The Ms. Q&A: Why Lingua Franca Founder Rachelle Hruska MacPherson Wants You to Buy a Resistance Sweater

Rachelle Hruska MacPherson is a vocal champion of women’s rights—and her latest venture weaves feminism into fashion.

After studying Psychology at Creighton University, MacPherson explored several fields before founding Guest of a Guest, a humorous online social diary that chronicles the nightlife and daily culture of high-society New Yorkers. Just two years after its genesis, in 2009, Guest of a Guest received 2 million views monthly—and MacPherson, born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, was named a global media icon.

That year, MacPherson also launched Lingua Franca, an ethical fashion label specializing in high-end cashmere sweaters that sport embroidered slogans, often custom-made to suit the expressions and opinions of their customers. Every Lingua Franca sweater is embroidered by hand at the brand’s New York City offices, and the company employs 50 embroiderers, each earning an hourly wage of $25.

Witty, light-hearted and often politically-charged, Lingua Franca sweaters took off in the wake of Trump’s election. In the years since, Hruska’s resistance sweaters—proclaiming “time’s up,” “power to the people” and even “I miss Barack”—became signature celebrity styles at Women’s Marches and beyond. (Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon and Connie Britton are just a few outspoken supporters of the company; Ms. contributor and Periods Gone Public author Jennifer Weiss-Wolf has sported one emblazoned with the phrase “menstrual equity.”)

MacPherson talked to Ms. about mixing feminism with fashion, finding consumers who care and which sweater she’s been sporting these days.

What inspired you to launch Lingua Franca?

After the birth of my second son, I suffered from horrible postpartum anxiety and my therapist suggested I find something to do with my hands to help with it. My grandmother had taught me how to embroider as a young girl, and I thoughtlessly picked up an old sweater one cold winter afternoon and embroidered “booyah” across it. I posted the photo on Instagram and started getting requests from friends to do their old sweaters—and Lingua Franca was unwittingly born.

How would you describe Lingua Franca’s target demographic?

Consumers who care. 

How did you select embroidery and knitwear as a mode of political expression?

When we started, we were hand embroidering hip hop lyrics, which I felt were the “lingua franca” of our times, onto fine cashmere. I loved the juxtaposition between hip hop phrases with embroidery—a predominately “woman’s craft”—and fine cashmere. I loved the meaning behind our name, and absolutely adored the idea of a common language among people.

At the time, we had dozens of part time embroiders from diverse backgrounds working in our offices: immigrants, students and even a refugee sewing for us. The day after the election, you could feel the heaviness in the air. Everyone was quiet and serious. For the first time in my life, I truly felt like I was able to understand political dissonance. The lives of the people I knew and cared about, the women I saw daily, were hanging in the balance.

We started slowly putting resistance phrases on sweaters for fun. Then, Trump tried to pass his outrageous and carelessly planned travel ban, and people were huddled in tears in the office. I decided at that point it was time to go full on in speaking out against this administration.

We started sewing away and we haven’t stopped since.

Why did you choose Lingua Franca—defined as “a common language between speakers whose native languages are different”—as the name?

One of the words we use to define our company’s core message is “respect.” It’s such a powerful short word that packs a lot of meaning. I believe that for us, as humans, to live productively and thrive as a species, we need to respect our differences and find the things that are common denominators. As humans, we do share a common language—it’s written in our DNA and it’s independent of race, sex, nationality, religion or gender. I remember, years ago, seeing “All In The Timing”—a play by David Ives which riffs on the real life experiment of the “Esperanto” language—and being totally fascinated with the concept.

As a company, at our core, and hopefully without sounding too righteous or trite, we are trying to do things that speak to this truth: humans want to do good. We hope to put more good in the world than bad. This means producing less at higher qualities with greater care than has been industry standard. We want to make sure that everyone that has a hand in making our products is being paid a fair and livable wage for their work, and we want to help out fellow humans trying to do good. For every sweater we sell, we donate $100 to a charity of the purchaser’s choice.

How do you select the phrases you embroider? 

I’ve always said that culture is my religion, and coming up with sayings surrounding the zeitgeist has been such a creative outlet for me. Giving voice to issues that are important to me has been a real joy of mine.

What is your favorite design so far?

It’s impossible to pick a favorite, but right now I’ve been wearing “give a damn” almost daily.

