In Store

Wash-and-Wear Wit and Wisdom

By Mimi Harrison
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 24, 2005

On a recent cruise through a local boutique, I was flipping through some clothes made by the popular company Flax when I noticed something. Stitched next to every company label was a label with a message. A typical one said, in capital letters, I AM A WORTHWHILE PERSON. Odd. I'd been buying Flax for years and had never noticed this before. What was up?

A decade ago, when I was a busy mother in the carpool line, I bought my first pair of pants made by Flax, which specializes in simple linen separates that make life easy for women. The pants have elastic waistbands; the roomy dresses slip over your head, and the blouses and jackets are cunningly cut, sometimes with peplums, poet collars or details such as interesting buttons. Most pieces have pockets, and everything can be thrown right into the wash. Ironing is optional and, with almost nothing over 80 bucks, the prices are right. I became a Flax enthusiast.

As may have been clear from their easygoing style, these clothes have bucolic roots. Flax began as Angelheart Designs in the late 1980s in an old dairy barn outside of Ithaca, N.Y. Designer Jeanne Engelhart and her husband, Matthew, turned this handmade-clothes cottage industry into real manufacturing when they traveled to the Baltic states post-Soviet Union, where many factories lay dormant and linen was plentiful. Engelhart contracted with a worker-owned, women-run sewing collective in Lithuania, and Jeanne Engelhart Flax was born. In 1993, the first lines hit U.S. shops like reveille. Despite the facts that Flax does not advertise and that the line is sold only in boutiques and online, Flax clothes are wildly popular.

"It was a phenomenon," says Susanne McLean, owner of Catch Can, a local enterprise with shops in Northwest Washington and Kensington. "The first time I saw their tiny booth [at a boutique trade show in New York] I wrote a small order, and the clothes just blew out of the store." McLean went on to become, in the mid-1990s, the largest retailer of Flax on the Eastern Seaboard. She attributes the popularity of the clothes to more than the style and the price. Flax cuts all of its sizes big, so its "small" is equivalent to a regular size 10. They are clothes that fit real women, comfortably.

But what about those labels? I went home and checked my Flax belongings and, sure enough, in my newer things, there were similar sudsy thoughts:




They made me cringe. Not because Flax does not punctuate, although that did get up my nose. They also make spelling errors. What rankled was the blind, icky cheerfulness, the presumptive acquaintance with strangers. I thought the labels were condescending and found it strange that a clothing company had taken it upon itself to . . . what? Cheer me up? Calm me down? Why? Because I presumably need to wear elastic-waist pants and loathe myself?

Now, I'll buy a blouse regardless of message, short of Nazi propaganda. But I had a hunch the labels matter to plenty of women, and I wanted to find out how and why.

Although Jeanne Engelhart left the company in 2001, the labels are her legacy. Mary Johansson, sales manager and spokeswoman for Flax, calls them "affirmation labels, inspired by ideas from our customers and employees." It didn't take me long to bump into hundreds of individuals who are high-church Flax mavens. Yahoo has a message board devoted to the clothes and run by women who buy, wear, swap, resell, recycle, reminisce and daydream about them. By joining, I was able to get some idea of whom those labels were talking to.

By last count, there are 775 members of the Yahoo Flax group, mostly women. The group was started in 2000 by a retailer in upstate New York, and since then it has generated more than 76,500 messages, almost all of them about Flax. According to the statement on the home page, the group is "for people with 'FLAX' sensibilities and spirit. We are adventurous, warm, bright, talented, generous, and fun." The members call themselves Flaxistas.

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