Fashion designer Meredith Noles brings her unique voice and skills to LAUDE the Label
By Jenny B. Davis
Photos by Jill Johnson
Raised in Fort Worth and trained in New York, fashion designer Meredith Noles brings her unique voice and serious skills to the mission-driven brand LAUDE the Label
As Meredith Noles talks about the images and fabric swatches pinned to her mood board, a narrative comes together.
It’s the story of the colors and shapes that caught Noles’ eye when she was in Santa Fe last year; of Georgia O’Keeffe, the legendary artist whose paintings have become synonymous with Santa Fe; and of O’Keeffe’s friendship with Ailes Gilmour, the Japanese- American dancer who helped launch the American modern dance movement before she moved to New Mexico.
Just a few feet from the mood board, these stories take on yet another form: clothing. They helped inspire the Fall/Winter 2023 collection that Noles designed for LAUDE the Label, the Fort Worth fashion brand where she’s lead designer.
The collection represents “a real marriage of these two women who are guiding lights this season,” Noles says. “I love the interplay between soft, liquid shapes that represent Ailes as a dancer and colors from Georgia’s paintings and also her sense of minimalism and utilitarianism.”
Samples from the collection hang on a garment rack in LAUDE’s loftlike Southside studio. There’s the Ailes dress, a flowy, forgiving silhouette in cream-colored mesh lace that Noles notes is perfect on its own but takes on an instant big-city edge when a black sweater is worn underneath. There’s a thick, ubersoft sweater in a dusty rose shade inspired by O’Keeffe’s color palette. Also unique is a chino pant that Noles expects will become a bestseller because of the elastic side tabs hidden on both sides of the clean, classic flat front, allowing the width to be instantly and easily adjusted.
Which style is her favorite? It’s hard to tell, but a careful observer might catch sight of a special twinkle in her eye as she takes a chic sheath dress in marbled Cupro fabric from the rack.
“I had seen a photo of some marbled cookware that O’Keeffe had in her home, and I thought, ‘We have some amazing Indian artisans who do marbling. Let’s do that on a silk-feeling fabric,’” she recalls. “The design aligns with Ailes’ work, but it’s also a real nod to the skill sets of our artisans.”
That artisan hand isn’t just evident in this dress; it’s a veritable design imperative across the entire collection. That’s because LAUDE is about more than fashion. It has a mission- based focus on artisanship, sustainability and ethical manufacturing.
CENTERING THE CAUSE
The brand began in Fort Worth in 2014; the original name was Tribe Alive, and it focused on jewelry before expanding to handbags and a full fashion line. The brand is sold primarily through its e-commerce site, but select pieces also are available through online retailers like Madewell.com and brick-and-mortar boutiques such as Harmoni in Fort Worth.
Founder Carly Burson launched the brand after returning from Ethiopia, where she and her husband had adopted a daughter. Seeing firsthand how extreme poverty forced families to relinquish their children to orphanages, Burson vowed to do something to lift women and families out of financial hardship.
Thanks to her years of experience in fashion design and social impact retailing, her approach was obvious. And fashion was certainly an area with a profound need for reform.
Approximately 98 percent of workers in the fashion industry are held in systemic poverty and cannot meet their most basic needs, and 75 percent of these impoverished workers are women, according to the London-based nonprofit Fashion Revolution.
Compounding the issue are statistics that estimate up to 75 percent of all garments sold in the U.S. are manufactured in sweatshops, where workers commonly put in 14 to 16 hours a day and endure conditions that are often both unsafe and unhealthy.
Not only do the byproducts of garment production pollute the ground, air and waterways, but the U.S. alone exports over 1.5 billion pounds of secondhand clothing every year to countries such as Kenya, Angola, Ghana, Pakistan and India, according to U.S. News & World Report, with most of it getting dumped in landfills or burned.
With LAUDE, Burson aspires to challenge the system and change these outcomes. Its tagline is “honoring earth and maker.”
LAUDE sources the most sustainable materials possible, like yarns made from organic and repurposed fiber. Then, it establishes relationships with artisans and small factories to manufacture its clothes, ensuring that everyone involved in the process is paid fairly and enjoys safe and ethical working conditions. Finally, LAUDE also addresses the postsale life cycle of its garments.
By creating quality pieces in timeless designs, the goal is to provide covetable (and mendable) wardrobe staples, not impulse buys that are discarded when a whim fades or a trend ends. LAUDE’s website even includes a re-commerce platform to help customers buy and sell their pre-loved pieces.
“I’m an activist at heart and only ever built this brand to make a difference in the lives of makers and to demonstrate a kinder, more equitable way of approaching capitalism and business,” Burson says.
“I hope we’ll continue to show up authentically, offering the world a deeper look into fashion that considers inequality, racism, women’s issues and climate justice in a way that inspires consumers and other business owners to do better by people and the planet.”
UNITED IN STYLE
But all the intention and work in the world won’t move the needle if no one’s buying the clothes. That’s where Noles comes in. She joined LAUDE in January 2022 and serves as the brand’s head designer, drawing on her rich and deep experience. She has a graduate degree in fashion and apparel design from the Parsons School of Design in New York and spent years in the city, building her resume and experience by working with knitwear for major brands such as Tory Burch, La Ligne and Michael Kors and via design internships with Edun and Billy Reid.
How she came to LAUDE, though, is a testament to the power of Burson’s vision, the pull of family and the appeal of Fort Worth.
