Meet the Designer Behind Tonlé, the Inner Richmond’s Zero-Waste Boutique
If you keep up with news about the fashion industry, you know that fashion has a pollution problem. And if you follow the San Francisco maker scene, you know there are a lot of folks in the city who are trying to make cleaner alternatives. But few of those have dedicated their careers to sustainable fashion like Rachel Faller.
Faller is an entrepreneur and creator who has worked in ethical fashion for more than ten years. After earning her BFA in fiber from the Maryland Institute College of Art, she moved to Cambodia on a Fulbright fellowship to research sustainable fashion and fair trade. That research led her to start her first ethical fashion brand in 2008, which was reborn in 2013 as tonlé—Cambodia’s first zero-waste fashion brand.
Plenty of brands peddle greenwashing propaganda around their collections, but Faller can back up tonlé’s practices with facts. Her team sources fabric remnants discarded by large manufacturers to create their designs, and uses all of their own scraps for a zero-waste line. Of their sourced fabrics, large pieces are cut into tonlé basics, and small scraps are hand-knit and woven into new textiles. Through that process, tonlé saves 10,000kg of textiles, 70,000kg of CO2, 200kg of pesticides, and 46,296,600 gallons of water each year.
Today, Fuller works with a production team of 35, sells to retail stockists in 10 countries, and runs a brick and mortar store in San Francisco’s Inner Richmond district. Below, she shares more about what it’s like to run her sustainable business here in the Bay Area, and what she does when she isn’t trying to save the planet through eco-friendly design.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Rockyt: How would you describe your shop?
Rachel Faller: We are a store filled with ethical treasures for the enlightened woman. We aim to make clothing that makes you feel good inside and out…[and] brings you into our community of strong women who want to change the world.
Rockyt: When did you open tonlé?
Rachel: I started my first iteration of this brand in 2008. For the first eight years I lived in Cambodia, building the brand through retail shops and wholesale. In 2014, the original brand was reformed as tonlé, and we launched our e-commerce site. Our Clement Street location is our first retail boutique in the US, and I am proud to have our US headquarters, studio, and flagship boutique in this beautiful neighborhood.
Rockyt: Do you have prior experience in retail?
Rachel: I have over ten years’ experience, and I opened five retail locations in Cambodia under my previous brand as well as tonlé. These shops catered to international travelers for the most part, but we carried products that they might want to wear at home as well, (rather than just your typical tourist souvenir). This gave me a pretty broad idea of what the retail market might be like in different countries, as we had customers from all around the world.
Rockyt: Why did you decide to open a store?
Rachel: Our Clement Street location is both our design studio, headquarters and retail location. Because our products are so tactile and the story so personal, it is really great to have a place where people can come to see the products in person. It’s wonderful to connect directly with the community of people who support our work, too, and get direct feedback about how to improve our products. The store allows us to test new products and get people’s immediate reaction.
Rockyt: Why did you choose the Inner Richmond?
Rachel: We had initially partnered with an existing neighborhood boutique to have a pop-up shop, and the owner asked if we’d like to take over the store permanently. (Much of what tonlé does was in line with her original ethos for the space as well.) We love the Inner Richmond for its dedication to local businesses, a great neighborhood vibe, and a family-oriented atmosphere.
Rockyt: Talk to me about eco-fashion. This sector has evolved from crunchy-granola-hemp-everything into major brands embracing sustainable materials. What role do you see eco-fashion playing in retail over the next ten years?
Rachel: In the ten years that I have been working in the space, things have changed dramatically. When I started my first brand, there was very little on the market at all internationally for affordable, ethically-made fashion that would be wearable on a daily basis. Now, there are so many smaller and larger players in the space which is exciting to see! My hope is that the efforts of the pioneers in this movement who have worked so hard to get this ball rolling don’t get eclipsed by the giants who are trying to get into the space.
