Tara St. James set the latest presentation of her STUDY clothing line against a backdrop of old-fashioned wooden desks, plastic chairs, and a chalkboard. Sun streamed into the High Line room at The Standard, a posh new hotel in the Meatpacking District, where some seventy-five editors, stylists, designers, and fashion-lovers gathered in a U-shaped cluster, mere inches from the schoolhouse set.
Greta Eagan, Glamour.com's newly appointed eco-fashion blogger, was front row, camera in hand, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with two prominent eco-writers, Emma Grady of Tree Hugger and Jill Fehrenbacher of Ecouterre. Robert Verdi, the fashion commentator and original host of E! Entertainment's "Fashion Police," was by the door. He had just taped a "This is Robert Verdi" intro of the kind that opens his eponymous new docu-series for the Logo channel. Clang-clang-clang went the school bell, calling study hall into session. The first model sauntered out from behind a grey linen curtain, dressed in a taupe alpaca wool cardigan that women in a co-op in Bolivia had knit by hand.
Standing off to the side in support of St. James was Gretchen Jones, a recent winner of Project Runway. On the popular television show, Jones stood out not only for her height—she is five-foot-eleven—but for her commitment to local manufacturing and the use of low impact dyes and remnants or leftover materials in her designs. "Green" is how the media categorized her work, which, until not so long ago was a term reserved for hippies, hemp, and dull earth-toned hues, rather than for fashion's cutting edge.
That is starting to change. Independent fashion designers with a pronounced ecological aura are slowly gaining recognition in the industry and beyond, precisely for designs that combine environmental consciousness with ultra-chic styling. The starting point for St. James and Jones was a strong personal opposition to the destructive labor and manufacturing practices that the fashion industry employs. As "eco-fashion" pioneers, they join others, such as Howard Brown, Karen Stewart, and Natalie Chanin, in urging the industry towards practices that are more environmentally sound. Using innovative techniques, they and others like them have designed and produced runway-ready pieces with a less damaging impact on the environment than is the industry norm. But they also have seized the attention of editors, stylists, buyers, and customers as the first fashion designers whose garments produced in this manner are as stylish and wearable as they are green. Their fledgling successes signal the possibility of change in fashion industry technology, education, and consumer behavior. A sustainable fashion future may not be so far-fetched.
The eco-fashion movement started in the early 1990s when a handful of established brands such as Levi Strauss, Esprit, and VF Corporation expressed environmental awareness by producing sportswear and outerwear collections made of ill-fitting hemp, recycled glass, and other uncomfortable fabrics. The clothing's poor fitting silhouettes were just as much of a turn-off as the drab beige-green-brown color palette. Skeptics at the time saw eco-fashion as "a hopeless paradox," a contradiction in terms, in an industry that thrives on eye-appeal, obsessive consumption, and seasonal turnover. Nonetheless, the eco movement gained some traction at the time with popular organic cotton t-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as "Save the Earth, Don't Bungle the Jungle." Fashion writers were quick to note the 1960s "flower power" inspiration of these designs.
In 1992, George Akers founded the Los Angeles-based O Wear and dubbed it "America's first one-hundred percent certified organic cotton clothing company." He and others like him, including Toronto's Robin Kay and Fair Oaks' Lindsay McGrail, made eco-fashion synonymous with naturally dyed knits, simple separates made from recycled drapes, clay buttons, and a whole lot of reprocessed plastic. Consumers caught on to the independent designers, whose earth-friendly creations aligned perfectly with the emerging desire on the part of consumers to wear chemical-free apparel and ecoSpun fibers made from waste products like recycled soda bottles. In just two years, Akers' O Wear grew with sales of more than four million dollars.
Still, eco-fashion's limited materials and hues, not to mention its t-shirt-and-jeans aesthetic, drove customers back to familiar brands with their wider variety of choices. Although these early eco-minded designers had their fingers in the right soil, it hadn't yet been fertilized with a rich enough sense of fashion and style. "Luckily what has happened now is that we not only have the resources for sourcing eco, but we also have designers who have gone to design school and are coming out with the desire to be sustainable," said Eagan, whose "Slaves to Fashion" blog for Glamour.com is one of eighteen newly selected for the site and the only one about eco. "Design standards are finally as high as eco standards," Eagan said, "and that is where we need to be."
St. James, originally moved to New York in 2004, when she was twenty-six, to design a fashion line for Covet, a mainstream but eco-friendly sportswear company financed by Trio Group, where she worked as creative director. Trio is a multi-million dollar Canadian company that specializes in licensing brands such as NASCAR apparel and Bart Simpson sleepwear for mass-marketed goods. Covet asked St. James to design a fashion line for the U.S. market. Once in New York, she took it upon herself to use resources and incorporate practices that were environmentally and ethically sound. But then during some belt-tightening measures, St. James said Covet pulled back from its sustainability initiatives and she left the company soon after, in September of 2009 to launch STUDY. Her goal, she said in a recent interview, is "to create a product that does as little harm to the environment and to the people making it as possible."
