How a new clothing brand is changing the fashion industry’s understanding of women

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2Q==Citizen’s MarkWhile working at the UN in Geneva, Switzerland, Citizen’s Mark founder Cynthia Salim realized at 23 the same thing every working woman inevitably does: It’s hard to find credible clothes to wear to work. In fact, it’s oddly hard to do.

Like Salim, most professional women are familiar with feeling pigeonholed between workwear choices that all seem mutually dissatisfying. It’s way harder than it should be to find blazers that are tailored, but not “sexy,” and clothes that aren’t “cute-ified” with bows and trendy lapels, but also aren’t boxy or masculine either.

In essence, Salim realized that she and her female peers had a career the fashion industry didn’t seem to know they had.

Instead of resigning herself to a life of cardigans, Salim decided to build the company she wished existed. In order to change a stubbornly inept system, the disruption would need to come from an outsider who didn’t just think they knew what the modern woman wanted, but in fact was the modern woman.

And given the integral misunderstanding of women that has lead to such rampant “cute-ifying” of their clothes, Salim knew her task would not only be to create quality workwear but to fundamentally shift the perception of women from hollow consumers to multidimensional, dynamic people.

It was a revolutionary idea that shouldn’t, really, have been so revolutionary.

As she got deeper into the institution to found Citizen’s Mark, Salim realized how such a large contingency of buyers and their needs had gone so vastly underrepresented. The makers of the high-quality menswear, which theoretically could manufacture the same for women, liked to follow an 80/20 rule common in business. Since 80% of their profits come from the men’s collection, investing in that 20% of women’s collections — modernizing fit, testing merchandise — seems risky and unattractive. Perfect fit (as we well know) is more difficult to master for women, returns could be high, and they could be more demanding customers — all of which sounds unnecessary from an 80/20 perspective.

Z 2Citizen’s Mark

Meanwhile legacy women’s brands shy away from the higher-priced, higher-quality products with timeless cuts because more expensive products are harder to sell, and classic designs mean consumers won’t be racing back to upgrade to the new “in” thing.

Which is how we ended up here —  with cheap, trendy clothes churned out at a high velocity — but only for female professionals.

Perhaps what will surprise or dismay readers most is that the gendering of quality extends from strategy and seeps into the supply chain itself. When Salim contacted wool mills to produce workwear garments, they would habitually ask if she was interested in men’s or women’s fabrics. Why are they not the same? At such an atomic level, quality is already disparate. So every time she’s asked, Salim answers the question the same way: “men’s.”

Like the mysterious “pink tax” that hikes up products made for women that are indistinguishable from those made for men, Salim found that even the factory machines were gendered. When she couldn’t find a sophisticated enough suit factory in the US, most of the European options explained that they exclusively did men’s tailoring, as if the machines would shutter and turn off if they detected the fit was designed for a female. Which is why, unlike the vast majority of women’s workwear, Citizen’s Mark is manufactured using “male” fabrics and using “male” specialized suit factories.

Though certainly much more expensive than the average blazer, there’s really nothing to compare Citizen’s Mark to. When surprised that so many strangers would spend $450 on an Italian wool blazer from an unknown brand instead of a Hugo Boss or Theory, customers told her that it was because the quality was so visible, so distinguishable, even online, that there wasn’t a doubt about credibility — “which is an interesting tie-in because that’s exactly what we’re in the business of creating — things that project credibility.”

Citizen’s Mark follows traditional tailoring design (ie. nothing cute and trendy); uses the higher-quality “male” materials; laser-cuts each for sharp, clean edges; and each blazer is constructed with specialized tailoring machinery in a factory in Portugal — with different machines specified for specialized functions: one to perfectly straight welt pockets, press lapels into shape, and attach shoulder rolls. 

The collection is small — just four exceptionally well-made blazers — but they’ve been featured in Fashion Weeks all over the world, because something about the company’s message is resonating in a market too-long ignored.

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My experience wearing the blazers, the Geneva Luxe fit and the Zurich Slim Fit, was an immediate shift in my perception of what women’s workwear could look and feel like.

Like living the first two decades of my life without contact lenses and then putting them in and realizing those green blobs were trees, the Citizen’s Mark collection was like finally seeing in high-definition.

Though the cost might seem ridiculously steep, I can say that even with a limited budget, I would absolutely buy a Citizen’s Mark blazer instead of four cheaply made variations for $100.

And true down to all the other minute details of the company, the supply chain of Citizen’s Mark reflects the kind of values a socially conscious woman on the rise has: responsibility, sustainability, and transparency. The wool in each blazer comes from a 400-plus-year-old Italian mill that purifies water after the dyeing process, the suit factory pays living wages and health care coverage, and even every model used is a female leader, photographed in a defiant, dignified way. “[They’re] photographed as people who have control upon their environment (looking into the camera, taking up physical space), rather than a…passive, high-fashion feel (hand on mouth, falling over).”

Even the tiny horn buttons on the blazers are Fair Trade, sourced from a woman-owned enterprise in Nepal. This thoroughness and Swiss precision of detail is perhaps unsurprising for a woman who made it to the UN by 23 and the Forbes 30 under 30 list six years later. She’s been recognized by the World Policy Institute for leadership in sustainability, and uses her foothold in the fashion world to redefine the perceived identity of the modern woman, as a consumer and as a citizen.

In our exchange, Salim told me that she thinks it’s critical that “brands and society stop telling women how they’re supposed to look or what they’re supposed to wear, but instead act and design under the assumption that we are multi-dimensional, strong, interesting people.”

If that sounds like the kind of future you want to live in, consider using your money to opt for peerless workwear and consciously advance an agenda that makes the workplace a fairer zone — and support women like Cynthia Salim forcefully pushing against an outdated norm.

If you’re interested in picking a Citizen’s Mark blazer up for yourself, you can check out the collection here. And keep an eye out for their Premium Essentials collection coming soon.

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