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A Zest for Responsible Fashion: Mollie Miller of Zest Dressed

These days, secondhand selling via Instagram has become so ubiquitous that’s it’s impossible to scroll through the app without feeling like you are browsing through eBay (or an online listing for an estate sale)—strewn amongst your friends’ photos/videos of their pets, babies, sunset views, etc., there’s a Tina Turner World Tour T-shirt from 1987 ($200), a pinball machine from the ‘70s (“DM for price”), a mid-century modern ceramic vase ($80), a sizeable, colorful lot of My Little Pony action figures from the mid-‘80s ($120), etc. I am not complaining, though! We at RIVA New York are huge proponents of secondhand shopping. The more people selling and buying secondhand or vintage, the better for the planet!

There’s one thing about this space that bothers me to a certain degree, though: it seems like there’s a lot of missed opportunities on the sellers’ part to tell stories that not only engage customers but also educate and influence them that vintage or secondhand shopping is the greener way to shop. They hunt for the items, list them, collect the money, mark them as sold, and that’s it! I am not one to tar and feather a good hustle, of course—we gotta do what we gotta do to make a living. But I am hoping that, given these sellers proliferated during the height of the pandemic, their ventures borne out of the need for supplemental income and/or the need to tackle boredom, this shortcoming is only because they simply did not have the time or the luxury of forethought to craft messaging around their intent to promote an eco-sensitive lifestyle. There is this teeny-tiny gnawing hypervigilance inside me, though, that maybe most of them just don’t have that intent to begin with, and they’re just in it for the aesthetics or, worse, for almost the same capitalist reasons that fuel the fast fashion machine that secondhand shopping is supposed to counter.

Which is why when I first found out about the stylist, designer, writer, and curator Mollie Miller, who goes by the handle @zestdressed on Instagram, it was like a whiff of fresh air. I first stumbled upon her via her #ThriftyThursday Instagram Stories sessions through which she sells standout vintage finds from her favorite secondhand stores around New York, and which, by popular demand, soon graduated to Instagram Live format. On Instagram, her Website, and every single platform where she is featured, Mollie is refreshingly transparent about the intent behind this endeavor: having worked in the fashion industry for years, and having borne firsthand witness to the horrors of wastefulness in fashion production, she has taken it upon herself to become a champion in “shifting people’s perception of buying secondhand,” with the goal of steering more and more today’s consumers’ purchasing power away from supporting the harms of new production, and of stimulating more and more people to make conscious efforts to keep clothes from entering landfills. What’s neat about her messaging is that there’s a natural buoyancy that shines through, and they are more supple than studied—no portentous philosophizing, no self-aggrandizing. It’s just like you’re talking to an old friend! And almost always they are accompanied by a visual pizzazz that is approachable and that really elevates the secondhand items she is featuring to new heights (see her Instagram Stories Highlights for reference). Another thing that makes her stand out is that every sale from these sessions beelines to the vintage and secondhand shops that she features—none of them go to her pocket! And where she cannot be physically present to support a shop, she still finds ways to promote their items via other avenues—through the “Vintage Edit” section of her Website, for example, in which she, with scalpel-like precision, curates the best secondhand options currently listed in the deepest corners of the internet (and organized by theme, so that her readers don’t have to do all the digging)!
Designer Mollie Miller of Zest Dressed wears a split cardigan from her own upcycled collection with RIVA New York jewelry

New York based designer and stylist Mollie Miller of Zest Dressed shows us her favorite pieces from her collections and styles them with RIVA New York jewelry

Mollie Miller of Zest Dressed wears a Split Cardigan from her Fragments Collection, and styles it with RIVA New York’s Sunset Recycled Glass Bead Necklace (with a High-Polish Cushion-Shaped Invisible Clasp in Sterling Silver, a Citrus Wedge Charm in Sterling Silver and Lime Enamel, and Moody Charm in Gold Vermeil). She is also wearing our Two-Tone Wall Street Bracelet (paired with a Marquise-Shaped Invisible Clasp in Gold Vermeil and White Enamel) and our Citrus Wedge Ring in Sterling Silver and Orange Enamel.

When it comes to the reasons to appreciate Mollie and the work that she does, the list goes, almost interminably, on, so I’m going to have to stop myself at some point before I take up too much space. One thing I can say, though, is that if today’s secondhand selling space presents a complicated power dynamic between those who are cavalier about intent and those who actually care, with people like Mollie representing the latter, well, that just quells my nerves.

