To meet Rona Chang, the founder of OTTO FINN, a Lawrenceville-based sustainable fashion company that believes in minimal waste, maximum comfort and authenticity. The shop sells a variety of clothes and accessories made from used materials, but specializes in coats made from old quilts and kantha blankets.
Thinking about the development of her business, Rona remembers her father’s traditional Chinese coats that he used to wear.
“He had one for every season,” she said. “He was a pretty eccentric guy and stood out for his fashion in a relatively conservative society. I remember loving its winemaker and wearing it after it was over … it gave me so much comfort. “
Now Rona shares this environmentally conscious comfort with her customers.
Rona Chang wears a unique OTTO FINN coat (📸: @ottofinn)
What made you choose to start OTTO FINN?
My husband and I founded OTTO FINN when our son Otto was little and crawled out of his pants. We wanted to design pants that fit better, are comfortable and made from sustainable fibers. There have been several iterations of OTTO FINN since those early days and now I run the business.
A quilt-to-jacket transformation (📸: @ottofinn)
Tell us about OTTO FINN’s “Find Your Match” program.
About two years ago I started making jackets from old quilts. The shape was inspired by Japanese kimonos and I used fabric I had on hand. These were some old quilt tops that I had in my personal stash for 20 years. It quickly evolved into me with kantha blankets from India, which are layers of old sari fabric made into a blanket with tiny running stitches that run through all layers. I had always thought that kanthas were a brilliant way of creating beauty out of something that would otherwise be thrown away.
To go back a little, I spent many happy years as a photographer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. I photographed all of the Japanese woodblock prints and Indian paintings in the collection. I wondered how it would affect me as an artist to spend so much time on a particular collection and years later I think that’s how it manifested itself. We launched the Find Your Match program last year in response to customers who frequently fell in love with a certain unique jacket that wasn’t in their size or desired length. We now have monthly publications based on ceiling types and customers can choose their favorite ceiling, size and length they want. This also reduces inventory on the shelves waiting to find the right customer. We now make jackets from kanthas, woolen blankets and quilts, each named after our heroines.
What does sustainable fashion mean to you?
For me, sustainable fashion begins with paying the people who make our clothes fair wages. We partner with Lauren Sims at Why Sew Workshop to make our jackets and have used the East End Cooperative Ministries to make a selection of our garments in Pittsburgh. We started using organic cotton, hemp-cotton blends and other sustainable fibers and have slowly moved to using second market materials (which already exist like old quilts) to make garments as new fibers are still being made Resources consumed.
The fashion industry contributes 1/10 of the world’s CO2 emissions, a figure that is higher than all international flights and shipping combined. OTTO FINN now uses over 50% materials for the second market to produce our garments. We also use our waste to make many of our accessories such as Ella Clutches, Cowl Neck Warmers and Winter Adventure Hats. We are always learning and trying to lessen our impact on our planet.
What is your favorite thing to do in making these recycled parts?
When I get the blankets, I fall in love with an aspect of each and every one of them. They are selected and turned into unique jackets and delivered to our customers. The most rewarding part of the process is the messages I get from our customers about how they love their jackets, where they have traveled with them, what compliments they have received, and that they are an everyday staple for working from home.
A blue plaid Billie blanket jacket (📸: @ottofinn)
Do you have any tips for our readers on how to adopt a slow fashion lifestyle?
Start with what you have and re-evaluate your spending habits by slowing down. The fashion industry often underpays textile workers who work in unsafe conditions and produce in excessive quantities that people cannot possibly consume. This is not just overseas but right here in the US. There are many factories overseas with higher standards than some in the US. So the answer is not always to buy locally, but to do some research.
If you need something special, it’s likely available (often tagged!) At a thrift store or on a reseller website. There are also local clothing swap groups. When buying new products, try to invest in something sustainable that you will want to wear for a long time. When shopping quickly, you are buying with the intention of long-term use of the garment.
As an Asian American, how can Pittsburghers better respond to the rise in violence against Asians?
Learn to do better. We can all improve if we look for change. Speak up, speak out against all forms of racism. It starts at home, with your children (no matter how old they are) and your family. Diversify your sources of information. As the parent of two young children, we follow @asianlitforkids and @dittokids on Instagram, who have both been great sources of information.
We all live in our families and communities. Acts of violence are not “lone wolves” incidents. You start with a stupid comment or joke. Or a general lack of understanding or compassion for the other. And too often we (and it’s my fault) let this awkward conversation go by without saying, “It made me uncomfortable” or “That’s not okay.” Racism can be subtle, but naming and shouting racism is a start. Hear and read different BIPOC voices to understand the history of racism in this country. Make a commitment to actively do better.
Maia and Matt model their OTTO FINN jackets (📸: @ottofinn)
What else do you enjoy doing in the Burgh when you are not running this little business?
There is an abundance of green spaces accessible nearby. Our family loves to take short hikes and bike the North Side Trail.
Favorite places to eat something?
In Lawrenceville, we’re fortunate to have B52 and to love Roger Li’s new pop-up series, The Parlor Dim Sum (run by Ki Pollo or Ki Ramen). Our favorite Chinese restaurants are Cafe 33 and How Lee in Squirrel Hill, both of which have a homely feel (both used to be very kid-friendly).
What do you love about our city or, more precisely, about your neighborhood?
We picked Lawrenceville for its walkability and love local shops like Wildcard and Who New? (They only recently moved after being pioneers in the neighborhood) whose presence all those years ago made us believe that creatives would be welcome here. Years later, when I co-owned Make + Matter (now also closed), they all greeted us with open arms. Working actively with Lawrenceville United and the Lawrenceville Corporation has also connected me to community questions, interests, and events.
Which local businesses do you think deserve a reputation (and why)?
Companies like PG&H, placeholder, The blacksmith’s shop, Songbird Artistry, lthis one, pittsburgh, and PGH workshop have been supporting local creatives like me for years. It takes so much work and dedication to own a small business and we all deserve a huge thank you. Other local organizations such as Handmade Arcade, Bridgeway Capital’s Creative Business Accelerator, and Ascender have offered many connections and growth opportunities.
What project are you working on (large or small) and how can Incline readers help you with it?
The pandemic has had a detrimental impact on color communities and those who have already lived from paycheck to paycheck and suddenly run out of paychecks. I’m involved with that Program for Neighbors in Need that is operated by Lawrenceville United and Lawrenceville Corporation. If you have the resources, consider helping financially or volunteering your time to help a local company in need.