Q&A: Sustainable Style With Cassandra Dittmer

22 Mar 20
It’s no surprise that the fashion industry is one of the most wasteful industries in the world. But somehow, Verishop Tastemaker Cassandra Dittmer has found her niche as a stylist who specializes in sustainability and impact-forward design solutions. Her cause is what’s attracted many of her clientele with similar values — including none other than Melinda Gates. As a contract employee through her personal affairs team at Pivotal Ventures, Gates' investment and incubation company, Dittmer has been able to take her talent and skills from the red carpet to Johannesburg, one of the stops on the philanthropist’s 2019 book tour. As Dittmer wrapped up in Berlin Fashion Week, scouting the next eco-friendly designers to add to her roster, I got to catch up with the Iowa native about where she started and where she thinks she’ll end up.

V: Tell us how you got your start in fashion.

CD: I studied Merchandising and Design in college at Iowa State, which somehow has a really good fashion program. Literally, the day after graduating, I moved to LA and there, I studied Merchandising and Design and had a bunch of internships. I did the abroad program at the London College of Fashion and my first internship ever was with Diane Von Furstenberg in New York. 

V: Did you always know that you wanted to be in this industry?

CD: I didn't know what role I wanted to play necessarily but I always knew, actually, yes. My mom, who’s my role model, is super fashionable and was always in fashion. Even growing up, I remember visiting my grandparents on the farm and my mom and I would be looking at runway shows.

We are both always such fish out of water, but it's actually funny because I feel like growing up in a place like Iowa where fashion is not prevalent and it’s almost like you kind of have to want it more. You're not just going to stumble upon a job in fashion. Everything that I ever did had to be my idea. But, yeah, my mom is definitely the reason that piqued my interest and has always pushed me to continue living that dream.

"To me, sustainability is this much more encompassing idea that the people are taken care of."

V: How did sustainability become such an important part of your work?

CD: Sustainability is something I've always cared about but I have really only put into practice in the last couple of years as far as actually changing the way I work, the way I execute professionally and personally. I really think when I went on my own, I was, by most metrics, I would say I was successful. And then at some point within the last couple of years, it just kind of clicked with me that I really wanted to gear my focus on sustainability and eco-friendly designs. It has really evolved to starting off maybe just being like, "Oh, I'd love to try to support or work with brands that are eco-friendly because it seems like the direction that the industry is going.” But it evolved being more than that; sustainability is balanced between social, environmental and economic. It's not just eco-friendly if you can make organic cotton but your workers aren’t paid properly. It might be organic but it could also be sprayed with chemicals. Now it's so buzzy. We're sort of in greenwashing now.

I think more brands are definitely trying and I love that that’s at the foresight, but to me, sustainability is this much more encompassing idea that the people are taken care of. The economics are there. The science is there. Everything is actually sustainable across all fronts. 

V: Do you apply sustainable fashion mostly to your own personal style or do you try to style your clients in sustainable names, also?

CD: I really don't take on jobs that clients aren't interested in having that be the process. There are jobs here and there that I'm doing, or maybe an existing client that hasn't used that. But in general, 95% of my work is in slow fashion and slow styling is kind of my thing. For example, I'm working on a red carpet look right now for a client and I'm working on a clutch that they should wear with the outfit. So when I was in Berlin, I met with two different clutch designers. The brand called Mimycri was founded by two women who work with refugee rafts to make bags. And so I'm designing a custom bag with them for the carpet.

V: Do you ever feel limited working solely with sustainable brands? Do you ever feel like there isn’t enough to work with or is it just an ever-growing part of fashion right now?

CD: I think it's an ever-growing part of fashion. I don't want to say I feel limited. I think sometimes I feel it's harder to align timing and resources or say I found an amazing brand but they're in Africa. Do I ship it here? I think it's less of a streamlined process. It just takes more time and more thought and more strategy and because they're typically smaller brands working with fewer resources, less availability. And it takes a bit more research but they really are there the more you dig. I feel like if anything, I feel more and more inspired.

"I was like I'm at the right table but in the wrong seat. And maybe I bring up a folding chair and sit in that."

V: Can you tell us how you ended up working with Melinda Gates?

CD: Styling the most philanthropic people in the world is the most meaningful application to styling. Taking this job had me put my money where my mouth is. So if I say that I care about these things, this job really makes sense for me.

 V: What are some things you have to consider when you're dressing someone for the red carpet versus dressing a world leader like Melinda, for example?

 CD: The biggest differences are that you're really helping them to control their narrative and it’s a much more deeper breadth of things that you're covering. You know, if you’re in a country with another world leader, what are their customs, do they have a traditional style of dress? The first job is to make sure they just don’t offend anyone and to be culturally sensitive. The goal is to actually have them not talk about what they're wearing because the subjects that they're talking about are really important.  

V: Now that the book tour is over, what are you currently working on and excited for?

CD: I have a couple of freelancers and other creatives that are working with me to build a solutions-oriented creative consulting agency. I’m going to do more of this immersive work — finding artists and figuring out ways to elevate them, make their brand sustainable. 

I almost got to a point, I remember before I took this Seattle contract where I didn't like the role that I was playing in the industry. I was like I'm at the right table but in the wrong seat. And maybe I bring up a folding chair and sit in that. I was able to say no to a lot of work this year. I think as an artist or as a stylist to be able to be like, "Oh, this job actually doesn't make sense for me. So I'm not going to do it.” Being able to create something that is actually meaningful to you, that’s something I would consider a metric of success.

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