In two short years, St. James has established a successful brand that does just that. This year, for STUDY, she won a 2011 fashion award worth twenty-five thousand dollars from the Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation in the sustainable design category. The award honored her for creating "unique timeless and ageless pieces that have been produced using sustainable methods in ethical factories." Her line, the award citation said, not only stood out for its sustainability but also for its style—"very architectural transformation of more traditional silhouettes." The two previous recipients of the three-year-old prize are Eviana Hartmann of Bodkin, who won in 2009 and John Patrick of Organic, who won in 2010.
While sipping a cappuccino at a Lower East Side cafe, St. James explained her approach. From the start, her inclination has been to work with dead stock fabrics—that is, leftovers from seasons and designers past—as well as linen, hemp, organic cotton, wool, raw silk, and tencel, the trade name for Lyocell, a fabric made from wood pulp cellulose. All of these materials fit the definition of sustainable in that they are processed without chemicals, or simply found in nature—in other words, renewable. St. James also makes a point of working with local manufacturers and sample makers in the remaining factories and studios of Manhattan and Brooklyn. She believes in being fully transparent about her business practices and admits to breaking her all-local credo to source raw silks from India—but from a fair-trade certified factory, of course. St. James combines the apparent simplicity of an ecological ethos with an intricate approach to design.
Even the seemingly simple name for the line, STUDY, has complex underpinnings. "I didn't want something to be static and solid and I am constantly learning from this industry," she said. "I wanted a name to evoke what I had decided to do with the brand, which is review and basically study a different process of production or manufacturing every season."
STUDY's first collection was an experiment in no-waste pattern making, a process meant to address the fashion industry's habit of discarding roughly fifteen percent of the fabric used in garment production. For Fall 2010, her second collection, St. James mastered hand-weaving, vegetable dyeing, and the experimental use of indigo, tea, coffee, and beets to create dyes. That spring, she incorporated into her designs new ways of braiding, weaving, and knotting on hand-woven ikat prints, also dead stock, from Uzbekistan.
For the schoolroom show, St. James produced an eye-catching collection of chunky knits, button-up cardigans, pleated pants, trench jackets, and wool skirts. There was a nod to the routine earth tones, to which she added an unexpected array of pastels, florals, and plaids that reflected yet another course of study. This time, St. James combined hand-knitting with machine knitting, which allowed her to add women's knitting co-ops in Bolivia and Peru to her roster of manufacturers.
The Bolivian co-op, Madres & Artesanas, specializes in the production of high-quality handmade fabrics. Crochet and macrame techniques lend themselves to the creation of dresses, coats, sweaters, and jewelry, which provide the knitters with access to the market and the runway. The Peruvian non-profit, Awamaki, works with impoverished Quencha women in Ollantaytambo, the region's Sacred Valley, providing them with a reliable income as it revives and maintains the endangered tradition of weaving. All of Awamaki's textiles are fair-trade certified and just this past year the co-op invested in forty kilos of alpaca fleece to produce a knitwear line with an ethical supply chain that is one hundred percent traceable. Although St. James admits she took a risk with this chapter of STUDY, it provided the chance to embrace another aspect of sustainability—sustaining people. "It had more to do with the sustainability of an entire population," said St. James. "I was looking more at the economic aspect of sustainability rather than just the environmental aspect."
Next on St. James' world list is a women's co-op in Mumbai called Women Weave, which seeks to "make hand loom a profitable, fulfilling, and sustainable income-earning activity for women," its mission statement reads. In a recent Gudi Mudi Project, Women Weave linked organic cotton farmers in Central India with unemployed weavers, who then created fabric-ready textiles that were hand woven and naturally dyed. St. James has already been in contact with them.
Between bites of pastry at Think Coffee in Union Square, Gretchen Jones recalled the highlights of St. James' schoolroom show. "The knits were unstoppable," she said, "I think they showed range and versatility in a manner that was still very competitive with what is going on in fashion right now." Jones is an up-and-coming, self-taught designer who, at only twenty-nine years old, has seven years of experience in the broader industry, including stints as a boutique manager, a trade show wholesale vendor, a design apprentice for a handcraft leather bag company, and an assistant to a bridal designer. "I just felt like I needed to be patient and take the time to really understand what it was going to take to do what I wanted to do before diving in," she said. The opportunity finally came in 2007, when she started her first collection, MothLove.
From its very beginning, MothLove and its bohemian-hipster outlook was a testament to Jones' vision of sustainable creation, what she described as her romantic, ethereal, experimental effort to "save the world one garment at a time." She worked with salvage, dead stock, and remnants as well as organic cotton, silk, bamboo, and soy blends. All of these were environmentally sound and were dyed on low impact—that is, by Jones herself, who spent hours dunking samples into a bathtub full of expensive Native American organic dyes. To avoid over-production, MothLove clothing was made-to-order, only the orders were too few to keep the line afloat. Jones' earthy choices forced her into near bankruptcy. "MothLove really was how I figured out what not to do," she said. "It doesn't matter how sustainable you are if you can't sustain yourself."
