• Ariel Green

Advocating for Prison Reform through Sustainable Fashion with Kimberly McGlonn, Grant Blvd Founder


Sustainability is not just about what we can do for the planet, it's also about what we can do for the humans living on it. Many brands claim to care about social justice issues, but few actually incorporate it into their mission. What we love about today's guest is that not only is she creating a sustainable fashion brand, but she also uses her platform to advocate for prison reform.


Today's featured sustainable brown girl is Kimberly McGlonn, founder of Grant Blvd, a sustainable apparel brand. Kimberly is a defender of civil and human rights, which is supported by Grant Blvd's mission to make clothes that are stylish, while centering on an approach to design within the


fight for justice and reform.


Shop Grant Blvd

Follow Grant Blvd on Instagram

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LISTEN HERE: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Play | Watch on YouTube


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TRANSCRIPTION:


Ariel:

Hello, and welcome back to the Sustainable Brown Girl podcast. This show exists to connect black, brown and indigenous women who are interested in sustainability. Our goal is to inspire, encourage and educate each other; from gardening to thrifting, to minimalism, to veganism and everywhere in between. We're all on a journey to taking care of our bodies and our planet. I'm your host, Ariel Green.


Sustainability is not just about what we can do for the planet. It's also about what we can do for the humans living on it. Many brands claim to care about social justice issues, but few actually incorporate it into their mission. What we love about today's guest is that not only is she creating a sustainable fashion brand, but she's also using her platform to advocate for prison reform.


Today's featured sustainable brown girl is Kimberly McGlonn, founder of Grant Blvd, Kimberly i


s a defender of civil and human rights, which is supported by Grant Blvd's mission to make clothes that are stylish, while centering on an approach to design within the fight for justice and reform. Thanks so much for joining us today, Kimberly.


Kimberly:

You are so welcome, I'm so happy to be in conversation with you.


Ariel:

Yes. I always like to start with finding out how your sustainable journey began?


Kimberly:

It began really as a means to an end. For me it was, how do I leverage what I'm coming to understand might've been Oprah uses the language calling, and I think that it kind of works and listening to how she's defined it. But this calling to figure out how to shift conversation around pathways for folks who were formerly incarcerated, particularly in terms of thinking about the ways in which they face some serious barriers to figuring out how to find their way back into a healthier and not often healthier landscape. And so much of that is built on access to employment and teams of people who can acknowledge their conviction so that there isn't a climate of shame, but also see that, you know, all of us are more than the worst thing that we did.


Ariel:

Yes.


Kimberly:

And so sustainable design right, was an approach to how to do that, like how to create those jobs. I was thinking about storytelling, I was an English major in undergrad thinking about textiles and color and those are the things that have always excited me so much the intersection of story and color. And I thought that maybe fashion could be a lane for me. I've been a teacher for so long, I knew that teaching wasn't going to be that lane. And I started kind of thinking about the fashion industry and really actually examining it just through self-study. It was like super obvious from very early on that if I wanted to get involved, it couldn't be in a way that replicated what I saw as being the source of so much harm. And so the language, this framework of thinking about sustainability was the only way for me.


Ariel:

Wow! So, trying to help people coming out of prison is what led you to starting to think about sustainable fashion?


Kimberly:

Yup!


Ariel:

Wow! That's really interesting.


Kimberly:

Yes. Certainly, I think of it as wonderfully peculiar.


Ariel:

Yes, definitely. What made you be interested in prison reform or helping people coming out of prison?


Kimberly:

That's another good question, it was something that was always in my purview of, okay, this is America. And then in 2016, I was able to see it with a different kind of clarity because of what Ava Duvernay put together in the documentary 13th. So that documentary, it laid there for me, all of these chains that really helped for me to see the narrative arch of America from a wider lens. And then to see the levels with which; it's not just that black people have been enslaved, it's the ways in which all of these institutions have protected themselves through all of this over and subtle support of white supremacy. And the system of incarceration is just another way, which it particularly hurts my soul, because what I recognize is, and this is… I'm from the North side of Milwaukee so this isn't just from Ava Duvernay’s 13th, I'm from a city, which has one of the most persistent struggles with residential segregation, the most persistent struggles with high population densities of folks who were formally incarcerated and living in close proximity to one another, just perennially locked out collectively. But I think that for me, it was just, “Okay, how do I show up for black folk?” As a black woman, how do I figure out how to just leverage my time and talents in a more intentional way? And it had nothing to do with like an audience of people. When I said I wanted to move into sustainable fashion, people were like, yes, the same question, “Why do you care about incarceration so much? You are not an incarcerated person, your parents didn't experience incarceration.”


