Clothing with a conscience: Look good, do good with Krystle Marks’ Lev Apparel

Krystle Marks

When you’ve spent years as a makeup artist and personal stylist … well, designing fashion is a logical next step.

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But Krystle Marks’ Lev Apparel, which is launching this summer, isn’t just another clothing line: It’s a financial boost for women in New Delhi, India. For them, Lev Apparel is a pathway out of poverty.

“I’ve always been about female empowerment and making you feel good in your skin,” Marks said. “But I also was thinking about, ‘How can we love and empower women all over the world? And how can we do that as Western women? How can we feel celebrated, and how can we empower other women?”

Marks and her business partner, Abby Felix Winzenried, have spent the last year-and-a-half preparing for Lev Apparel’s launch. Customers can pre-order items now, with the first deliveries expected in August.

Krystle Marks, Lev Apparel
Krystle Marks, left, and business partner Abby Felix Winzenried

Through its partnership with Sonica Sarna Design, Lev Apparel designs the clothes here in Madison, sends them out to a pattern maker, and those patterns get sent to New Delhi where local women make the clothes, which then are shipped back to Madison.

Sonica is an “ethical design and production company” that supports healthy work environments and wages that enable workers to escape poverty, not be trapped in it.

That’s in contrast to much of the fashion industry, which has come to rely on cheap labor in poor countries to flood the developed world with inexpensive clothing.

As recently as the 1960s, 95 percent of Americans’ clothes were made in this country. Today, it’s 3 percent, with the rest outsourced to other countries, according to the fashion industry documentary The True Cost (available on Netflix).

Madison to India and back

Running a two-woman business in Madison, WI, that partners with artisans in India can be challenging.

For one thing, when it’s 7 a.m. in Madison, it’s 5:30 p.m. in New Delhi.

“You’re always going to be a day off. … It’s just adding a day to production, email responses,” said Felix Winzenried. “Not like, ‘Oh, we’ll hear back from then in a few hours.'”

And there are mishaps.

“Our job is really to serve them,” Marks said. “Our job is to bring them work. So even if there is, like, ‘Oh, you dipped the wrong fabric, and now we own that fabric,’ we have to be OK with, ‘OK, how do we work around this?’ Because our goal is not to make them feel, you know, less than. Our goal is to lift them up.”

A life built on ‘What’s next?’

Marks said her work always has emphasized making women of all shapes and sizes see and feel their own beauty.

A lifelong Madison-area resident, Marks started as a makeup artist. She tried life as a stay-at-home mom (to daughter Charlee and son Lachlan), but realized it wasn’t for her.

Then one day, a friend asked for help with styling, and the two women agreed to meet up for a consultation.

“She called me the night before and said, ‘I have three friends who want to come watch. And I’m paying you.’ And I said, “What?!?”, Marks laughed. “So I rolled with it, and I walked away thinking to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, this is something that I am meant to do.”

By 2017, though, she knew it was time to move on. So she wrapped up that business and took a sabbatical to determine “What’s next?”

“What’s next?” turned out to be Lev Apparel.

Makeup to styling to designing clothes … It’s a natural progression.

“My platform was always positive body image mixed with styling,” Marks said. “And so I learned a lot about teaching women, ‘We’re all born with a shape, and when you know that shape, I can direct you in what other styles are going to work for you, and you will always be able to find those styles.”

“I’ll know I’ve designed this (article of clothing) for an apple- or a pear- or an hourglass-(shaped woman), and I want you to feel like it was made for you, so making you feel amazing in that,” she said. “And then their dollars are going towards a woman who needs a job, who has no other socioeconomic opportunities.”

To launch Lev Apparel, Marks and Felix Winzenried are holding pop-up events and boutique sales, making use of connections Marks already has in the local clothing industry.

But the ultimate goal is to be an e-commerce site. As the business grows, Marks intends to help women in other countries beyond India as well.

She’s clearly a woman with a specific business plan, backed by the heart of a mom.

“When we change a mom’s life, we change her kids’ life,” Marks said. “And that ends poverty for the next generation, and the effect of that is huge. ‘Cause then we’re not just aiding people. We’re giving them dignified work that gets them out of the situations that they’re in. And that’s what they want.”

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