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One of the looks from Gretchen Jones' debut collection. Photo Courtesy of Gretchen Jones.
In July of 2010, Jones went after some much-needed fashion industry exposure and agreed to take part in the fourteen-week reality show Project Runway. The show's producers had been approaching her for four years. The media attention was great but also brought criticism, some of it scathing. Design mentor Tim Gunn, famous for his advice to "make it work," warned Jones against relying solely on sustainable materials, and Nina Garcia, the fashion director of Marie Claire and one of the show's judges, repeatedly told the designer that the only thing her outfits lacked was a pair of Birkenstocks. Despite this, Jones took home the one hundred thousand dollar first prize, a fifty thousand dollar HP Suite gift certificate, the chance to sell her collection on the e-commerce site, Piperlime, and representation from Designers Management Agency, or DMA.
Since the show, Jones has consciously tried to distinguish her work from the "granola-eating hippies" and "tree-huggers" of the early sustainable movement, positioning herself as more "conscious" than "green." In the winter of 2011, she used her winnings to move to Brooklyn and re-launched MothLove under the label Gretchen Jones. With the name change came an altered, more pragmatic stance: "I think what sustainable designers struggle with the most is that they want to be as sustainable as they possibly can and that is never going to work," she said. "You are boxing yourself out of success and the ability to sustain yourself."
Her goal now is to create a sustainable prize-worthy collection that can compete with mainstream designers such as Stella McCartney, Vena Cava, and Vanessa Bruno. Letting go of her original intent to infuse every aspect of her designs with some sense of sustainability, she has chosen instead to focus on just one element at a time, which in turn has enabled her to put more weight into her design aesthetic, which she considers most important of all. "If you don't buy me because you don't like the fashion then it doesn't matter if it is made out of peace silk or not." Peace silk is harvested without any harm to the silkworms that spun the threads.
For the line's first collection, Jones put all her effort into producing locally in support of the Save the Garment Center initiative, a New York City-based organization that helps local and international craftspeople with its focus on ethical business practices. She also incorporated naturally sustainable materials such as silk, wool, and linen, and avoided cellulose fibers that even other eco-designers consider "earth-friendly." "Cellulose is not a fiber so it takes a huge amount of work to even get at the usable material," she said. "Not only do silks and wools lend themselves to my aesthetic, but they also happen to be protein-based and can be used without tons of processing."
Jones' chose to title the collection, "Black Tears and Strange Dream," which draws from a wide range of inspirations, including the artist Jean Michel Basquiat and the late grunge singer Kurt Cobain. She created the perfect balance of colored patterns, innovative design, and classic silhouettes. And her neutral alpaca knits just happen to be made in the same Bolivian knitting co-op that supplied St. James for her STUDY show. Jones also ventured outside ready-to-wear for the first time and designed all of the jewelry for the collection, using brass and gemstones—produced domestically, of course.
With two spreads in Marie Claire and a Project Runway win under her, uh, belt, it might appear that Jones already has established herself professionally. But the win on a show with four million viewers and the attendant publicity it brings, is only a first step. Next comes finding ways to use her newfound celebrity to further both her brand and the sustainable fashion movement. "It is not about embracing the green aspect as part of a cult community," she said. "It is about enabling people to see that conscious design can be just as good, if not better, than just another designer out there." Yet with a little encouragement from designer Michael Kors, who told her to "stick with the sustainability thing," Jones has not lost sight of how her eco-roots have worked for her.
What Jones and St. James are to the sustainability movement on the East Coast, Natalie Chanin is to the South. With years of work as a stylist in Austria and Europe, she returned to New York City in 2000 to produce a line of handcrafted, reconstituted t-shirts. After days of meetings with manufacturers, she realized that her best chance at success was to return to her hometown of Florence, Alabama, once known as the T-shirt capital of the world. In 1993, NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, wiped out more than five thousand of Alabama's textile jobs. Back home, she found abandoned sewing factories and jobless artisans, exactly the resources she needed. She ran an ad in the paper seeking local quilters and stitchers. From there her vision grew into Alabama Chanin, a sustainable fashion company with a business model that has ultimately revived the state's textile industry.
"Everything from the actual fibers being grown, strung, harvested, and dyed is all done in the USA," said June Stedman, Chanin's assistant. "The organic materials are grown in Texas, strung in North Carolina, dyed in Tennessee, and brought back to us in Alabama." From there, Chanin's designs are produced by a handful of stitchers, who live an hour and a half away from the brand's Florence studio, a place that doubles as a bricks-and-mortar store where customers can come to view the samples and place orders.
Chanin's relationship with her stitchers is so unique that Stedman compares it to the way architects work. As private contractors (who are mostly women), artisans have the opportunity to bid on a garment, which has already been cut and assembled into a kit by Diane Hall, Chanin's master seamstress and pattern maker. Using their own resources, the stitchers then complete the craft work and sell it back to the company for resale. Each garment is one-of-a-kind, down to the personal signatures of the artisans, which they are encouraged to add to every piece.
