Sustainable fashion, or eco-fashion, is a growing movement in the fashion world. It encompasses ecological integrity and social justice, meaning products are made as environmentally friendly as possible and that workers are not exploited in the process.
Co-owners and native New Yorkers Rony Byas and Harvey Leon are also of Haitian descent and they celebrate their Haitian heritage in the products they sell, in the store’s atmosphere, and in the community outreach they do. The Shoppe also highlights other Black artisans and promotes sustainable wares.
Byas and Leon specialize in ethical and sustainable apparel. The shop sells goods from fair-trade and zero-waste brands, independent artisans, and curated vintage clothing from around the world.
“Fashion is one of the most wasteful industries on the planet,” Byas told Black-Owned Brooklyn. “Especially with climate change, sustainability has taken on increasing importance to us personally, and we want the store to reflect that.”
Byas and Leon go way back. They met in Rosedale, Queens, when they were both 11 years old. “Rony had already been living there for a few years, and I moved to Rosedale from St. Albans, Queens. The rest is history, as they say,” Leon explained to Finurah.
In 2013 the two childhood friends went into business together and launched a line of button-down shirts, hand-cut and sewn in Haiti by Haitian tailors. It was a business venture for the pair and a way to employ people in their ancestral homeland, Haiti.
“The simple answer to why we highlight Haitian designs is that we do so because we’re Haitian, with one of us having actually lived in Haiti for a few years. We both very strongly feel a spiritual resonance to our people and culture and heritage — and so it makes all the sense in the world to uplift and empower our people to the furthest extent of our power,” Leon stresses.
Due to Haiti’s current turmoil and tragedy, the pair has paused shipping directly from there. “We have paused on the production of our own line in Haiti. The beginning of the pandemic in 2020 threw everything out of whack, as you can imagine, and the enormous sociopolitical turmoil since culminating in the recent and heinous assassination of the Haitian President Jovenel Moïse has caused us to put our operations there on extended hiatus,” says Leon.
After a successful run of their shirt line, Byas and Leon opened a brick-and-mortar shop in January 2019. They expanded their offerings to include other Black-owned brands dedicated to ethical and sustainable fashion.
“[Sustainable fashion is important] because the bitter pill we must all eventually swallow is that the Earth’s climate is in chaos. Not only is this global hyper-capitalism/consumerism wreaking massive environmental destruction, but it also reaps a massive toll in human suffering as well; with both increasing exponentially by the year,” expressed Leon to Finurah, noting the excessive nature of the fashion world. “The fashion industry is one of the biggest culprits in this, and we decided long ago that we would plant a flag in opposition to it — perpetuate the concept and practice of ‘slow fashion’ wholeheartedly.”
Sustainability was the goal from the beginning.
“We’d already been operating as a fair trade apparel design/production company since 2013 — employing tailors in Haiti and paying them what we like to refer to as a ‘thriving’ wage — enough funds with which to truly have a higher standard of living,” said Leon. “As we evolved and grew, we felt a strong desire to expand our mission.
“So the Byas & Leon Shoppe is a manifestation of that desire to take ethical/sustainable fashion further (incorporate vintage, zero-waste brands, hand-made locally produced goods, etc.) and also to create a communal space.”
Creating a community is also important to the two business partners. “We are very much a part of the Bed-Stuy Brooklyn community and have striven to keep that at the forefront of everything we do,” Byas told BLK Oceans.
The shop hosts a monthly art showcase and discussion series from artists who live in Brooklyn called “Heart to He(art),” a photo-walk activity series called “Shoot & Tell,” a sustainability/environmentalist educational curriculum called “Root(ED),” and book readings from independent authors, among other events.
“We strongly believe in the expansion of consciousness, particularly when it comes to our people. Our official statement, if you will, is that the Shoppe is an ‘Afro-diasporic focused cultural hub.’ And to that end, it is absolutely important to create a variety of events/programs, such that the members of our community can safely share, connect, and perpetuate knowledge and love amongst each other,” Leon told Finurah.
One reason for Byas & Leon’s staying power is its business approach.
“We strongly believe that one of the major keys to all this is not to ‘sell’ anything. To elaborate, the focus should never be to sell a particular thing such that you make money, but rather, to show people a different way,” Leon explains. “We’re not selling you a vintage shirt; we’re showing you that there is value in acquiring a garment with a story. Much value in going forth and adding your own stories to it and paying it forward to someone else for them to do the same. We’re not in the business of selling vintage clothing; we’re in the practice of expanding consciousness.”