Meet Cynthia Salim, Founder Of Citizen’s Mark
Cynthia Salim is the genius behind Citizen’s Mark - an ethical fashion label producing professional clothing for women on the rise. Recently named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, Cynthia launched her career at the United Nations before moving into management consulting and eventually into social entrepreneurship. A young woman climbing her own career ladder, she was disappointed by the lack of ethically-produced professional clothing and decided to take action. We sat down and talked about how she ended up in the fashion industry, what her brand offers professional women, and how mainstreaming conscious consumerism requires broadening our definition of ethically-made clothing.
You have such a unique story from the United Nations to management consulting before settling into entrepreneurship and launching Citizen’s Mark. Tell us your story! How did each of those positions prepare you to run your own business?
I never thought I’d work in fashion! I actually started as a labor rights activist in Los Angeles. Then I got my dream job at the UN and realized how much easier it was for men to dress like a professional. The workwear fashion landscape for women was a mess, with a million ways to go wrong and few ways to go right. I suddenly got really passionate about this subtle injustice. That was in 2011 when I was 24. I spent years thinking about Citizen’s Mark and picking up important perspectives and skills before finally launching it.
And what is the story behind the name? We always love hearing how entrepreneurs settle on their final brand.
I always think of myself as a citizen first, and a “consumer” or “professional” second. That’s how I think we should all make decisions, so I wanted that “citizenship” element to be forcefully present. And of course, we design for a generation that is very concerned about “making their mark,” whether it’s personally, professionally, or in the kinds of companies we choose to support with our dollars. The name Citizen’s Mark captured that perfectly - we’re a generation that thinks about how our actions help shape the kind of world we want to live in.
How have you found the experience of running your own business as compared to working for such a large entity like the United Nations? What does a day in your life look like?
I knew it was going to be liberating and empowering to be the decision-maker, but I didn’t realize how difficult it would be. If you want your customers to have excellent products, and to choose only the most sustainable materials, and also build a profitable business, you can’t always move quickly. My day-to-day life is spent figuring out how to stick to our values yet stay competitive in a really fast-moving industry.
Professional clothing with ethical production is a needed niche. What did you identify as missing from the marketplace and how has your inaugural line of blazers been received?
One of the toughest branding issues for the term “ethical fashion” is that it still evokes a very “earthy” image. There’s certainly a place for that, but other types of fashion should also be made responsibly. The world needs responsible brands that cater to every lifestyle, and making sharp, boardroom-worthy pieces is what we’re tackling.
What’s interesting about the response to our inaugural collection is that people talk about the quality and cut first. We focused on making a best-in-class product by using menswear Italian wool fabrics, producing in a specialized suit factory in Portugal that does laser cutting, and having a modern cut and often-forgotten features like an inside pocket. At the end of the day, I think ethical fashion brands have to lead with quality and a “wow factor” product first in order to truly mainstream conscious consumerism.
What standards were you looking for when you chose to source materials from Nepal, Italy, Portugal, and Japan? How did you identify these partners and what impact is a customer having when they purchase a Citizen’s Mark blazer? This is truly an international product.
We really look for “industry leaders” in both social and environmental responsibility. Not just suppliers that are compliant, but those who are pushing the industry in the right direction. For example, our factory is 30% solar powered, and our wool mill won an EU award for innovation for lowering the noise pollution from the looms to mitigate hearing loss. They don’t have to do these things, but we like to support these industry leaders, who unsurprisingly also tend to be quality leaders because they’re “on the beat” with what’s new.
I didn’t realize the power of the individual consumer until this anecdotal conversation I had in Portugal with a fabric supplier. We were driving to a factory, and he told me about a new sustainable fabric and said “we need 100,000 meters to turn the lights on and produce, so are you in for 5,000 meters?” Of course we were non-existent brand then, but I couldn’t wait for the day that I could tell him “Yes, I’m in for 5,000 meters, because I have 5,000 customers that will buy this product!” That’s game changing.
When you learn to avoid polyester in the clothes you buy because it never biodegrades, and instead opt for pieces with breathable, biodegradable 100% cupro lining like the one used in a Citizen’s Mark blazer, you could be a part of systemic change in the industry.
What are the other customer trends that you’ve noticed and hope to respond to? Will Citizen’s Mark ever expand beyond blazers?
Count how many wears you get out of every piece you buy. There’s a big #30wears campaign and it’s a really important behavioral change. We invested all our time in crafting this one perfect blazer, from fabric to fit and construction, so I only had one thing to wear to every function, which made me appreciate the versatility of something like a high-end blazer - I’ve worn it to church, I’ve worn it to bars, I’ve worn it to meetings. Extending the life of a product is a big part of responsible fashion.
To drive this movement forward, we’re developing a Premium Essentials collection with exactly that philosophy – your day-to-day pieces that make you feel like a million bucks, that you wear over and over again. It’s not particularly cheap, but doesn’t have a luxury markup either - it lands at the price that accounts for the resources it takes up. We’re working on silky blouses made of super sustainable Lenzing fibers, and tailored shirting with Swiss organic cotton. When we choose a fabric and design into it, we always ask – will this Citizen’s Mark be one of your wardrobe MVPs?