And it really paused and made me think about that's one way of looking at my story, but no, I've had cousins and dear friends who've been incarcerated. And even beyond that, I come from a community of people who oftentimes just living is an act of criminality. All the things that are just living becomes criminalized and I’ve broke the law. I didn't go, I wasn't arrested, I wasn't charged, I wasn't convicted, I didn't go serve jail time, but I’ve broke the law and I've transgressed as so many of us have.


I think just having a real humble sense of self-awareness is one thing that made me think differently about mass incarceration and reform and that lens. But it, it shows up, throughout my life, I've been a teacher for a long time teaching courses about marginalization, the American Story and so, that kind of lens for thinking about just reality has always been a part of my reality.


But when I said I wanted to do sustainable fashion, people were like, “Why do you care about reform so much in that way?” And, “Why do you care about sustainability so much in that way?” And, “What qualifies you to think about design?” And, that was a significant; and I haven't talked about this actually that much, that's been a significant... That was in the beginning at least, and maybe it's growing into less now, a barrier to just realizing my own potential and for getting people to believe in this wonderfully peculiar idea I had. That maybe we could build something that was excellent across the board and, just really how I’m purposeful and intentional and strategic in thinking about design.


Ariel:

Wow! I love that. Now let's talk about Grant Blvd and what you've built with your brand and where you want it to go.


Kimberly:

Yes. I love that word “built” that past tense you used, because if you think of very much so; building as in the present.


Ariel:

Alright. Okay.


Kimberly:

But no, we are building, I hope to believe a movement in thought leadership around, I mean on the surface level, it's okay let's really be more transparent about how we're thinking about sourcing. I think that's where I think the current conversation in sustainability sits and that frustrates me too. Because what it does is it allows for companies to center their accountability in terms of what consumers are aware of in these really, veiled conversations about just environment, which doesn't at all get to people. It doesn't at all acknowledge the ways in which so much of how our clothing is produced is still a product of a system of manufacturing, which is rooted in exploiting people.


What I'd like to imagine that we're building is not just the thought leadership and ultimately a brand that is so clear about how it's approaching all of these pressing core level values that people shop us first. They don't even think to look to other brands because they decided that just thinking about sustainability is actually just not enough. Ethics has another value and I hope that what we're building is a brand that beyond those values is so aesthetically valuable that there's just the design alone is enough to tell people and make people recognize that as a black woman led design team, that we're cooking with some sauce.


Ariel:

Yes! love it. On your website, you have a few like reclaimed or screen printed t-shirts and you also have some original designs too. Can you tell us more about the things that you sell?


Kimberly:

Yes, I think of all of it as original design. I think that when we think about how we approach screen printing, when we're sourcing reclaimed goods, reclaim garments specifically, we're trying to figure out what's an excellent condition? How are these fabrics feeling? How do these fabrics move? How do we use the garments that we find to tell a cohesive new story that communicates through the written language, what it is that we care about. And those garments are one of one. There's a lot of thought that goes into, what is the color? What's the color combinations that we're creating? How do they kind of fit together? And there's some intentionality there. And in that way thinking about how we approach our remixes, which is our line that we call GB Zero, which is zero waste, that too is a very time intensive, thought intensive approach to how do we give something that has been deemed maybe undesirable and maybe at the end of its life cycle, new value that is only uniquely communicated through our lens as black women designers. And so that is also another part of just like of a challenge. Most designers go to school and they learn how to build from fabrics that they've chosen and prints that they've designed. And when you're not working with that, when you're actually working within someone else's lines, which is ultimately, I mean, I never thought about it before, but it's kind of an interesting metaphor for America. Where we, as people who are thinking about change agency or playing within the confines of a design that we didn't create, and we're trying to figure out how do we reimagine it and give it new life. And that is what we're using our brand to do, but through the lens of garment construction and fashion design. So that's a part of what we do. And the other thing that we do is we do sometimes choose to play with, sustainably sourced fabrics, which is a spectrum. We talk about how we understand sustainability in fashion and what that spectrum includes. And for us, it includes playing with in this last collection for the first time, some organic cotton twills, playing for the first time with some tensile, playing for the first time with some dead stock, which sits along that range of what does sustainable design look like. And that's an adventure for us, it's a playground for us. And the aspiration is always to make decisions that we can defend.


