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Round + Square founder on fighting for women’s rights through fashion

By Justine Browning


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Henriette Ernst’s idea to spread thoughtful and informative messages of equality through fashion was initially sparked by frustration.

A veteran designer, she had grown disheartened by what she saw as a lack of support for women and girls on the industry’s part. Inspired by the work of the organization Equality Now, she decided to develop Round + Square founder on fighting for women’s rights through fashionE - a conscious fashion brand focused on style, substance and sustainability. Each piece sold by the company, including t-shirts, bandanas and pins, promotes a message of peace, prosperity and gender equality and is crafted using ethical labor.

FashionUnited had the chance to speak with Ernst about fashion as advocacy, the hurdles of securing sustainable materials and using clothing as tools for empowerment.

You have worked in fashion for over two decades. What are some of the biggest issues you experienced first-hand that you are trying to combat through your own work?

Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world. People in the industry, whether it be in high-end or mass-market, do not take the time to see if their fashion practices are harming our planet. Of course, there are a few exceptions such as Stella McCartney and Kering, whom want to make these sustainable choices part of their legacy. But it’s still a very small portion of people who care to make a difference. It is also about putting people first. Over my career, I became fed up with the many abuses that took place in the industry. Starting from the workers producing our clothes. In that case, only the brands and factories get rich, with complete disregard to the worker’s quality of life. I could not stand by it. Women are the ones who suffer the most in this unfair chain. You can’t say you support equal rights and women’s rights if you’re not thinking about those making your clothes. You can read more about this terrible reality on our blog post, “Is your feminist t-shirt making a difference for women and girls?” I know that by asking questions on how to improve, and thinking about the well-being of everyone involved in the process of making Round + Square run, that I am doing my part in making the world a better place.

What were some of the initial hurdles you experienced as you attempted to break new ground with your own brand and offerings?

As with every startup, there were unforeseen challenges when I first began building my own brand. Even with the connections I had built for myself over my career, there were still areas which I did not have the network to help me make a smooth transition into a small business owner. The design side of the fashion industry I know extremely well, but when it comes to retail connections and financial decisions, I was lacking a partner who would help me develop my visions in a business-savvy way. I knew from the beginning I did not want to compromise on any of the values Round + Square was being built around, and since Round + Square was personally financed by me, every single decision has to be carefully considered, even if it means taking our time to grow. Now, I am learning how to balance my consultancy job with a fashion house, as well as continuing to run my company. Although this comes with its fair share of challenges, it has helped me bring stable income and cash flow, so I can continue my mission of meaningful fashion.

You have said each item is inspired by powerful women’s rights stories. What is your design process like in terms of developing the concept of a piece and creating it?

Each of our designs comes really from the heart. Our iconic Girl Power design was hand-drawn by me, as I wanted to create something colorful, playful and that communicated the message of hope in a beautiful way. The design process is an assemblage of different techniques and inspiration from cultures around the world. Everything is carefully studied and curated, all while attempting to create our own iconic language. We aspire to be the go-to brand for top quality products, great fit, with our own distinct language and graphics.

There are five core values at the heart of the company: Values-driven fashion, playful communication, efficient supply chain, embracing the environment, and supporting Equality Now. How did you decide on these specific elements and how would you say you work to promote such values through the designs?

When I started Round + Square, I knew I wanted to take my time to create something the right way. That’s why I developed my mantra, designed with passion and driven by values. Fashion is fun and creative, but it can also be empowering and inspiring. Meaningful fashion exists, and we are here to prove it is possible.

We embrace “playful communication” through our designs which are delicate but chosen with a purpose. Our Girl Power tee offers joyful messages of hope, while our cashmere shawls communicate fearlessness, freedom and the empowerment of girls around the world.

In every step -- from the moment the cotton is farmed to when we fulfill an order -- we are conscious of our supply chain and the impact we are having on both the environment and the people. This is why we chose our suppliers with careful consideration of their environmental and labor standards.

I knew for many years that I wanted to start my own brand, however, after meeting with Yasmeen Hassan, the Global Executive Director of Equality Now, I was given the push I needed to bring that brand to life. Inspired by the life-changing work Equality Now does for women and girls around the world, their messages and words help to transform the shawls and bandanas into conversation-starting statement pieces. 30 percent of all of our sales profits go to Equality Now.

How do you go navigate challenges when it comes to manufacturing? Is it difficult to find such specific supplies since you are strictly using sustainable materials?

If you want to make a difference in fashion, you have to go an extra mile. That’s the problem with most brands: they don’t go out of their way to look for manufacturers and suppliers that are better for the environment. When founding Round + Square, I knew the important questions to ask and that if I were to stay true to my mantra, I could not compromise with this.

Through my twenty years of experience, I was able to utilize the connections and relationships I had made to make sure the manufacturers I worked with were able to provide the highest quality fabric while meeting the highest levels of labor ethics and sustainability.

Our t-shirts are made in Turkey with our supplier, Unimoda, which specializes in sustainable and organic manufacturing. I’ve known them for 18 years and I trust their quality. They allowed us the opportunity to develop our own, exclusive jersey qualities. That’s an amazing chance for a startup.

They also work with only 100 percent organic cotton, GOTS certified, which guarantees the highest ethical, labor and environmental standards. I’m very proud to say that all of our tees carry this certification.

I chose to produce our shawls in Italy with Canepa. They invented a process that cuts down water and toxin use by 95 percent, called SAVEtheWATER, Kitotex project – and that’s how our cashmere shawls are made. They were the first supplier worldwide to endorse the Greenpeace Detox Protocol.

In everything we do, every detail is carefully thought of – from the production of the products to the hangtags and recycled packaging. Our products come in a 100 percent organic cotton pouch with hashtags that promote equality.

Photo credit: Courtesy of the brand
Gender equality