The Eco-Fashion Revolution: You Are What You Wear

Just as consumers once bought organic food before deciding to go one step further and buy local, they are now considering who grew their cotton and who turned it into a wearable object.
Today's eco designers don't talk about being inspired by leaves falling or icecaps melting; they're starry-eyed for futuristic-looking chairs, towering skyscrapers and folding bicycles. They're thinking like architects, leading with design and textile as opposed to an activist agenda.

"The way a chair breaks up space or a building cuts into the sky with so many different views is how I feel a garment relates to the body," says Brooklyn designer Nina Valenti, who launched the sustainable line naturevsfuture in 2002. "I design pieces that have a strong line, form and texture." Her clothing has severe pleats and soft gathers, military stiffness and feminine slits, the yin and yang of organic and technological forces. Her fabrics range from the expected organic cottons, wools, hemps and soys to fabrics made from recycled soda bottles.

Form and Function

A folding bicycle provided the inspiration for Los Angeles designer Carol Young's spring collection. Specifically, it was the Dahon folding bicycle made by a company founded to encourage environmentally sustainable forms of transport. "What I loved about the Dahon Ciao," says Young, "was not just its functionality, but its aesthetics, individuality and its 'morph-ability.'"

Young's label, undesigned, is a study in wearable sustainable fashion that is decidedly modern in its ability to transcend season and move between office, bicycle, subway and sidewalk. There are skinny jeans layered with dotted, form-fitting dresses topped with demure shrugs. Bold pockets and soft hoodies and bubbled edges.

"Rather than sketching traditional fashion figures, I prefer making paper models, and then samples to 'test drive' in the real world," Young says. "Clothing design is in a sense architecture miniaturized, made on a more intimate level. Both are experiential, functional design; both transform 2-D to 3-D and are shaped by the materials they're made from. The way that the green movement is changing the building industry is similar to how it's shaping the apparel industry."

As a former architecture student and an avid cyclist, Young gives recycled clothing and organic fabrics new life as fashionable dresses, skirts, jackets and pants that stretch and move according to the needs of the "urban nomad." These are people who live in cities -- Paris, New York, London, San Francisco -- who use mass transit, and who need clothing that's flexible enough to take them from day to night. She mentions, among this clientele, "artistic/eclectic professionals" as well as "academics, architects, curators, graphic designers and film makers." She does not mention hippies among the lot.

In fact, in undesigned's shape-hugging black, white and gray pieces, there is nothing that might be paired with Birkenstocks and a Mexican poncho. More and more, sustainable clothing reflects the future not the past. Online, it is serious connoisseurs of art, architecture and fashion who follow the movements of sustainable design, debating similarities between scrap wood coffee tables on Inhabitat.com or the ethics of using recycled leather in shoes on FiftyRX3.blogspot.com. And then there are the dedicated crafters who detail how to knit shopping totes from cut-up plastic bags or weave purses from old seatbelts.

Refashion has taken the idea of vintage to a new level. Mass-produced clothing is uniformly cheap and trendy, and each season another line of expendable merchandise joins the landfill heaps. But extending the lifecycle of clothing has progressed beyond bedazzling the back pockets of a pair of Levis. From amateur how-to sites like Ohmystars.net teaching "T-shirt surgery" to one-of-a-kind silk-screened bamboo tank tops on craft site Etsy.com to boutiques like Hairy Mary's on New York's Lower East Side selling reconstructed vintage dresses, refashioning is pushing the idea that each item of clothing tells a story.

Admitted "fashion nerd and art freak" Jill Danyelle started the blog FiftyRX3 to document a personal project, but evolved the site into a place to discuss emerging green designers.

"Green fashion has definitely expanded outward from its 'hippie' connotations of the past," says Danyelle, who is also the fashion editor for inhabitat.com. "We have seen expansion all the way into high-end designer looks down to Wal-Mart. This is what I see as true growth. Yet the percentage of the marketplace is still so miniscule that I believe eco-friendly design in the fashion industry is far from established."

Ethics and Anti-Fashion

While many eco designers seem engaged in their own personal Project Runway competition -- finding stylish ways to rework vintage neckties and discarded tires -- others have come to this new fashion frontier led by ethical concerns first. Irish label Edun ("nude" spelled backwards), founded by U2 singer Bono and wife Ali Hewson in conjunction with New York designer Rogan Gregory, is upfront about its mission. The designers want their customers to think about the cotton in their clothing and how it was produced. Behind Edun's image of pale, punk-looking models in pricey tees and skinny jeans is the motto "trade not aid," a focus on raising Africa's share of the global cotton market.