Ariel:

Yes. Wow! So how do you source your materials?


Kimberly:

It's about being really intentional about like that idea of storytelling. So it's, figuring out, up until now, it's been like partnering with the Salvation Army, partnering with local consignment shops that support sometimes the women's center in Montgomery County, which is close to where we are in Philadelphia. And then, staying within a pretty narrow radius of our storefront, again, thinking about carbon foot-printing and really trying to source things as locally as possible. That's a big part of what we aspire to do. And then looking forward, you talked about where the brand's going, partnering with other companies to figure out how we can do it in an ever more kind of innovative, fresh ways. I don't know what the universe has in store for us, but I think there's some really fly stuff on the horizon.


Ariel:

Yes, definitely. I was actually looking at a particular design that you had, and I saw that it was dyed with natural… I forget what it was, exactly.


Kimberly:

Purple onion skin.


Ariel:

Yes. Wow. How was that?


Kimberly:

We had…Our team is…Size is all a relative thing, small, mighty, very South Philly. Our art are in South Philly, our storefronts in West Philly. And, each, I think of it as like Marvel, like every person has their own superpower and one of the members of our team, her superpower is dying. That's just what she does very well. And so she was saying…and the other thing we do is like a team is thinking about how do we nurture each other's talents? I function as the brand director and the CEO director of sustainability and impact, we're super small so we're doing all those things. Our director of design and production, her philosophy has always been, we work better as a team when we all feel like the soil that we're in is being water and that we're able to kind of showcase and develop the things that we're passionate about. And so, when someone from the team was like, I really want to play in dyes and Veda was like, “Hey, bring it, what does that look like for you in this collection, in this season, in this pandemic?” And it was like, okay, we have this lyocell what if we played with some hand dipping Dyeing techniques that might create a veining that will look really, really nice with what might be appear to be a variety of a flesh tone, right. Recognizing that there isn't one flesh tone. So that was the experiment and we just empowered her to have fun. And I think that, that's another thing that makes our approach to design interesting is that this is what, I hope, and I think that my team would say that there's a lot of buy-in because there's a lot of room for self-expression and for play.


Ariel:

Yes, absolutely. And the dresses that were dyed with the onions are just gorgeous. I love them.


Kimberly:

And they feel like a second skin. They feel like, I mean, there's an amazing quality. That is, that's the sweet spot of weighted and light that feels like… I don't know and there's a sensuality to the fabric once it's been manipulated with that purple onion skin and that's an experience.


Ariel:

Yes. Wow. That's awesome. Do you have any other designs coming out soon?


Kimberly:

Always. One thing I didn't know about fashion because I don't come from a family of designers and I wasn't trained in an undergraduate program or a graduate program in textile design or garment manufacturing, or all of those technical terms. One thing I've learned is just how… And we actually, as a small company that cares about slow fashion, I think we're kind of protected from it. And as black women who are just really in a moment of just like we do what we want to do, when we want to do it, it doesn't feel quite so vicious, but there still is an inherent industry pressure to keep figuring out… And this is, I think the struggle for creatives in general, what are you going to produce next? And how is it going to kind of ultimately either we'll do two things, like both connect to what you've done before and show a new elevation of what you've done before. And that's a lot of pressure. So yes, we're working through our new collection for this summer, still going to be warm weather. We do a cool weather collection, we do warm weather collection, encouraging people to shop what feels good and not what is, what transcends anything other than climate. And what we're playing with this warm weather is it's actually, it's a series. So it has three elements, it will go through three movements. And I hope that when everyone sees it evolving, it feels like a symphony. And I think that each movement in the symphony speaks to something that is very much so heavy on my heart in terms of what I'm observing in the world and America and the fashion industry specifically. And I feel like I hope it communicates our ever-evolving sense of liberation and celebration for the triumphs that we have transcended, that we're still working through transcending struggles that we're trying to transcend specifically.