"We really have a good relationship with the stitchers and with everyone that we work with," said Stedman. "They are people who have been doing this for years and years and will most likely stay with the company for a long time."
Aside from creating a sustainable business model and a renewed way of life for the artisans of Alabama, the company also promotes an environmentally sound future. Every item is made-to-order, from the hand-embroidered swing coats to the organic cotton butterfly jackets and beaded flare cotton-jersey skirts. This enables Alabama Chanin to be inventory-free, aside from one sample of each garment per collection. The samples are used as basic templates for customers to pick and choose the embellishments and colors of their own garment and the pieces are only sewn once a customer has placed an order.
Chanin also encourages people to recycle and live more sustainably by making their own clothes. She runs workshops in which she teaches sewing techniques and insider tricks. Plus, she offers a variety of do-it-yourself kits on her website, which come with all the resources needed to make a piece, including pre-cut fabric, stencils, needles, and thread.
As a true "eco-pioneer" in business model, design, and philosophy, Chanin has been featured in all the right places. She has had multiple profiles in Vogue and mentions on websites such as Style.com, the New York Times, and Full Frontal Fashion. She also has earned the admiration of her sustainable fashion colleagues, including Caroline Priebe, the founder and designer of the knitwear label Uluru. "Natalie has democratized her entire process so that the craft community may create what they may not otherwise be able to afford, and she runs an amazingly tight ship," said Priebe. "In my eyes there aren't many people that top her."
Among those who might are Howard Brown and Karen Stewart, a graphic designer and a painter, who met when they both moved to Philadelphia in 1993. As colleagues working in the design departments of two mass-market retail chains, Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, they bonded over shared passions for art, music, and the outdoors, and soon started dating. As a couple they took back country trips to the Andes mountains in South America and hiked through the Eastern part of the United States, including parts of Vermont, New York, North Carolina, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maine. Occasionally, they ventured west to places like Washington and Montana, where Brown grew up. Their expeditions always involved dressing up in layers of gear from Patagonia, a brand they both favor for its environmental emphasis if not for its style sense. While trekking through the Andes, Howard came up with an idea for how the two concepts could be combined to create a fashion-forward collection that was as in touch with nature as Patagonia.
"The fashion world needed an example to follow and it needed a little bit of that sustainability ethos that is prevalent in the outdoor world," said Brown, who moved with Stewart out to California just a few months later. Within a year, Stewart went to work for Patagonia, gaining an insider perspective into the brand's environmental mind frame. In 2002, the couple launched a company they called Stewart + Brown. "It is really about two complimentary things coming together and becoming the sum of its parts," said Brown. "As a premium women's sportswear company with a social and ecological conscience, we aspire to inspire."
The brand's most recent collection, "Follow the Horizon," is a mix of dresses, skirts, and pants, in chic silhouettes of practical patterns and fabrics. The designers put a new spin on classic pieces with their Knot Top sweatshirt and Bristol asymmetrical dress, made from a unique blend of organic tissue cotton fiber, which is woven, and organic pima cotton fiber, which is knit. Stewart + Brown also created a stylish pair of drop-crotch pleated pants made of hemp jersey, a fabric known to Europeans as "elastane," which is ninety-six percent hemp and four percent spandex. The collection also includes the brand's best selling "lengthen tee," which can be worn as a shirt or a dress, depending on a woman's shape and size.
With every garment, Stewart + Brown cleaves to the idea of sustainable production. All prints and patterns are created in-house at their quaint Ventura studio, and ninety-three percent of production is completed domestically in Los Angeles. Depending on the season, the designers use a wide variety of fabrics, all of which have an eco-friendly element. Their organic cotton is certified free of pesticides and cancer-causing toxins. Plus, it is generated from seeds that have not been genetically engineered. Cashmere for sweaters and accessories comes from Mongolia, which in turn supports the region's struggling nomadic herders. Winter collections often consist of premium knitwear, such as alpaca, merino wool, and yak down, all of which are natural fibers that have been left untreated by petro-chemicals, or compounds made from petroleum or other fossil fuels.
Each season, Stewart + Brown also source renewable "green fabrics," such as tencel gauze, hemp silk charmeuse, and hemp jersey. These have a minimal eco-footprint and are naturally biodegradable. From time to time they incorporate recycled and salvage fabrics to reduce waste and save resources. Plus, the dyeing process is always delayed until prints and samples have been made. "We understand how critical the sustainability mission is," Brown said. "We completely believe in it and it has been built into our DNA."
The company's strong commitment to sustainability combined with its one-of-a-kind style has attracted attention from Rickie DeSole who writes Vogue's Style Ethics column. It has also been featured in two issues of Marie Claire. For Brown however, press accolades, while meaningful for financial or entrepreneurial success, signify nothing for the sustainability movement. "The most important measure of success is what's called the triple bottom line, the three P's, people, planet and profit, and it's a critical concept in the world of sustainable businesses," he said. "Especially in this industry, the focus has always been on the profit part and never on the people or the planet, which is an anomaly that needs to change."