All that is just half of the story, though. Very recently, Zest Dressed has expanded to become a full-on-brand (although Mollie will probably be the first to object to that term), going beyond secondhand selling and delving into original design and upcycled territories, keeping production local to support her favorite New York-based artisans and vendors who share her passion for sustainability. Piloted throughout by everything she learned in school (she is a graduate of Parsons School of Design), her 10+ years of experience in the fashion industry, and the visceral intensity of her purpose, Mollie’s small-batch collections instantly became hits among her followers. My favorites: a collection of size-inclusive poncho-style shirts made of remnant fabric (100% organic cotton) and dyed using only sustainably- and ethically-sourced natural dyes (from Hanoux); a collection of repurposed knits featuring upcycled cable sweaters, mock-neck sweaters and scarves, also dyed using the abovementioned natural dyes; a collection of “split cardigans” (which she calls the Fragments Collection), each one constructed from two vintage cardigans (and then embellished with custom embroidery); a collection of prairie-style “detached” collars made from post-consumer fabrics; a collection of bags—handbags, crossbody bags and fanny packs—made from vintage silk scarves and deadstock fabric; a collection of sandals (which she calls "Scrappy Sandals") made from remnant fabric from FABSCRAP (a textile recycling nonprofit). With these collections, Mollie hopes to present options to her customers and fans who are still on the fence about secondhand shopping, but who want to get a head start on building a more responsible closet.

Designer Mollie Miller of Zest Dressed wears her own designs with RIVA New York Jewelry

New York based sustainable designer and stylist Mollie Miller wears her Coco Collar with RIVA New York jewelry

Mollie Miller of Zest Dressed wears a Coco Collar from her collection of "detached" collars, made from post-consumer and remnant fabrics, and styles it with RIVA New York’s Wall Street Necklace in Sterling Silver (paired with a Heart-Shaped Invisible Clasp in Sterling Silver and Purple Enamel, and a Daisy Charm in Sterling Silver and White/Yellow Enamel). She is also wearing our Script Initial on White Enamel Pendant Necklace in Sterling Silver, our Madison Paper Clip Chain Bracelet with Celestial Charms in Sterling Silver, and our Moody Stud Earrings in Sterling Silver.

We sat down with Mollie to learn more about Zest Dressed, her overall vision, her creative process, and where she finds the motivation to keep fighting for what she believes in. Bonus: we also asked her to model her own designs, and style them with her favorite RIVA New York pieces!

RIVA New York: What inspired you to launch Zest Dressed?

Mollie Miller: “The fashion industry, like most businesses, is all about producing in the quickest and cheapest way possible to increase profits. I have seen firsthand how this style of manufacturing and doing business creates so much waste and promotes the exploitation of workers at all levels. On top of that, speedy lead times do not usually produce high-quality, well-designed merchandise that can last lifetimes. On the other side of the coin, though, many of the most sustainable alternatives I can find, as a consumer, don't feel the most trend-forward. Zest Dressed is my attempt to prove that locally- and ethically-made product can also be on trend!”

Tell us about your ethos.

“The most sustainable way to shop is buying secondhand products. I want to always be upfront about that in building my brand. That's why I promote thrifting through tips in my newsletter, my ‘Vintage Edits’ which I publish on my website, and my #ThriftyThursday Instagram Stories sales. We need to consider where our money is going when we buy something, so even when shopping secondhand we must ask ourselves: ‘Is there a small, woman-owned business we can check out?’ In terms of the product I create, I'm always thinking about how I source each component and technique, and how to best leverage my connections with local production partners to create something well-made, and to support them along the way. When I'm sourcing materials, I'm doing my best to use leftovers, either from my own thrifting or from FABSCRAP—even down to my linings and trims. This tends to limit my options for what I can make, but I find that challenge to be a fun puzzle to solve while designing. This way my customers can rest assured that, by supporting me, they’re also supporting the thrift shops and local small businesses I am commissioning to produce.”

Designer and stylist Molly Miller of Zest Dressed shows us her favorite thrifted items and styles them with RIVA New York Jewelry

Mollie Miller of Zest Dressed wears some of her favorite thrifted items and styles them with a RIVA New York Cobble Recycled Glass Necklace (paired with a Flat Paper Clip Invisible Clasp in Gold Vermeil and Green Enamel, a Smoky Quartz Charm in 14K yellow gold, and Moody Charm in Gold Vermeil). She is also wearing our Classic Hoop Earrings in 14K Yellow Gold.

The sustainable Scrappy Sandals from Zest Dressed; also in this picture is the RIVA New York Moody Ring in gold vermeil and Madison paper clip charm bracelet

Mollie Miller of Zest Dressed shows us her Scrappy Sandals made from remnant fabrics from FABSCRAP. In this photo she is wearing RIVA New York’s Madison Paper Clip Chain Bracelet with Circle Charms in Gold Vermeil, as well as our Moody Ring in Gold Vermeil.

