STOCKIST Q&A - Liberation Threads

Author: Erica Bartle   Date Posted: 8 March 2017 

Sometimes we have to feel emancipated ourselves in order to bestow the same gift on others. Liberation Threads owner Rebecca Khuns describes her transition from full-time psychiatrist to clothing store owner.


How did you transition from your former career to retail?
I actually trained as a physician, a psychiatrist in fact! But in 2016 I unexpectedly came to a career crossroads. I found myself in a particular job setting that just was clearly not the right fit for me. And so I found myself reflecting deeply, praying with an open mind, and for the first time ever, really allowing myself to dream about pursuing my passions outside of medicine. Once I gave myself permission to pursue a second career, an ethically sourced boutique was just the astoundingly obvious choice for me. It is my passion to participate in crafting a better world, to empower women, and to embrace creativity and style in my daily life. I still work as a physician for a portion of the week when I’m not at the boutique, so I haven’t fully ‘transitioned’ altogether!

How did Liberation Threads come into being?
My husband Peter was completely supportive of the idea as soon as I even mentioned it, which is one of the many reasons I love him! We looked around for a storefront for several months, and we ended up falling in love with an historic space in downtown Durham. It’s been a whirlwind but it truly has felt that the right people, the physical space, and the necessary resources became available right when we needed them, and things were able to come together very quickly. But it’s definitely been a bootstrappy operation. Lots of long nights and unglamorous work before opening the doors. The night before our very first day of business, friends stopped by to see the space and they looked around in disbelief at Peter still putting together a bookshelf and me in sweatpants with piles of paper everywhere, and said, ‘Are you really opening tomorrow?’ But it happened!

What is the concept behind the store?
Just like the farm to table movement has grown, and there is more of an interest in knowing the story behind the food we eat, we are part of a growing movement to tell the story behind the clothes we wear. As I read more about the fashion industry over the past several decades, I learned that the clothes on our backs can sometimes contribute to injustice and oppression. Women and girls around the globe are too often abused by inhumane factories which may demand a 60 hour work week or 14 hour shifts without a meal break - or, even worse, workers may be enslaved. I do believe that the Western consumer can have a huge role to play in saying ‘no’ to inhumane working conditions. At Liberation Threads, women can come in and shop, knowing that we’ve done the vetting, we’re providing an entire store of clothing and accessories that are empowering and not exploiting our sisters overseas. ‘Love the story behind your clothes’ is one of our mottos. Each of our brands believes in a better way of manufacturing clothing. They strive not for a nameless, faceless, exploitative manufacturing process but for clothing to be the literal threads that connect us to each other as human beings. .

Who are your clientele?
We have served a wide array of women in terms of age and ethnic diversity. We’ve had teenage customers with their mothers - we truly try to have something for everyone! One article about our store called us "a boutique for the thinking woman", which I really loved. It’s not about income or education level, but I do think our customers in general tend to be thoughtful people, no matter their position in life. They are women who believe in shopping their values. Of course we have a lot of customers who wander in and have no idea about the mission of our store, who are just attracted to our style - but they often leave having fallen in love with the concept behind the store as well as finding something attractive to wear.

What will shoppers find within your walls?
We carry fashion-forward women's clothing, accessories, and gifts that our customers can feel good about wearing. We have an abundance of pretty dresses and tops, both prints and solid colors. Many of our brands are very into block printing, so we have some gorgeous examples of that. We love our Outland Denim, of course, which pairs well with just about anything! We have handmade jewellery from all around the globe, including some pieces with a really cool story such as a ‘bullet bead bracelet’ which is actually handcrafted from melted down bullet beads from Ethiopia. We love upcycled things and we have some fun gift items that are made from upcycled materials, like yellow tote bags made in Lesotho from old chicken feed sacks! We also have some lovely handcrafted houseware/kitchen items. And through it all we try not to lose sight of the makers of the items. If you visit our store, you can turn your gaze upward and see pictures on our walls, of some of the women who have done the work of crafting our collection. Those pictures are purposefully a focal point of our store.

What does "ethical fashion" mean to you?
I’ve always loved fashion because we can’t choose the physical features we are born with, but we can choose what we put on our bodies. Clothing gives us freedom of expression and a daily creative outlet. But I’ve had a growing conviction that we need to carefully examine anything brings us joy, but requires someone else to suffer. And for too long that has been the case with so much available fashion. I don’t meant to malign every single large garment factory overseas, but too many have been shown time and again to be blatantly abusive to their employees. But now with ethically sourced fashion on the rise, we no longer have to sacrifice style and creativity in order to respect the humanity of those who make our clothes.

How did you come to be passionate about human rights?
Issues of global inequality and trade have been critical to me since my college years and even before. When I was a college student, I slept outside in 15 degree weather as part of a protest against sweatshops. But I can’t honestly remember a time when I didn’t care about human rights in general. I think that my racial identity may have a role to play in that. As an African-American woman, from childhood I grew up being aware that years ago, my ancestors were treated as property because certain Americans felt they needed cheap labor for crops. That point of view makes me critically examine lots of societal assumptions about what is ‘ok’.

Why did you decide to stock Outland Denim?
I love Outland Denim! It is one of my favorite brands that we carry. Of course we absolutely love the anti-trafficking message. Our customers rave about the thank you note from the Outland seamstresses that is printed on the pocket label of each pair of jeans. I just feel that you are a brand that perfectly encapsulates what I hope will be more and more the future of ethical fashion. Outland delivers both amazing, relevant style - the denim is excellent, the photography and packaging are beautiful - as well as being 100% true to the core mission.

What is the ethos you live and shop by?
There’s a throw pillow in my living room emblazoned with letters in all caps, ‘BE FREE’. That is my ethos. Freedom means lots of things to me in terms of fashion and life. Freedom from what is ‘cookie-cutter’, freedom to explore interesting aesthetics, freedom to go against expectations. And, of course, ethically sourced clothing is a step toward freedom from a cutthroat economic system which sees people as disposable.

What are your opening hours and days of trade?
Our bricks and mortar is open from 10 AM-7 PM, Monday through Saturday, in the downtown district of Durham, North Carolina. We are also open online 24/7 at liberationthreads.com (please note that prices are in USD!).

Can you recommend any books, blogs or websites that have helped you on your journey?
I enjoyed looking through Safia Minney’s Slow Fashion. We’ve also recently started a blog on our own website! But my ethos is really an integrated one and my journey includes so many books that aren’t even about fashion. I am a person of faith, and so there are holy writings that are very meaningful to me, like this quote from the book of Isaiah. In it, people are asking why their piety and fasting is going apparently unnoticed by God. And the answer that Isaiah gives, speaking as a prophet on behalf of God: “In the day of your fast you. . .exploit all your laborers. Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? Is this not the fast that I have chosen: . . to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?’ It gives me a sense of direction and conviction to see that issues of worker’s rights were at the heart of some of the ancient faith traditions of our world. I’m just trying to line up my life as much with that mission as possible!