As a teen, Reformation CEO Hali Borenstein’s favorite hangout was the mall. “In high school, all I would do is walk up and down the mall — just to do anything I could to learn more about apparel,” she told Bustle. According to her, she wanted work in the fashion space “from day one.” Today, she’s one of the biggest tastemakers of a generation at the helm of sustainable cult-favorite label Reformation, as its president and CEO.
Since joining the millennial-approved company in 2014 as the VP of merchandising, Borenstein’s corporate ascent has been swift and assured. But stepping into the CEO role in 2020 wasn’t without effort for Borenstein, who took the post after founder Yael Aflalo stepped down amid allegations of racism in the wake of the BLM movement. “There was definitely a lot of challenges that went with that moment in time, but I truly believed in the business and where we were going,” Borenstein recalled.
Since Borenstein’s takeover, Reformation has taken huge strides in terms of buzzy new drops. Just this April, the brand expanded its accessories line, treating #RefBabes everywhere to its first line of handbags. She’s also pushing for even more change on the sustainability front, adding new alternatives to silks and satins, as well as fully committing to becoming circular by 2030.
Though she leads a famous retailer, Borenstein says, “The world just can't keep going at the pace in which it’s going, in terms of how much we are consuming.” Below, Borenstein shares more sustainability insights — plus, what’s next for Reformation, every cool-girl’s favorite brand.
What was the biggest challenge on your road to becoming CEO?
When you’re in a small-stage business and it’s growing very quickly, like Reformation was, I was asked to run parts of the business that I did not have experience in. For me, it was being able to be humble about that and say, “I have some principles of what I believe to be true about the customer, about the product, but I don’t have 50 years of experience in running a retail store.”
That humility was really important. To know what you don’t know — and then when you don’t know something, how do you bring in incredible talent who can step in and bring that expertise you need? Stepping into areas that were less natural and figuring out how to navigate it was definitely a challenge.
Studies show many women don’t apply for jobs unless they feel 100 percent qualified. Do you have any tips for those hesitant to take on bigger roles?
Some of the people I’ve interacted with who never thought they were ready, were defining a role. You may say, “Hey, I’m not ready to run or take a VP of Retail role, because I’ve only managed seven stores at a time. I’ve never actually done the operations side of it.” But really, when I think about if someone's going to be successful in that role, it's going to be about, “Do they have a vision? Do they have a really good sense of economics? How do they interact with people? How do they inspire big teams?”
Those are things and capabilities that you may have without always having direct experience. That’s what I would be solving for when I think about anyone’s career progression. It’s less about defining it based on, “Here’s the role I had.” And more about, “Here are the capabilities I’ve demonstrated and here’s what I’ve learned.” If you really lean into where you are amazing and unique, the world really opens up in terms of opportunity.
Do you have a go-to outfit or a beauty look that helps you feel most confident?
I love getting my hair blown out. It always makes me feel great and it’s always better than what I could do. I’m actually quite terrible at it. The other thing that makes me feel great is a power suit, but a feminine approach. Recently, I wore an oatmeal linen skirt with a blazer look. There’s something about this traditional power suit, but then modernizing it and making sure it’s a feminine approach.
What’s your first memory of sustainable fashion?
I don’t think I made the connection [between] climate change and the impact of apparel on the environment until I was probably post-business school, so early thirties or maybe 30. For me, it was about people. While I was in business school, I did a trip to China and then one night we slept in a factory. It wasn’t an apparel factory, but it was a different type of manufacturing environment and I think it really humanizes the experience.
This is a career and it is very challenging and there’s a lot of sacrifice for individuals who are making our clothing. That was the beginning of my education in, and my focus on, sustainable fashion.
What’s inspiring you in the world of sustainability right now?
I’m really excited about our new circularity commitment and the push for circularity becoming more prominent. The world just can’t keep going at the pace in which it’s going in terms of how much we are consuming. What inspires me is the opportunity to think about more of a full-cycle solution to apparel — our business model, accessories as well.
For me, it’s about some of the innovation we’re seeing on recycling, on recycled product, on regenerative fibers. Just yesterday I was sitting in a meeting, we were looking at all-new fibers and fabrics. Some of these are just so cutting edge, so incredible, much lower waste than ever before. That’s really inspiring for me.
What is the biggest myth taught to women about furthering their careers that you’d like to debunk?
Something I got wrong for myself [was] I thought my career was going to be linear. You do A, you get to B, and then C. I started my career thinking, “Here’s how I get to where I want to go. Here’s what I need to do.” I don't think life works like that and I don’t think life’s fun like that. The women who I’ve seen really take off in their careers are ones who just keep their head down, work hard, and say yes to new opportunities to try new things.
It’s not always a plan, sometimes you have to let life happen. For me, the most valuable thing has just been learning as much as possible— taking advantage of every opportunity I’ve been able to. I haven’t always been successful at them, there’s definitely things where you’re like, “Oh, that wasn’t so great.” Or, “I wasn't the best at that.” But, I learned something from it.
If you think about how many women have been incredibly successful in their careers, it’s often coming out of strife or unconventional opportunities, where people just jumped in. I encourage everyone to be a bit more risk-seeking in their own career. Try things that you may not know how to do and just take advantage of all the opportunities.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.