Building Function into Fashion in the Time of Covid-19 and WFH

Shelly Xu, Contributor

Shelly Xu (MBA ’21) and her team are on a mission to make beautiful, accessible, and 100% zero-waste fashion designs. Now with the pandemic, this mission has taken on a new meaning.

At the beginning of 2020, my Shelly Xu Design (SXD) team was busy preparing for our New York Fashion Week debut. Having just secured a sponsorship to create the first completely zero-waste fashion show, we envisioned a vibrant experience at the rooftop of the Instagram New York office, solar powered and featuring original zero-waste fashion designs inspired by coral reefs. No one anticipated that by April, the entire concept of Fashion Week would become irrelevant.

SXD’s mission is to make beautiful, accessible, and 100% zero-waste fashion designs. Now with the pandemic, the definition of “beauty” has changed, better accessibility can actually help save lives, and zero-waste designs can reduce the carbon footprint of masks.

When Covid-19 hit hard in April, we transitioned our focus from Fashion Week to face masks. I realized that my zero-waste design method—the kimono-inspired minimal design technique that leaves no fabric waste—can be applied to face masks. This helps to conserve 40%-55% of the materials and therefore creates more life-saving masks. Working with my team and students from the Harvard Design Engineering Program, I tested for comfort and effectiveness using a range of DIY processes.

We first distributed the masks among a few interested classmates in Section E, who described the mask as not only the “most comfortable,” but also stylish. When demand exceeded my production capacity, we published tutorials on how to make these zero-waste masks, including a no-sew version that only required a stapler so anyone can make them. These tutorials received about 20K engagements and were adopted by the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Dallas Chapter as well as designers from the nonprofit organization United We Mask, who helped to share the zero-waste masks nationally. 

As spring turned to summer, I saw another shift—the notion of “beauty” seems to be changing now that people are working from home with really no one else to impress. Wanting to learn from consumers, and acknowledging their dislike for surveys, I worked with our Project Manager Misty Liang and Summer Illustrator Amy Moon to create entertaining personality quizzes to better understand today’s consumer behavior. For example, the quiz “What does your wardrobe say about you?” was designed to be fun, and received over 1,000 responses within 48 hours. Based on the input from these quizzes, we learned that the WFH culture is replacing “trendy” pieces with “evergreen” functional items and accelerating consumers’ growing demand for items that can be worn anywhere and everyday.

Taking these observations and the quiz results into account, we started creating zero-waste fashion that makes sense for the WFH culture and beyond. For full transparency, we also shared the design process through YouTube for any aspiring designers to follow and recreate. The idea is to create zero-waste designs that are appropriate “from bed to Zoom.” These designs tend to incorporate wrinkle-free materials, loose fit, and elegant necklines that look good during virtual meetings. The project is still very much ongoing, but so far, the results are quite exciting. My latest creation is titled “Princess Couch Potato,” a 100% zero-waste top with tulle overlay and peekaboo pockets that is made to be a versatile staple.


You can learn more about SXD at: 





Shelly Xu (MBA ’21) is an EC at HBS. She is committed to reversing fashion’s negative impact on our environment—a reality she has witnessed first-hand during her travels across China, Japan, and the United States as a child. Through her startup SXD, Xu produces designs that challenge the conventional approach to sustainable fashion, which usually involves a compromise among price, accessibility, and design appeal. By integrating zero waste into both the design and manufacturing process, SXD makes reducing fashion’s carbon footprint a natural choice rather than a sacrifice. Before HBS, Xu worked at McKinsey, Prada, and Instagram. She has been described as a “rational artist who maximizes creativity under constraints,” which aligns with SXD’s mission to design the most desirable clothing while maintaining zero waste.