Fashion forward: Teenage entrepreneur creates fashion business while avoiding low-cost sector’s dark side

When shopping for clothing around the holidays, it’s hard to pass up a deal. Those aren’t hard to come by with the emergence of fast-fashion retailers that pump out garments at a discount.

At least one entrepreneurial young New Jerseyan, however, will ask you to do just that. Or, at least, she’ll have you consider the hidden costs behind mass-produced, low-priced clothing products.

Megana Madhurakavi herself belongs to an apparently budget-conscious Gen Z consumer demographic, one that’s often attributed to the success of fast-fashion retailers. Chinese brand Shein is among the big names in that modern business category.

“Myself and all my friends were caught up in this fast-fashion scheme,” she said. “I saw how much it was taking over. Then I started to learn about the environmental impact, the human cost of these cheap prices, which we were all manipulated into thinking was normal.

“But the darker side is that the price we don’t pay is paid by the children in sweatshops and by the environment, when we produce millions of clothing pieces per day and most of it ends up in landfills.”

The Robbinsville High School sophomore’s revelation wasn’t an excuse to chastise fellow shoppers and their decision to buy clothes at the cheapest rate. Instead, at 15 years old, she was inspired to present to the world a different business model. And she’s doing just that.

Amid her responsibilities as a high school student, Madhurakavi has become steeped in the day-to-day business operation of a registered LLC, a full-fledged clothing business called Liila.

“I like being busy; I like solving problems,” she said. “So, I saw something going wrong in an industry I’m passionate about and I didn’t feel like age could stop me from trying to solve that problem.”

The turn to entrepreneurship was no surprise to friends or family.

Third grade marked Madhurakavi’s first foray into running a small business, which involved seizing on the current toy trends to sell fidget spinners and slime to classmates and cousins.

“I’ve always been told by people around me I had a mindset for these things,” she said. “I found a way to merge that mindset with making a difference in the world — and that’s been eye-opening.”

The goal is to build a clothing brand that sources materials deemed environmentally friendly, using leftover fabrics that are often discarded during the textile production process, otherwise known as “deadstock” fabric. That’s paired with a commitment to not producing waste in the company’s own production of handmade clothing products.

Madhurakavi had the opportunity to present this concept at the United Nations-supported online Social Impact Investment & Sustainability Conference. She was honored as a “global youth ambassador” of the U.N.’s sustainable development goals and carbon neutrality activity.

She has been heartened by the support she’s received, and how excited people are about introducing sustainability in this consumer segment. Even just among her young peers, she said, she’s noticing more of an awareness about the harms of the fast fashion trend.

The challenge to increasing the impact — and it’s one she’s well aware of — is getting people to dispense with the notion of paying the bottom-dollar prices that come with that business model.

“While it’s true that a lot of the reason people don’t buy from sustainable brands is the price, our main goal is less about profit than it is spreading awareness of how clothes are made and showing how to change it,” she said. “And our clothes are still priced lower than some brands. If you have clothes made at $5 and sold at $100, they’re making upwards of $95 in profit. I’m not doing that.”

Some days are better than others. She admits a day can pass without an order placed for her clothing products. Other days, she’s encouraged to see an unexpected wave of new orders.

Either way, she’s happy to continue to build on what she’s got. And she expects that, one day, her brand will earn a place among the go-to names in guilt-free fashion purchases.

“I’m a firm believer of the idea that, where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Madhurakavi said. “As long as I don’t give up, I’ll definitely be able to reach new heights. Because when I’m passionate about something in the way I am about this industry, there’s nothing that’s too hard a task for me to do.”