By Suzanne D'Amato
Sunday, August 6, 2006
Green fashion used to mean itchy hemp sweaters, saggy tie-dyed tunics and a palette of cream, beige, gray and . . . gray. Earth friendly? Sure. Stylish?
Do you even need to ask?
"It had more to do with tree huggers," says Claire Brooks, president of brand consulting company Model People. "People wearing sandals, stuff like that."
But environmentally friendly clothing has done a dumpy-to-dazzling about-face, with runway accolades, media attention and celeb fans serving to all but cement its high-style status. There's nothing fashion people love like a good makeover, and green, it seems, is this year's Cinderella.
Organic cotton used to be the provenance of T-shirts and tote bags. Now, it's being snipped into slouchy jeans and crisp, tailored shirts by Loomstate, a hip, New York-based company headed up by designer Rogan Gregory. (Gregory's a busy man: In addition to his work for Loomstate and his namesake brand, Rogan, he also designs for a label called Edun, which manufactures clothes according to fair-trade principles -- and is owned by U2 frontman Bono.)
Bamboo has also joined the ritzy ranks. Panda Snack is one of several companies turning the wild and woody plant into sleek polos, hoodies and tees for men and women. As fibers go, bamboo has much to recommend it: It's naturally antibacterial, has good wicking properties and can grow one foot in a single day -- giving manufacturers no shortage of raw material to work with. Not to mention, its smooth, silky hand rivals that of the softest cotton. "When we touched it," says Panda Snack co-founder Dearrick Knupp, "we were like, 'This is bamboo ?' "
Thrift stores have long been an option for those concerned about textile waste. And if you don't care to sift through the Salvation Army bargain bin, let some enterprising designer do the heavy lifting for you. "Repurposed" designs, vintage clothes cut up and crafted into new styles, have become a big business.
Just ask Julia Grieve. The founder of Preloved, a Toronto-based company whose repurposed clothes are sold in the District at Nana, says her company recycled approximately 20,000 sweaters and 8,000 pairs of jeans to produce its fall 2006 collection. "All of which, otherwise, would pretty much be in a landfill right now," she says.
"When I started this business, I did not set out to be an environmentalist," Grieve says. "[But] it's impossible to ignore the benefits that we are offering."
Unsung Designers offers similar benefits on a smaller scale. The Adams Morgan-based company, owned by Grace Wang and Alishia Frey, stocks several designers who repurpose clothes to make everything from tie-neck blouses to funky suede handbags. "I think it's a reaction to everything being over-processed, overdone, mass-produced," Frey says. "People are trying to go back to basics."
And she doesn't mean white pocket tees. For a certain shopper, Angela Johnson's bustle skirt, crafted from scraps of stretch wool and lace and available at Unsung Designers for $104, is basic.
"When people buy a brand," says Brooks, "they're trying to tell a story about themselves: 'This is who I am and what I value.' "
It comes as no surprise, then, that many eco-conscious shoppers want to buy from the company that does it all: makes organic cotton T-shirts, yes, but also pays its workers $15 an hour, subsidizes health care and peddles fair-trade java in the cafeteria.
Which is why Kermit the Frog was on to something -- it isn't always easy being green. American Apparel's higher-than-average hourly wages and its "Sustainable Edition" line, crafted from 100 percent organic cotton, have earned the company praise. Its Los Angeles headquarters is considered by many to be a model of a socially responsible business in action, from the solar energy panels on the roof to the employee bicycle rental program.
But the company has garnered attention for other reasons, too. In 2003, the garment workers union Unite filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against American Apparel, claiming that the company was attempting to block unionization of its shop. (American Apparel entered into a voluntary settlement agreement with no admission of guilt.) Additionally, three former employees have filed sexual harassment lawsuits against company founder Dov Charney. One case was dismissed, the second was settled out of court, and the third has not yet come to court. Still, some wonder to what extent the press has affected the company's image.
"When you set out to make a statement that you're a socially responsible company, you raise the bar," says Brooks. "You've got to behave across the whole spectrum."
People want to believe in what they're buying. It's easy enough to trust the twenty-something design student in her Columbia Heights studio, fashioning '80s-inspired tank dresses out of thrift-store T-shirts. What about the Gaps and Wal-Marts of the world?
"When it's small companies, producers and designers doing this, they have a lot of credibility," says Brooks. "The American consumer is suspicious of big companies."
Still, at some point, if the green movement is to significantly alter apparel industry practices, if organic cotton and bamboo are to all but replace conventional cotton and polyester, then bigger companies will need to play a leading role.
"For certain people, it'll be a trend for a few years," Gregory says. "But we're not going to have a choice in a few years."
Have a style question? E-mail Suzanne D'Amato at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, city and phone number.
Have more to ask about green fashion? Join Suzanne D'Amato, Sunday Source's deputy editor and a former fashion writer at Vogue, for an online chat Tuesday at 2 p.m.