Thirty-one-year-old Ali Rose isn’t one to be daunted by a difficult project. Now working in Flint, Michigan, she makes sleek eyeglasses out of plastic water bottles. To her, fashion isn’t cool unless it’s making the world a better place.
Sustainability took center stage for Rose, who grew up in a suburb of Detroit, after she graduated from the Parsons School of Design, in New York, when she started working as a designer at mass-market fashion giants Joe Fresh and Lane Byrant and quickly became disenchanted with the levels of waste the industry was producing. “I felt I was just making shit that people didn’t need,” Rose says, on the phone from her Flint office space. “It just was not aligned with my personal values at all.”
Frustrated by her lack of purpose, and the industry’s general lack of social consciousness, Rose quit her job and flew to Hyderabad, India, where she worked at an NGO. “I wanted to do something meaningful,” she says, and in her time there, Rose used her fashion background for positive change, teaching victims of domestic violence sewing skills to help them provide for their families and develop financial independence. For Rose, the work was revelatory: “I just realized it was what I wanted to be doing—working for a social enterprise, using fashion for good, empowering women.”
Rose was home in Detroit for the 2016 winter holidays when the water crisis in nearby Flint was making national headlines, with thousands of people getting sick from lead-contaminated drinking water. When Rose heard the horror stories, her first impulse was to get in the car and drive. “I just don’t know how to sit around,” she says, and her proximity to the problem felt especially compelling. “If I can do good on the other side of the world, why am I not doing that in my own backyard?”
So Rose went to Flint, where she joined the Red Cross and went door-to-door, providing residents with water filters and water bottles. She met local Tim Abdul-Matin, a formerly incarcerated individual and co-founder of MADE, an organization that helps provide job opportunities for people who have been to prison. “I became passionate about working with returning citizens,” Rose says.
The eureka moment came as Rose was driving through Flint one day and saw just how many water bottles were ending up on the city’s streets and sidewalks. Though the water crisis would soon end, she knew the plastic would remain.
Genusee—a company that turns water bottles into stylish glasses and sunglasses—began shortly after. The endeavor was threefold: social, environmental, and profitable. Eyeglasses were chosen because “they are actually useful to people,” says Rose, and for a time the company hired returning citizens only. (Now it’s a mixture of Flint residents and returning citizens.) The glasses are made out of 100 percent recycled materials, primarily water bottles from the Flint area. A pair starts at $99, and 1 percent of net profits are donated to the Community Foundation of Greater Flint.
When asked about her message for aspiring fashion designers, Rose is adamant about one thing: “Keep the supply chain local,” she says. “You have no idea how much of a difference it makes.”
Elena Clavarino is an Associate Editor for AIR MAIL