"When I'm sourcing materials, I'm doing my best to use leftovers, either from my own thrifting or from FABSCRAP—even down to my linings and trims. This tends to limit my options for what I can make, but I find that challenge to be a fun puzzle to solve while designing. This way my customer can rest assured that, by supporting me, they’re also supporting the thrift shops and local small businesses I am commissioning to produce."
- MOLLIE MILLER, DESIGNER AND OWNER, ZEST DRESSED

How has Zest Dressed been received by customers?

“My customers are often more trend-conscious than they are eco-conscious, but I am finding they are getting progressively more interested to hear more about where and how everything is made. I think the most fun I had talking to customers was at Regeneration in Williamsburg, which is a great market to check out with a lot of amazing vintage collectors/resellers. Sometimes I get DMs about when I will be restocking my silk bags made of vintage scarves, so I am currently working on just that! It's really the best feeling to get any feedback from customers. I've gotten some messages that are just, like, 'I gave my mom your socks for her birthday, and she loves them!' Or, 'I see what you're doing and I'm here for it!' And it's all so appreciated, and really gives me the motivation to keep going.”

What are your favorite Zest Dressed pieces?

“I love my Scrappy Sandals the most because I am so proud of how comfortable they are. I've always wanted trendy sandals, with a moulded-cork insole and a block heel, so the fact that I was able to make them locally and use scrap fabric is a huge accomplishment for me. I wear them every day as soon as it gets warm. They are mostly made-to-order, but I have found customers really respond to them well in when they can try them on in person, so I try to always bring them with me to pop-ups. I mostly credit their amazing quality to finding the best production partner in Hoboken: a small studio called Heykes. My other favorite piece is the Zoom Cape, which I wear a lot since I work from home primarily. But I think I'll start to switch more to the Coco Collar…in the coming fall, especially! I'm excited to wear it over sweaters.”

Molly Miller of Zest Dressed wearing her sustainable Zoom Cape; she styles it with RIVA New York jewelry

Mollie Miller of Zest Dressed wears a Zoom Cape from her collection of sustainably- and ethically-made capelets, and styles it with RIVA New York’s Luna Recycled Glass Bead Necklace (paired with a Carabiner-Shaped Invisible Clasp in Sterling Silver and a Tilted Cushion Clear Quartz Charm in Sterling Silver). She is also wearing our Classic Hoop Earrings in 14K yellow gold, our Citrus Wedge Ring in Sterling Silver and Lemon Yellow Enamel, and our Madison Paper Clip Chain Bracelet in Sterling Silver.

Zest Dressed's fanny pack made from vintage scarves; also in this photo is RIVA New York's curb chain bracelet in gold vermeil

Mollie Miller of Zest Dressed shows us one of her fanny packs made from vintage scarves and fabric scraps. In this photo she is wearing RIVA New York’s Bowery Curb Chain Bracelet in Gold Vermeil, as well as our Moody Ring in Gold Vermeil.

Tell us a little about your creative process.

“To be honest I am always thinking about trends, and analyzing why something looks fresh versus dated. That's where I get my inspiration and drive to start any project. For example, I recently noticed I was gravitating towards anything with a zip-up mock neck, and that made me want to update our ponchos. Then I went sourcing for fabric and trims, and then started designing from there, based on what was available. I love to create pieces that hit the current or incoming trends, but that are also classic enough to wear for many seasons to come, and that's the lens through which I design.”

What is your message for aspiring designers and creatives who want to go the upcycled or responsible fashion route?

“It's a difficult route in many ways to be upcycling because there is no guarantee you can get more of any one material, and it's a struggle especially when you're trying to keep production local so you have oversight to see what's going on. You have to have oversight because, unfortunately, sometimes materials can be earmarked as sustainable when they actually aren't. Customers don't understand how the sausage is made, and in many ways it's on us to educate as we create. I think it's important to be transparent not just with consumers, but with other designers, as well, and share how you are making everything. Stop being gatekeepers, and share who you are working with and how you are getting your materials. Hopefully customers will start expecting this from everywhere they shop—which they should! If you find a great local supplier or manufacturer, and want them to stay in business, why keep it a secret? That's my number one piece of advice, which really goes against the status quo, and most brands don't share this information for a reason. Another reward for sharing all of this will come later, because when you share your ‘tricks of the trade,’ fellow designers will be more at ease to share theirs with you!”

Article, interview and photographs by Angelo dela Cruz

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