Isadora Alvarez is the founder of Backbeat Rags, a hemp clothing brand making low impact everyday essentials.
How did you come up with the idea for Backbeat Rags?
I’m originally from the Philippines and moved to California to pursue fashion design. I have an AA in fashion merchandising and a BA in fashion design from the Academy of Art and I’ve always wanted to start my own line. After I finished school, I moved to Los Angeles and worked for a low-price retailer in the buying department. I was seeing firsthand how the products they were making were throw-away, meaning they would be destroyed in like three months. I moved to LA knowing no one, so I had zero contacts and really started from scratch. Three years later I really wanted to do my own thing.
When I first started Backbeat Rags, it was mostly vintage because at the time I thought that was the most eco-friendly way of dressing yourself up. That’s basically it. But as we all know, I also needed to live and make money. I tried selling vintage for just about a year, selling at markets every weekend which was exhausting. I’m only now waking up!
When I sold vintage vintage, I was focused on t-shirts and sweatshirts. One day I just decided that I would start my own line. My first question to myself was, “What is true to me as a person?” It’s so important that the brand represents what I’m into — what I love and what I believe in. With vintage, I liked that it was low impact. Reformation and Jungmaven were just becoming popular, and I saw that and thought, “Wow, I can do that. It’s possible for me to still be in fashion but create a lower impact.”
From the very start, I promised myself that we would only use fabrics that were low impact, meaning they have minimal impact on the environment. I started with organic cotton because I couldn’t find a source for hemp at that point. And then by the second production run, I started using hemp.
This has been our ethos from day one:
We refuse to use any fabric that isn’t organic, recycled, sustainable fiber.
Tell us about what it was like to discover hemp.
About four years ago, I was researching online about sustainable fibers and I kind of knew about hemp, but it wasn’t nearly as popular as it is now. When I found hemp, I thought, “This plant is just insane. I never knew that you could basically use every single part of it!”
It’s super durable and we used to use a lot of hemp for so many purposes. It’s weird how it suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth. Initially I worked with half organic cotton and half organic hemp, and thenI decided to use hemp as much as I could.
What do you love most about hemp and why do you use it so often?
I love how it’s such a versatile plant — you can use it for every single thing: paper, medicine, clothing… Even our tag and the string that connects it to the clothing is made out of hemp! It’s just insane how much we can use it.
Do you make your clothing with 100% hemp?
We do a lot of blends that are 60% hemp, 40% organic cotton. With 100% hemp, it’s a little stiff and the hemp fabric is a little volatile, so it often stretches or shrinks if you don’t combine it with another fabric. If you add organic cotton, it stabilizes it and adds softness. At least 60% of our styles use the hemp-organic cotton blend. We want to get to 90% hemp, but we are waiting for more product innovation.
Why do you think it’s so underutilized?
Because of the laws that made it illegal to grow hemp — and it’s expensive! I’ve also talked to a few hemp farmers and they said it’s not very easy to grow. Here in the US, since we weren’t allowed to grow hemp for a long time, a lot of the technology for making it into fiber also disappeared.
What are the biggest challenges in using hemp?
Even until now, hemp is still pretty hard to source in the fabric industry. If we do source it, there’s usually a high minimum of one-thousand yards that must be purchased, which can be difficult for a small company. And there’s a scarcity of new textures and types of hemp fabrics. We can easily find a jersey hemp, but there aren’t many people making woven hemp or interesting textures.
Can you share more about the vision and mission for Backbeat Rags?
It’s pretty simple: we just want to make low-impact clothing for your everyday life. That’s basically it… The t-shirt, the sweatshirt, the jacket that you’re always going to reach for every day. We should move this up to where she talks about her ethos from day one.
What’s the hardest part of running your own business?
I think owning a business brings up a lot of your own insecurities and puts them in the forefront, and there’s so much at stake at all times. At the end of the day, you have to answer to yourself, and that’s actually a lot of pressure. But it’s great — I still wake up and know that this is what I want to do.
Right now we want the line to be for everybody. We do have plans of doing men’s clothing by next year, as well as expanded sizing so we can cater to as many people as we can. We want to do a lot of things but we’re a very small brand. There’s only two of us in the office!
What are you most proud of?
From the start, we decided to use only certain types of fabric, which is tough for a small brand and for me. I literally had to knock on people’s doors and beg them to make me the fiber, and it took awhile. But we did it. That’s the one thing that we really stuck to from the start. We are true to our ethos.
Sometimes it’s really hard — especially when vendors tell me they have this nice new fabric that’s easy to work with, and I wonder why I chose this route. I’m very strict about not using any conventional fibers.
Why is sustainability becoming increasingly important in the fashion industry?
Fashion is one of the most polluting industries. I tell people that we can never be perfect — buying clothes is inherently wasteful. Always. You can’t be a purist. But with better practices and a better selection, it makes a difference — even if it’s just a little.
Choosing sustainable clothing becomes a whole lifestyle — it feels into the other aspects of your life that you may not even realize. How could you buy sustainable clothing and then not eat sustainably? It opens up the door to a lifestyle philosophy.
Are there any other hemp-based products that you love?
I smoke cannabis every night to just decompress, destress and just go to sleep. And what’s funny is, I talked to my doctor because I have a hard time sleeping due to anxiety, and I asked her if I shouldn’t be smoking this much cannabis to help me sleep, and she said, “I’d rather you smoke cannabis than take a pharmaceutical.”
What do you hope for the future of the hemp industry?
I just want everybody to start using every part of the plant! And I’m really glad that hemp is having a moment right now.