Momma Maker: Melissa Cantor, Shop Ethica Co-Founder and Ethical Fashion Pioneer
When we grow up, we want to be Melissa Cantor. Nobody is as effortlessly chic and conscious of intentional living, from the way in which she spends her days with her family in New York City to the very clothes that touch her body. After years as a magazine fashion editor and brand copywriter, then factor in a mini quarter-life crisis of sorts, Cantor and her husband quit their jobs in Miami, packed up their dog in the car and traded beach views for brownstones. Lucky for us, in 2012 she and her sister launched their own ethical fashion e-store, shopethica.com, which offers a high-style selection of ethical and sustainable labels by contemporary American and international designers. We asked Cantor about her successes and struggles with building an ethical fashion business from the ground up, and how her new venture in motherhood has impacted her personal style and her journey toward returning to work.
Where do you live and what do you do?
I live in New York City. I’m the co-founder of an ethical fashion e-store, shopethica.com, as well as a freelance writer and editor.
You and your daughter’s ages?
I’m 34, and Wren is four months old.
How did the idea for Ethica begin?
It began after a quarter-life crisis of sorts. I enjoyed covering fashion as an editor, but I was also looking to transition into work that felt a little more meaningful. I started exploring ethical and sustainable fashion, and at the time, there was no store with an exclusive focus on this segment of the market, but there were quite a few cool brands who were producing sustainably. So, alongside my husband and my sister, I brought a couple dozen together in an online boutique.
What interested you in sustainability and ethical fashion?
I’ve always been interested in minimizing my negative footprint, both social and environmental. Once I realized the scope of the problem (as an industry, fashion is second largest polluter after Big Oil, and one of the largest employers of slave labor), I became passionate about getting the word out and making better options available to people like me, who wanted to support companies that are working toward change. I highly recommend the documentary The True Cost for anyone who wants to understand how the clothes we wear affect the world around us–it will change the way you think about fashion.
Tell us a bit about what the process was like to start-up a small business and where you are now.
It was a huge learning curve and an insane amount of work. We were all working full-time jobs at the time, so we spent nearly every weekend and many weeknights working on the shop for the first couple of years. We did photo shoots in our living room and took meetings in rent-by-the-hour spaces or coffee shops. We’ve definitely grown, but we are still a tiny operation competing with behemoths.
How do you source designers?
Personal introductions, trade shows, Instagram. A lot of them reach out to us. The good news is that there are more brands out there than we could possibly work with.
Who are your shoppers?
Mostly women from their mid twenties to mid forties who like a story behind what they wear.
What is your personal style? Now that you are a mother, how has your style changed?
I enthusiastically believe in the idea of investing in high-quality, ethically made items, but pregnancy threw me for a loop because I didn’t want to spend a ton of money on things I would only be able to wear for a few months. It forced me to get creative and dig deep in my wardrobe, and I’m happy that I was able to make it through the whole nine months with only four new maternity items. I can’t fit into my old jeans or anything form-fitting from my pre-pregnancy wardrobe yet, so I’m still dressing like I did when I was expecting–decorated with more than a few spit-up stains, unfortunately.
How was your work/career changed since becoming a momma?
I am still working from home because we haven't quite figured out what we are going to do for child care, but it's an entirely different pace. I used to be very productive in one long block of time, and now I have to space out that work in tiny little half-hour chunks. It's an evolving process, but it's definitely improved from the days I was trying to squeeze work calls into a newborn's completely unpredictable sleep schedule.
What do you love most about living in New York City?
The fact that you can find or do nearly anything here–obscure language lesson, landmark art exhibit, super-exotic food, trendy new workout, anything. This past December, I was nine months pregnant and craving the cheesy bliss that is raclette. A 10-second Google search later and I’d found a pop-up restaurant that was serving it. I read a ton, so it’s great to be able to go out and experience things that I learn about.
What do you want to teach your daughter, or what is one hope you have for her in the future?
For me, my late mother embodied the idea that the true test of man is what he does when he thinks no one is watching. Watching her live by a deeply rooted sense of personal ethics influenced me very much–there’s a peace that comes with believing that you’ve done the right thing. I hope I can set a similar example for Wren, and also teach her to be kind to herself and others.
The best piece of motherhood advice you’ve ever received?
I’m so new to motherhood that I’m getting more support than advice at the moment. The first few weeks and months are so overwhelming, but it’s really helpful to know that other women have and do struggle also, and that it’s not that I’m doing something wrong when I want to cry along with the baby, ha.
Any funny and/or relatable stories you'd like to share?
The nurses in the hospital all kept telling us that Wren was the most mellow baby in the nursery. We were in the hospital for three days, and without fail, every nurse that came on shift would remark on what an easy baby she was. Turns out, that was a highly premature and inaccurate assessment. She’s a total velcro baby who refuses to fall asleep anywhere but on top of me or while I’m wearing her.
Lastly, words or quotes you live by.
“Choose a job you love, and you will never work a day in your life.”