On the twelfth floor of the Condé Nast building at Four Times Square, DeSole is hard at work, curating pieces for her next column. As Vogue's eco market editor, she works closely with Tonne Goodman, the magazine's fashion director, who spearheads the publication's eco-fashion project. For Goodman and DeSole, that means dedicating one page in every two issues of the magazine strictly to sustainable fashion, in conjunction with monthly blog posts for Vogue.com. Hard to top was a November 2010 spread entitled "Naturally Refined," which featured eight pages of eco-friendly get-ups by designers such as Kors, MCartney, and Vera Wang.
"Trying to bring eco-fashion, which is so often synonymous with leggings and t-shirts, to Vogue, is a great challenge because designers will often have one eco thing here and there," DeSole said. "Finding them can be like searching for a needle in a haystack, but it is really exciting when you can show people that there are some amazing options out there." Like the beautiful organic cotton McCartney trench coat, whose perfect shade of camel was dyed on low impact, or Wang's architectural bustier, constructed with a combination of hemp and peace silk. DeSole could even have meant the deep olive green dress by Bottega Veneta, which was dyed naturally with coffee and tea. Whichever it is, these pieces are just a small fraction of the growing number of garments that illustrate mainstream fashion's response to the sustainability movement.
Jasmin Malik Chua, a writer for the eco-fashion website Ecouterre, explained that it can often be difficult for long-established companies such as Gucci or Chanel to back track and change their original supply chains, which in some cases involve relationships that are hundreds of years old. "On the other hand, these luxury houses have the opportunity to create side collections and go green with them as secondary lines to their brand," she said.
Just last year, Stefano Pilati of Yves Saint Laurent took a stand against fabric waste when he launched "New Vintage", a special line of garments transformed into iconic styles using the leftover fabrics from the YSL archives. Unexpectedly, he produced a limited edition set of fifty unique and extravagant pieces, including dip-dyed dresses and embroidered trench coats with luxurious details in fringe. The collection's enormous success prompted Pilati to give avant garde vintage another two tries, "New Vintage II" and "New Vintage III," an impressive one hundred and eighty piece collection of leopard-print wrap dresses, wide leg pantsuits, and velvet bustiers—all crafted out of remnant fabrics.
On Ecouterre Chua called attention to Giuseppe Zanotti, the high-end shoe designer, who also attempted to reduce waste by designing a hybrid boot-sandal out of samples that were left over from previous seasons. He transformed discarded handbags into the shoe's suede body, collected scraps off the factory floor to make the linings, and reconstructed a base out of an old shoe sample. He substituted conventional cotton laces for stronger ones made out of hemp, and added design touches that landed the shoe a spot in the same Vogue issue that featured the other top sustainable designers.
Donna Karan's bow to the eco movement is her Urban Zen Foundation, which is dedicated to a three-part sustainability mission that promotes overall well being, the empowerment of children, and the preservation of culture. To support the foundation, Karan designed a capsule collection of chunky knit jackets, hand woven scarves, wool blazers, and jersey wrap dresses, to be sold exclusively at her Urban Zen store in Manhattan's West Village.
While secondary collections or limited edition eco pieces may only be small steps towards sustainability, eco-writer Chua insists that these are strides in the right direction. "As that capsule collection or subsidiary grows, what the designers learn from it can be slowly bled back into their main company," she said. And if more and more designers take part in endeavors like these, the industry is bound to change. It's the reason Sylvana Ward Durrett and Luisa Mendoza launched Runway to Green in January 2011, a fundraising model with the goal of raising awareness and funds for a more sustainable future.
Durrett, the director of special events at Vogue, and Mendoza, a former assistant to Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, merged common passions for fashion and the environment. With Wintour's nod, the two fashionistas were able to convince some of the industry's most influential designers to lend their time and attention to the enterprise. Alexander Wang, Balenciaga, Gucci, Marc Jacobs, and more than a dozen other top-name designers have committed to the organization and its mission, often considered a follow-up to the 2008 Runway to Change campaign, which raised funds for the election of President Obama.
This year, each designer had the opportunity to create or dedicate an item to Runway to Green's 2011 collection, sold exclusively on Net-a-Porter.com, a luxury e-tailer. A percentage of the profits was donated to leading environmental organizations such as the National Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, and the Alliance for Climate Protection. While some designers chose to create something specifically for Runway to Green, others selected a piece that was already part of their most recent collections. And as part of their involvement with Runway to Green, participating designers are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the NRDC's Clean by Design program, which teaches sustainable manufacturing practices.
