Courtesy of Rakel Tanibajeva

Last spring, Rakel Tanibajeva traveled to Turkey for spring break — and then the world shut down. Stranded there, the Yale sophomore wound up learning more than she ever expected about the fashion industry. She found herself at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, among the most massive covered markets in the world, covering over 30,000 square meters.

Standing in the bazaar, Tanibajeva said, she was struck by the scale of the mass production of clothing.

“Going there was shocking,” she said. “I was overwhelmed by how everything was replicated. I watched the workers, and it seemed almost archaic how they had to lug all of these things through these cobblestone hills. It’s one thing to learn about it in school or on your own. It’s another thing to be faced with it.”

The pandemic slowed many of the world’s creative endeavors. But for Tanibajeva, lockdown ended up spurring her interest in the fashion world. She wound up working in the big leagues as a sustainability ambassador behind the scenes of New York Fashion Week, one of the world’s famous “Big Four” fashion weeks. She’s picked up various other designing and style gigs while simultaneously working as a model.

“It’s been a whole twilight zone over the past year,” she said. “I was originally doing an interview, and I was talking about being an environmentalist. … Long story short, they were like, ‘That is very cool, you seem very passionate about this, how would you like a working opportunity here?’”

And then, all of a sudden, Tanibajeva was in the midst of a colossal fashion endeavor of her own: the startup of her sustainable living company, Lots of Berries. 

I talked to Tanibajeva this week over Zoom, and I got the chance to hear about the story of the company.

“Being an environmentalist, I’ve always had a conundrum of concrete things I could do to support the movement,” she said. “Obviously I could educate myself and learn a lot about the topic. … I could go to protests … but I wanted to do something more concrete and hands-on. With all the free time that I had sitting during quarantine, I was like, ‘This is the moment.’ So I put all my energy into it.”

Lots of Berries, she said, is a sustainable lifestyle brand, so it doesn’t just include fashion — it extends to cooking, home decor and more. It started from the produce angle, when she organized a community garden, and thus the name Lots of Berries felt appropriate. The company is kicking off with LOB Fashion, the company’s clothing line. Soon, they’re going to try to tackle sustainable housing with a teaching program modeled on the Tiny House Project.

“I thought it was a cute name, too,” she added.

She said the company hopes to establish a workshop space in the Catskills, to actually create clothes “on a wider, but still sustainable scale.”

As Tanibajeva told me about all of this — about being on New York Fashion Week, about designing clothes, about modeling, about the berries — one central question I had remained: How did she learn it all? After all, she’s a full-time student in college, working in what seems to be a high-level, professional sphere.

The answer she gave me: that she comes from a “fashionable family.”

“My mom is a very big inspiration for me, because she’s an artist,” Tanibajeva said. “She taught me a lot of what I know, and I always get a lot of inspiration from her. It was a very fashionable family. You could walk around my apartment, and most of my books are about fashion. It’s really nice to be able to bounce ideas off of somebody.”

As she’s worked on her brand, Tanibajeva has been pulling not just from her family background, but from the breadth of knowledge she’s gotten from her studies at Yale.

At the University, she’s an environmental studies student — “surprise, surprise,” she joked. She said she “loves” environmental studies at Yale — that it’s “global and encompassing.” She’s also had the opportunity to meet all sorts of students studying the topic. In New York, she met another prospective environmental studies student pursuing opera singing. “Environmentalism impacts every aspect of life. It’s very encompassing. I meet people with a variety of interests. It’s really cool to hear their stories, and we get to educate each other through that.”

As she’s built experience — both in environmental studies and in fashion — she said she’s picked up on many misconceptions about sustainable fashion, and she wanted to debunk them with the elegance of her brand.

“A stereotype of sustainable fashion is bohemian, hippy or dippy clothing, but what I’m trying to exhibit with my brand is that you can be in high fashion and still be environmentally conscious,” she said. She also noted that while sometimes fast fashion brands seem cheap in the moment, they need to be replaced constantly. “High-quality clothing in the long term is cheaper than fast fashion,” she said. “You always have to be renewing it. With more sustainable materials, they last longer.” She said with her brand, she’s also working on trying to make the clothing affordable.

As for the future, Tanibajeva said she hopes to continue the business and watch it grow for a long time, but “we’re taking it one day at a time — focusing in on the moment and getting done what we can.” More immediately, she said she can’t wait to get back to physical production. Before the pandemic hit, she was able to work on a real photoshoot, and it was a blast.

“It was super fun to work as a director and work with models and have them in my clothing,” she said. “That was a very fulfilling process that felt amazing. It was a good time.”

Tanibajeva said there are so many things people can do to incorporate sustainability into their daily lives. “Turn off your lights when you leave the room,” she said. “Support sustainable brands. Go thrifting — thrifting is a really fun thing to do, even during COVID. I find myself doing it even more. It’s a fun activity you can do with your friends or by yourself, and it’s sustainable.”

Currently, Lots of Berries is trying to engage in online outreach. They’re working on uploading videos to their YouTube channel on the basics of sustainable fashion — what it is and how to engage with it. Tanibajeva said she’s hoping that if the Catskills workshop launches, they can teach some in-person classes there.

“And hopefully sell some berries,” she added. “Maybe lots of berries!”

Owen Tucker-Smith | owen.tucker-smith@yale.edu