Philene Tan's wardrobe is tiny. But it's not about a lack of closet space. For this 25-year-old Economics grad from UC Davis, a few classic and functional wardrobe essentials are enough to dress stylishly and feel comfortable. Most importantly, she knows the provenance of her clothes—how they were made and the impact they have on the environment.
Tan is the co-founder of Los Angeles-based ethical fashion brand Foundationals and, unsurprisingly, wears many of the brand's casual chic pieces daily. Foundationals was launched in 2019, its laidback and minimalist wares made through responsible production with a commitment to transparency and ethically-sourced materials—a stark contrast from the world of fast fashion. Towards greater transparency in fashion, Foundationals' website showcases a 360-degree walkthrough tour of its clothing factories, along with information about its supply chain, materials and labour.
Since its conception, the brand has garnered over 11,000 followers on Instagram and Foundationals' simple but chic pieces have been worn by celebrities like actress Lucy Hale, Claudia Sulewski and Genevieve Hannelius, to name a few.
But how did it all start? And why is it important for brands like Foundationals to spark conversations about how and where our clothes are made?
Tan answers these questions and more in this email interview.
Tell us about your very first fashion project back in high school in Malaysia.
When I was 17, I started my own graphic tee label. It was called Rusticwild and it was, at that time, a little passion project that gave me a peek into fashion production. Back then, I was obsessed with '90s-style cropped graphic tees. I had designed some graphics on Adobe Illustrator, had a bunch of tees and tanks custom manufactured, and I sold them to my friends and strangers on the internet.
Did you enter university with the dream of starting your own fashion brand?
I actually decided to pursue an Economics degree because I was quite uncertain of what I wanted to do with my career, post-graduation. At 19, I thought it was a 'safe choice' that would have allowed me to go into consulting. But I soon realised that management consulting wasn’t the kind of environment and lifestyle that I would’ve thrived in at all.
What prompted you to start Foundationals?
My co-founder Tim Tembrink was a Business and Environmental Science major at Berkeley. Being in an environment where we were surrounded by a very environmentally conscious and problem-solving community definitely prompted him and I to discuss starting a mission-driven business together.
We figured that since our strengths were very complementary (with me being more creatively inclined and him better with management) that we’d take the leap and pursue a more unconventional career path instead of recruiting with our graduating class. We had won a grant from NYC-based Fashion Scholarship Fund’s Accelerator competition and that was the little confidence boost we needed to get started.