"A lot of the designers are really interested in learning how to make a more sustainable supply chain," said Caitlin Yardeny, Runway to Green's special assistant. "From what I have heard and seen, there hasn't been much resistance." Despite their enthusiasm, the designers weren't restricted to using green methods for this year's event. However, it is certainly something that Durrett and Mendoza have thought about for the future. Their hope is that if brands such as Prada and Burberry adopt more environmentally sound methods of productions, the practices will trickle down to the rest of the industry. In the interim, one Runway to Green participant has taken sustainability into her own hands. Diane von Furstenberg, who presides over the Council of Fashion Designers of America, or CFDA, is currently pushing her ready-to-wear label, DVF, to do the unthinkable—integrate green practices starting from the bottom, up.
"We are in the process of working with a sustainability consulting firm specialized in creating and implementing sustainability strategies," Fariba Jalili said in an email message. She is the executive vice president of Global Operations at DVF. "This will enable us to address environmental issues in business activities throughout the products supply chain." The goal is to come up with a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, water usage and the presence of chemicals and toxins, all of which contribute to the brand's overall waste. In order to measure the effectiveness of this move towards a greener supply chain, DVF will also develop metrics to monitor and measure its efforts.
The popular clothing company J.Crew, and the all-American denim label, Levi's, have taken similar steps. In 2010, J. Crew added a social responsibility program to its website, which explains a commitment to "a standard of excellence in every aspect of business," and a sensitivity towards environmental issues. Margot Sfeir, who manages "social responsibility" for the firm, explained that J. Crew will only work with a limited number of vendors, whose facilities are located in twenty different countries. Each supplier is required to adhere to a code of conduct, which ensures that all garments are produced in an ethical manner, respectful of the workers. In conjunction with its strict no child labor law, the brand refuses to use Uzbekistan cotton, reacting to charges that it has been harvested by children. J. Crew is also a new member of Business for Social Responsibility, or BSR, the leading corporate social responsibility organization dedicated to improving workplace conditions within the apparel industry.
While the attempt to build sustainability into the manufacturing supply chain is new for brands like DVF and J. Crew, it is old hat for Levi Strauss. Surprisingly, the almost two-hundred-year-old industry veteran has pushed sustainability in its manufacturing processes for the past two decades. In 1991 the label, known for its iconic 501 jean and its laid-back khaki Dockers, enforced a workplace code of conduct much like the one that J. Crew more recently adopted. In 2005, Levi's became one of the first apparel companies to release the names and locations of all of its manufacturers. Just three years later, the brand started working with recycled fibers, and reduced its fuel usage by fifty percent. At the same time, Levi's representatives curated a list of restricted substances that were no longer to be used in garment production, such as the harmful polyvinyl chloride, or PVC.
Today, Levi's has expanded on its original eco-focused intentions with a new goal: remodeling as a zero-waste company. First, the plan is to tackle water usage, fifty percent of which takes place along the supply chain. To do so, Levi's has started working with the NRDC to reduce the detrimental water waste that occurs in China's mills. As a recent NRDC press release explained, "If just one hundred small-to-medium-sized textile mills implement NRDC's recommended improvements, China would save more than sixteen million metric tons of water annually, enough to provide 12.4 million people drinking water for a year." So far the team has reduced the water, energy, and chemical usage in five of China's mills.
The mainstream fashion industry's efforts to support the sustainability movement certainly looks great on paper. However the recognition that well known brands and designers such as DVF, J.Crew, and John Patrick Organic, have received for their greener habits, has elicited mixed responses from independent designers who have built their companies on an ecological framework. And with the lack of universal standards for what is considered environmentally sound, it has become difficult to distinguish the designers who are truly sustainable from those who have been incorrectly labeled green or from those who have adopted a green gloss—greenwashing, the dubious call it—to capitalize on the current marketing wave.
The truth is that there is a lot of dishonesty in such a publicity-driven industry and the underside of fashion belies the appeal of the chiffon-draped dresses and pastel floral skirts that designers sent down the runway in the spring of 2011. Often, a t-shirt that is only six percent organic cotton or seven percent recycled polyester will still be labeled eco, and designers who have committed to business practices that are only fractionally sustainable—not more than twenty percent—will be honored for their earthy ethics. For that matter, many of the eco-fashion pioneers are hesitant to accept capsule collections as evidence that bigger brands are getting on board with sustainability—a point of view which runs counter to that of their colleague, eco-writer Jasmin Chua. As Brown put it, "It is really easy for bigger brands to spin off a six-piece organic capsule collection when everything else is made with non-sustainable production methods. It is all or nothing."
Brown is referring to the notion that many mainstream designers have taken advantage of the opportunity to soak up some valuable green marketing in response to recent consumer reports that say Americans have become increasingly concerned about the environment and are more likely to buy from brands that talk about or show a commitment to sustainability. A 2010 survey conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of the Tork brand of SCA Tissue indicated that some sixty-two percent of adults interviewed were either equally as likely or more likely to visit a business that focused on being green. In a recent Tork press release Mike Kapalko, SCA Tissue's sustainability marketing manager, stated, "Consumer interest in green is here to stay, regardless of region, age, gender, or the country's economic state." As far as Brown is concerned, until industry-wide standards with teeth are in place, major brands will continue to reflect eco-friendly images without actually implementing anything that is long lasting or truly sustainable.
