Isadora Alvarez of Back Beat Rags – What It Took For This Filipina Immigrant to Launch a Sustainable Fashion Label in the US

Isadora Alvarez of Back Beat Rags – What It Took For This Filipina Immigrant to Launch a Sustainable Fashion Label in the US

Last year while conducting research for an article on affordable ethical tees, I came across a super cool US-based eco fashion label called Back Beat Rags (whom I would later include in the piece).

I have since learned that the brains behind the brand Isadora Alvarez immigrated to the USA from the Philippines. Raised on the beautiful island of Palawan, Alvarez studied fashion design and launched a small clothing line in Manila. Pursuing her dreams, she then moved to San Francisco and studied Fashion Merchandising at the Academy of Art University, a course that focuses on the business side of fashion such as buying and marketing.

After completing her degree, the entrepreneur moved to Los Angeles and launched a business in 2015 selling vintage. She would eventually launch her Cali-inspired eco-conscious clothing brand Back Beat Rags in 2016; think locally-manufactured certified organic cotton, recycled cotton, hemp, and Tencel garments and you get the drift. Alvarez’s ability to infuse casual California surf and skate culture elements and vintage vibes has seen her label featured in popular fashion-focussed millennial publications such as Bustle and Man Repeller.

Back Beat Rags Ochre Tencel Robe
Sky Organic Cotton Rib Mock Neck

On a mission to celebrate sustainable fashion’s ethnic and racial diversity, I e-interview Isadora Alvarez to learn what it takes for a Filipina to get a foothold in the American ethical fashion scene.

EWP: Why did you choose to pursue a sustainability focus in your fashion business?

Isadora Alvarez: I always knew that I wanted to have my own business and have another clothing line after I graduated from my fashion merchandising degree in San Francisco. I didn’t know quite what kind of business or line I wanted and wasn’t really confident yet because I had just moved to the US and didn’t really know how to do it out here.

I moved to LA and got a job in the buying department of an off price retailer because I wanted to learn more about the business and buying side of fashion. It was there that I realized how much throwaway stuff gets put out into the world, and it’s when I decided that if I had a business it would be the opposite of that.

So after almost three years of working in that industry, I quit my job to sell vintage wares at pop-ups. As much I loved doing that, after awhile the itch to have my own label start coming up again. At the time I was focusing mainly on vintage tees and sweatshirts; the basics. So one day I had the eureka moment of “I should make cool basics inspired by vintage tees”. But then the question of how to make it less harmful to the planet came up, and that’s when I decided that the only fabrics I would use would be low impact. So I sought out organic cotton and hemp first. For my first collection, I launched with three tees, two dresses, and one jumpsuit style.

Isadora Alvarez founder of Back Beat Rags.
Back Beat Rags Wine Hemp Utility Pants
Wine Hemp Utility Pants

EWP: How about the California style and vintage details, what inspired this?

IA: I’ve basically been obsessed with the Cali vibe of being free and easy as soon as I moved here, so I always try to incorporate that into Back Beat‘s styles. I also loved all the vintage details I came across when I sold vintage tees, so I started incorporating them into our clothing so it would have something a little different – it makes a tee or sweatshirt just that tiny bit more special.

EWP: You immigrated to the USA from the Philippines. What was that like? Were your parents supportive?

IA: It was definitely a culture shock. I had visited the US prior to moving but it’s completely different when you actually LIVE here. The way of life and the culture is so different from the Philippines, so it definitely was a little bit hard at first. I had to learn how to do so many things in a new way, and even learn American slangs in order to fit in. That was quite an adjustment. My parents have always been super supportive of my dreams and what I want to do with my life – but I’m pretty sure they wish that I would move back home to the Philippines every day!

EWP: Have you ever experienced racism?

IA: I’ve never experienced outright racism honestly, but I was also very conscious of how I talked and acted to “fit in”. I was lucky to live in bigger cities where there’s a lot of different races so racism isn’t really rampant.  

EWP: What’s been the biggest challenge in running the business?

IA: The biggest challenge? Where do I start? Haha! I did everything myself at the start because I had no money to hire anyone else so I really started from scratch. In the beginning, the biggest challenge was finding time to do everything myself! I handled production, sales, design etc. As the business has grown, I am able to get more help and outsource some stuff but now the challenge is funding to grow into a bigger business. Nobody really talks about how much money you need to run a fashion company, sometimes we just see brands pop-up seemingly out of nowhere and make a really big splash, and we think that that’s easily achievable but in reality there’s a lot of work and money to make that happen.

Back Beat Rags Ochre Tencel Easy Jacket
Ochre Tencel Easy Jacket
Livin’ Easy Organic Cotton Band Tee

EWP: What business tools and apps do you use that you can recommend to other entrepreneurs?

IA: Klaviyo is really great for emails. It’s a paid service but you can customize your emails easily and have marketing flows put in. Google docs and sheets have also saved my life! It’s free and easy-to-use and everyone can update it; no more saving and sharing excel documents through email. Other than that I’m pretty old school so I still schedule all my meetings on my iPhone calendar and for studio to-do’s we have a big whiteboard that we write stuff on. 

EWP: What are some things you wish your people knew about your business that you don’t promote or share on social media?

IA: That running a fashion business is super hard and it entails a lot of putting together small details and making sure nothing goes wrong. I think one thing I also want to shed light on, and which we actually have plans to talk about, is how much work goes into making even a t-shirt. There are so many steps in creating a garment – and it shouldn’t cost $5 because paying that much money for something that takes a while to produce isn’t really fair for everyone involved in making it.  

Golden Hemp Vintage Fade Sweatshirt
Back Beat Rags Olive Cami Midi Recycled Cotton Dress
Olive Cami Midi Recycled Cotton Dress

EWP: Quotes you live by?

IA: One day at a time. I think business owners feel this all the time. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed and anxious but just make sure you do what you need to do today and not to worry too much about tomorrow. That’s a recipe for a nervous breakdown – been there, done that! Haha!

EWP: Best business compliment you’ve ever received?

IA: That I’m able to make sustainable clothing look cool. My goal with Back Beat Rags from the start was to really meld sustainability with aesthetics so that people have no reason to not buy better clothing. I’m happy we’re hitting that goal.   

To learn more about Isadora Alvarez or browse the Back Beat Rags website, visit backbeatrags.com or follow her on Instagram here.

Responses were edited for length and clarity. Title image credit Back Beat Rags.

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