Eliza Edge of Cahoots. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

When parents of young children go clothes-shopping, one consideration they must always face is whether the garments they select will be outgrown or outworn sooner. Kids grow fast. If there are younger siblings, sturdy clothes may be handed down; but if not, finding a place to give them away becomes a challenge. 

Much of what we leave in those roadside charity clothing-drop boxes ends up as pulped rags or building insulation, rather than being worn by needy kids somewhere. It’s hardly a sustainable manufacturing model.

Eliza Edge, a Woodstock native now living in Kingston, has come up with an alternative suited to our waste-conscious times. While studying for her MBA in Sustainability (yes, there is such a thing) at Bard College, she became fascinated with the concept of a circular economy – a regenerative alternative to the standard “take/make/waste” linear production model – and was one of the first students to demand that a concentration in the subject be made available. “At the time, it was not being done anywhere else in the country,” she reports.

Several years in the event production business in New York City had seemed glamorous to Edge at first, working behind the scenes at such classy events as the TriBeCa Film Festival. But something about it didn’t sit well with her personal principles. “I began to notice that there was a lot of waste produced by these one-time weekend events,” she relates. “My big takeaway was that there were so much energy and resources that went into these events. Stuff that still had value was being thrown away.”

In the graduate program at Bard, Edge became friends with a classmate who shared her desire to create alternative models for how the world does business. Stephanie Erwin, a transplant from the Bay Area, was an apparel designer and a mother. Erwin shared Edge’s discomfort with the fact that the fashion trade was one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. “The clothes are mostly made in Third-World countries by people who are paid pennies. It’s a really problematic industry,” she said. “The number-one thing we can do to reduce its impact is to double our usage.”

Both women found themselves impressed by the success of Rent the Runway, a 2009 startup company in New York City that rents designer clothing to ordinary women on a subscription basis. They asked themselves: Why not replicate the model with kids’ clothes? “We saw children’s clothing as a completely broken industry,” says Edge. “Clothes with a small tear or stain have so much value still.”

Reestablished in Kingston, the two founded an innovative business that they call Cahoots, incorporated on November 1, 2019. “There was nobody else creating a closed-loop model” for children’s clothing, Edge said, despite the fact that so much of the product outlasts its usefulness for a particular growing child. “We’re bringing repair to the forefront.”

Cahoots is a subscription-based operation that costs $10 to $15 per child per month to join. Once a kid is signed up and a profile created – indicating not only size, but also details such as fiber allergies and personal style and color preferences – the member can rent clothing and keep it for up to a year, returning it to the company when it’s outgrown or damaged. There’s a per-garment “styling fee” averaging $30 for a season’s worth of outfits. The member gets an advance peek at the clothing before it’s shipped and can nix designs that don’t appeal to the child or the parent.

Most of the clothing originates from “a handful of Northeast consignment shops,” says Edge.

Cahoots staff “stylists” set to work fixing or covering up minor defects with dye, fancy stitching or patches recycled from other clothing. Additional creative customization is done each time a garment changes hands, until it reaches the end of its useful life. Members can also get credit by donating outgrown clothing that didn’t originate with Cahoots.

Erwin oversees the repair and redesign end of the production, while Edge is responsible for operations, logistics, coordination and marketing. “Since the launch we’ve styled for hundreds of kids,” Edge said. “Families can sign up all across the U.S,, but we’re keeping the repair here in the Hudson Valley. Over the next ten years, we hope to build up regional hubs.”

That timeline is driven by cognizance of the need for global efforts to develop more sustainable models of living and consuming – a consciousness that’s growing in Cahoots’ customer base as well as in its proprietors. Edge sees the business expanding “as people start caring more and more about what they’re buying into. Kids are having nightmares about climate change. We have less than ten years to make a difference. Parents are looking for solutions, and kids are demanding that we leave them a better world.”

This sense of mission that lies behind Cahoots’ branding of itself as “A Community of Rebels.” Despite having an MBA, “I’m not really comfortable calling myself a CEO. I prefer being Chief Rebel,” Edge said. “Circular-economy solutions are 100 percent the way forward for our future.”

To learn more about Cahoots, visit www.cahootsco.com.