What will luxury look like moving forward? Ask a millennial or Gen Z and they will unequivocally say, “Sustainable.” This isn’t just a slogan; it’s becoming an operating principle. We caught up with Tina Bhojwani, the CEO of Aera, the world’s first sustainable luxury footwear brand and a co-founder of Figure Eight, a pop-up installation in New York’s Soho neighborhood dedicated to showcasing an eclectic portfolio of innovative, stylish sustainable luxury goods.
Footwear with an Invisible Footprint
After an impressive career in the world of high-end retail – a journey that has taken her from Donna Karan to Theory to eventually to the top job at Dolce & Gabbana North America, Tina Bhojwani has been viewed as something of a trailblazer in fashion circles. She was the very first female executive of South Asian descent to have reached the apex of the global fashion industry; however, more recently, her trailblazer moniker has been more tied to her role as a leading voice for sustainable luxury fashion.
In 2019, Bhojwani along with business partner Alvertos Revach and footwear designer Jean-Michel Cazabat, teamed up to launch Aera, a sustainable high-end vegan shoe brand with a verified negative carbon footprint. The Veneto, Italy-based manufacturing operation was set up to ensure that its entire supply chain is comprised of non-animal ingredients, while maintaining the quality and style luxury customers expect from an Italian high-end shoe brand.
The company’s process for limiting its environmental impact starts early in the supply chain by selecting quality vegan materials and processes that have as little environmental impact as possible. Once the shoe is complete, the brand goes one step further in reducing its environmental footprint by scientifically measuring and then offsetting each pair’s impact by 110 percent. Aera works with the Plastic Bank to invest in Social Plastic Collection Credits that are used to retrieve plastics from the ocean.
Aera’s offset philosophy is core to Bhojwani’s commitment to advance fashion while neutralizing its impact on the environment, and the result is an emerging fashion brand that is certified carbon negative.
But that’s not all.
A Pop-Up Store Tackles an Existential Crisis
During the Covid-19 lockdowns of 2021, Bhojwani and industry colleague Nicole Marra, the former General Counsel at Gucci North America, began plotting their next move: Figure Eight, a Soho holiday pop-up space is dedicated to showcasing conscious luxury brands spanning apparel, footwear, accessories, beauty, art and interior design. The store’s high foot traffic has tapped a vein of New York City socio-political wokeness; increasingly environmentally conscious locals (and tourists) appear to be eager to pay top dollar to explore new brands with verified sustainable bona fides.
Bhojwani is passionate about the global sustainability movement in the fashion industry. She says her mission is a labor of love. Her career journey led her to this new chapter in luxury. She explains, “I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit and a lot of the work I did at Donna Karan and Theory was focused on business development. At Dolce & Gabanna, I gained a heightened appreciation for artisanal craftsmanship, so, all my past experiences really came together in helping me launch AERA.
“Once I studied the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry there was no turning back for me; I love a challenge and decided to focus the next chapter of my career in mission driven work – and to try to change the status quo. I believe we can prove that style, design and quality can go hand in hand with sustainability.”
New Retail Model for Luxury
Bhojwani is up against a challenge, the fashion industry in general is a major contributor to ocean plastics, CO2 emissions, and other negative environmental impacts. And the luxury segment is a sliver of the overall market. She is undaunted,” The luxury fashion industry itself is almost a $340 billion market filled with incredible innovators and creators, so I am optimistic that if we can mobilize, we can create real, meaningful impact. There is certainly power in numbers – if enough individuals call for change and hold the industry accountable to shift its practices, positive change will be inevitable.”
Figure Eight is a living example of a sustainable role model. Bhojwani explains, “We love the number 8 turned sideways as an infinity sign – this concept is founded on the infinite possibilities of conscious discovery, community and collaboration. The name is fitting as a symbol of eternal development and balance.”
The pop-up is a modern space showcasing a curated selection of designers and doubling as an event space to promote and celebrate other sustainable artists and startups. With the exception of Aera, Figure Eight is a concession model with a rotation of sustainable goods ranging from elegant handbags, home accessories (a great collection of hand-painted repurposed ceramics), fragrance and treatment products. It’s a discovery of new ideas and sustainable products, served up by a well-informed, gracious staff. Sustainable luxury has no age limits; there is something for every conscious consumer here.
Figure Eight will be open through December and Bhojwani’s goal is to show proof of concept during a time when real estate was available. The feedback she has received from brand partners and customers is that the concept may very well become permanent.
The bigger question is the future of the sustainable luxury market. Bhojwani believes the industry must move towards sustainability to survive. “My hope is that in five years we won’t even have to have conversations about which luxury brands are sustainable and which aren’t because it will become core to the DNA of doing business in this space,” she adds.
One might logically argue that it’s far easier to bring sustainable best practices that leverage renewable and low-impact materials to a luxury product where there is more price elasticity. For everyday fashion, beauty and cosmetics, and even furniture to make a game-changing impact – we’re talking Target and Walmart – it needs to be practical at scale. Bhojwani explains, “Sustainability is more than just the materials a product is made from — it’s the entire supply chain, which is where bigger brands like Target and Walmart can lead. These companies have the power to make change at scale. There are opportunities to reduce carbon emissions in the supply chain, ensure factory workers are being paid fair and living wages, and demand better practices from manufacturers.”
In five years we shouldn’t even have to have conversations about which luxury brands are sustainable and which aren’t because it will become core to the DNA of doing business in this space.
Cynics could view sustainability as a marketing trend in fashion and retail. Bhojwani responds, “To me the word ‘sustainability’ means everything and nothing. What will become increasingly important is transparency, measurability, science, and third-party certification. We will need to quantify our efforts and explain how we are balancing profit with purpose. Today with Aera we partner with SCS Global to conduct a ‘Life Cycle Assessment’ of our brand. SCS is also helping us offset 110 percent of our Scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions and water use for Figure Eight. We also have been awarded the Butterfly Mark by Positive Luxury which goes to luxury brands that meet the highest standards of verified innovation and environmental performance. And we are in the very final stages of achieving B Corp certification, a gold standard – a designation for companies that show a demonstrable commitment to having positive social and environmental impact. These practices not only keep businesses aware, accountable and honest but also equip customers to make more informed decisions with ease.”