Ariel:

Yes, exactly. I guess that brings me to my next question. What is your ultimate goal with Grant Blvd? As far as it come, as far as like social issues go.


Kimberly:

I was just looking at a quote by Mae Jemison, the astronaut, and she was saying, “You can't let your imagination be limited by other people's imagination.” And I think that's something I'm always kind of figuring out, you know, in, in terms of setting our eye on what we do as a brand. I mean, I think that one thing that's for sure is that the biggest thing I'd like to do with the brand is I'd like to continue to grow a cohesive community of people who are thinking about these intersections that impacts sustainable, there's a planet impact and people impact. But I also hope that we can be really intentional about bringing ever more BIPOC people into a sense of access and excitement around sustainable design. I want them to see us as a brand that, where they feel like they are centered, and I think that that's something I'm really super excited about.


I'm really excited about always, like we always have these strategic goals about growing our sales and about growing our visibility and growing our number of followers. There's all of those metrics of like sustain a sustainable business. But ultimately I really hope that we can not just be a beacon of light in Philadelphia, but be a beacon of light in cities all across the country where there are high populations of folks who are falling incarcerated and an ever growing need for leadership from the business sector who are thinking about a values driven approach to the way forward.


Ariel:

Yes. I love that. And I think that the products that you offer are very inspiring because they have a certain look to them that you can't really find in other fashion companies, it definitely has a unique feel. And then also knowing that you have the social issues that you're trying to not fix, but...


Kimberly:

Just be mindful of. Right?


Ariel:

Exactly. I just think that what you're doing is amazing. How can we help Grant Blvd grow?


Kimberly:

I think that… It goes back to those ideas as we think about this way forward and companies that are being really mindful about making sure that the team is paid, everyone on our team is paid a living wage. And even still, when I think about what our average hourly rate is, I'm aspired to double it. I want working for Grant Blvd to be so delicious that not only do we attract the top talent from folks who are formerly incarcerated, but from all people. I think the help that we need from the community of people who are listening to and have been with you on your journey to build an incredible platform is to follow us, and to celebrate us through like their stories, which requires social capital, but not necessarily always financial capital.


And I think that I would really like for them to when they're thinking about when you all are thinking about buying a new garment, that you center us at the top of that list of where you're going to go, and that you give us like a first right of refusal. Recognizing that as a small slow company and that makes a lot of one-on-one garments, things sell out quickly. And so, we would really appreciate and have a deep respect for your patience with us as we figure out how to… We're just growing, we're growing really quickly and so, we would love for you to have you join us on this journey, follow us, share our story and your stories shop with us. If you're in Philly specifically, if you're in West Philly Friday night, Saturday, Sunday, slide through say, hello, we'd love to meet you. And yes, those are great ways of kind of amplifying our story. If you're a writer write about us, if you're a graphic artist, draw a design and post that, there's so many ways of leveraging your natural time and talents, which is what you're doing right now in the service of feeding, fertilizing, giving light and water to beautiful new organic things.


Ariel:

Yes, absolutely. You have of course your online store, but you also have a brick and mortar store too?


Kimberly:

We do. We launched our brick and mortar. Actually, we kind of secured this space last February and we were planning on opening in March and, the world changed. And so we were really nimble and we just decided what's going to be our pivot. We had met all of our production goals, even in March and in April it was like, “Do we launch a collection that seems so wild for right now? And we would be talking about fashion.” And then we were like, “No, the way forward has to be laid right now, we can't put off presenting our story of what the way forward could look like.” We launched the collection, we shot it in our storefront before it was populated with any fixtures or anything else.


