Fashion innovation meets tradition and sustainability

By Lindsay Cooper

The lotus flower is heavy with symbolic meanings. In most cultures, it represents purity because the flower emerges from muddy riverbeds with clean, white petals. In Buddhism it stands for knowledge and spiritual awakening. But it might be the flower’s relationship with rebirth­­­­­—originating in Ancient Egypt because lotuses retract into the river during the night and blossom again every morning—that most influenced the business ethos behind Tracie Zelei’s clothing line, Zelei Trace.

Inspired by the story of a young Cambodian woman who was given a second chance at life after escaping sex trafficking, Zelei planned a trip with the intention of helping other vulnerable women. You may be expecting Eat Pray Love-levels of soul-searching and aHero’s Journey after which our protagonist returns home the same, but somehow different thanks to months of introspection. But that would be selling Zelei short.

Not satisfied returning home with internal changes, she set about affecting real, measurable changes in the lives of others.

It was on her pilgrimage to Cambodia that Zelei found her new calling in the form of lotus fabric. The first natural microfiber, the textile is produced from the filaments within the stems which are extracted by hand, twisted together, dried and then spun into yarn in a process that’s completely eco-friendly, organic and electricity-free. The result is a lightweight, wrinkle-free and stain– and water-resistant cloth reminiscent of linen.

But the fabric doesn’t only benefit the global community by creating a more environmentally friendly alternative to conventional materials and turning the stems (which are conventionally considered waste) into a resource, it’s also benefitting local communities in the rural northwest. The story of the young girl that started it all still resonates with Zelei and drives her to work with suppliers that stand for social equality and provide fair compensation in order to help the women working in their supply chain transform their own lives.

And while the larger social issues they’re tackling are central to Zelei Trace’s identity, so are the designs. The brand’s Spring 2020 line, which marked the brand’s debut at New York Fashion Week earlier this year, had something for everyone. Menswear and womenswear, day and evening, boho and buttoned up, the offering doesn’t ascribe to any single aesthetic value and it’s certainly not what one expects eco-friendly clothing to look like. But what exactly should we expect from the brand that pushes consumers to reconsider their ideas of fashion and how the industry ought to operate?

It might be time for a fashion industry to be reborn–and we expect Tracie Zelei will be leading the way.

Image Credits:
Designer Tracie Zelei
Presented by Lily Ravas Brand Management
Casting and Backstage choreography Karen Birago
Assistant backstage choreographer and Styling Peace Dominique
Runway Photographer Aly Kuler
Editorial Photographer Roy Schweiger
Hair and Make up Mandisa Duperva