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Care What You Wear: New York Times Quotes OCA on the Coming Booming Organic & Hemp Clothing


November 20, 2005
Better Homes & Granola


BEHOLD the hemp trouser. Designed by a company called Ecolution, it has a
$56.29 price tag and comes in grassy green with wide legs and a drawstring.
The fabric is nubbly and scratchy. It is a hair-shirt sort of garment that
only someone truly dedicated to saving the environment and immune to fashion
would wear without a grimace.

Across the aisle in the new Whole Foods Market Lifestyle store here, there's
a pair of organic cotton jeans - boot-cut, stylishly frayed, with the
detailed pockets in vogue on the runways. The jeans, by Loomstate, cost $164
and would not be out of place at Barneys New York.

Organic chic has long been an oxymoron, but in the view of Whole Foods, its
time is arriving. The specialty food market, the fastest growing grocery
chain in the nation, has taken organic produce, meat and prepared meals to
mainstream consumers by giving them an epicurean polish. Now the store is
turning to hemp pants, scarves and purses.

Green goods have been a minor staple of the American marketplace since the
1960's when Rachel Carson's antipesticide classic "Silent Spring" ushered in
the environmental movement. The hemp and organic cotton industries followed
in the 80's, but they didn't catch on with mall-bound shoppers. Clothing
made of hemp, a fiber traditionally used in rope and sailcloth, was
typically unattractive, uncomfortable and hard to find. But earth-friendly
products, including housewares, linens, furniture, baby gear and paint, now
appear to be following the same path as organic food, from crunchy fringe to
high style.

"The product has reached the right price point, quality and, particularly
for clothing, styling, so it isn't sackcloth anymore," said Michael
Bescanson, the president of Whole Food's Southern Pacific region.
There are signs that consumers are opening their minds - and their wallets -
to green products. According to the Organic Consumers Association, an
advocacy group, sales of organic and natural products total $45 billion a
year, 10 percent of all retail grocery sales. And while what are known as
lifestyle products represent only a fraction of that number - organic cotton
clothing, the largest segment, sold $100 million last year - the market for
them is growing at 20 to 22 percent a year, the association said.

"We are at a point where a critical mass of consumers are starting to vote
with their pocketbooks for health and sustainability," said Ronnie Cummins,
the association's national director. "Whole Foods is very smart about their
business move. They would not do this if the times weren't right."

But the chain's plan to make organic cotton linens as irresistible as
free-range chickens remains a gamble. Organic Style magazine, which
advocated eco-chic living, had 761,822 readers but folded in September after
newsstand sales dropped 26 percent. The publishing company, Rodale, said at
the time that "the magazine was deemed not to be a viable long-term business
for us to pursue."

Andrew Wolf, an analyst with BB&T Capital Markets, an equity research firm
based in Winston-Salem, N.C., speculated that the green clothing marketplace
is still populated primarily by health buffs worried about their children's
rashes, rather than with style and fashion sophisticates. "It's a very small
and nichey market," he said. "It's much like the natural health business was
30 years ago. It stands to reason that the lifestyle side could make similar
advances, but it's not clear how."

Sharon Lee, a founder of the consumer-research firm Look-Look, said that 14-
to 35-year-olds are expressing a growing interest in those kinds of products
- to a point. "It can't just be hemp with no style," she said. "It has to
deliver on all things that people want their lifestyle to be, current,
forward, fashionable."

The West Hollywood Lifestyle store, opened a few weeks ago in one of Los
Angeles's most trend-conscious neighborhoods, is Whole Foods's first such
venture. It stocks hundreds of earth-friendly items of clothing and
accessories like scarves and handbags. Mr. Bescanson said it was logical
that the chain's clientele would turn its eye to hard goods like towels and
trousers. "There's a demand on the part of the consumer for more
environmentally friendly products," he said. "This is a significant market,
and it's getting bigger, and it's an influential market. Certainly we want
to capture our portion of it as the leading organic retailer in the

The Lifestyle store occupies 1,500 square feet in a mall on Santa Monica
Boulevard, a few steps from the established Whole Foods Market where the
actresses Kirsten Dunst and Charlize Theron occasionally purchase their
romaine lettuce. Arriving customers at the new store pass bamboo grasses and
burbling fountains to be greeted by a mannequin seated in the lotus position
wearing yoga clothes.

Here you might buy a belt made from recycled pop-can tops ($29.99), an
Ecobaby onesie shaped like a red pepper (organic cotton, $33.99) or a gray
halter dress by Under the Canopy, the Banana Republic of eco-friendly
fashion ($72). There are thick glass dishes (recycled, $14.99 to $54.99),
250 thread-count Gaiam sheets (organic cotton, $60), yoga bags made from
discarded vinyl billboards ($63.99) and a display of T-shirts from American
Apparel. Even the wicker chair in the corner is for sale ($299), along with
a $1,999 table made from reclaimed wood.

Not surprisingly, loose cuts and earthy tones abound. The style was
described as "modern hippie, Eileen Fisheresque," by one shopper, Cody
Nickell, an actor. His girlfriend, Rachel Hardin, an actress, said: "Some of
it is easy to wear and really hip. Very Urban Outfitters." The store's
best-sellers are T-shirts and tank tops printed with abstract forest designs
or Asian lettering.

When a television actor, Kyle Secor, who plays Geena Davis's husband in
"Commander in Chief," wandered in recently, he was so excited that he called
his wife and waited for her to arrive. They stocked up on organic bedding,
cleaning supplies and nonleather shoes.

"I'm ecstatic," Mr. Secor said as he caressed a baby's onesie. The father of
a 2-year-old, he said he is concerned about fire-retardant toxins in
conventional children's clothing.

Whole Foods executives say the Lifestyle store is not designed to stand
alone, separate from the food market. They consider it an annex, and
declined to discuss its costs and sales expectations.

BUT it's safe to say that the West Hollywood branch won't be the only one
selling these items for very long. The original store, in Austin, already
stocks clothes and linens alongside pesticide-free peaches and sustainably
grown sorrel. As new Whole Food stores open across the country, Mr.
Bescanson said, many will follow the flagship's lead. In New York, the Whole
Foods branch on Columbus Circle has added a section offering organic cotton
sheets and towels, shoes for vegetarians, hemp hats and recycled tote bags.
Mr. Bescanson said sales figures for such products in Whole Foods stores
have been "really good; there's been a ton."

Inside the West Hollywood store the other day, browsers pored over scarves,
jeans and dresses. "People need this," Sandi Gardiner, a 22-year-old
Australian actress, said as she carried an organic cotton skirt to the
dressing room.

Even hemp pants? She laughed and said: "Hemp is just a fabric. You can make
it look cool."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times