Interview with fashion brand Omnia Ex Nihilo
Omnia Ex Nihilo is a small-batch clothing brand based in Brooklyn, New York. Beginning with little but their own resources and knowledge, the duo Ashley Lana Wheat and Coleman Downing create beautiful, minimal, functional garments that are all produced domestically, in the Garment District of Manhattan, with a zero fabric waste policy and using only natural fiber fabrics and fair labor practices.
Launching their first line, Foundation, out of their Bushwick studio in February 2019, and their second line Pillars in production for Fall 19/20, Omnia has a sensitivity to both environmental trends and small details that drives their work, aesthetically and ethically. In line with the meaning of their name, they strive to create everything out of nothing: making, but doing no harm; keeping the needs of urban living in harmony and elegant relationship to natural areas.
Designer Ashley Lana Wheat speaks with Alex Free about the realities of and inspiration for running a small, sustainably-operated clothing line in New York City.
Interview & Photography by Alex Free
You’ve been working in fashion for a long time, for other labels, and was it out of frustration that you decided to start your own line, or what was the foundation for Omnia?
No. I mean, it’s fashion, so it’s going to be frustrating. [laughs] But no, it’s all part of the learning experience. I feel like there’s so many steps that you can take in order to find your way in this industry. But luckily I was able to work for small companies who did all domestic production, and get that under my belt, and work for big companies that produced much more than I had ever done before. I worked for luxury companies, and it’s all part of it—you have to take a little bit from everything in order to find your way. I’d like to make a difference to the way people see clothes. I’d love for people to understand the production process a little better while still enjoying the fun and creativity of the clothes themselves.
Where did you get the inspiration to start your own line, and specifically with the sustainability aspect?
I’ve always been interested in trying to keep things as sustainable as possible. It’s really apparent when you’re working in the fashion industry how much actually is wasted, and how many fabrics actually are not great for the environment, especially if you get into the mass market side of things. There’s so much that goes into it that just is unfathomable that something could be so inexpensive once it gets to the consumer. Something is wrong there. I feel like the only way to fix it is to fix on your own and hopefully other people will have that same mentality, and that will just catch on.
So what is sustainability in fashion to you?
There’s a different definition for anybody who gets into it. There are points. You can focus on using fabrics that are fair-trade fabrics, you can use fabrics that are natural-dying, so that less dye gets into water sources and are less harmful to the environment. You can focus on fair-trade manufacturing. I feel like it’s as many points as you can hit off, the better. But it’s also really hard. Finding sustainable fabrics is not always easy, and finding people to produce your garments is often not super easy, either, especially for people who don’t have the tie to certain manufacturers in the industry, who are just starting out.
And you are based in Brooklyn and source everything and have everything produced in Brooklyn, correct?
All of our production is done in the Garment District in Manhattan, so it’s all in Manhattan. On 37th Street.
And what was the importance of keeping it domestic?
It’s more controlled. One side of it, from a production and manufacturing standpoint, it’s easy to walk into the factory and talk to the people who are making things, and they can tell you what’s going on. They can tell you if this pocket’s going to be weird for them to sew. If you’re able to go in there and to see them and you’ve worked with them for years, and you know that it’s this family that owns the factory, and it’s Donald’s nieces and nephews; he’s worked with all these people for as long as I’ve seen, for years and years—it’s important to see the spaces that you’re working in, and to know that people are being treated well and they’re being paid well.
Do you think that that is the direction that fashion is going? Or that you’d like to see it go, everything made on a smaller scale?
It would be hard to achieve. As a designer that does small batch production it’s a lot easier, but for fashion on a wider scale that’s impossible to achieve in this day and age. But there are other ways that they can achieve points of sustainability in fashion, and a lot of places are starting to. America is a little slower than the rest of the world on that, but I think that they’ll follow. People are taking small steps, and that’s where it starts. You start with the small steps, and then hopefully people catch on, and you can just take it to the next level.
There’s an idea that if you start with the details, and if you can figure out what’s wrong on a very tiny, very micro level, then that’s how you address systemic issues, by doing it one detail at a time.
You can’t make changes all at once. Nothing happens immediately. But you can start making small changes, and then things will eventually, hopefully, move in the right direction.
What’s your stance on (care of) the planet? Your relationship to it. I know that aesthetically it inspired a lot of your color palette and also design. And with Pillars coming out, your new line, it was neglected utilitarian buildings but also the greener areas around New York—what kind of inspiration or drive do you take from the Earth?
Well, we only have one planet, and if we’re not careful with it we’re going to lose it, and it’s important. It’s everything that we know, and if we start forgetting about the delicate balance that exists there, then we’re going to lose all the beautiful qualities of it. It’s important for inspiration for every art form, you need to go somewhere quiet for a little while. Silence is impossible to find, but go somewhere quiet and you can find so much inspiration.
When did you first think that this was a passion of yours? Your line, and doing it in a way that combined with your love for the natural world.
When I was a little kid, I often would go and play in the woods, and when I would go and play in the woods there would be crazy amounts of trash. I didn’t even grow up in a super developed area, and it was crazy to me that there would be so much trash. I would bring garbage bags with me, and gloves, and I started picking up all the trash. I would get so upset that people would be so careless, and my mom was always really encouraging in terms of, ‘Make a change, if you want to. Pick up the trash, if you want to.’ She never really stopped me from doing that. I feel that this is just the same thing, just on a different scale.
I never outwardly wanted to start a fashion line. I knew how much work it is, I knew how easy it is to fail. It wasn’t my intention to start this, but it just kept happening that I was always working toward it. When I was working for other labels I found myself dreaming of what would become the foundations for this, and it just happened that one day Coleman and I were talking, and he said: ‘You know, you can actually do this. You’re capable of doing this, we see other people that do this, and you’re capable. You have all the knowledge of doing this, and I have the ability to help you in where you’re lacking.’ It was pretty liberating to actually make the choice, even though it was something I never intended to do.
When you were dreaming about starting your own line, was that more fashion-oriented, or was it always partnered with sustainability and that desire?
It was a little bit of both. I always understood about sustainability, but you have to do a lot more research and work if you want to do it for a fashion line that you’re doing production on. When I did decide to embark on it, it was a no-brainer. I had to try to figure out to do it as sustainably as possible. We studied up on it for weeks, just trying to learn as much as we could, to reduce the damage that you do. It’s hard too, once you start trying to find these fabrics and things. Finding fabrics is hard enough to do when you’re a small brand, and people tend to have very high minimums. You feel that ‘beggars can’t be choosers, I need to find fabric for my clothes,’ but I can’t compromise this. So you have to bite the bullet and continue your search, until you find the right thing.
So what are your hopes for the first lines, the first seasons that you’re putting out?
We hope that we can get people who are like-minded to be interested in our brand, and excited about it, and as excited about it as we are. We just want to be able to keep on making, and making it for people who have the appreciation and the same values attached to our world.