African cotton farmers are "using expired pesticides and ... are subject to grave negative health effects," says Bridget Russo, an Edun spokesperson. These farmers "often make a loss every year," she says, "and some ... sleep 10 to 20 people in a hut with one pair of shoes among them all."

The company notes on its website that if the fashion industry would increase its trade with Africa by one percent, it would provide the country an additional $70 million in exports, which is "several times more than what the region currently receives in international assistance."

While Edun is committed to using organic fabrics, the company puts sustainable trade first -- improving the economic condition of third world farmers. It uses organic materials whenever possible. "At the moment, our T-shirts and fleece items are 100 percent organic cotton," says Russo, "which makes up 50 percent of the overall collection."

UK designer Katharine Hamnett laid the groundwork for anti-fashion-fashion back in the 1980s with her bold black-on-white message shirts (like the anti-drug "Choose Life" T-shirt seen on George Michael in a Wham! video). Hamnett's latest T-shirt reads "Save the Future," and it's a line she produced in partnership with the Environmental Justice Foundation for its campaign to end child labor in cotton farming, especially in Uzbekistan (see sidebar).

In the 1990s, most industry insiders didn't share Hamnett's outrage over laborers dying from pesticide exposure, and she was dismissed by many of her peers. So she cut ties with her Italian manufacturer and tried to produce her own ethical line at a time when organic cotton was nearly impossible to find. Now, in 2007, a WalMart-like UK retailer named Tesco carries Hamnett's sustainable clothes and the designer who couldn't find a friend in fashion is in the swirling center of the eco fashion popularity club.

The Search for Sustainable Fabrics

Major labels can order large quantities of organic cotton for a mainstream clothing line, but emerging eco-designers face a series of challenges. Most mills aren't interested in producing specialty fabrics in small quantities, forcing designers to use an extremely limited color palette (those olive greens, burlap browns and dusty off-whites) or find creative alternatives from recycling fabrics to making one-of-a-kind pieces. At an airing of New York eco-design talent called Project Earth Day held at the spacious Teknion showroom in New York's SoHo district this past spring, a bright floral dress by Brooklyn designer Bahar Shahpar stood out in the sea of earth tones.

The fashion show was the first from the U.S. Green Building Council's Emerging Green Builders New York. Eco design was showcased wherever possible, from the runway made of recycled milk jugs, soda bottles and laundry detergent containers to the recycled cardboard podium. Student designers competed for a $1,500 prize followed by a runway show from New York's eco-fashion establishment: Loyale, naturevsfuture, Doie, Ryann.

Shahpar was the night's runway stylist, and the jumper dress she'd designed was luminous with color: red, blue and pink flowers spilled across the fabric as though caught mid-blossom.

"Without a doubt, the most difficult part of designing sustainably is the sourcing of fabrics and materials," Shahpar says. "Choice is extremely limited in terms of color and print -- largely because most mills and suppliers have very high minimums (ranging from 200 to 1,000 yards) for customizing fabrics ... As consumer demand for sustainably produced clothing grows, we hope the manufacturers will be willing to broaden their range of stock fabrics and colors."

Another Brooklyn designer, Raina Blyer of the Ryann line, sticks to solid prints -- shirts that wrap, or fall in soft gathers, creating feminine lines but allowing for movement. When it comes to finding organic fabric (she prefers hemp, soy and cotton blends), she says simple is the only option. "There are very limited options," Blyer says, "and only from a few sources. There's [also] a problem with consistency and color."

Until wider fabric varieties become available to fledgling designers, some like Young use designer surplus to add color and texture to their collections. Others reach out to friends and family for usable material. The designers behind the tattoo and rock n' roll-inspired T-shirts at New York's SDN use T-shirts as blank canvases and sell the silk-screened final products through eco-boutiques like Sodafine in Brooklyn and Kaight on Manhattan's Lower East Side. "We actively find old T-shirts and cold water dyes," says Kyle Goen who started the line with lifelong friend Marcus Hicks. "We put the word out to friends before they throw them out. We clean them, dye them and silkscreen them. It's tough to find T-shirts with nothing on them."

