Meet Rona Chang, the founder of OTTO FINN, a Lawrenceville-based sustainable fashion company that believes in minimum waste, maximum comfort, and authenticity. The shop sells a variety of clothing and accessories made from second-hand materials but specializes in coats made from old quilts and kantha blankets.
When she thinks about the evolution of her business, Rona remembers her dad’s traditional Chinese coats that he used to wear.
“He had one for every season,” she said. “He was a pretty eccentric guy and stood out for his fashion in a relatively conservative society. I remember loving his winer one and wearing it after he passed…it gave me so much comfort.”
Now, Rona shares that eco-conscious comfort with her customers.
Rona Chang wearing a one-of-a-kind OTTO FINN coat (📸: @ottofinn)
What led you to start OTTO FINN?
My husband and I started OTTO FINN when our son Otto was little and crawling out of his pants. We wanted to design pants that were better fitting, comfortable, and made of sustainable fibers. There have been several iterations of OTTO FINN since those early days, and now I run the business.
A quilt to jacket transformation (📸: @ottofinn)
Tell us about OTTO FINN’s “Find Your Match” program.
About two years ago, I began making jackets out of old quilt tops. The shape was inspired by Japanese kimonos, and I used fabric I had on hand, which were some old quilt tops I had in my personal stash for 20 years. It quickly evolved to me using kantha blankets from India, which are layers of old sari fabric upcycled into a blanket with tiny running stitches going through all the layers. I had always thought kanthas were a genius way of creating beauty out of something that would otherwise be discarded.
To backtrack a little, I spent many happy years working as a photographer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. I photographed all of the Japanese woodblock prints and Indian paintings in the collection. I wondered how spending so much time with a particular collection would influence me as an artist and years later, I think this is how it has manifested. We launched the Find Your Match program last year in response to customers who often fell in love with a particular one-of-a-kind jacket that wasn’t in their size or desired length. We now have monthly releases based on blanket types and customers can choose their favorite blanket, their size, and desired length. This also reduces the amount of inventory sitting on the racks waiting to find the right customer. We now make jackets out of kanthas, wool blankets, and quilts, and they are each named after our heroines.
What does sustainable fashion mean to you?
For me, sustainable fashion starts with paying fair wages to the people who make our clothes. We partner with Lauren Sims of Why Sew Workshop to manufacture our jackets and have used the East End Cooperative Ministries to manufacture an assortment of our garments in Pittsburgh. We started off with using organic cotton, hemp cotton blends, and other sustainable fibers and have slowly transitioned to using second market materials (those already in existence like old quilts) to make garments because the production of new fibers is still consuming resources.
The fashion industry contributes 1/10 of the world’s carbon emissions, a number greater than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. OTTO FINN now uses over 50% second market materials to make our garments. We also use our scraps to make many of our accessories such as our Ella Clutches, Cowl Neck Warmers and Winter Adventure Hats. We are always learning and trying to reduce our impact on our planet.
What is your favorite thing about creating these recycled pieces?
When I source the blankets, I fall in love with some aspect of every single one of them. They are selected and transformed into one-of-a-kind jackets and delivered to our customers. The most rewarding part of the process is the messages I get from our customers about how they love their jackets, where they have traveled with them, the compliments they have received and that they are an everyday work-from-home staple.
A blue-checked Billie blanket jacket (📸: @ottofinn)
Do you have any tips for our readers on how to adopt a slow fashion lifestyle?
Start with what you have and reevaluate your spending habits by slowing down. The fashion industry often underpays garment workers who work in unsafe conditions and is producing an excessive amount that people cannot possibly consume. This is not just overseas but right here in the U.S. There are many factories overseas with higher standards than some in the States. So the answer is not always buy local, but do your research.
If you need something in particular, it likely exists in a thrift store or on a reseller site (often with tags on it!). There are also local clothing swap groups. If you are purchasing new, try to invest in something sustainably made that you plan to wear for a long time to come. If you are shopping fast fashion, buy with the intention of wearing the garment for the long term.
As an Asian American woman, how do you feel Pittsburghers can do better in addressing the rise of violence against Asians?
Learn to do better. All of us can improve as we seek change. Speak up, speak out against all forms of racism. It starts at home, with your children (no matter how old they are) and your family. Diversify your sources of information. As a parent of two young kids, we follow @asianlitforkids and @dittokids on Instagram who have both been great sources of information.
We all live within our families and communities. Acts of violence aren’t “lone wolf” incidents. They begin with a stupid comment or joke. Or general lack of understanding or compassion for the other. And too often we (and I am guilty of this too) let this uncomfortable conversation slide by without saying, “it made me uncomfortable” or “that’s not ok.” Racism can be subtle, but naming and calling out racism is a start. Listen to and read a variety of BIPOC voices to gain an understanding of the history of racism in this country. Commit to actively do better.
Maia and Matt modeling their OTTO FINN jackets (📸: @ottofinn)
When you’re not operating this small biz, what else do you like to do around the ‘Burgh?
There is a wealth of green space that is accessible nearby. Our family loves going on short hikes and biking on the North Side trail.
Favorite local spots to grab a bite?
In Lawrenceville, we are lucky to have B52 and love Roger Li’s new pop up series, The Parlor Dim Sum (it operates out of Ki Pollo or Ki Ramen). Our favorite Chinese restaurants are Cafe 33and How Lee in Squirrel Hill which offer a taste of home (they were both also really kid friendly in the before times).
What’s something you love about our city, or, more specifically, your neighborhood?
We picked Lawrenceville because of its walk-ability and love local shops like Wildcard and Who New? (they just recently moved after being a pioneer in the neighborhood) whose presence made us believe all those years ago that creatives would be welcome here. Years later when I co-owned Make + Matter (now closed too), they all welcomed us with open arms. Being actively involved with Lawrenceville United and Lawrenceville Corporation has also connected me to community issues, interests, and events.
What local business(es) do you think deserves a shoutout (and why)?
Businesses like PG&H, Wildcard, The Artsmiths, Songbird Artistry, love, Pittsburgh, and Workshop PGH have supported local creatives like me for years. It takes so much work and dedication to own a small business and they all deserve a huge thank you. Other local organizations like Handmade Arcade, Bridgeway Capital’s Creative Business Accelerator and Ascender have provided many connections and opportunities for growth.
What’s a project you’re working on (big or small) and how can The Incline readers help you with it?
The pandemic has adversely affected communities of color and those who were already living paycheck to paycheck who suddenly have no paycheck. I am involved with the Neighbors In Need Program that is run by Lawrenceville United and Lawrenceville Corporation. If you have the means, please consider helping out financially or volunteering your time to a local to you organization that needs support.