It’s great to see larger brands taking a stand, but consumers need to be wary of greenwashing that exists and still try to do their research on who’s really all in and who’s just jumping onto the green wave because it’s on trend. Ideally, we’d live in a world where you didn’t have to advertise being green at all; it’s just something that would be expected. We’re still a long way from that and we need to keep pushing the word out there about how things can be done differently, but things are headed in a positive direction.
Rockyt: What’s the best thing about owning your own shop?
Rachel: Having a store allows me to express my creativity in a tangible way, from merchandising to window displays. It’s nice to be able to work with your hands and see things come to life in person. I spend so much of my time on the computer that this is a really nice break.
Rockyt: What’s the hardest part of doing business in San Francisco?
Rachel: Specific to San Francisco, our store is too cold! We’re on the shady side of the street, and it makes a big difference. But all kidding aside, I think there are some pretty big challenges with retail now that small business owners are dealing with. Costs are high in San Francisco, but we’re competing with online giants who are known to cut costs as much as possible by operating in low cost areas and underpaying workers. Independent boutiques offer something that they can’t: experiences and personal touch in a way that contributes to community and provides something different. Still, I think we’re all feeling the pressure in a very real way.
Rockyt: Tell me about your day. When do you get up? When do you go to work? What do day-to-day activities look like?
Rachel: Every day can vary so much! I usually start work at home with a cup of coffee in hand on my front porch in the Presidio. By 10 am, I’m usually at the office above our store or working in the store. I often go for a long walk or even a climb in the middle of the day, especially if I have to work at night. My team in Cambodia starts their day at 6 pm my time, so often I’m having to take calls with them from 6-8 pm to discuss design and production.
Any given day, I’m usually working on a range of activities including designing new products, marketing materials, and content creation. Sometimes I’m doing photoshoots, sometimes working on social media. I spend a couple hours every day just answering emails. Sometimes I work in the store, too. In addition to all that, I’m usually traveling either to Cambodia or to trade shows about four months out of the year. I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but when you run a small business, wearing many hats is a phrase that can’t be understated!
Rockyt: There are lots of thought pieces right now about how shoppers are craving unique experiences. What makes your store experience unique?
Rachel: In our store, our sales associates can tell you about the people behind the products, and some of our team have been to Cambodia and met the artisans too. On our site, you can see bios of each of the people who made the clothes, and learn more about them. We aim to connect people directly to those that made their clothing, in hopes that the world becomes a little more interconnected. When you buy a gift from tonlé, you’re giving a gift that gives back and makes the world a little bit kinder at the same time, and I think that’s something we can all celebrate.
Rockyt: What’s one thing a customer can find at your shop that he/she is unlikely to find anywhere else in San Francisco?
Rachel: As far as I know, we’re the only zero waste fashion brand in San Francisco, and one of the few in the world who operate with fully zero-waste principals in their production. The story behind our products is completely unique, and they are comfortable and beautiful at the same time. There are a few other great sustainable shops in San Francisco, but I think we take it to a bit of an “extreme” level that few other brands have fully attempted. Our handwoven jackets—made from tiny scraps of remnant fabric—also happen to be perfect for SF weather, if you want something to layer with that isn’t a puffy vest.
Rockyt: What do you do on your days off?
Rachel: I try to get outside as much as possible. This includes walks in the Presidio, and—for father flung adventures—climbing and camping trips around Northern California. Being from the East Coast originally, I cannot get enough of the beautiful landscapes here.
Rockyt: Show some love for fellow small businesses. Not including your store, what are your three favorite shops in the Bay Area?
Rachel: Two of my favorite fellow inner Richmond shops are Foggy Notion for gifts and apothecary products, and Tantrum for kids items and other unique gifts. In the East Bay, I would have to give a shoutout to Resurrect; they carry a small selection of tonlé products along with other ethically-made clothing and accessories, as well as locally made gifts and home products. The proprietress’s selection is quirky and fun, and—style wise—right up my alley as well.
Tonlé is located at 55 Clement Street. The collection is also available online.