Greta Eagan can understand Brown's frustration. While studying business at the London College of Fashion, she took a course called the "Democratization of Fashion," which heightened her consciousness of industry practices. Everything she was learning manifested itself on the street—on every corner was another Zara, Mango, or H&M. At the same time, Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR, was gaining momentum and Eagan helped her employer at the time, Tory Burch, implement some of the movement's self-regulation practices. For instance, the ready-to-wear brand created a design contest linked to the Tory Burch Foundation, which supports female entrepreneurs.
Eagan found herself more deeply invested in sustainable fashion when she chose it as the topic of her dissertation and after graduation she started a sustainable fashion awareness project called Fashion Me Green. The project involves Eagan working with style influencers from city to city teaching them about sustainability by dressing them up in five different outfits—all of which are completely eco-friendly. So far she has traveled to Los Angeles, New York, London, San Francisco, and Boulder, where she has educated some of the big names in each city, including fashion blogger Lucrecia Chan in L.A. and Tank editor Caroline Issa in London.
Like Brown and the other design pioneers, Eagan has taken a stance against destructive practices. And although she can see where Brown is coming from, she does not categorize capsule collections and small steps towards sustainability as disingenuous greenwashing. "People like Howard Brown know the best practices and the best possible ways of doing things," said Eagan. "Their standards are really high and that makes it easy to feel disappointed or discouraged by brands who don't subscribe to that same standard or level." Yet without a rulebook or a legislative body to measure and oversee how sustainable fashion should be done, it may be too soon to shake a disapproving finger in any one brand or designer's direction.
"Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia says that no brand is one hundred percent sustainable," said Eagan, who has adopted the company founder's "some is better then none," belief. "As a leader in sustainability, for him [Chouinard] to say that is very insightful and it is true." With all that she has learned from her personal work and from networking with others, Eagan believes that there are a variety of ways to be sustainable, from corporate social responsibility initiatives to fabric sourcing and local production. Instead of shunning designers who contribute little to the cause, Eagan accepts that there are different points of entry, different shades of green, in the larger effort to preserve the world. "The lovely thing about designers is their creativity and their passion," said Eagan. "Certain things will always be more important to some than to others, and that is perfectly okay."
To keep the movement alive, shades of green are a great first step. But they will need to be further developed in order for sustainable fashion to effectively solidify and expand. Eco-designers stress the need for more domestic manufacturing mills in the United States to follow Natalie Chanin's example, by connecting with American craftspeople. Eco-strategists yearn for the establishment of industry-wide standards for sustainability.
Still, there has been great progress. Organizations such as The Better Cotton Initiative, or BCI, and the Sustainable Cotton Project have been hugely influential in establishing organic cotton as a more environmentally sound choice for designers and farmers. Since its start in July of 2009, the BCI has doubled its membership, and now has fifty-two farmers working to create a better cotton bale with less pesticides, water use, and fertilizer contamination. Levi Strauss has partnered with the BCI, in support of cotton that is grown in this way.
Every October, The Sustainable Cotton Project hosts a tour of the San Joaquin Valley just North of Los Angeles, where conventional and organic farms have been set up on a faux fertile crescent. Brands such as Patagonia, Nike, and Marks & Spencer out of the UK, have credited the tour with motivating their switch to organic cotton.
Summer Rayne Oakes holds the informal title of the world's first eco-fashion model. That is, she is known for making career moves that align her prominently with socially conscious companies. She also happens to have college degrees in environmental science and entomology and launched an online database called Source4Style, which, since 2010, has been aggregating information on all of the world's best sustainable materials, services, and suppliers. In a telephone interview, she explained that she set up the database "to make sustainable design possible," by enabling designers to search a curated selection of fabrics, review sustainability specs, and place orders as needed, a process that facilitates eco-sourcing. "There is definitely not as limited a choice of textiles as there was even five years ago," said St. James. "Five years ago it was difficult to find good organic cottons and now organic cotton is like the black sheep or the older cousin that nobody really thinks about anymore."
Source4Style has provided interesting alternatives, such as tencel, hand-woven silk, and recycled leather. But Air Dye Technology is responsible for putting polyester on the eco-friendly fabric list. At the Air Dye offices in Herald Square, Paul Raybin, the company's chief sustainability and marking officer, explained that you can't use cotton for everything and so Air Dye Technology makes it possible to improve the manufacturing process for synthetic materials as well. These make up two-thirds of the fiber that is produced and consumed in the world, sixty percent of which is polyester. "Air Dye is potentially a huge component of the effort to reduce the overproduction of goods," said Raybin. "It relocates the point of coloration in the supply chain so that decisions about color can be made much later in the process." Additionally, designers are given a wide variety of colors, patterns, and innovative designs to work with, such as a two-sided fabric.
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With Air Dye Technology, designers can choose from a wide range of colors and patterns.
