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Care What You Wear

Demand for Organic Clothing Doubling Every Year

Eco fashion is no longer about hippie skirts and Birkenstocks, says the September/October 2007 cover story of E - The Environmental Magazine (now posted at www.emagazine.com). New designers are emerging from L.A. and New York with clothing inspired by architecture, skyscrapers - even folding bicycles.

Brooklyn designer Nina Valenti launched the sustainable line naturevsfuture in 2002. "I design pieces that have a strong line, form and texture," she says. Her fabrics range from organic cotton, wools, hemp and soy to new recycled fabrics like POP, made from recycled soda bottles.

A folding bicycle provided the inspiration for Los Angeles designer Carol Young's spring collection. Specifically, it was the Dahon folding bicycle, a company founded in the '70s to encourage environmentally sustainable forms of transport. Young's label is called undesigned, and the simple, stylish clothes let the wearer move comfortably between office, bicycle, subway and sidewalk. "Clothing design is in a sense architecture miniaturized," says Young.

This new eco fashion appeals to people who live in an urban environment - Paris, New York, London, San Francisco - who use mass transit and need clothing that's flexible enough to take them from day to night.

Meanwhile, the concept of "refashion" has taken the idea of vintage to a new level. Refashion is about extending the life of clothing. From amateur how-to sites like ohmystars.net, which teaches "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, which sells reconstructed vintage dresses, refashioning is pushing the idea that each item of clothing tells a story.

While many eco designers seem engaged in their own personal Project Runway competition, others have come to this new fashion frontier led by ethical concerns first. Irish label Edun, founded by U2 singer Bono and wife Ali Hewson, is up front about its mission. The designers want their customers to think about the cotton in their clothing and the conditions under which it was produced. Their motto is "trade not aid," a focus on raising Africa's share of the global cotton market.

UK-designer Katharine Hamnett laid the groundwork for anti-fashion-fashion back in the '80s with her bold black-on-white message T-shirts. Hamnett's latest T-shirt reads: "Save the Future," a line she produced in partnership with the Environmental Justice Foundation for its campaign to end child labor in cotton farming, especially in Uzbekistan. Singer KT Tunstall wore the shirt when performing as part of Live Earth.

Major labels can order large quantities of organic cotton for a mainstream clothing line, but emerging eco designers face serious hurdles. Most mills aren't interested in producing specialty fabrics in small quantities, forcing designers to use an extremely limited color palette or find creative alternatives, such as working from recycled fabrics or making one-of-a-kind pieces.

"Without a doubt, the most difficult part of designing sustainably is the sourcing of fabrics and materials," Brooklyn designer Bahar Shahpar says. "Choice is extremely limited in terms of color and print."

Until wider fabric varieties become available to fledgling designers, some like Young use designer surplus to add color and texture to their collections. The designers behind the rock n' roll-inspired T-shirts at New York's SDN collect used T-shirts as blank canvases and sell the silk-screened final products through eco-boutiques like Sodafine in Brooklyn. "It's tough to find T-shirts with nothing on them," says Kyle Goen, who started the line with lifelong friend Marcus Hicks. "We put the word out to friends before they throw them out."

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. In fact, designers often take pride in the fact that the sustainability of their clothing is not immediately recognizable.

"I'm encouraged by the attention I receive as an 'eco-designer,'" says Shahpar, "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 and men's organic T-shirts from the Gap, consumer demand has not been loud enough to merit much of a major market turnover. Deciding to buy organic clothing does not necessarily follow the decision to buy the organic food that has a direct effect on one's personal health.

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, see clothing as "something cherished." Young says, "I'd rather have fewer items of things that I love than a closet full of things that I'll never wear and have no connection to."

Economic choices can have a significant impact on how clothing is produced, but while demand for organic cotton clothing has doubled between 2005 and 2006, according to the Organic Consumers Association, and is growing faster than the demand for 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 in organic cotton for the past decade and most shoppers have little interest. "Most consumers don't understand organic. With clothing in particular," says Messura.

Instead, the most noticeable environmental changes in the clothing industry are coming from businesses wanting to extol their own corporate virtues. Gap Inc., 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.

Back in 1996, outdoor- and adventure-clothing specialist Patagonia switched its entire sportswear line to organically grown cotton.

Trend setting, sustainably made designer fashions will certainly continue to attract a niche market, but these larger corporate initiatives are the kind that can create lasting change in the marketplace. The more consumers know about the content of their clothing, the more they may begin to see it in all of its "life cycle," 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.



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