Melissa Joy Manning and Amber Valletta Bring Sustainability to Soho
For more than ten years now, California-based designer Melissa Joy Manning has been crafting ethically sourced, delicately sculptural eco-jewelry. Tonight, she opens her first New York flagship store with a private party, which her pal, model and actress Amber Valletta, will cohost. The two share a passion for sustainable design—they work together on the CFDA’s Sustainability Committee, and Valletta recently launched her own eco-conscious e-commerce site, Master & Muse, which offers sustainable wares from labels like Vivienne Westwood and M.Patmos. Now they’re pushing for sustainable consciousness throughout the industry, and Manning’s almost entirely green new store is a testament to her dedication to the cause. Located at 12 Wooster Street, the 4,500-square-foot boutique boasts details crafted almost entirely from relics found in the 1880s manufacturing space-turned-loft. Manning’s centerpieces, for instance, were made from repurposed display cases, and a wall of jewelry boxes was born out of the building’s old wooden doors. “I really wanted to almost become the caretaker of the space—elevate it, stabilize it, and reuse everything that we found,” said Manning, who will carry eco-conscious pieces from designers like Pamela Love and Mark Davis. “Aside from half a dozen pieces, everything was reused.”
Ahead of the store’s opening, we caught up with Manning and Valletta to discuss their friendship, how to further the sustainable fashion dialogue, and why big brands need to “come out of the [eco] closet.”
You’ve been working to promote sustainability in fashion for quite some time. What is the main priority right now? What should the fashion industry be focusing on as a whole?
Melissa Joy Manning: We’re in an education phase. There are certain people who are doing really great sustainability work already, but in the luxury sector, we have consumers who are able to pay a little bit more or who can become educated and drive trends. Our efforts in the CFDA are about asking designers to make thoughtful choices, then providing them with the information that allows them to do so. In a consumer market where it’s supply versus demand, if we’re demanding the right products, we’re eventually going to switch the supply and all fashion will have to be sustainable, right? The fashion industry is the world’s second-largest gross consumer—and gross polluter—and if we don’t make changes now, there are going to be some really dire consequences.
Amber Valletta: It’s really about education and awareness. We’re seeing more and more articles about all these things that are happening in the world and in our country. Sustainability is about workers’ rights, too. A few people were killed in Jakarta a week ago over protesting for their wages. We’re seeing an upswing in the consciousness of making things sustainably—not just on the environmental level but on the human level. Because of that, consumers are asking, “What’s really happening? I thought we fixed this problem with child labor.” But it’s not a done deal. There are serious problems that we’re facing throughout the fashion industry, from the beginnings of making textiles to the finished products. Consumers aren’t completely aware of how begging for new products every two weeks is hurting the planet and workers. And I don’t mean that in a hippie or granola way. I love luxury items and beautiful things and great design, but I do believe that sustainability can go hand in hand with great design.
What designers or brands are getting it right at the moment?
AV: There are a lot. Natalie Chanin won the CFDA Eco-Fashion Challenge for her company called Alabama Chanin. She’s pretty incredible. On a community level, she’s getting people back to work and getting them employed, and she’s helping to bring back the textile business in the South, which was on its way out. Daniel Silverstein is great; Isabell de Hillerin is great. We could give you lists and lists! And I think it’s just a matter of time before these names pop and become bigger brands. I don’t think any of these guys are trying to be household names. But I think these brands have weight and staying power.
MJM: To Amber’s point, I think small businesses or small companies can take more risks and make choices that are based on responsibility as opposed to profit. There are also a lot of brands that are making sustainable efforts but are afraid to say what they’re doing until they’re one hundred percent. Adidas, for instance, won’t publish all of its sustainable accomplishments. In order to create momentum within the industry, we need to build brands up, rather than knocking them down by saying, “Oh, you’re eighty percent sustainable, but it’s not enough.” My hope [is that] through our committee and through working with people like Amber and her website, we will be able to bolster them and create more proactive, positive change.
AV: I totally agree with Melissa. These bigger companies that are actually household names are doing so much—more than what we know. They [need to] come out of the closet basically and start joining in on the conversation. It’s not a black-and-white subject. We need more transparency from everybody.
What most excites you about your work in sustainability?
MJM: I’m really excited to create a community and create a voice. I think it’s exciting to bring this out into the light and not have it be a marginalized issue where people think that somebody’s going to be protesting about it in some park in Berkeley. It’s a relevant issue in which a lot of participants have very strong educations and financial backings.
How did you and Amber become friends?
MJM: Amber was one of the first people to wear my jewelry on the big screen. It was Transporter, right?
AV: Yeah, it was Transporter 2. That was at least ten years ago?
MJM: It was, like, ten years ago, and I remember my brother being like, “Is that your jewelry?” And I was like, “Yeah!” And it looked so great on her. Then, we started working together on Master & Muse, and then we started working together at the CFDA, and the relationship just keeps growing! It just goes to show that we all can create meaningful relationships and change in our own communities.