Aside from its design advantages, Air Dye also has the power to alleviate some of the environmental damage already done. "If this technology were used for the coloration and decoration of man-made fibers, we would preserve enough fresh water to sustain over two hundred million people," said Raybin. "We would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions the equivalent of taking ninety-four million passenger vehicles off the road and we would conserve enough energy to save twelve percent of the homes in the United States." Fortunately, more and more designers are catching on to the technology's enormous potential.
While Gretchen Jones plans to experiment with Air Dye in her future collections and the technology is certainly something that Tara St. James' is considering, the luxury fashion house Costello Tagliapietra, has been using Air Dye since September 2009. The brand's designers, Jeffrey Costello and Robert Tagliapietra, have shown their collections at New York Fashion Week since 2005, the same year that they won the Ecco Domani for fashion design. In the meantime they have attracted the attention of top-notch editors with water-colored dresses, bright tailored pants, and feminine tops. Plus, they tout their use of Air Dye. At the Spring 2011 show, the designers left informational pamphlets about the technology at every show goer's seat, and the garments are sold at Barneys New York—with an Air Dye tag, of course.
Small things like pamphlets at fashion shows and hang tags at Barneys give editors and shoppers a short-course in sustainable fashion education. For deeper immersion, several colleges, universities, and design institutes have recently updated their curricula with entire programs devoted to eco-fashion and sustainability. In April of 2008, The London College of Fashion, or LCF, opened its Centre for Sustainable Fashion to connect fashion research, education, and business. The school, Eagan's alma mater, now offers students an MA in fashion and the environment, with coursework in design intervention as well as the world's ecological, social, and cultural conditions. In 2009, LCF also launched the Shared Talent India project to put educated designers and buyers in touch with sustainable textiles in India. As a whole, the new sustainability program teaches students to challenge some of the industry's harmful practices, a lesson that was hard to come by when Eagan was in school. "I did my undergraduate study at the London College of Fashion three years ago and I didn't have the option of choosing a course that had fashion and sustainability in the same title," she said. "It just didn't exist."
At New York's Fashion Institute of Technology in the heart of Chelsea, there is a small, yet eco-active group of faculty and administrators. They include Sass Brown, who wrote the 2010 book that explores the social and environmental impact of fashion and design, titled Eco Fashion. As a tightly knit group, they have implemented sustainability pledges for students and staff members and have added a yearly conference on sustainable business and design to their cluttered calendars. Thanks to courses offered from environmental science to sustainable packaging design, students can learn a wide range of concepts and practices from waste disposal and recycling to what makes an eco-friendly supply chain. The school's President, Joyce F. Brown, also set up a Sustainability Council, which administers an annual fifteen thousand dollar grant fund for new eco initiatives.
With the Eco-Fashion: Going Green exhibit, curated by Jennifer Farley and Colleen Hill, FIT opened its museum doors to non-students in an effort to spread awareness about sustainability. About forty carefully selected pieces from eco-designers Hartmann, Patrick, and Chanin, of course, were showcased in the museum for six months, alongside historical material and information about how the garments were created. Farley and Hill made an another attempt to highlight eco-fashion when they hosted a public conference with Julie Gilhart, an eco-advocate and former fashion director of Barneys New York.
Twelve blocks uptown at Parsons the New School for Design, there are even more fashion design students buzzing about sustainability. In the fall of 2010, faculty member Timo Riassanen introduced a course in zero-waste fashion that teaches students how to create innovative garments without any fabric waste. Riassanen, who was born in Australia, is the school's first professor of fashion design and sustainability. He put his students in touch with Rogan Gregory and Scott Mackinlay Hahn, who gave them the opportunity to design a piece using zero-waste methods for Loomstate, the label the two designers run. With Riassanen in charge, the students will embrace sustainability for the long term—just like Howard Brown, Natalie Chanin, Gretchen Jones and Tara St. James.
In her spacious Bowery design studio, St. James is hard at work on the next chapter of STUDY, one that is slightly different from her recent schoolroom show collection and her past experimentation with vegetable dye. This time she has teamed up with Bahar Shahpar, a close friend and fellow eco-designer, consultant, and stylist, who is just as sustainably minded as St. James. Together the pair has decided to create Guilded, a "knowledge center" where people can go and learn about all things sustainable, from fashion and beauty to furniture and lifestyle. "It is going to be a space for growing good creative business and perfecting your craft through training in sustainable practices," said Shahpar. "If you have an interest in fashion, art, or sustainable living, you can come in and go beyond general knowledge and basic education."
Guilded will take place in St. James' studio, the creative space that she shares with Shahpar. The project will function as a membership-only club with three levels of learning; one-hour seminars open to thirty to forty people, three to four hour workshops for fifteen people, and master classes limited to about five people. Prospective guest teachers include Priebe of Uluru, eco-writer Chua, Riassanen, Susan Domelsmith of the jewelry line Dirty Librarian Chains, and beauty expert Jessa Blades. St. James and Shahpar stress that the center will target the general public as much as the industry. "The consumer has to be as knowledgeable as the designer," said St. James. "Otherwise, nobody is going to move forward."
Jessica can be contacted at