Noles grew up in Fort Worth (she’s a Southwest Christian School graduate) and headed to Waco for college. She started out studying neuroscience but graduated with a degree in studio art and graphic design after falling in love with fashion during her junior year abroad in Italy.
There, she connected with a textile artist who offered her an apprenticeship. After securing the necessary visa back in the United States, Noles returned to Italy and was soon hand-painting silk for Gucci and leather for Ferragamo.
“That exposure flipped the switch for me,” Noles says. “I loved the convergence of art and commerce and the tension and challenges that exist there.”
Returning to Baylor for her senior year, she was laser-focused on fashion and made a beeline for New York after graduation. There, she secured a couple internships but ultimately decided to earn a fashion-specific degree. At Parsons, she was able to hone her craft and access opportunities with some of the most recognizable fashion brands in the world.
She loved her work, especially the experience she was getting working with knitwear, but it wasn’t long before she became more conscious of the nature of the fashion system — and questioned her involvement in it.
“Even though I love design — I live and breathe design — I was not aligned with the supply chains, with how people were being treated at the factory level or the lack of transparency in the types of fibers being used,” she says. “I was at this real tension point about how I continue in this space when there are elements of it that do not align with the core of who I am as a person.”
During a visit to Fort Worth to visit family, a mutual friend introduced her to Burson. The connection was immediate, they say, as was the realization they should work together. “Loving design but not loving the system, I was ready to get in here to put my skills to work,” Noles recalls.
Noles relocated to Fort Worth and officially joined LAUDE. It was hard to leave New York, she admits, but winter, coupled with the pandemic, sped up her decision. “I had to have more sunshine,” she says, “and also more kindness.”
She hasn’t regretted the decision for a second.
“On my first day, I was absolutely shocked going through our impact report and seeing how much this brand really sticks to it, really believes in it and isn’t cutting corners,” she says, adding “I know larger sustainable brands that get a lot of coverage that put in a lot less work than we do.”
Burson is equally appreciative of Noles.
“Meredith is always creating and bringing new original ideas and concepts to life, but what makes Meredith so special is that all her ideas originate with the maker in mind. She’s deeply connected with our artisans and holds them and their craft in very high esteem,” Burson says.
“When she dreams up a new concept, she first considers the maker — Do our teams have the skills to support this concept? Does this design honor their heritage? — and then she considers the environmental impact.
Are these fibers as sustainable as they can possibly be? Is this fabric fully traceable? Could we achieve this with a natural dye?”
But it’s Noles’ collaboration with the brand’s artisans in Peru and India that Burson admires most.
“She approaches them as equal partners and collaborators, seeks out their opinions often, shows respect at all times and incorporates their ideas as much as possible,” Burson says. “Fashion was built on inequities, and Meredith works very hard to rewrite that story in the ways in which she works with our partners.”
FASHIONING A FUTURE
The 2023 Spring/Summer collection was the first Noles created for the brand start to finish. Her muse for that season was Frida Kahlo, the first of what she says will be a series of strong, dynamic women to serve as her inspiration.
“I think the best way to love on our customers and love on ourselves is to highlight being dynamic,” she says. “It doesn’t mean looking a certain way or living your life a certain way. It means living your life to the fullest.”
To create the 2023 Fall/Winter collection, Noles devoted herself to showcasing the talents of LAUDE’s artisans and expanding and maximizing natural materials. “If I did my job right, you’re going to notice how fabulous our artisans are,” she says.
Inspired by O’Keeffe and Gilmour, Noles has created a mix of styles. She’s updated pieces from LAUDE’s core collection in subtle ways that the wearer might not notice but will definitely appreciate, like improving fit or changing up the fiber content to make a textile fluffier, softer or longer-lasting.
But other designs — the debut of soft suiting rendered in luxe sustainable silk noir or a chic A-line trenchcoat complete with a storm flap detail — are new and designed specifically to accelerate the brand’s entry into the global fashion conversation.
That’s what Burson is hoping for, too, especially as the brand is in expansion
mode. “We’re currently closing on a capital raise and have brought in a few high-level team members and shared equity holders to support this next new phase of growth,” she says. “Hiring Meredith was a key component in positioning the brand to scale, and we see her being a part of the long-term vision.”
That long-term vision includes international expansion plans, growth for the brand’s e-commerce reach and a plan to double revenue across all sales channels by 2024, Burson says. Meanwhile, she’s closed on a $500,000 round of fundraising, which she plans to invest in multimedia and influencer marketing with a focus on wholesale sales and strategic alignments.
“We want to be clear that our desire to grow is aligned with a desire to sustainably employ more women and reach financial sustainability, where we can fund our own growth and impact initiatives by 2026,” Burson said. “It’s going to be a ton of work, but we finally have the right team in place to make scaling possible.”
Noles is definitely down for the work. She’s planning a trip to India soon to work one-on-one with the brand’s artisan team there. She’s also finalizing the Spring/ Summer 2024 collection and has already begun work on concepts for Fall/Winter ’24. She has her sights set, she says, on exploring “that intersection between artisanal work and luxury.” Plus, she says, she’s already begun to work with weavers to develop some new pieces that promise to be “really dreamy.”
IF YOU GO
- Find LAUDE online at shop.laudethelabel.com and at Harmoni, 1210 6th Ave., Suite 112, Fort Worth, shopharmoni.com.