth to learn about her day-to-day process as a boutique owner. After 30 days, interns are given the opportunity to work in the boutique. Gypsy Freedom intern, Arianna Masse, is enjoying her time with Richardson. “She’s always super willing to have me get things out of the internship.” Masse says. The 22-year-old is impressed by Richardson’s customer service. “She really just builds her relationship with customers,” Masse says. “She tries her best to remember facts about people who’ve been into the shop, so that she can have ongoing conversations with them.”
Richardson also provides counseling services at Syracuse University’s WISE Women’s Business Center. Meghan Florkowski, director of the business center, says that Richardson plays a crucial role for business owners in the midst of a pandemic. “She’s kind of the roadmap to small business ownership.” Florkowski says. “She’s very well-connected to what their needs are.”
Richardson is aware that her role in the sustainable fashion industry is a form of activism. “My approach is different,” Richardson says. “It’s very much more community building and I try to do that in many ways.” At her fashion shows, she makes sure to educate guests and shoppers about each garment’s material and where it comes from. “It’s fair-trade fashion, it’s really a different experience.” Richardson says.
Richardson is using her socially conscious boutique to educate, build community, and create opportunities for those coming after her. She wants to set an example for her daughter and other Black women. “I think it’s really important for children that look like us,” Richardson says. “People are excited that something like this is finally here.”