View this post on Instagram

People of Alabama: please “give a damn” and do NOT elect Roy Moore into our Senate. Even if you are able to disregard the nine women accusing him of sexual assault (minors), he has: 1) taught a class discouraging women from running for office, 2) referred to people as “reds and “yellows”, 3) Accepted money from a neo-nazi group, 4) Said gay marriage was “worse than slavery,” 5) Wouldn’t rule out the death penalty for gays, 6) Wants to rescind free trade agreements, 7) Is anti-immigrant, 8) Believes 9/11 is God’s punishment for legalizing sodomy. WHAT MORE DO YOU NEED ALABAMA?! (America?) Please get out and vote for #dougjones. Please try to put political party affinity aside and stop this cycle of insanity in our country!!!!!

A post shared by Lingua Franca (@linguafrancanyc) on

“Feminist fashion,” from tee shirts with explosive political slogans to gender-bending apparel, has exploded recently, especially among millennial consumers. How does Lingua Franca distinguish itself in an increasingly saturated market? What makes you different?

People are incredibly fired up right now and I think it’s a fascinating and wonderful thing.

For us, it’s not about selling massive amounts of sweaters. It’s about celebrating slow fashion, hand-stitched craftsmanship, and the ideas of the messaging. We try not to take ourselves too seriously. Also, since everything is made to order, we can pivot very quickly and comment on the circumstances in almost real time, something I think larger corporate companies would not be able to do.

It’s infuriating to hear about mass companies that are concerned about feminist values or human rights making their garments in sweatshops. It’s disgusting that our president is producing hundreds of thousands of items for his campaign in China while also running on a platform of bringing jobs back to the U.S.

We aren’t perfect, but we have high standards, and are okay with charging more for our sweaters in order to uphold these standards. We are learning so much about the fashion industry—and honestly, it has made me, personally, a much more concerned shopper. I think buying less items from smaller brands that make quality products and respect their work force and their planet is so much more fashionable than “fast-fashion” trend-shopping. I’ve cut out shopping from fast fashion places like Zara and H&M out of my personal routine, no matter WHAT their shirts say.

In 2018, Connie Britton wore a signature Lingua Franca “poverty is sexist” sweater to the Golden Globes. The $380.00 sweater became a topic of controversy—many felt the price point clashed with the message. 

I think that episode was the best example of what we are constantly trying to do here: start conversations. It’s okay that it upset people. It’s okay that people criticized us. What’s important is for us to listen, and for people to engage in thoughtful dialogue. I’m happy that Britton’s choice in wearing that one sweater—as opposed to, say, a $10,000 gown—on the red carpet made so many people aware of organizations that are providing for women in need.

In this case in particular, the outcome is so much greater than the cost of critics. Income inequality exists, and it’s ridiculous not to call attention to it. I was happy to have a small part in this overwhelming debate on how to deal with this giant problem that isn’t going away.

 

Do you foresee a shifting price point?

In our cashmere sweaters? No. I do not see a shift in our pricing, for all of the reasons stated before.

We care deeply about producing products that are ethically sourced and produced. We care about paying people fair wages. We simply cannot do what we do and make any less margins work. But also? We think our sweaters are worth the cost. We hope people consider spending four times more on our one sweater, that they have forever, than one of lesser quality that they toss in a couple of seasons.

Fashion is perceived as a “feminine” field, but the majority of the corporate industry is dominated by men. How did you break through—especially with such bold and, arguably, divisive political designs?

Well, first and foremost, we aren’t corporate. I think most of the thoughtful and interesting fashion companies I follow are run by women, and most of them do not have corporate headquarters.

I am very fortunate in that I don’t have investors or board members to answer to. This started as a folly project and has grown into something that has given me a real purpose in my life. I’m protective of this brand and the capital—both time and money—that has gone into it.

Ultimately, as a consumer, I respond to companies that I can feel have some soul to them. I hope that’s how people feel when they discover us.

What’s next for Lingua Franca?

In a perfect world, our company will grow into something much more. Our ethos is sharing “a common language” and “giving a damn,” and these will be the underlining themes of future products we release.

We are working on a totally new product line, outside of fashion, for a winter launch. Stay tuned!

Livia Caligor is a sophomore at Cornell University majoring in Fashion Design Management with a strong belief in fashion as a responsive art form that reflects and drives political, cultural and economic changes. She serves as VP of Alumni Relations for Cornell’s Fashion Industry Network, VP of Logistics and Events Planning for the Cornell Fashion Collective and undergraduate research assistant and blogger for the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection museum. Livia loves sparring, dragging her friends to museums and galleries, exploring downtown NYC, reading 1960s literature and cooking eccentric personal recipes.

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