And then in July of last year, we opened the brick and mortar for the first time. And now we're getting ready for another big step for us. We're moving from our first studio space into one that's twice the size of the space that we currently work in. And it will actually be functioning as a second retail location in a different part of the city. It's beautiful. It’s a lot of work, but I think that there's a growing tide of folks like us, you know, everyone who's listening, you and I who are really not ready to quit.


Ariel:

Yes. So true. Congrats on your second location, that's amazing.


Kimberly:

It is incredibly amazing.


Ariel:

Alright. Now, one last question I want to ask is for people who are looking to transition their wardrobe to be more sustainable, do you have any tips on how they can do that?


Kimberly:

So many tips. One tip is to do swaps with…I mean, this is really thinking about both what's budget friendly and what's closet and curation thoughtful. There are so many people, first in our families and families like the family that you were born into and the family of your own construction. I want everybody to know when I say the word family, I'm thinking really liberally about that term and in whatever language fits your narrative. My story of my family is non-traditional and I don't have a lot of excitement about that. I think one way that we can create these sustainable closets is by going into the spaces of our aunties and our mothers and our grandmothers, and seeing what aren't you wearing anymore gram? What are you not wearing anymore aunty, sister, cousin, brother? How can we be playful? And the same time offering that up to them. I have some stuff that I'm not really feeling anymore, let's do a swap. That could be a really immediate kind of intimate swap and that swap can extend to your outside circles as well. Your friend groups, your home girls, your homeboys, we’re thinking even broadly about gender. I also want to say, this is not a gender, fashion is only gender to the extent that it works for our bodies and our moods and our seasons of life. Your homeboy, home girl might have something that will be super fresh on you that you're sleeping on because you're married to these outdated notion. Let’s level up, it's 2021, we're leveling up.


I think that's one thing to think about. I think another thing to think about is, thinking about the consignment lane, the Goodwill, the Salvation Army, there are pieces there for sure that need a second life. And so that's another way of thinking about how to curate a closet. And then I think the third thing is being ever more intentional about trying to plan ahead, all of us are sometimes caught up in needing to make shopping choices out of convenience. And I think that for me, my personal ambition for 2021 is to try to do a better job working with my daughter. How do we just plan what we need a little bit more ahead so we're not so reliant on big companies that we know have a lot of problematic practices. And if we can plan ahead, then we can be ever more intentional about shopping with brands like Grant Blvd.


Ariel:

Yes. Awesome. Those are great tips.


Kimberly:

I think, they are great tips too.


Ariel:

Yes. Alright, Kimberly. Well, it's almost time to wrap this up, so let everyone know where they can find the Grant Blvd online.


Kimberly:

That is a great thing. And I'm happy to do that. You can follow us on Instagram at Grant Blvd, G R A N T B LVD. You can find us on our website, which is the same name, www.grantblvd.com. If you're in Philly, you can find us on 36 in Lancaster in a really fresh re-imagined car garage. And let me think, is there any other place that you can find us? No, but you can get updates either by following us or subscribing to our newsletter. I encourage you to do that. We do throw a discount out there if you join team Grant Blvd so, I also encourage you to do that. But you don't even need to worry about that discount because I'm going to give you all a special discount code. I will send along… Sustainable Brown Girl will be your discount code. Does that work for you?


Ariel:

That works awesome.


Kimberly:

Perfect. So you will, I will add that discount code and up and through, let's say maybe April 1st, which gives you guys a few weeks to do some shopping around, some playing. I will make sure that if you shop and use discount codes, Sustainable Brown Girl, you will get 15% off.


Ariel:

Yes! Do it! Go by yourself some Grant Blvd. Awesome. Love it. Thank you so much for joining us today Kimberly. You are doing amazing work and I can't wait to see where your brand goes.


Kimberly:

Let's go!


Ariel:

Thank you.


Kimberly

Thanks for having me.


Ariel:

Thank you so much for listening to the Sustainable Brown Girl podcast. Be sure to subscribe and share it if you loved it and leave a review. You can find us on Instagram @sustainablebrowngirl and check out our Facebook community, we would love to have you there. Until next time, let's continue to make healthy choices for the health of our planet and the health of our bodies. Thanks for listening.

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