Samantha Martin has a big problem with fast fashion — and she aims to slow it down with an e-commerce startup that promotes eco-conscious fashion brands.
Martin, 26, launched her ethical online boutique, Agathos Athleisure, selling trendy athletic and casual clothes in September 2016. The Nashville-based business owner was driven to launch her company after learning about the toll the fashion industry’s waste takes on the environment.
That toll is large. The practices behind making “fast fashion” — or apparel that is manufactured quickly to keep up with hot emerging trends at low cost — often result in water contamination, textile waste and harm to aquatic life, research shows. And that’s on top of poor conditions suffered by factory workers. The problem is “these clothes are viewed as almost disposable,” so corners are cut to keep costs low, says Martin, who previously worked at a Fortune 500 fashion company.
She launched Agathos, which acts as a distributor, buying clothing wholesale from seven brands — all small, eco-conscious fashion ventures like her own — and then selling them at a markup. By making sustainably made clothing more readily available to the masses, she hopes to inspire customers to be more mindful, in every aspect of life, about “what your dollar is supporting, what you’re eating — consumption in every sense of the word.”
Martin’s interest in fashion was sparked as a child while watching her grandmother sew. The matriarch was an expert — she made her daughter’s wedding gown and her granddaughter’s Halloween costumes and Easter dresses — and Martin liked to sit beside her and sketch designs. “It was so special, from an early age, to be surrounded by sewing machines and fabrics and textiles,” she says. She admired “the resourcefulness of it.”
That interest became a career path when she attended Middle Tennessee State University. There, she took courses on textiles, apparel and design. “It was kind of like being on ‘Project Runway’ for 4 years straight,” she says.
Then Martin took a class that centered on newer practices in the fashion industry — and it grabbed her attention. At the time, she had been more focused on keeping up with trends, than on “how clothes were actually made in mass production — what the average customer is buying, where that comes from and how it’s sourced.” The class showed her that “we don’t know, when we’re giving someone a dollar, what we’re supporting,” which might be child labor, unfit work conditions and the release of toxic chemicals into the environment.
Soon after graduating in 2014, she took a job at a big fashion company that confirmed the worst of what she had learned. “The [working] conditions of these people — it was horrible.” Entrepreneurship had been a plan for further down the road, but once her eyes were opened, she knew she had to take action quickly.
Her mission was simple: “My company was going to be the ‘anti-’ to all of this.”
In April 2016, she began working on the design of a website that would soon become home to Agathos, and conducting vendor research. “It was a very grassroots style of getting started.”
Later that year, she launched. Generating interest was tough at first, but emphasizing Agathos’ mission helped her connect with customers. They raved, for example, over a pair of leggings made from recycled bottles of water.
Just under 2 years on, her company is still small — she is its only full-time employee, though she has two part-time staffers. But she believes her work is making an impact — in addition to promoting fellow eco-conscious fashion business owners, she’s donating a portion of her proceeds to the Nashville fitness community.
Martin says that, as a young person, she saw the world through rose-colored glasses, and that it was an eye-opening experience “to see what’s happening and how products are made.”
Though that awakening came early, initially she didn’t think her age would be a problem. After all, every business owner has a first company. But she has experienced difficulties. “A lot of times when I tell people I’ve started my own business, that I run a company, they look at me like, ‘That’s cute, but what do you do to make money?’”
Some people have scoffed at her as a blonde, assuming she’s flighty and not dedicated to her work. “Overcoming that hurdle of people taking me seriously, and proving that I have a great, intelligent idea and that I can do this, I’m constantly proving that.”
But Martin gets fired up by the skepticism. “It fuels me to make this successful. I know this is a great idea and a great company.”
A Guilt-Free Shopping Hot Spot
One key to her strategy for growing the business is recruiting “brand ambassadors” — people brought on by a company to promote it across social media platforms. Agathos has 30 currently, all customers, who help her expand her reach to new communities of potential eco-conscious fashion aficionados.
Agathos’ ambassadors “love our product and message and are willing to put their name on it” in exchange for discounts and commissions from the sales they generate, Martin says. The company doesn’t require them to have a certain number of social media followers, but Martin does expect them to engage frequently with their followers. And, each ambassador must embody the principles and lifestyle that align with Agathos’ athletically fit, socially aware brand.
By the end of 2018, Martin aims to offer her own line of athleisure clothing to her inventory, while still carrying items made by others. And she’s developing a lifestyle blog that will promote health and wellness in all facets of life to site visitors. Further down the road, she wants to add swimwear and menswear collections.
Ultimately, Martin envisions her online store as becoming “a go-to location for anything you would need ethically made.” But more than that, she wants Agathos to help customers realize that wellness is “not just about being active — it’s about living well, and how to contribute to society.”