Left:Shapar's floral delight, made of recycled fabric. right: Bahar Shaphar Designers want to distance themselves from the shapeless eco fashions of yesteryear, when words like "hemp" and "organic" inspired visions of hippies in a hacky sack circle. While the colors are limited, the cut, the fit and the high-end price tags suggest sophistication. No one, it seems, wants to look eco. In fact, designers often take pride in the fact that the sustainability of their clothing is not immediately recognizable.

"Most of the people who shop at the studio boutique [in L.A.] come in for the design," says Young, "then are happy to hear about the fabrics."

Shahpar would rather not be boxed in by a green label. "I'm encouraged by the attention I receive as an 'eco-designer,'" she says, "but my hope is that my customer will pick up my clothing because they appreciate the design ... the story and the process that went into each piece."

Mainstream Bound

While eco fashion has trickled into the mainstream via the organic Eco jeans line from Levis, men's organic T-shirts from the Gap and American Apparel's Sustainable Edition organic line, consumer demand has not been loud enough to merit a major market turnover. It's the fashion-savvy who seem to think about the content of their clothes, while the majority of shoppers are influenced mostly by price -- an arena where organics have trouble competing. In purchasing sustainable clothing, consumers are being asked to think about the big picture: how the jeans or T-shirts they buy might support a local organic cotton industry or better quality of life for farmers in Africa.

"I think we will continue to see a lot of this fractured environmentalism, where some people may be concerned with emissions and global warming, but not with toxins or water conservation," Danyelle says. "My mission became eco-friendly clothing because I found it my biggest challenge in living sustainably."

What's needed, according to designers like Young, is a shifting of consumer consciousness. Shoppers have become used to the disposable clothing model. But they could, instead, treat clothing as "something cherished." Young says, "I'd rather have a few things that I love than a closet full of things that I'll never wear and have no connection to."

Just as consumers once bought organic food before deciding to go one step further -- buying locally grown -- they might start to consider who grew their cotton and who turned it into a wearable object. "It's nice to have a person behind the product," Danyelle says.

Edun says it's already seeing a significant change in the way consumers approach shopping. But the company, like many eco fashion lines, serves a higher-end clientele -- customers more likely to shop at Nordstrom and Barneys than Target. "In the end, shopping is politics," says Russo.

Economic choices can have a significant impact on how clothing is produced. But even though demand for organic cotton clothing doubled between 2005 and 2006 according to the Organic Consumers Association (growing faster than organic food), it still represents a very small percentage of the market. Cotton Incorporated Executive Vice President Mark Messura says his organization has been tracking consumer interest for the past decade and most shoppers have little interest in organic cotton. "We did a comprehensive study with the Organic Trade Association," Messura says, "And most consumers don't understand organic, especially when it comes to clothing. Most don't put importance on environmentally friendly fabric." Instead, he says, shoppers are interested in color, style and price. As he says, "We don't eat clothing."

UK designer Katharine Hamnett joined forces with the Environmental Justice Foundation to promote some anti-fashion fashion. Instead, the most noticeable environmental changes in the clothing industry are coming from businesses wanting to extol their own corporate virtues. Gap, for example, has a representative on the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) Steering Committee. BCI promotes environmentally, socially and economically sustainable cotton cultivation around the globe and aims to put "Better Cotton" into the supply chain by 2012. Other representatives who've joined BCI come from H&M, adidas and IKEA. When Gap's Banana Republic stores sold a hemp blend skirt or fragrances in certified sustainable wood boxes, they generated positive publicity from both environmental outlets and mainstream media.

Back in 1996, outdoor and adventure clothing specialist Patagonia switched its entire sportswear line to organically grown cotton. The company is a leader in following ethical practices. Messura calls Patagonia "very genuine and very honest" about its efforts.

Trendsetting, sustainably made designer fashions will continue to attract a growing niche market, but these larger corporate initiatives are the kind that can create lasting change in the marketplace. "I believe corporations need to take responsibility for how they produce their products," says Danyelle, who also advocates "government-regulated labeling" so consumers will know if the clothes they are purchasing meet their social and environmental standards. The more consumers know about the content of their clothing, the more they may begin to see it in all of its "lifecycle," from grower to garment. The eco fashion movement, on a small or large scale, is about drawing the connections between consumers and their clothing, moving away from a disposable mentality. It's a major shift for a generation accustomed to buying clothes with a shopping cart.

Brita Belli is managing editor of E Magazine.